What music is for

Music is....

It’s not easy being a school music teacher. I don’t know this from personal experience, because all my teaching experience has been in universities and my own private studio. But as hard as I work, I’ve never experienced the daily stress of having to defend my own job against a board of education that believes a subject is only worth studying if it’s directly applicable to the needs of the job market.

This, I suppose, is why I keep seeing articles like “The Scientific Reasons We Should Teach Music To Kids in School” by Tom Barnes that stress the cognitive benefits of studying music, with the usual reasoning that doing so will improve students’ test scores and abilities in STEM subjects.

This reasoning is understandable. School music teachers are overworked, underpaid, disrespected, harangued. They’re overwhelmed with the expectation that they’re supposed to be administrators, fundraisers, and the moral exemplars of society in addition to the very challenging work of teaching music. They know that if there are budget cuts, music will be the first to go. Then art, then drama. (The football team is usually safe, for reasons of bread and circuses.)

But here’s the problem with touting the extramusical benefits of music. Saying children should study music because it’s “good for them” undermines the very thing music teachers do in their classrooms. Music is not a daily vitamin or a nasty vegetable that you have to eat before you can have ice cream. Music is worth studying because music is wonderful.

Music isn’t just wonderful. It’s sublime, profound, challenging, polarizing, life-changing. Brain scientists have demonstrated that music activates our pleasure circuits. Survivors of suicidal depression report that music has saved their livesMusic is our companion and our consolation. Music is how we communicate with the divine. Music accompanies every significant ritual of human experience. 

As William Congreve famously observed, “Musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” It hath a few other charms too, such as stirring the savage breast back up again.

Music is dangerous.

If it wasn’t, why would so many political and religious establishments seek to suppress it? Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a drama with a text, might have provoked Shostakovich’s initial problems with Stalin’s government with its immoral subject matter (plus a shockingly suggestive trombone solo in Act One), but his other works, even those with no text or story, were enough to get him officially censured in the sweeping cultural reforms of 1948.

Music is so dangerous that even a dissonant interval between two notes–the tritone–was considered so subversive by the medieval church that they called it the “devil in music.” If those musicians were allowed to use this diabolical interval, who knew what unholy Dionysian chaos they might wreak with it? After all, Orpheus’s lyre was powerful enough to persuade the guardians of the Underworld to let him cross the Styx. The implication is clear: music breaks rules. Music is above the law.

We musicians have always had a little problem with authority.

This being the case, is it really any wonder that those in authority are so quick to cut the music budget?

Official antipathy towards music–whether you’re going to call it philistinism, utilitarianism, or some other ism–is nothing new. People have been calling music superfluous and frivolous since the Dark Ages, when St. Basil the Great opined “Of useless arts, there is harp playing, dancing, flute playing, of which, when the operation ceases, the result disappears with it.” (All I can say is that St. Basil didn’t have Spotify.)

Music isn’t going to go away, no matter how much those in power try to suppress it. People will always write and play and listen to and talk about music. What will happen, what is already happening, is that the joy of making our own music will be the exclusive preserve of the middle and upper classes, i.e. the people who can afford to study privately, if it disappears from schools. Do we really want music to be a polite middle-class profession? We might be shocked that Mozart had to sit at the servants’ table in Salzburg, but it goes to show that music study wasn’t always for the moneyed class. Mozart was singing for his supper.

What I’d like to see–not instead of, but alongside the plea that music makes you smart, or competent, or more likely to exercise your right to vote, is a plea for music for its own sake. For the sake of all that is beautiful and good and truthful.

As I wrote in a recent essay, “Can we please stop pretending that music isn’t a matter of life and death?”

I stand by this statement. You can’t turn on your television for five minutes without learning of disaster, war, the violation of human rights, torture, epidemics, starvation, and the abandonment of hope. We can do almost nothing about any of it, except to give whatever money we have to the cause that horrifies us the most. But making music is one of the very, very few ways that human beings can do something. Music affords us a chance to create beauty in a world that is full of ugliness. If we expect today’s children to change the world, we must honour their right to make music.


The Illusory Promises of Training Wheels

training wheels.jpg

This morning, as my dog and I were jogging behind my daughter while she rampaged up and down a bike trail near our house on her Doc McStuffins bicycle, I started wondering if I’d been right to teach her to ride using training wheels.

Training wheels do exactly one thing: balance the bicycle so the child doesn’t fall off.

Which is the one thing they need to do themselves once the training wheels come off.

It’s really hard to do this when you’ve trained yourself to ride a bicycle in a way that ingrains techniques you have to learn later, while skipping the ones that are fundamental in being able to ride self-sufficiently.

This got me thinking about all the training wheels we use when teaching children to play instruments. Some years ago at a string teachers’ conference, a persuasive vendor talked me into buying a CelloPhant, a cute little device in the shape of an elephant that you place over the frog of the bow to train children in correct bow-hand shaping. I was excited, since one of the hardest things about setting up a beginner is training them to hold the bow naturally and flexibly.

The problem was that it didn’t work. Sure, it gets the kid’s hand into the right shape, but as soon as you take the CelloPhant away, the hand collapses into a supinated claw, because it doesn’t teach them what it actually feels like to balance the bow in your hand.

I thought more and more about all the crutches we make for ourselves when we try to learn musical concepts. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job here at the University of Idaho is that I get to teach a class in ear training and sight singing. I love this class, which I wanted to rename “Being A Badass 101” (though mysteriously, this was frowned upon by the writers of the course catalogue), because it trains students to hear and make music with the ears and eyes of a professional. In addition to the twice-weekly lecture, students visit me one-on-one each week to perform sight-singing exercises using solfege.

This can be a nerve-wracking experience for some of them–after all, what could make the average person feel more vulnerable than singing solo in front of a “judge”? However, sight-singing tests are just one of those character-building things that really help you articulate music theory and understand how music works.

If you practise it the smart way.

Here’s how to practise solfege wrong. You prop your textbook on the piano and play the assignment before you sing it. Perhaps you sing along with it. You do this a few times, nail it once or twice without the piano, and scoot off to your sight-singing lesson with that tyrant Dr. Wilson.

And you totally bomb it, because it turns out that you can’t replicate your practice-room success under the pressure of performance.


Because you trained yourself to imitate a skill without truly understanding how to do it self-sufficiently. And then you couldn’t perform that skill, because what happens in performance is a direct reflection of what happens in practice.

You thought you were riding a bicycle, when all you were really doing was pedaling. But when you ride a grown-up bike, you have to be able to balance before you can pedal.

The whole point of learning to sight-sing is that generating your own pitch. Of course you can use the piano to play a tonic triad; of course you can hit your starting pitch. But then you have to step away from the piano, otherwise those training wheels never let you sing self-sufficiently.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn by copying others–I’m actually a huge proponent of this, when it’s done thoughtfully. Neither am I saying that I expect everyone to be perfect when they’re first learning to sing using solfege: that’s why we start with the simplest exercises, excerpts that move in mostly stepwise motion, or outline the tonic triad. Julie Andrews wasn’t wrong when she melodiously opined: “Once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.” You have to master the fundamentals unshakeably before you can add the other stuff.

At this point, I’ve developed a near-clairvoyant ability to tell who has been learning music using the correct procedure and who hasn’t. Learners who use training wheels have to relearn everything they thought they knew because true self-sufficiency comes from practising like a self-sufficient musician.


Which brings me back to my bicycle problem.

A Google search and a few minutes of wading into the stormy waters of various bicycling and parenting forums alerted me to the phenomenon of the balance bicycle, which doesn’t have pedals, but trains children in the arguably more important skill of balancing first. I ordered one. We all have to learn to walk before we can run, but we also have to balance before we can pedal.


Stage Fright Is A Troll (And Other Observations)

pack of cards

Well, it’s been quite a week. My last post, “Disarmed: Dropping the Protective Armour of Stage Fright,” went kind of viral. I’d been writing this blog for five years for a small audience, and then suddenly my readership was in the tens of thousands.

To my delight, I made a bunch of new friends. Some were people I’d admired for years. Several readers were kind enough to write to me to share their own moving stories of how they overcame, or didn’t overcome, stage fright. Many shared my essay on their own websites, Twitter, and Facebook pages. Norman Lebrecht generously brought me a huge amount of traffic by linking to me on Slipped Disc. For this, I am hugely grateful. It means so much to me that something I wrote might have helped others through this most universal of human experiences.

The shadow side to all this attention was that I got some trolls.

(I love it that troll is the word we use for such people, don’t you? The idea of a hideous monster skulking about in a cave—or in its parents’ basement— is a perfect metaphor for the sort of person who has the time and inclination to look up the email address of a stranger and write to her telling her she’s an idiot.)

This could have hurt my feelings a great deal, but it didn’t. Because the more I thought about them, the more the trolls’ voices sounded oddly familiar.

Those trolls sounded exactly like the nasty little chattering monologue of self-criticism that pops into your head when you have stage fright. (“You’re stupid. You’re nobody. You’re doing it wrong. Everyone thinks you’re terrible. Who do you think you are?”)

I had to smile at this.

Wouldn’t it be funny if we performers learned to picture our Meanypants Interior Monologues™ as shouty internet trolls?

The conversation might sound something like this:

MIM (sneaking into the green room, trampling all over the carpet with dirty boots): “You’re so dumb and untalented, you shouldn’t be allowed to perform music in public.”

You: “Whatever. I love music and some people showed up to hear me making some. I’m going to focus on them, not on you. I don’t have to listen to you.”

MIM: “You do! I have a right to freedom of speech!”

You: “The First Amendment only protects your right to speak without government censorship. It doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be listened to. I choose not to listen to you.”

MIM (jumping up and down with rage): “You just can’t stand to have anyone disagree with you, because you’re stupid. Don’t you know that you’re useless and incompetent at your instrument? Don’t you know that you’re just embarrassing yourself by imagining that anyone will enjoy your playing? What makes you think you have anything important to express? You shouldn’t even be allowed to make music in public! Nobody likes you! Nobody wants to listen to you! You should listen to me as I bully, patronize, and bore you!”

You: “I shall now hit my real-life Delete Spam button.”

(Cue a decisive clicking noise as you do just that, while MIM stamps around shouting furiously–and now, inaudibly.)

Ah well. They’re nothing but a pack of cards. In the words of the immortal philosopher Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate. Thank you, old friends and new, for the outpouring of support and enthusiasm. I look forward to hearing more of your inspiring stories.

Image: Sir John Tenniel, illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Credit: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/tenniel/alice/12.3.html

Disarmed: Dropping the Protective Armour of Stage Fright

concert hallIs there a musician alive who hasn’t experienced the sabotaging interior conflict of stage fright?

There might be a lucky few. I’m not one of them.

In my career as a cellist and a professor of cello, I’ve noticed something happening again and again. A performance–my own or someone else’s–is going reasonably well, and then an unexpected mistake changes everything. It might be a wrong note, a badly missed shift, a momentary memory lapse.

In the split second after the mistake, things can go two ways. There’s a possibility that you recover, and the rest of the concert goes without incident. But the greater possibility, especially with inexperienced players, is that you withdraw into yourself. Your stance hunches or stiffens as you berate yourself over and over for your mistake. The concert goes on in the present, but you’re stuck in the past, obsessing about what went wrong. You spy someone you really respect in the audience. “Oh no! What will she think?” Your confidence plummets. Your tension builds. You miss more and more things. Your carefully-planned expressiveness disappears in the distracting mess of wrong notes. You lose.

This phenomenon appears in different guises and levels of seriousness. Sometimes you get a slight jolt of the fight-or-flight response, but you can get through the performance without catastrophe. Other times it hits you so hard that you think you might be going to die.

(I once knew a successful violinist who kept going to the doctor because he was convinced he was having heart attacks, even though tests showed that he wasn’t. Eventually his doctor said in exasperation “Look, your heart’s in perfect condition. What you’re having isn’t a heart attack, it’s an anxiety attack. The only thing I can do for you is refer you to a psychiatrist.”)

Here’s what I think is going on. Performance is one of the most vulnerable experiences known to humankind. And performance anxiety, its shadow side, is a universal experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or at the very top of your profession: you are up in front of others, exposing the most vulnerable part of yourself for the scrutiny of seemingly judgmental observers.

The only other experience I can think of that is so universal, and so vulnerable, is the act of declaring that you’re in love.

Human beings crave romantic relationships. Sometimes it goes very badly, but that doesn’t stop us looking for love. You can tell someone you’re in love with them, and it can go two ways. The one we all hope for is that the other person is delighted, and informs you that they love you too. The other, the one we dread, is that they reject you, even ridicule you.

In other words, you could come out of this exhilarated, or humiliated.

Now, it’s no accident that there are entire industries devoted to teaching people how to fix their problems. I haven’t counted, but I’m pretty sure there are as many on conquering your anxiety as there are on solving your romantic woes.

Confession: I have an entire bookshelf full of self-help books on performance anxiety.

You know what? None of them really worked for me or my students.

Why not?

Because all the authors were fixated on calming people down. Breathing, yoga, affirmations–I’ve tried them all. They do have a certain calming effect on me, but I cannot truthfully say that my best self is a calm person. Because calm is the very last thing I want to be when I am performing.

Here’s the real problem. Stage fright isn’t caused by a lack of calm. It happens when we withdraw into ourselves. We aren’t thinking about other people. If we consider the audience at all, it’s “Oh no! What will they think? There’s someone who knows my piece really well. He’ll think it’s awful!”

Me, me, me. Not “Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven.”

Thinking excessively of yourself–narcissism–is the enemy of success.

What “they” think is a moot point. Chances are the majority of the audience are thinking perfectly benign thoughts, and have instantly forgiven you for your mistake–if they even knew you made it. But ultimately, we cannot know what goes on in the hearts and minds of others. Moreover, we have no control over what the audience thinks.

That we can’t control other people’s thoughts and actions is one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn as a colleague, teacher, mother, wife, and friend. The only thing we can control is our own reaction. This includes, of course, our “withdrawal response” after something’s gone wrong in performance.

The lifelong challenge of this is to learn to look the audience in the face and have the courage to share our passionate love of music with them.

Human passion is a given. I don’t need to ask my students if they’re passionate about music because I already know the answer. You don’t go into this profession if you’re ambivalent about music–goodness knows you aren’t doing it for the giant salary or the easy lifestyle. My students are here because they had an experience in childhood or adolescence that was so transformative, so life-changing, that they knew they had to give their lives to music.

Mine came when I was about seventeen and heard my teacher, Alexander Ivashkin, performing Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. I left the hall shaken to my core, knowing that my life would never, ever be the same. My teacher was a great speaker of the truth, and used his cello to take his listeners on a cathartic journey of mourning and declamation and redemption and joy. It was at that moment that I realized that it was music or nothing.

I wanted to take that feeling and bottle it so that I could keep it forever.

And that’s what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it, in our endless search for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s elusive concept of flow. We seek to capture that magic, that elevated feeling we had when we “knew.”

It’s really hard to capture those. They are so easily forgotten and lost amid the daily grind of all the difficult, time-consuming things we have to do to get good at music.

I used to like to joke to students complaining of performance anxiety that they should be glad that they aren’t doctors. “In our profession, if we screw up, no one dies.” I thought that by making light of the situation, I could give them some comfort.

It didn’t work. Because it wasn’t truthful.

Can we please stop pretending that music isn’t  a matter of life or death?

Along with love and conflict, music is another universal part of what it means to be human. As performers, we have the power to transform lives. There are things going on in other people’s lives that we can know nothing about. Humans are naturally secretive: who knows what suffering, what pain, what brokenness they are experiencing at the moment they walk into the concert hall? We, the performers, have the chance–even if only for an evening–to heal them, to help them forget.

That’s some powerful medicine.

But if we are to make this connection with the audience, we must do the hardest thing in the world. We must deliberately drop our armour and make ourselves vulnerable.

What do I mean by armour? Let me explain my metaphor in cinematic cliché. Imagine a battle scene at the end of a film set in the Middle Ages. Both sides have lost many knights, and we’re down to the hero and his implacable foe. The hero isn’t doing too well. He’s lost his horse, he’s lost his sword, he has a bunch of stab wounds. The foe, by contrast, has a few scratches, but has managed to keep all his equipment. He’s winning.

Then the hero does something that on the face of it, seems completely illogical. He stops. He drops his last weapons. He takes off his helmet and throws it on the ground. He starts unbuckling his breastplate. He walks directly towards his foe, looks him in the eye, and starts… talking to him.

This can go two ways. The foe could, of course, take the opportunity to stab the hero in the heart with his sword. Or, transformed by the hero’s unexpected act of making himself vulnerable to death, he might actually…just talk back. There might be a conversation, a back-and-forth exchange of reason and commonalities. While it’s unlikely that they fully resolve their differences and hug, they might at least declare a truce.

The hero knows what a huge risk he’s taking. He’s opened himself up to getting stabbed. The worst could still happen, but he takes off his armour anyway.

When you’re the performer, you’re the hero of your own drama, and you’re every bit as vulnerable as our brave knight. You can choose: do I withdraw into myself, adopt a self-protective stance by hunching my shoulders and bowing my head in shame over my cello, or do I go into this with my head held high, my gaze unflinching, my heart bared, fully aware of the possibility that I may be stabbed to death?

Let’s stop talking about movies for a minute, and turn to some peer-reviewed research that’s had a revolutionary effect on how my students and I deal with our performance anxiety. Remember Amy Cuddy’s viral TED talk about body language?

In her follow-up book, Presence, Cuddy shows us that when you adopt a powerful stance, such as standing with your feet planted apart and your hands on your hips, actual chemical changes occur in your body that improve your performance. “Don’t ‘fake it till you make it,’” Cuddy advises us, “fake it till you become it.”

As I speed-read my way through this book, gulping it down as if it were the Da Vinci Code, I started trying out my power poses. I tried to be mindful of my stance so that I could catch myself slumping over with bad posture, hiding my feet under my chair, trying to make myself smaller by crossing my arms or hunching my shoulders. Whenever I noticed that I was doing these things, I redirected my stance, uncrossing my legs and arms, opening out, allowing myself to be tall.

(This is hard to do when you’ve been five feet, ten inches tall since the age of eleven. I’m really used to feeling like a proper girl ought not to take up so much space.)

Then I tried it out in performance. Before concerts, I stopped practising up until the last second, and instead just stood backstage with my hands on my hips, feeling the natural power of my stance surge through my body. My breathing seemed to deepen. My self-sabotaging tension–always the worst symptom of my anxiety–seemed, if not completely gone, at least lessened.

And I came to the realization that even if I armed myself with the protective body language of powerlessness, such as crossing my arms over my body, I might reduce my chances of getting stabbed in the heart, but at what cost? I would still be powerless. Whereas if I opened up my body language, I made myself more vulnerable to attack, but paradoxically felt far more powerful.

My stage fright and I laid down our swords, took off our armour, and made friends.

At around the same time, I read a peer-reviewed study on the subject of performance anxiety by Alison Wood Brooks of the Harvard Business School. In this game-changing experiment, Brooks asked groups of students to perform a number of tasks that most people find anxiety-provoking: to sing in front of an audience, to compose and deliver a speech, and to take a math test. One group of students were told to try to be calm. Another group had no specific instructions for how to feel. Another were told to reappraise their anxiety as excitement.

Woods evaluated her groups in a number of ways, from measuring their heart rates to rating their performances. The result in every case was that the “calm” group didn’t do much differently than the control group. The “excited” group, however, fared significantly better.

This information changes everything for us performers.

For my next recital, I added one more thing to my pre-concert power poses. I also affirmed to myself “I’m excited that I get to show the audience this amazing music.”

Every time I had a little slip in that concert, instead of my usual self-berating response, I redirected my focus to “I’m excited. Excited that these people showed up to hear me play music I love.”

Mistakes, after all, are in the past. We can do nothing about them now. There’s no do-over, no rewind button, no time machine. It happened, and the choice is yours: you can sit there in the past with your mistake, or you can reframe your feelings and stay in the present with the music.

I kept saying to myself: “I’m excited to be here, excited so many people showed up, excited to show them Brahms and Beethoven.”

And after a while, it was true.

The next morning, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I recognized this as what Brené Brown calls the “vulnerability hangover.” I wrote in my journal: “There was a moment in last night’s recital when, during the slow movement of Beethoven’s last cello sonata, the music seemed so exquisitely, heart-stoppingly beautiful that I had trouble not crying.”

And then I burst out laughing, because I realized that I’d found that seemingly effortless, high-as-a-kite feeling that everything’s going so smoothly, the music might as well be playing itself. There it was, that transformative feeling that inspired me give my life to music in the first place. And I found it by opening myself up to be my most vulnerable, by forgiving myself instantly for the imperfections of my performance, by thinking about music and other people instead of about myself.


What I didn’t find was a magic bullet that will help me replicate that every time, because there isn’t one. There’s still a possibility that the concert will go badly. There’s always a chance that when you tell a person you are in love with them, they won’t love you back.

But that doesn’t stop you telling them you love them anyway. There’s this motivational slogan you see on posters in high school gymnasiums, “Failure Is Not An Option.” But it is. Failure is always an option. Because if we didn’t open ourselves up to the possibility it could happen, we would also miss out on the possibility of love returned. 

I’ve concluded that stage fright will never go away altogether, but that we can coexist with it. (“Good evening, anxiety! I had a feeling you might be my accompanist for the concert tonight. Nice tux. Hey, I sure am excited about playing Bach’s cello suites together for these great people who are already taking their seats in the hall. Let’s just stand here with our hands on our hips for a minute, shall we?”)

We musicians can show up and declare our love with no expectation that it will ever be returned. We are armed with nothing but passionate love and our desire to share it.

The audience, after all, will forgive you for just about anything–except for playing without love.