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Reflections on music’s life lessons

I find myself reflecting upon my own experiences in music as a student, a piano teacher, a performer, a psychologist and a psychoanalyst.  How did I get from “then” to “now”?  Who assisted me along my winding journey?  Do you ever wonder these things about yourself?

As I thought about music in my life, I discovered an article by Tom Jacobs titled, “The Lifelong Effect of Music and Arts Classes” (in Pacific Standard, April 7, 2017).

Mr. Jacobs cited a NEA funded 2012 research study on Public Participation in the Arts  which “examined childhood experiences with music and arts education” as well as more “recent experiences as an audience member and/or creator.”  The bottom line of the data compiled by Kenneth Elpus at The University of Maryland, strongly emphasized, ”If one aim of music education….is to engender a lifelong connection with the arts”, the results of this study  suggest that music – and arts education more broadly – is achieving this aim for many alumni.”  Data analysis included 9,482 American adults who were surveyed about their childhood experiences with music and art. These data are compatible with my repeated assertions that music lessons involve more than playing an instrument.  Music lessons are life lessons.

Are you surprised with these findings?  I am not, nor, do I suspect, are you. Jacob’s article led me to reflect further upon my music teachers and early experiences that have become so much a part of who I am today.  I share some of my memories with you and hope you will take a few minutes to recall your own.

I hasten to add at the outset, I cannot mention everyone who has had an impact on music in my musical life – there are so many people who have encouraged and taught me, including my former students and current and former patients.  I think of my very first music teacher – MA – with whom I began my formal journey at the piano when I was 6 years old.  I had begun to pick out tunes and compose songs at age 4, but MA was my first music teacher.  She was a sweet, kind lady and had the advantage of owning a cute little Pekinese dog who would lap up coffee (with cream) on the floor by the piano pedals during my lessons.  I had my first memory slip when working with her – I remember it vividly (perhaps I will write about that in another column.)  Unfortunately, I stopped making progress and was losing interest in playing the piano.  My mother started looking for another teacher.

She located a wonderful man, SP, who was professor of piano at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia– not far from my hometown.  He was more sophisticated and knowledgeable about teaching music, and he remained my teacher until I auditioned and was accepted at Juilliard.  Even during my first year at Juilliard, I recall always playing for Mr. P every time I went home on break.

Before Juilliard, I had wonderful music teachers in public school music– particularly JL, my high school choir teacher.  I was the accompanist of the Chorus  – an activity I loved.  Mr. L was fun to work with in choir, and he often tutored me privately in theory.  I realized much later how valuable these lessons were, but even at the time, I found them challenging and interesting.  He also signed my yearbook with the message “be sure to keep your options open” – a message with which I took offense because I thought he was telling me that I could not “make it” as a pianist.  In hindsight, it was some of the best advice I have ever gotten.  I have pursued many options since those high school days and have created a very gratifying career blending music and psychology. Thank you, Mr. L.  (JL lives in another state, is retired from college teaching, and we stay in touch.)

JR my teacher at Juilliard initiated me into a larger world of music and professional piano playing.  JR also treated me like a family member –  invited me to his home for family dinners,  studio class parties after recitals, and one time told me that   “I wore too much eye makeup” (he had two daughters to whom he said he could not give this advice.)  I disagreed with him about the eye makeup!!  I recall detailed and intense lessons; I learned more repertoire than I thought I could handle (but did), performed in studio classes and public recitals, and went to his apartment on Riverside Drive for fabulous afterglow parties.  I learned to love green grapes with brie cheese at these receptions.  I watched him show off his cat, Tosca – imploring her to “roll over” as her one brilliant trick (eventually she would roll over, as most cats do, to his glee.)

Aside from JL, none of my music teachers is alive anymore.  Yet all my music teachers, singly and as a group, are alive inside my mind and in my life in everything I do today. All were instrumental in my musical development.  The far-reaching effects of teaching and learning music reverberate forever.  My music lessons clearly were life lessons.

Please take a few moments to revisit your memories as a music student and/or as a music teacher.  How has music affected your life? I would love to hear from you.

An earlier version of this article was published in Clavier Companion, revised and printed here with permission.

Featured image credit: “Dark, spotlight, stage” by StockSnap, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Biplab Poddar

    I like this so much :) :) :) I’m currently working on the f# minor nocturne! they’re beautiful pieces.
    Don’t get me wrong, you have to be strong and confident to be successful in just about anything you do – but with music, there’s a deeper emotional component to your failures and successes. If you fail a chemistry test, it’s because you either didn’t study enough, or just aren’t that good at chemistry (the latter of which is totally understandable). But if you fail at music, it can say something about your character. It could be because you didn’t practice enough – but, more terrifyingly, it could be because you aren’t resilient enough. Mastering chemistry requires diligence and smarts, but mastering a piano piece requires diligence and smarts, plus creativity, plus the immense capacity to both overcome emotional hurdles, and, simultaneously, to use that emotional component to bring the music alive.

    Before I started taking piano, I had always imagined the Conservatory students to have it so good – I mean, for their homework, they get to play guitar, or jam on their saxophone, or sing songs! What fun! Compared to sitting in lab for four hours studying the optical properties of minerals, or discussing Lucretian theories of democracy and politics, I would play piano any day.

    But after almost three years of piano at Orpheus Academy, I understand just how naïve this is. Playing music for credit is not “easy” or “fun” or “magical” or “lucky.” Mostly, it’s really freakin’ hard. It requires you to pick apart your piece, play every little segment over and over, dissect it, tinker with it, cry over it, feel completely lame about it, then get over yourself and start practicing again. You have to be precise and diligent, creative and robotic. And then – after all of this – you have to re-discover the emotional beauty in the piece, and use it in your performance.

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