Beautiful music is an endless well of inspiration, but the well can be easily poisoned, and talent is not always enough to clear the waters.
The fight or flight response, or the stress response, is a normal reaction to scary or stressful situations, like being thrown into a dark, cold lake and not being able to see the bottom, or sitting powerless in the passenger seat of a car that is spinning out of control. Somewhere in a piano lesson, right now, someone is experiencing this feeling. It’s probably the student, but in some cases it might even be the teacher. For Jimmy, as we saw in Part 3 of this series, it was coming from his toxic relationship with his mother, Beatrice.
We’ve all felt this before: a sense of panic, inadequacy, or a lot of pressure to perform a task that has not been explained clearly, or that we just don’t fully understand or haven’t mastered yet. Premature criticism is like taking a turkey out of the oven before it’s done cooking, cutting it open, and throwing it violently on the floor, and yelling at the cook “It’s raw, you fool!” I was lucky to have great teachers who could sense this when I was doing it to myself, and who knew how to ask the right questions, and help me calm down and feel better.
This situation is way too common, and leads many students to quit lessons. From that point, the memory in their head, or the story that gets told about what happened, typically turns into some form of “Yeah, I quit, I just didn’t practice enough” or “I quit lessons when I was 11, I just wasn’t good enough and my parents got tired of spending money on it when I wasn’t going anywhere.”
If more people knew the deeper causes, and really dug deep to figure this out, a typical explanation might go from “I failed”, “I wasn’t talented”, or “I didn’t practice enough” to something more like “nobody helped me make sense of my feelings” or “the adults in my life at the time were living vicariously through me and projecting their own unresolved childhood traumas onto the blank canvas of my innocent and vulnerable heart, and I couldn’t handle it.” The fact is, there are plenty of great method books out there, but making sense of the extreme emotions that sometimes appear in the context of music lessons is not usually a part of the method book itself. It’s hit or miss, based on the lottery of whether or not you are born into certain families, or are lucky enough to find the right teachers.
Jimmy wasn’t so lucky when it came to his parents. But there was a silver lining developing. Beatrice had just rudely interrupted me in the middle of a sentence, raising her voice and lifting her eyebrows up high… to agree with me.
“Oh, I wasn’t aware that it’s….. That there was this connection.”
Shocked at her sudden calm agreement, I continued. I scanned her for signs of rehearsed facial expressions, and was surprised to see that she appeared to be genuinely having a moment of clarity and realization. She looked a bit embarrassed. I took advantage of this to drive the point home.
“It doesn’t really matter what is happening; when someone’s stressed out, they will build an association with the emotion. My teaching style is based on feeling good while you’re playing the instrument, and that’s the foundation. When we have that solid foundation, then we can add other things to that, like practicing more, working on technique, reading music, setting goals. But without the foundation in a calm, gentle, and focused feeling of love in the student’s heart, what’s the point? It’s just painful. Why would he want to do something that hurts over and over and over again?”
I was shocked at what I saw unfolding before me as I spoke these words. Beatrice looked like she was starting to understand. She softened up. Her horns and tail melted away and revealed that under the persona she wore like a halloween costume, there was a loving mother after all. She really did care. And she was afraid of losing control. I had held up a mirror and revealed to her the ways in which she was hurting her son, and she didn’t like what was in the mirror.
More tenderly than before, she asked her son, “Is that how you feel?”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy said to the floor. I could tell that actually, he did know. He just said he didn’t know because he had probably learned to hide his true feelings many years before. Clearly still struggling with the idea of letting her son decide, instead of controlling him, Beatrice said, “What I would like to suggest is that he take the summer off and revisit in the fall.” Looking at Jimmy, she asked, “What do you think? You don’t have to do it.”
She offered him a “choice,” but she didn’t mask her intentions very well. It was clear what she wanted him to do. So of course, he chose the opposite of whatever he knew she wanted, even though it wasn’t even what he wanted.
I was witnessing the creation of a false personality, like a veil over his true self, right in front of me. One day, he might even have his own scary Dark Crystal halloween costume, just like his mother. “No,” he answered. I got the message. “That’s fine. It’s ok with me, whatever you guys decide to do. Just know that the door’s always open if you decide to change your mind, ok?”
“That was my hope,” Beatrice replied, “but I will respect his decision. You know, it makes me unhappy…..” she lamented. Jimmy started getting impatient. Realizing he’d won this round, he raised his voice.“Ok!” Beatrice ignored this momentary outburst and continued, “…..because I really think….. Well you know how I feel.” She looked defeated. Exactly, I thought, and that’s why he just said “No”. Because she told him she wanted a “Yes”! I secretly hoped for her sake that Beatrice would never bet money in a poker game.
Sensing the limit had been reached on her personal epiphany scale, I wrapped things up as best as I could. “I would suggest in the absence of lessons to do everything that you can, both of you, to allow the piano to be something connected to a positive feeling. Maybe right now it seems like the well has been poisoned, there’s stress, there’s negativity. That can change, but it’s not going to change overnight.”
Beatrice looked at me like I just handed her a “Guilty” verdict. The “well had been poisoned,” and I was being nice about it, but it was totally clear where that poison was coming from. Still, she didn’t rush the bench. She surprised me and actually offered a genuine apology to her son. “I hope it does change. I’m sorry I screamed at you so much. I didn’t mean to do that.”
I felt strangely proud of her in that moment. I had been teaching Jimmy for a few months, but today, Beatrice was my student. Part of me wondered if she wasn’t just acting to hide her shame at having her sins exposed, but Jimmy seemed to genuinely calm down. “Thanks,” he said meekly. Beatrice offered an oddly formal sign of respect. “Can we shake hands?”
“Thank you,” she told him, shaking hands like 2 kids who just got caught fighting on the playground and were told to “make up”. Sensing some closure, I told them, “The door’s always open. I’ll be here.”
“Hopefully we’ll be back,” she said, glaring at Jimmy.
Jimmy rolled his eyes. I could see that they wouldn’t be back. But I could also see that I had held up a mirror, and rather than amplifying the rage they shared, it helped them see something they might have ignored before. Underneath that anger and resentment, there was love and respect. It took a lot of work to get to it, but it was down in there. It was a brief opportunity for some clarity, and I hope Jimmy remembers it when he’s older. I also hope that they both enter therapy as soon as possible.
Music is a strange mirror into the soul.
“Ok. Have a good week,” I said.
I never saw them again, not that I expected to. I knew that Jimmy quit lessons to get back at his mom. I didn’t want him to quit, but if I had sided with his mom and pressured him to continue, he would remember that for the rest of his life. I hoped that by telling them what I saw, and by offering him real freedom to make his own choice and to be treated with respect, I planted a seed that would blossom in the future. I hoped the conversation gave him a bread crumb trail, like in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, to find his way back to loving music again at some point.
The lesson with Valerie was almost over, so I asked her to play the Chopin piece one more time. Like clockwork, a mistake happened in the same place it had the last 5 times I heard her play it. I gently interrupted.
“Right there, that is where the mechanics have to be correct. So you’ll have to spend more time on the mechanical side of your finger positioning, checking the notes again, playing them in the right order, etc…. And I’m fully confident that you’ll nail it.”
I explained more of these technical points to her, and finished the lesson with a twist, saying “Some people develop a great love for music, and never study or work to improve their technique. They quit lessons, they play by ear, and they get away with whatever they can do without consciously knowing what is going on. I know a lot about this, because I used to be one of these people.”
“If you have the most amazing horse in the world, but the wheels on your cart are broken, it’s turned over, and all the turnips have fallen out into the mud, that’s not going to work too well either. Still, it’s a lot easier to build a cart than it is to build a horse. Your heart has to lead the way, but it can’t go anywhere if it’s tied to a set of broken wheels. And the best cart in the world won’t budge if it’s tied to a dead horse.”
She tried playing the piece again, and worked out a few mechanical kinks. It was getting better each time, and the more she mastered the technical parts, the less she had to think about it. The less she had to think about it, the more she could pour her heart into the music.
“Remember, Valerie, the horse has to be a feeling of intense love, and it’s something that you can discover at any moment. It’s always inside of your heart, and if you think you’ve lost it, then it’s time to look inward, not outward. It can never die; it can only be covered up by a veil of tears that trickle down on the inside, even if you’re smiling, even if the whole world thinks you’re happy, even if you’ve managed to fool everyone. You can’t fool yourself. Let the music make you be honest with yourself, even if no one else ever hears it. Music can lead you through that veil of tears, and show you that the richest treasures in the world are the ones you’ve buried inside of your own heart.”
Tying it all together, I asked her, “When you sit down in the present moment, when you get quiet, do you notice that the more sensitively you play these chords, the more powerfully the melody moves through them? Can you feel the difference?”
She nodded her head, smiling.
“The more you do that, the more you’ll feel it, and the more you feel it, the more you’ll share it with anyone who hears you play.”
She was learning to create the stillness in order for the movement to be noticeable, and that the space between the notes is what makes the notes matter. She was learning to play with her soul, and the secret to her success as a student was that she had placed her trust in her heart, where she was first made a musician. I feel confident that this will cause her to inspire others at some point in the future, because inspiration breeds inspiration.
“When you create a profound sense of stillness with harmony and then play a beautiful melody over it, it’s so powerful. That’s why music has the power to make people cry. That’s why music changes people’s lives. Because it brings their mind and their heart into a state of peace and when they are in that state of peace and stillness, they transform. They change. They heal. They grow. They become better versions of themselves. And you’re learning the power of giving that gift to the world.”
“Love”, I told her, “is the First Law of Music.”