An insider perspective on the psychology of performing musicians
The essay that follows is intended to serve as a theoretical foundation for the arguments presented in subsequent installments of this series. It is based on contemporary theories on arts education plus my own personal observations of the music business. I welcome any additional reader comments and opinions on the material presented here.
Musicians are different. Their motivations and aspirations exists on a separate plane from the workaday world, sometimes running parallel to general societal motivations but often pinwheeling off in directions that are very difficult for the non-artist to understand. What compels a human being to write a symphony, play in the subway, practice until their fingers bleed, spend their life savings on an instrument, or drive 200 miles for $40.
Most people don’t know what it really means to be a performing musician. Even avid concertgoers and enthusiastic recording collectors have a hard time understanding the complex reasons why musicians create, and why they feel compelled to create, regardless of external circumstances.
Musicians compose and perform music in every conceivable condition, from parched desert to dense rain forest, from paradise islands to war zones. Musicians are hard-wired to create, having developed mental circuitry different from the general public early on and having an irresistible compulsion to exercise this circuitry, no matter the cost.
This series documents how the mind of a musician is hard-wired at an early age, how musicians feel an irresistible compulsion to create music once this mental circuitry is in place, and the problems that these musical minds have functioning in a civil society and interacting with others.
Hard-wiring the musical mind
Educational research puts forth three general types of learning in the human experience. By far the most predominant style of learning is what is commonly called analytic learning. This learning style conjures up images of students seated at desks in neat rows, textbooks out, with the teacher at the podium in front of the room, chalk in hand, lecturing and writing key phrases on the blackboard.
Analytic learning predominates in most classrooms. This teaching style remains largely unchanged over the years even if the outer trappings (blackboard, chalk, textbook) have received a modern upgrade (Powerpoint, laptop). Analytic learning is the absorption of facts, figures, concepts, and ideas through visual and auditory input.
Analytic learning comprises 90% or more of the learning styles present in the typical student experience, and while it is undeniably important in furthering one’s education (there is a reason why it predominates), it has its limits. Many students have learning styles that benefit from active involvement, and visual and auditory learning does not register as deeply with these learners.
Kinesthetic learning comprises about 8-9.9% of the rest of learning styles in the typical student experience. Doing things physically—experiments in chemistry class, kicking a ball, throwing a javelin, or fingering a saxophone—reaches students on levels that analytic learning cannot, and it can be a much more effective way of teaching any subjects than an analytic approach. Sports are a clear example of kinesthetic learning, as are many elements of art and music performance. Many traditionally academic subjects (math, history, reading) can also be taught using kinesthetic lessons, although this is still far from the norm in most classrooms.
The main problem with kinesthetic teaching is the difficulty in putting these lessons into concrete, written form effectively. The
Examples of analytic assessment:
- Short Answer
- Multiple Choice
Examples of kinesthetic assessment:
- Effective completion of task
- Success in attempted physical action
- Evidence of intelligent physical conditioning resulting from class learning
These kinesthetic tools can effectively measure physical learning with clear results, and students can be given clear goals to meet teacher expectations. It is just not quite as cut-and-dried with kinesthetic assessment tools as it is with analytic ones.
Music teachers use both types of lesson planning and assessment in our teaching, and we are quite familiar with how to teach and evaluate with both of these methods. However, music tends to be a much more appropriate subject for kinesthetic teaching than many others, and musicians learn through doing much more than non-musicians.
Learning through physical action predisposes students to be more receptive to other forms of kinesthetic learning, thus opening up many new avenues of expression, communication, and discovery. Anyone who has learned to strum a guitar, kick a ball, or knit a sweater understands the special nature of these skills and their application to other areas of life. Sports don’t just each people how to play sports—it also teaches teamwork, leadership, and discipline. Similarly, music doesn’t just teach people how to play music—it teaches dexterity, listening and communication skills, cooperation, balance, and physical awareness.
The last style of learning is the vaguest and most elusive of all, but it can prove to be the most powerful form of learning out of the three, and it is the one that music is uniquely suited to teach. Many call this style emotive, expressive, or emotional learning, but I will refer to it as affective learning for the remainder of this series.
Affective learning involves learning through the emotions, learning how both to express one self through emotions and to harness and control the power that emotion infuses in human experiences. This form of learning has become a popular subject of discussion in educational circles in recent years, although earlier educational thinkers questioned whether this style existed at all.
Infusing any sort of learning with emotional power exponentially increases the effect and retention of the lesson being learned. Harnessing this skill allows for a level of effective communication and leadership far above the herd, and learning to use this skill allows one to quickly and powerfully teach oneself, a skill that has GREAT applicability in the life of a successful person.
Plus, there is monumental satisfaction in learning and communicating on an affective level. Once experienced, it can become quite addictive, causing an individual to go to great lengths for the opportunity to communicate and function on this plane.
Any time a person feels an emotional connection with music, they are experiencing the affective power of this art form. Music has the ability to communicate elements of the human experience that words cannot, and nearly every person alive understands this truism to some degree.
The act of performing has the potential to carry exponentially more affective power than does the act of listening, but not all performers experience this emotional impact. One can be a talented performer without deeply experiencing this impact, and conversely, one can have this affective hard-wiring without having the necessary coordination and motor skills to be a successful performer. There is a great deal of athleticism and rational (analytic) mental activity involved in music performance, and one can certainly exist without the other. The most successful musicians, however, usually are those who possess the necessary motor skills and have the drive to communicate and create on the affective level. These individuals spend long hours perfecting their craft, locking themselves away in small rooms to fetishistically polish small musical nuggets, then interacting with like-minded individuals in conservatory settings to develop similar skills in group settings.
Individuals driven by their affective desire and physical talent tend to succeed professionally in the contemporary art music industry, but these same skills which propelled them to success in their specialty also isolate them from their non-musician colleagues, often stunting their social development and ability to function rationally (analytically) in the greater society.
Hence, our profession is frequently populated by individuals with a strong desire to communicate on an affective level and the heightened emotional sensitivities that result from such frequent emotional communication, but with difficulty communicating and functioning in standard social situations.
This, in large part, is why our business is so rats-in-a-coffee-can crazy.
Read the complete series:
- Part 1 – Hard-Wiring the Musical Mind
- Part 2 – Full-Time Loyalty at Part-Time Rates
- Part 3 – Music is Addictive
- Part 4 – Orchestras – A Secret Society of Weirdoes (and I’m one of them!)
- Part 5 – Driving for Dollars – life as a classical music bottom feeder
- Part 6 – Individual Artistic Expression
- Part 7 – The Satisfaction of Section Playing
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