Today I approach you with a principle that is often so overlooked in our music lessons and practice sessions that it is akin to mistaking the forest for the trees. It is a principle so important and vital that it is perhaps the most positively life-changing benefit that learning and practicing a musical instrument brings to our lives, no matter what your age. This, my friends, is the principle of self actualization.
Self actualization, as defined by Wikipedia, "is a term that has been used in various psychology theories, often in slightly different ways. The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one's full potential. Expressing one's creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society are examples of self actualization."
In other words, self-actualization is the inherent desire to use one's unique talents and abilities to to what he or she is meant to do on our planet and for each other. We, in the United States, often take this principle for granted, but such thinking is only but a recent development in the long history of mankind.
An intuitive teacher, who really is a mentor, knows how to bring out the qualities of each individual student in such a way that he or she feels empowered to realize his or her full potential. Of course, this can mean different things to different people. Two fundamental questions arise.
1. If a student is young, isn't he or she too young to worry about such a big concept as self actualization?
2. What if violin lessons (or any other instrumental lessons) do not fit into the big picture for a student's life goals? What if he or she doesn't wish to become a professional musician?
Both of these questions can be answered by one statement:
It's not the destination that matters, but the journey.
In other words, it is the process of learning that makes life meaningful. I don't care if my students are learning violin, math, science, or history. We all are born with unique proclivities in life toward various subjects and it is the process of learning that truly allows one to self actualize. If a student is gifted enough with the ability to derive benefit from music lessons, he or she is gifted enough to learn the principle of self actualization by harnessing this unique talent.
But wait, there's more!
Learning, for learning's sake isn't enough. Whether learning math or music, a student needs to apply the subjects to real life to make them truly meaningful and relevant. For instance, what use is knowing the periodic table of elements if one never intends to use the knowledge in a laboratory? Similarly, what use is it to spend hours in the practice room if a student of music cannot communicate with an audience?
Sure, there are known therapeutic effects of playing for oneself, in addition to studying chemistry (if that's what keeps you sane), but to achieve TRUE meaning in life, we must use our talents to better our fellow man or woman.
How can this be done? Well, this is where you come in, my dear reader. The answer lies in your unique situation. You might not yet know the answers, and that's ok. These answers get revealed over time and one thing's for sure - You cannot force the answers. Being impatient with oneself is certainly not going to help. Furthermore, finding meaning is a life-long process. I am convinced that a life of meaning and purpose is what ultimately makes us happy.
Here are some questions though, that could help you find YOUR musical purpose:
1. What are my earliest memories of performing/learning my instrument?
2. Who am I playing for when I'm on stage? or Who do I wish to play for on stage?
3. What do I believe music can do for humanity? There is no wrong answer, no matter how idealistic you might think it sounds!
4. What do I, as an individual, have that no one else has that I can contribute to society as a human being through musical or non-musical channels?
As you can see, it's all about the I-You relationship. I conclude with some wise words from the great ancient Rabbi Hillel the Elder who said "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
As a concert violinist and violin teacher, to me, one of the most fascinating elements of the musical experience is the unification of mind, body, and spirit, that results from learning and performing our instruments. I would like to take my realization a step further and put forth the hypothesis that, in fact, music can be a tool for achieving this highly desirable state.
Before we get into the science of this unification, let's talk about why it should be attained. Many practitioners of prayer, meditation, and even t'ai chi tap into a deep kind of energy that means different things to different people. What all practitioners agree upon, is that uniting mind, body, and spirit is a desirable activity. Some wish to do it out of an internal desire to find balance in their lives while others believe that they are commanded by a Higher Authority to do so.
It is worth noting that the experiences that I will share with you may or may not be the same as yours. While I cannot speak in depth about t'ai chi, I can speak about Jewish prayer and meditation and, for me, both exercises are one in the same.
So what do I find useful about Jewish prayer and meditation? A little background about Jewish prayer, first. Jewish prayer often involves two objects called tefillin.
In the traditional Jewish teaching, men are required to put on tefillin every day except for the Sabbath and holy days. Women are certainly allowed to do the same, but they are not obligated. Tefillin, also translated by the Greeks as Phylacteries, are two separate small wooden boxes that contain parchments inside upon which are written some of the most important prayers to Judaism. These boxes cannot be opened unless one cuts them open. The boxes also have leather straps that hang off of them and one box is worn just above the front hairline and the other is worn on the arm of the "weaker" hand with the box facing the heart. The implication is that when you pray to the Almighty, you are harnessing your mind and body to serve G-d.
Interestingly, the "head tefillin" is worn over the "mind's eye" - an important part of many Eastern meditative rituals.
Roy Masters, a trained hypnotist-turned-anti-hypnotist teaches such an exercise which he infuses with Judeo-Christian principles. While I cannot speak of his knowledge about Jewish tefillin practice, I do believe that his exercise, which involves "looking at your eyelids with your eyes closed" and "feeling your fingers tingle in your right hand" sounds a lot like it is trying to achieve the same purpose of uniting mind and body, as one finds with the unification of the head tefillin and the arm tefillin.
I am not trained in t'ai-chi but I believe that this unification of mind and body is also crucial to its practice.
The third element, which I call "the spirit", is what binds everything together. In religious parlance, the Jews call it the neshama, and the Christians call it the holy spirit - part of their holy trinity. Atheists and agnostics can also benefit from this "third element" by referring to it as "our common humanity".
So now that I have thoroughly changed topics to religion and matters of the spirit, let's get back to music. In fact, this is exactly where playing a musical instrument comes into our discussion.
When one learns the violin or any other instrument, in order to produce beautiful music, one must unite mind, body, and spirit. After all King David in Psalm 98 wrote "Sing praises unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp and the voice of melody."
This singing "with the harp and the voice of melody" is a reflection of uniting mind, body, and spirit for a greater cause. Some call this cause "the service of G-d". Others call it "making the world a better place through attaining and sharing harmony". Whatever your religious (or lack of) persuasion, this unification of mind, body, and spirit, is a daily activity that ultimately can be used to serve a higher purpose. Just as the religious man or woman prays every day or just as the practitioner of meditation meditates every day, we musicians, too, have the ability to hone our craft for a greater purpose. When we practice daily (or almost daily), we unite our minds and bodies. The spirit lies in the music that we choose to play or are inclined to play at any given moment.
Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Previous entries: October 2014
Hear more from the world's top violinists in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which includes our exclusive conversations with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, and David Garrett, and others, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
Daniel Broniatowski is from Watertown, Massachusetts. Biography
Please consider supporting Violinist.com by becoming a sponsor, and reaching our dedicated community of violin professionals, students and fans!