Music as Self-Expression

March 13, 2015, 6:52 AM · One of the things that fascinates me the most about music is its ability to serve as a conduit for self-expression. To some, this realization is as obvious as apple pie. Yet, we often forget that we each have our own tune just waiting to be unleashed.

Joshua Bell conducted his famous experiment playing in the subway of Washington D.C. and posed as a panhandler, he was mostly ignored. No one had the time to listen to the amazing sounds coming from his instrument. Out of 1,097 passers-by, only 7 stopped to listen during the busy morning rush hour.

Have we as a society become so self-obsessed and perhaps, iPhone-obsessed that we can't even stop to appreciate beauty when it is presented in front of us? Or, perhaps, the rushed daily grind has made made us unable to appreciate the journey, as opposed to the destination during our morning commute and any other part of our day-to-day activities.

More than ever, our world needs music. We need more Joshua Bells. I don't mean the virtuoso performing type (as talented and wonderful as those are). Rather, I am speaking of the type of Joshua Bell that feels empowered to get out there and make a difference out of a deep inner conviction. What we need is to raise our children to better appreciate the art of self-expression. If a child is taught how to listen, he or she will be able to more effectively understand and relate to his or her peers. In turn, teaching the ability to listen comes with it the responsibility of teaching the ability to communicate. Music is the ideal tool for teaching these two skills.

The above skills are best taught when there is a strong working relationship between the teacher, parent, and student. This relationship is crucial in setting up the life-long dialogue that a student/child will hone throughout his or her life. How does this work?

It is my opinion that the art of music making is best approached as a journey, rather than a destination. What I mean by this is, rather than seeing a music lesson as a means to one day playing perfectly, the lesson should be seen as an ongoing exercise in communication. A skilled teacher knows how to empower a student to best get the message in the musical score across to the audience. Getting the message across to the audience requires patience, discipline, and proper technique. Week-by-week, the message is presented more and more clearly and the communication of that message is honed in the weekly lesson as "a process of becoming", rather than in the spirit of instant gratification. What is this "process of becoming"? It is the unending skill of crafting a message to the audience in a meaningful way that ultimately comes out of a deep potentially life-long partnership between performer and composer.

Little by little, the student learns how to communicate effectively through his or her instrument in a myriad of ways. What he or she ultimately finds is that every composer has his or her unique language.

The ability and necessity to communicate different ideas in different musical languages is a skill that translates into all aspects of life, whether it be public speaking, teaching, or even organizing one's thoughts to solve a complex math or science equation. Yet, in my opinion, the most important skill learned is the ability to communicate as human beings and share one's experiences in a truly meaningful dialogue, for this results in understanding and with the right intentions, perfect harmony.

Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Music to Warm the Heart
Maestro Musicians, LLC
Greater Boston



March 13, 2015 at 03:40 PM · Great blog Daniel.

It begs the question: why self-expression is not equally taught, or explored without the instrument? Do you agree that current, traditional curricula of music education is missing this element? In other words, if one is to become a great violinist, one ought to be able to express him/herself in one of the following: writing, dancing, poetry, acting, mime, painting, drumming.... at the end of the day, violin is but another tool for expression, the channel to communicate, not the end. Perhaps most of us are mesmerized by its beauty, the sound and strong gravitational pull that we sometimes forget that it is not about the violin. Or is it?

March 13, 2015 at 04:46 PM · Thank you for your comments,

I like the line of questioning and you pose some interesting perspectives. It is so difficult to answer your question about the teaching of self-expression since much of it depends on one's teacher. Furthermore, two contradictory opinions are pulling me as I write this. One says "learn your technique well and you can express what's inside from your own unique experiences". The other says "Your teacher is a mentor who can give you ideas so you know how to express yourself, much like an artist imitating a great master painter". I believe that at the end of the day, it is a balance between the two. Since we all ideally share a common Western musical culture (and now more than often infused with other cultures), we must draw from our past while being true to ourselves in our interpretations of great music. Unfortunately, the latter part is sadly ignored in most of our higher education and we are taught to do only what the composer wanted (as if we could know 100%). I believe that a well-rounded musician should be well versed in the past traditions and tastes but not be afraid to add his or her convictions to the mix.

There are many great artists who do just that. It is possible, however, that these artists craft their own journey, independent of our education system.

I know that I went off on a major tangent - Going back to the question about other disciplines, this is all great stuff too. I suppose it all has to do with natural inclinations (what others call talent), experiences in life, and hours in the day!

Hope that was insightful.


March 14, 2015 at 12:46 AM · I appreciate the emphasis on the process. So easy to forget. Thanks

March 14, 2015 at 01:07 AM · One item I've long pondered: If Josh Bell had done his subway playing outside of rush hour, would more passers-by have stopped to listen?

I have to believe more of them would have. From what I've read so far, plenty of young kids wanted to stop and listen; but for lack of time during rush hour, their parents couldn't let them.

My parents regularly played classical music radio stations and recordings. I liked hearing this music -- even before preschool. By second grade, on cold, gray Saturdays in winter, I would sit in the living room alone and listen to classical albums by the hour.

Mom and Dad strongly suspected I had musical ability and enrolled me in beginning piano; but -- you guessed it -- the violin muse soon stole me from piano, and I made the switch.

Although I don't make a living in music, I keep up my playing -- and I try to find ways to share it -- sometimes in offbeat venues, as in Bell's DC experiment. Right now, playing in the garage -- and it's warm enough here most of the year for this -- is one of my favorite ways. A few years ago, when a 6-year-old neighbor kid knocked on the garage door during one session and wanted to try out my instrument -- well, how can I describe it? Special moments like this more than repay me for all the practice I put in to stay in good form.

So I fully share your sentiment that we need more of "the type of Joshua Bell that feels empowered to get out there and make a difference out of a deep inner conviction." I strongly believe in preserving the fineness in Western fine art music -- but without the unnecessary stuffy snobbery that puts up barriers. I have to believe there's a lot of potential for reaching people.

I could relate more of my own offbeat-venue experiences that bear this out. Maybe later -- in a blog of my own.

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