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The Emotional Pianist

Music has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

William Congreve,
“The Mourning Bride,” 1697

Pianists are emotional creatures. Our playing communicates feelings and also creates them. It would be interesting to do a scientific investigation of how one's playing and emotions connect. That would be a fitting study for psychologists, for neurologists and music therapists. This article, however, will be about how we experience that connection; how we sense our emotions affecting our music, and our music affecting our emotions.

We can begin with the simple observation that certain music is better suited to some players than others, not because of their technical abilities, but because of their emotional capacity. Young people, for example, often lack the breadth of life experiences to understand and project the deep emotional pathos of particular selections. I recently came across a piece of music entitled, “First loss.” The melody was simple, almost innocent, with a sweet wistfulness. It was easy to imagine it well-played by a 14-year old, who had begun to experience some of the pain of life, but difficult to visualize an 8-year old handling it well. This lack of experiential preparation is why many performances, which are technically brilliant, are emotionally unsuccessful.

Playing the piano allows us to express our feelings. This goes far beyond the simple, “I’m feeling happy today, so I’m going to play a happy song,” to “I don’t really know what I’m feeling today, so I’m going to play something.” This is particularly valuable to those with even a small ability to improvise. Making music allows us to connect with the feelings that lie deep within and draw them out, even if we can’t put them into words. One of the great difficulties in psychological therapy is finding just the right words to express your emotions. What a great gift to be able to speak your emotions directly without needing to use words. My mother used to say that she instantly knew what kind of a day I had had when she came through the door in the evening, because she heard my playing.

Not only can we express our emotions in our playing, but our emotions of the moment may alternately energize or forbid our playing a particular piece. You may be feeling just too sad to play a happy song. At other times, a cheerful song can be just the tonic to pull you out of the doldrums. It is impossible to predict what the emotional effect will be, but you instantly know it when you experience it.

Making music can also be an important antidote for emotional healing. Here I will become much more autobiographical. A few years ago I went through a severe storm in life, which sent me emotionally off course. As I began to come out of this low pressure zone, I said to my wife, “I think I am ready to smile again. I think I am ready to laugh again, but it has been so long, I don’t think I know how.” It was then that her wisdom shone through. “You used to play the piano,” she said. “Now you hardly ever do. Perhaps if you began playing again that would help you.” I realized, then, that I had essentially given up the piano for several years. On rare occasions I would play, “because I really should,” but I never seemed to be able to continue on for more than ten or fifteen minutes. I have found that it is wonderful to meet my old friend again. Playing the piano has allowed me to experience both the storm and the sun in ways I could not do otherwise. I feel more centered, more whole. I feel alive again.

Our emotional connection with music remains mysterious. Music soothes without salve, speaks without words and heals without treatments. It might be helpful to understand the psychology of music, or the neurological explanation of emotion, but it is not necessary in order to understand the inestimable value of this gift to my soul?