Psychology For Musicians

It is not enough to play well mechanically and intellectually. Music is primarily an emotional language and most people do not listen to it to be impressed by mechanics, knowledge or sophistication. They want to be touched and entranced: to be emotionally moved.  We need the mechanics to be able to play the notes, and we need musical knowledge to make sense of the notes, but “good” playing uses mechanics and knowledge simply as necessary tools to help communicate feelings and emotional states. In other words, mechanical and intellectual skills are not enough to be a good musician: we need emotional skills also.

It is here that is found the most sublime part of “musicality”. Only when we add our feelings to our mechanical skills and to our knowledge of the language of music, can we convert those little black dots on a page into a living, breathing, pulsating, vibrant representation of the emotional essence of life. This emotivity is the magical ingredient that can make a musical performance such an intensely powerful experience, but it is, however, a double-edged sword. Ecstasy and agony are the two sides of this sword, which is not only very sharp but can cut both ways. Even in situations in which it is only our skill and knowledge that are on public display (as occurs for example in public speaking, presentations etc), stagefright can rear its ugly head. But when our emotions are on display as well, such as in a musical performance, then the anxiogenic potential is multiplied exponentially. Now, it is as though we were naked on stage.

Emotivity is, however, only one of the variety of psychological skills that we need to thrive (or survive) as a musician. Think about jugglers or acrobats. They, just like musicians, are also highly skilled (and highly trained) “performers”, but while they share with the musician the same psychological need for relaxation, self-confidence and focus, their activity doesn’t require the same level of emotivity. Achieving the juggler’s relaxation, confidence, concentration and mastery, but with the added ingredient of emotivity, is the musician’s greatest challenge and the ultimate goal of this “psychology” section.

But healthy psychology is not only our goal, it is also an essential element of our mechanical technique. Tension, fear, overexcitement, self-consciousness etc can make even the most simple and automated bodily movements become clumsy and awkward. Just look at what happens to our easy, natural stride when we have to walk in front of a large group of people who are all watching us ! Feeling confident, calm, and centred can, on the other hand, make even the most difficult mechanical tasks easy and enjoyable.

If we consider mechanical technique and musical training as a “tree” of skills and knowledge, then our psychology is, at the same time, the roots (our essential motivation), the soil (the nourishment), and both the flowers and the fruit (that which the listener enjoys) of this same tree.

The psychology of cello playing is no different to that of all other instruments. In fact, the psychology needed to play the cello well, is the same as that needed to do just about anything well – even to live well ! I can think of no better book to recommend – for cello playing as well as for life in general – than “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey.

Click on the following links to go directly to some of the more specialized discussions:

  1. Amateur or Pro ? 
  2.   Audience Contact
  3.    Calm/Excitement ? 
  4.   Communication
  5.      Confidence
  6.    Contemporary Music
  7.    Fascism in Music
  8.    Focus/Dreamtime ?
  9.   Freedom/Obedience? 
  10.    Hermit/Hero ?
  11.     Intimacy/Performance ?
  12.      Introvert/Extrovert ? 
  13.     Male/Female ?
  14.       Mind/Body ?
  15.      The “Now”
  16.     Preparation /Spontaneity ? 
  17.      Sensuality/Sexuality ?
  18.     Serious/Fun ?
  19.    Stagefright
  20.    Strength
  21.      Think/Feel ? 
  22.    Trying Too Hard
  23.   Warmup = Calmdown
  24.     Why Play Music ?