This article is part of the Psychology section.

Individualism is a disease of modern western society. It is also a recipe for guaranteed unhappiness. The hermit and the hero are two sides of this same individualistic coin: one is adulated by crowds while the other shuns them. In the classical music world we also have these two extremes: the glorified, idealized hero, is usually the extraverted “soloist” (or conductor) while the hermit is the introverted, studious, intellectual musician (rarely a successful solo performer).

Why is it that in western societies we are so desperately looking for “hero” figures to adulate: pop and film stars, sporting champions, tough-guy winners, business captains, virtuoso surgeons, gods, religious gurus, charismatic leaders etc ?? It seems that the achievements that we most admire tend to be those that are accomplished by individuals. This is really quite an unhealthy tendency, and it’s a shame for our personal and collective well-being because while we are all aspiring to our own glorious narcissistic triumphs, we are missing out on the more realistic, more lasting, but less intense pleasures of cooperation and of working together. And even when someone does succeed in their highest individualistic aspirations, unfortunately, being a star often tends to be a short-lived and lonely experience followed by a rapid (and painful) fall from grace. The stress of maintaining outstanding individual performance and receiving huge amounts of personal attention (and scrutiny) is so often associated with substance abuse, anxiety, depression etc. The list of human wrecks that were once bright-shining stars is endless.

A concertmaster of the Vienna Philarmonic once came to conduct our orchestra. After rehearsals he only wanted to play quartets, saying that playing chamber music was both more useful and more fun than practicing! Is it surprising then that his music-making (and overall personality) was relaxed, spontaneous, communicative, generous, and playful?

I recently heard Pinchas Zuckermann play a very expressive, communicative recital and was reminded of something he said many years ago: “everything that I have learned, I have learned from playing chamber music”.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice our concertos, it just means that getting out and playing chamber music (or doing any other enjoyable cooperative activity) is a very useful humanising therapy, and a good investment for long-term happiness, musical and otherwise !