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 musican (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 and religious gurus, charismatic leaders etc ?? It is as though the greatest achievements were always necessarily the accomplishment of individuals. This is really quite an unhealthy concept, and it’s a shame for our personal and collective wellbeing, 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, 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 …….. the list of human wrecks that were once bright-shining stars is endless.

A concertmaster of the Vienna Philarmonic came to conduct our orchestra. After rehearsals he just 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 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 don’t practice your concertos, it just means that getting out and playing chamber music (or doing any other enjoyable cooperative activity) is a very useful humanizing therapy and a good investment for long term happiness, musical and otherwise !