FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Strength (Psychological)

This article is part of the Psychology section. In this article we will talk about the psychological aspects of the most common socially accepted strength models. For a discussion about our needs for physical strength and stamina, see Strength-Flexibility (Mixed Hands Technique).

In both the physical and psychological domains, the strength models suggested by most popular culture heroes tend to be immature, narcissistic, superficial, and pathetically inappropriate for the most important areas of our lives: human relations, love, children, music etc. These models of “strength” are also not very useful for cello playing.

The problem is especially amplified for males. The great majority of the strong-male character models to which we are exposed are, for humanity in general, and for musicians in particular, truly sick influences. Terminator, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Superman, Batman, and most of the other super-hero male protagonists on the big and small screens were originally All-American examples of technologically-assisted (gun-crazy) violence, macho toughness and extreme cowboy individualism. But the phenomenon has spread. Not only was Terminator elected Governor of California, but also, unfortunately, the rest of the world also finds these characters appealing.

We seem to have now, for males at least, a worldwide obsession with power, strength and toughness: financial (money), natural physical (body size, muscles), technically assisted physical (as with weapons, vehicles etc), sexual (99% of pornography is mechanical and abusive) and emotional (lack of empathy).

Can you imagine these Super-Tough-Heros singing in a choir, listening to Schubert, playing an acoustic instrument ? It just doesn’t work! Is it surprising that the super-tough Ronald Reagan and George Bush II were absolutely tone-deaf, and that the more humane Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are accomplished amateur musicians?! Can you imagine Donald Trump singing a gentle, tender lullaby, or anything at all for that matter ?

The musical equivalent of power is volume. In the same way that having a loaded gun (or a big army) suddenly makes an insecure person or country respected (feared), putting the volume up really loud makes even the most empty music “powerful”. It might not make your emotions vibrate in harmony but it will certainly make your body vibrate from the physical shock waves. It’s not surprising then that Stephen Isserlis, that most intimate, warm and un-macho cellist, sometimes gets unfriendly reviews in the power-obsessed USA !

The obsession with individual physical power is shown in the popularity of visible muscle bulk. Bulky muscles might look good in the mirror but they’re not very useful for musicians. Big bulky muscles tend to make us stiff and “muscle-bound”. Musicians are high-performance athletes  ……. but of the small muscles. We are more like dancers than weight-lifters, even though our fingers do have to be world-class decathlon athletes. The physical hardness, rigidity and inflexibility of those big bulky muscles often have their psychological equivalent in a lack of kindness, empathy, tenderness and generosity.

Women and girls are luckier than their male counterparts in the sense that even the most exaggerated models of female strength tend to still retain some elements of “maternal” warmth and empathy, unlike their male equivalents in whom most signs of softness and humanity are seen as signs of weakness.