What happens in Vegas should NOT stay in Vegas!
I am writing this just after returning from Las Vegas, where I attended some wonderful programs at the 2015 Music Teachers National Association Conference. I also presented sessions as part of a Pedagogy Saturday track that explored the psychological and physical health of musicians.
Las Vegas is a city of sights, sounds, foods, and a twenty-four-hour carnival atmosphere. In case you are curious— yes, I gambled. I am thrilled to report that I returned home with a profit of fifty cents from a twenty-five cent slot machine.
The saying goes, "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." But I want to share something important with you that should not stay in Las Vegas.
One session I presented was titled "Harnessing the Mind." My focus was on the mental health of students and teachers, and I recommended unharnessing the mind and becoming acutely aware of emotions. The subject of the connections between the mind/brain and emotions has been a topic of interest for centuries. The Greek philosophers argued whether emotions and the soul were located in the heart or in the brain. While we know today that the brain interacts emotionally with many organs in our bodies, the ancient disagreement gives rise to an interesting question: would you like to receive a valentine saying "I love you with all my brain"? Yet many people in today's world who would not hesitate to seek medical care for a heart attack would not visit a psychiatrist for a heartache. Clearly, the old myth about mental health treatment needs to be destigmatized. Mind matters!
Mental health has not received enough credit with respect to musicians who devote years to serious study, performing, teaching, and career building. The music between parent and child is the infant's first duet. The nonverbal coos and gurgles between parents and child bring comfort and feelings of security. As the baby grows, both psychologically and physically, a fascination with sounds and later with musical toys can lead to piano lessons at a very young age. Suzuki lessons are typically started around age four or earlier. Data show that it is common to begin private music lessons at an average age of ten years old,1 with 90% of children beginning lessons before age twelve and 46% before age seven.2 A musical life often has a lifelong trajectory with a large emotional investment.
The implications of simultaneous lifespan and music development are enormous for both music teacher and student. I suggested at MTNA that music teachers often are "first responders" to their students. It is not unusual at the lesson for the teacher, who becomes a parental substitute through displacement, to hear about sensitive issues occurring in a student's life. The studio can become a safe haven to talk as well as play. Topics about school, home life, friends, divorce, illness, and comments about other teachers are often revealed by students in the safety of the private studio.
Teaching music involves much more than teaching how to play an instrument. Life events often have an impact on a student's ability to practice, and they can affect a student's sense of self-esteem and control. How teachers handle communications about these events is crucially important. Many teachers at MTNA spoke with me about powerful conversations they have had with their students. One teacher wrote to me after the conference about a very personal and moving experience with a student that she handled sensitively.
A mother informed the piano teacher that her husband was about to undergo surgery for cancer, and her pre-teenage son was aware of this. The music teacher wondered whether she should talk about the situation with her student or not, and she ultimately decided to take her cue from the student. For two weeks, the student talked about the stress of school and upcoming exams. At the next lesson, however, the student spoke about things changing at home and of feeling afraid. The teacher reassured the student that while there was upheaval at home, some routines continued as normal, such as piano lessons. She also talked with the student about how he could establish some control at home. The student came up with a list of ideas that could be helpful, including doing homework and making his own lunches. The teacher and student also talked about many other people who would be available to support the family. Following the lesson, the mother contacted the teacher and told her, "whatever you said was more helpful than what I told my child."
Why should the information about the music teacher/music student relationship not stay in Las Vegas? Because:
• Music teachers are in the mental health profession because of their special relationship with students.
• Music teachers teach more than just notes.
• Music teachers are ambassadors for mental health; in addition to helping students in their studios, they can make referrals to mental health professionals when they detect issues that require further attention.
• Music teachers are first responders.
• Music teachers constructively unharness the mind.
1 Fishbein M, Middlestadt SE, Ottati V, et al. (1988). "The ICSOM medical questionnaire." Senza Sordino 25 (6), 1-8. [reprinted in Medical Problems of Performing Artists3 (1), 1-8, March 1998.]
2 Nagel J. J. (1987). An examination of commitment to careers in music: implications for alienation from vocational choice. Dissertation Abstracts International 48 (05):7754A. UMI No. 871218.