Polyphony: Emotional Health and the Musician

Article excerpt

Editor's Note:

A version of this article first appeared in' the Piano Pedagogy Forum, Volume 3, Number 2, and is reprinted with permission of Piano Pedagogy Forum of the University of South Carolina. it can be accessed at www.music.sc.edu/ea/keyboard/ppf.

Jane Magrath: Doug, we are interested in your investigation of emotional health and the student musician. Can you give us some background for this topic?

Doug Weeks: Creativity and emotional health a topic not extensively addressed in the music curriculum and one both sensitive and complex to discuss--is the subject of the pioneering work of Swiss psychotherapist Alice Miller. She has achieved international recognition for her work on the causes and effects of childhood emotional trauma. Her books, especially The Drama of the Gifted Child, have become classics in the literature of graduate education and psychology programs.

In layman's terms, Miller tells us that a child needs to be loved unconditionally--for the unique individual he or she is. If the child at an early and crucial stage does not receive this unconditional love, then there is a likelihood that a narcissistic disorder will result. In other words, a child must develop from infancy a healthy narcissism by seeing an acceptance of his or her own image reflected in the mother's, or primary caretaker's, eyes. If the child sees nothing of him or herself reflected, but sees only what the care giver wants that child to be, for example a reflection of the mother's own narcissistic needs, then the child may not develop an inner sense of self, but rather will do everything possible to please the mother by fulfilling the mother's needs and expectations.

Miller writes about this condition in The Drama of the Gifted Child (originally published as Das Drama des begabten Kindes, 1979):

   "Quite often we are faced here
   with gifted patients who have been
   praised and admired for their talents
   and their achievements....
   According to prevailing, general
   attitudes, these people--the pride
   of their parents--should have had a
   strong and stable sense of self-assurance.
   But exactly the opposite is the
   case. In everything they undertake
   they do well and often excellency;
   they are admired and envied; they
   are successful whenever they care to
   be--but all to no avail. Behind all
   this lurks depression, the feeling of
   emptiness and self-alienation, and a
   sense that their life has no meaning.
   These dark feelings will come to the
   fore as soon as the drug of grandiosity
   fails, as soon as they are not 'on
   top,' not definitely the 'superstar,'
   or whenever they suddenly get the
   feeling they failed to live up to
   some ideal image and measure they
   feel they must adhere to. Then they
   are plagued by anxiety or deep feelings
   of guilt or shame." (1)

The child has learned to equate love and acceptance with fulfilling the parent's expectations of achievement. Often, this means overachieving in life. Obviously, this does not mean all people who have significant professional accomplishment to their credit were children who have been emotionally abused. The difference is that the narcissistically disturbed, like the miser who never has enough money, will never achieve enough. He or she will spend a lifetime chasing a prize that will never be found because it was never there to begin with--the unqualified love of the mother or father for the essential individual child. Miller describes this state as follows:

   The parents have found in their
   child's "false self" the confirmation
   they were looking for, a substitute
   for their own missing structures; the
   child, who has been unable to build
   up his own structures, is first consciously
   and then unconsciously ...
   dependent on his parents. He cannot
   rely on his own emotions, has
   not come to experience them
   through trial and error, has no sense
   of his own real needs, and is alienated
   from himself to the highest
   degree. …