The Pianist’s Reflections
Emotions are an essential aspect of our basic humanity. But when they are out of balance they can become dangerous, with the potential to leave us feeling shipwrecked and adrift.
The Problem for Pianists
Of course this is true for everyone – but for piano players (and for musicians and performers in general) there can be some additional challenges, and the swing from over-excitement to terrible disappointment and back can become our daily emotional currency:
- We are exposed – even for hours on end – to powerful and profound emotions, communicated wordlessly by some of the most creative people in history
- To play well we must engage with our own emotions, those of the composer, and in performance with those of our audiences
- We work often in solitude, with few alternative emotional outlets other than our musical expression
- The touring of the concert pianist, and the long (often antisocial) hours of the piano teacher can put additional strain on our physical and social wellbeing
- The piano world is a hyper-competitive one (often in my view, destructively so) leaving many players with low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and a crippling sense of failure
We contend with all these issues as an added factor on our journey through life, which of course includes the same emotional challenges in our personal lives, family, security, and health that everyone else has to cope with.
It is little wonder that so many pianists sustain significant emotional damage and suffer from mental health problems.
A recent survey by The Stage reported 7 out of 10 musicians report mental health problems, while a study conducted in Australia by Entertainment Assist found that musicians are up to ten times more likely to have mental health problems than the general population.
What we need is “emotional wisdom” – the self-awareness that helps us keep our emotions in check, balanced and healthy.
In their book Emotional Wisdom  Daoist Master Mantak Chia and co-author Dena Saxer explain:
“Why do we have emotions in the first place? Many of us experience them as a disturbance, something out of our control, but they’re not simply a thorn in our side. They are natural energy responses to what we experience through our senses. They’re vital messages from our higher self to our personality or body.”
It is in our thoughts that we process, interpret and respond to our emotions – and the stronger the emotion, the more powerful the impulse to act out our feelings.
Emotional Wisdom begins by cultivating a thoughtful response to the signals our emotions send us. We mustn’t act on emotion without first reflecting on the wisest path. One of the ancient Daoist texts puts it like this: 
“Allow things to happen rather than trying to force things to go your way. If you live a life of moderation and contentment, you won’t feel overexcited when things work out for your benefit, or be terribly disappointed when things don’t work out.”
Looking deeper, we discover that our emotions are a subjective response, clouding our objectivity. An “emotional response” to any situation precludes impartiality, so preventing us from seeing things as they really are.
Another Daoist classic states: 
“Feelings are nature acting out externally. Sages nurture them before they have acted out, so they are able to harmonise their feelings to all things, unemotionally, going through it all without possessiveness, getting involved without being swept away.”
This isn’t to say we should try to replace emotion with intellectualism. Rather we should continually strive for a healthy balance.
In our search for balance and stability, I believe that we should also consider our physical health, and the two-way impact this has on our emotional state.
To do this, I find it both interesting and helpful to refer to the ancient Five Element theory which underpins Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The “elements” here are general characteristics, or patterns of energy, rather than the physical elements used to suggest and depict them. Each of the five is seen to have an influence over the others in terms of generation or control. For example, Water generates Wood, which in turn feeds (generates) Fire. On the other hand, Water controls Fire, which in turn controls Metal.
These relationship are profound in themselves; even more so once we factor in the various associations made with each of the five, which include our five major physical organs, and the “five emotions”. Thus a tangible connection can be traced between our emotional world and physical health, and the cycles of generation and control can be used to promote natural healing and wellness.
Five Element theory takes in many other associations too, including different times of day, seasons, climates, and foods. TCM practitioners consider how deficiencies or excess of one elemental energy exhibited in the patient might be observed and addressed, primarily using diet, herbs, acupuncture and qigong.
Addressing the Physical
So if our emotions are out of balance, we should consider whether there are physical conditions underlying our feelings. If so, then addressing the physical issue might provide a helpful route back to a healthy emotional balance.
Similarly, our emotional state can have a huge impact on other aspects of our health. But this is not simply a case of linear cause and effect; TCM sees a more nuanced cyclic relationship at work. A wonderful website for exploring this idea further is Chinese Medicine Living, where we read:
“Feeling joy, sadness and anger are all perfectly normal experiences we have in our day to day lives. It is when these emotions become excessive, or are repressed and turned inward that they can become pathological and cause disease.
“The belief is that balancing the organ associated with the emotion will balance the emotion. Sometimes the organ is out of balance and produces the emotional imbalance. But sometimes the emotional imbalance can produce the organ imbalance…”
In Western medicine this inter-relationship of physical and mental health, body and emotion, is increasingly understood – and with all the same implications for care.
Problems traditionally regarded as emotional issues or mental health concerns are in many cases now understood to be chemical in nature, corrected by drugs such as anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. These are medications which fundamentally address our physical state, in contrast to (but very often alongside) counselling or hypnotherapy.
The difference here is that these medications tend to be prescribed reactively once an emotional state has already taken control. The use of diet, acupuncture and qigong practice are more often preventative, helping and enabling us to develop emotional balance before we have already become overwhelmed by our feelings.
Alongside these strategies, there are many common sense and practical things that we can all do daily in order to balance our emotional state …
Strategies for Balancing our Emotions
Here are some suggestions I have drawn together with the help of Louise Eales RMN, who is a clinical specialist in mental health care, and has as my wife often advised me to employ these strategies myself! I hope that they prove helpful to you too …
Focus on your breath through the day and watch out for signals which might tell you about your stress level. If you notice yourself holding your breath, breathing erratically or sighing often, then consciously take a few calm, deep breaths.
Challenge the thoughts you have and question whether they are rational or emotional in origin. Recognising the times when our emotions take charge is a crucial part of learning to be more wise. But beware: Don’t Overthink things!
Spend time doing absolutely nothing. Let your mind wander freely. Just as sediment settles in water, so too our emotions will return to equilibrium if we find time away from the music and situations which stir them so. This exercise might help you.
Try to establish regular pattern of sleep, and aim for around 8 hours a night (as an adult). If you find it hard to sleep at all – or if you find that you need excessively more sleep than usual – consult a doctor.
Practice mindfulness, meditation, yoga and/or Qigong. These are all effective antidotes to emotional imbalance; decide which will be the right fit for you.
Focus on the Physical:
Control of diet, fitness, breathing, and personal health can all provide a balance to excessive emotional energy.
Go for a walk:
There’s little better way to stay fit and help with your emotional life than going for regular walks. In winter try to do this at the warmest and sunniest point of the day – in the summer months, a better time to walk is in the early morning, and around sunset.
Cultivate open, honest friendships. Cultivate the art of listening to others, as this builds a much stronger foundation of shared trust.Be wise who you share your emotions with, but don’t hide problems from your true friends.
Consider the external stimulation that you receive through entertainment. If we are already experiencing an imbalance, it is best not to further feed it!
It is well known that coffee promotes anxiety, while alcohol feeds a mood of depression in some. This isn’t to say they are completely off limits; simply that we should be careful and measure the impact that artificial stimulants have.
In any situation, find something to be thankful for. What do you like about your surroundings? When you look back in the future, are there any aspects of today that you will enjoy the memory of?
Make peace with yourself:
Don’t dwell on your mistakes and failures. We all make mistakes, and take wrong turns. It is important to learn from them, and the first step to doing this effectively is to forgive yourself. Only then can you reflect objectively, and move on.
It is ultimately up to you how you think, feel, and respond in life. You can take back control.
When to Seek Help
The advice given above will, I hope be helpful to pianists who experience mood swings, and who sometimes struggle with finding equilibrium in the context of daily living and music making. However, when emotions become more seriously out of balance it is essential to seek professional help from a doctor, counsellor or qualified adviser.
NHS Choices provide this handy tool which takes just a minute of your time, and will provide an initial assessment of whether you may be suffering with depression:
 Mantak Chia & Dena Saxer: Emotional Wisdom: Daily Tools for Transforming Anger, Depression and Fear (New World Library, 2009, page 3).
 Eva Wong: Being Taoist (Shambhala, 2015, page 71). Chapter 6 of this excellent anthology, entitled Healthy Attitude, Healthy Lifestyle is a particular highlight of the book.
 quoted from Anthology on the Cultivation of Realization, translated by Thomas Cleary in his anthology Taoist Mediation (Shambhala, 2000, p26).