The Pianist’s Emotions

Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes

Emotions are an essential aspect of our basic humanity. But when they are out of balance they can become problematic, 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 performers in general) there can be some additional challenges, and the back-and-forth swing from over-excitement to terrible disappointment can become our daily emotional landscape:

  • We are exposed to powerful and profound emotions, communicated wordlessly by some of the most creative people in history
  • 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 beyond musical expression
  • The touring of the concert pianist, and the long, often antisocial hours of teaching can strain our physical and social wellbeing
  • The piano world can be a hyper-competitive one that leaves many 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, alongside the same emotional challenges that everyone else has to cope with in their personal lives, family, security, and health .

It is little wonder that so many pianists sustain significant emotional damage and suffer from mental health problems. A recent survey by The Stage suggested that seven out of ten musicians report mental health problems, while a study conducted by Entertainment Assist in Australia 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.

Emotional Wisdom

In their book Emotional Wisdom [1], Daoist teachers Mantak Chia and 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. 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: [2]

“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.”

Being Objective

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.

Pianist’s Emotions

Another Daoist classic states: [3]

“Feelings are nature acting out externally. The wise 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.

“Five Emotions”

In our search for this balance and stability, we might 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: Earth, Water, Wood, Metal, Fire.

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 relationships 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 and acupuncturists 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.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing here is that Western Medical science increasingly supports the same physical and emotional links that Five Element theory has proposed for millennia.

In my own experience, I have had five element acupuncture numerous times and over several years, treating such diverse conditions as a wrist injury, insomnia, night sweats and diverticular disease. I have found it effective in all cases, reducing and eliminating physical symptoms.

But here’s the thing: I have also found that these treatments have been in credibly helpful for my emotional wellbeing and mental health, too.

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.

But it can also be a two-way process: our emotional state can have a huge impact on other aspects of our health. This is not simply a case of linear cause and effect or course; TCM sees a more nuanced cyclic relationship at work.

Emma Suttie’s wonderful website Chinese Medicine Living offers plenty of food for thought, allowing us to explore this idea further. We read there:

“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…”

Western Medicine

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 (and sometimes alongside) counselling or hypnotherapy.

The difference is simply that in the West 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 usually preventative, helping and enabling us to develop emotional balance before we have already become overwhelmed by our feelings.

Strategies for Balancing our Emotions

Alongside these strategies, there are many common sense and practical things that we can all do daily in order to balance our emotional state …

Here are some suggestions I have drawn together with the help of Louise Eales RMN, who is a clinical specialist with thirty years experience in mental health care. As my wife of more than three decades, she has also often advised me to employ these strategies myself, and I hope that they prove as helpful to you.

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 cool, early morning, or 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.

Stimulating Emotions:
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.

Practice Gratitude:
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.

The NHS website offers an excellent range of mental health self-assessment tools and advice here, which will help you manage symptoms and identify further support you need.


[1] Mantak Chia & Dena Saxer: Emotional Wisdom: Daily Tools for Transforming Anger, Depression and Fear (New World Library, 2009, page 3)

[2] 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.

[3] quoted from Anthology on the Cultivation of Realization, translated by Thomas Cleary in his anthology Taoist Mediation (Shambhala, 2000, p26).

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.