Do emotional regulation skills have a place in teaching music?

June 16, 2021, 11:50 AM · I’ve become fascinated by a little-used word in my vocabulary: "accord." When most people think of "accord" they think of being in agreement, or an official political agreement, or doing something out of one’s own will. A lesser-used definition is "balanced interrelationship, harmony." Based on those definitions, a life that is "in accord" is a life lived at peace with oneself and with the people around you. It is a life lived in harmony. But how do we get there? What is needed to live in accord? And what does this have to do with music?

Emotional regulation is key to living in harmony with yourself and with others. "Emotional regulation," as defined by Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is most simply defined as "being able to handle our emotions in helpful ways." Ok, cool, I agree. Knowing how to handle my emotions in helpful ways is a good thing for my life overall. But what does this have to do with music?

emojis emotional regulation

My own training as a music teacher did not deal with "emotional regulation." When I first started teaching, I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully, my last high school teacher invited me to be her studio assistant. She let me be a "practice partner" at summer camp, studio class assistant and group class teacher. She eventually sent me students when her studio was full. Since then I've studied different teachers and their methods, read lots of books, and taught classes, camps, private lessons, etc. I even earned two collegiate degrees. I received a lot of great training on how to teach, on what to teach, communication, studio policies and more.

But in all that time, I never encountered any training on how to help students navigate their own emotions, or even my emotions as the teacher!

Several years ago, I started looking into gaining better emotional and mental health, for personal reasons. As I learned about "emotional regulation," I began wondering if this was a key ingredient, and if it was the thing that was missing from my teaching. I had a few students struggling to engage in practice and in lessons, due to life events and the emotional trials of growing up. I couldn't figure out how to "reach" these students. Was learning to model "emotional regulation" something I needed to add to my teaching, so that these students could get more out of our time together? Was my overall lack of training in emotions and mental health hurting me and my students?

The COVID-19 pandemic made it even more clear. During that time, my lessons were moved from in-person to all-virtual. Like many, my own mental health nose-dived, and all my students crashed into the wall of virtual learning. We were all "emotionally dys-regulated" - the mood swings were dramatic. For me, this was concrete proof that emotional regulation skills needed to become part of my teaching. Otherwise, my students and I were not going to make it to the end of the school year.

Here are some of the things I did, to help with "emotional regulation," among my students and myself during the pandemic:

The difficulties of the last year prompted me to start seriously researching emotional intelligence. There is plenty of information out there about emotional intelligence and emotional regulation skills, but I am still looking for how private music teachers can incorporate these skills into our teaching. I don’t claim to be an expert in this topic, but I’m going to be writing about it until someone comes along with the books, trainings, seminars, or presentations that I wish I could read right now.

If you or someone you know are more experienced in this field please leave a comment. I'd love to talk!

Replies

June 16, 2021 at 05:56 PM · Caitlin: Very, very challenging topic.

As a clinical psychologist for over 50 years, I don't have to tell you that this is a topic of immense complexity for which no one has the final answer. And one never stops learning. And no matter what psychological "categories" we may put people in, there is no such thing as a standard human being.

Sure, I'd be happy to touch base with you at some point if that works. In any case, your openness to self-reflection and to new ideas as you work with people are definite advantages. So, keep up the good work.

Cheers,

Sandy

PS. I have a ready-made strategy on how to use a particularly simple analysis of the microstructure of the 1st movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto to teach relaxed breathing.

June 17, 2021 at 12:00 AM · Greetings,

these are important and deep questions you are asking (as always, you have the privilege of assistance from Sander Marcus).

After many years of work in Alexander Technique I have actually found this to be one of the most efficient means of being in the present and not being subjected to the whims of moods during performance.

Another incredibly useful concept is that of ‘Flow’ so if you read the seminal work on that it may help. if you haven’t already, sorry. A Flow state is arguably the most satisfying experience eon ecan have and it may well correlate to true happiness. Such being the case, a successful person has learnt to have as many flow experiences as possible on a daily basis and, very importantly, has it integrated them into a life Goal that can successfully integrate these Flow experiences. Ad hoc , random Flow experiences have less value if ones overall Goal in life has not even been considered. this latter failing is very close to the norm these days.

I think one of the ways to help Ssself regulate what they do is through things like the inner game and the modern concept of coaching which I discuss in brief below.

The violin is such a complex thing to master (some have argues it the single most complex physical human endeavor) that teachers in general , perhaps by default, perhaps by necessity and time restraints, focus on the external aspects of playing and how we are going to get studnets to do it correctly.

The drawback to this approach -can- be that we forget a human being has one of the most unique and wonderful abilities: the ability to self correct through awareness.

Although the original credit for this idea may actually belong to Socrates, this point was first really brought to the fore by Timothy Gallwey in the 70s when he wrote the Inner Game of Tennis. This served to clarify the idea that inner led skill development is superior to externally driven. (There is a close connection with NLP although I am somewhat dubious about many aspects of this particular field),This did not presuppose that teachers and coache sin generla were useless, but rather they coul;d change the way they do things to realign what is done in the lesson.

This approach has achieved implementation on a massive scale throughout the sporting world , business and so on. In music, it is not addressed often enough as far as I can see. Interestingly , Dorothy DeLay was a big fan of the Gallwey book and apparently insisted her students read it. I suppose that boosted book sales in the New York area.

The Gallwey work and its appplication in industry swerve dot kickstart the profession of ‘coachin’ as opposed to teachiing. ‘coaching’ is another word violinists tend to throw around inb a very blasé fashion when describing a super violinist who inspires in a master class but seemingly cannot teach the nuts and bolts on a daily level. I think we use this term far too carelessly because, to be honest , this is true of somewhere around 90% of violin teachers. As simon Fischer mentioned on a recent podcast, so many violin lessons are music lessons , rather than violin lessons.

Coaching itself is diametrically opposed to the concept of teaching although the end goals are the same. In a nutshell it could be called ‘Emotiona Intelligence in action’ or helping individuals to take responsibility for their own development. The field has thrown up an action framework that has achieved global currency called the GROW model. For a detailed explanation of this I suggest reading Sir John Whitmore’s book ‘Coaching for Performance.’. The GROW model, which is too detailed to be explained here can be of greta assistance to violin teachers in their professional work and life, and once experience and understanding of it has been attained I think it can provide ideas and approach’s on the level of individual students in areas of goal setting, clarifying thing, making a decions to take action and the like. It may well be a very powerful tool in tha armory of a teacher who is, like the writer of this excellent blog, as interested in the inner game of violin playing as the outer one.

Warmest Regards,

Buri

June 17, 2021 at 08:07 AM · A lesson is a meeting of minds..and an exchange of sounds.

Our students do not belong to us, and we are not their therapists (even though the practice of music is highly therapeutic) nor priests nor gurus.

We do not know what kind of week they have had.

We teach best those aspects which we found hardest.

The best clues are their tone, eyes and gestures. Especially all three!

My 2 centimes d'Euro..

June 17, 2021 at 03:28 PM · While a student's emotional regulation skills are largely going to be dependent on their parents, and it would be inappropriate for a teacher to take on the task of doing this kind of parenting work, a teacher who has good awareness and mastery of their own emotions and regulation skills is going to be able to attune better to the student, as well as make appropriate demands of and responses to their students, and that will allow the student a safe space for expressing themselves authentically and feeling the rewards of gaining mastery in a difficult task like learning an instrument. That mastery will then help the student internalize the idea that they can go after the things they want.

So while the teacher can't do the parenting work, they can act as an ally of the student and allow the student to be seen. I'm not a teacher, but the practice of meditation has been very helpful for me, and I have found attachment theory to be an incredibly helpful way of thinking about how I and others relate and emotionally regulate, and it has helped me in relating to others and myself in a less reactive way without overstepping boundaries and trying to manage others' emotions.

June 17, 2021 at 05:17 PM · I think the issue here is boundaries really. What fits the music lesson context? You can teach an awake learner by modeling, and you can help a lot by how you frame the visibility you give to the student. Probably you can even teach self-regulation skills in the context of motivating practice or dealing with emotions that get in the way of learning, but here you have to worry about how much time to spend on it, and of course some attention might be given to the question of whether what worked for you gets over the bar of universal applicability for being passed on as a teacher.

As an aside on the subject of emotional self-regulation I'd suggest reading up on Emotion Efficacy Therapy simply because it brings together a number of recent frameworks and as a result will serve as a starting window into the current field.

On the subject of motivation I have found the material at Jean Moroney's "Thinking Directions" site to be a unique and useful re-framing of a lot of issues in motivation. Her approach dissolves a lot of conventional dichotomies and keeps things remarkably oriented toward positives without falling into Pollyannaism.

June 17, 2021 at 05:40 PM · I wish Caitlin would have provided a few (well-disguised) examples of the dysregulation she experienced in lessons with her students and how she coped with it. (Are we talking about angry outbursts, uncontrollable crying, excessive demands?) Learning violin requires an unusually high level of self-control and any kid with significant emotion regulation problems probably needs to have those issues addressed before undertaking violin lessons. But kudos to her for her concern for her students' feelings.

June 18, 2021 at 01:53 AM · I agree that emotional self-regulation is an important skill as a teacher and something that is important to model but not necessarily teach directly.

June 18, 2021 at 10:46 AM · @Sandy - I would love to connect or read some of your articles! I'd also be interested in hearing about your relaxed breathing and the Beethoven concerto. I found various phone numbers to contact you on your website but not an email address. Since I'm in the UK, it would be better to communicate electronically at the beginning. Could you point me to where I could find an email address? Otherwise, feel free to contact me! My email is in my bio now.

@Buri, I had not heard of the Whitmore book or the GROW model and so will add them to my reading/research list! Thank you for the suggestion!

@Christian - a good ally to students! Exactly. I agree that parents are the most responsible for helping their child develop their own regulation skills, but I am interested in how teachers can become the best allies/modelers in a lesson, especially when the parent is not able to help their child. Ex: in one lesson, I said to a student, "Uh oh, we have a problem, Houston!" and they melted down to the floor, crying and kicking in front of me and their shocked parent who had no idea what to do. (Turns out they thought I had called them a bad name since I didn't use their given name when speaking to them.) I learned to be more careful with colloquialisms but also learned that this parent had no idea how to help their child calm themself down enough to tell me why they were crying or get back to the lesson. That is why I think having good emotional regulation skills as a teacher and being able to communicate them well is becoming essential. Many parents don't know how to help their students either.

June 18, 2021 at 10:55 AM · @Andres - adding Emotion Efficacy Therapy and Jean Moroney to my research list! I agree, boundaries in a lesson are important. I don't think it is necessary for a private teacher to help a student learn how to deal with serious emotional issues, but instead to navigate the emotions that keep us from learning or being present. I believe that stays within the boundaries of what is acceptable for a music lesson but also helps maximize the learning that happens in the lesson.

@Jocelyn, I mentioned in my earlier comment an example where a student clearly needed more emotional help than I could give them. Throwing oneself on the floor rarely solves any problems! That was an extreme example. The most common ones were students who had been well behaved during in person lessons becoming volatile during the first month of online lessons. Music being thrown, yelling, crying, inability to hold still or engage with me on the screen, etc. As we all adjusted to being online and as I shifted how I started my lessons it slowly got better, but that first month was a real eye-opener. Since none of those behaviors happened while in person, the only thing I can attribute the change to was the sudden shift to being online all the time.

June 18, 2021 at 10:55 AM · @Andres - adding Emotion Efficacy Therapy and Jean Moroney to my research list! I agree, boundaries in a lesson are important. I don't think it is necessary for a private teacher to help a student learn how to deal with serious emotional issues, but instead to navigate the emotions that keep us from learning or being present. I believe that stays within the boundaries of what is acceptable for a music lesson but also helps maximize the learning that happens in the lesson.

@Jocelyn, I mentioned in my earlier comment an example where a student clearly needed more emotional help than I could give them. Throwing oneself on the floor rarely solves any problems! That was an extreme example. The most common ones were students who had been well behaved during in person lessons becoming volatile during the first month of online lessons. Music being thrown, yelling, crying, inability to hold still or engage with me on the screen, etc. As we all adjusted to being online and as I shifted how I started my lessons it slowly got better, but that first month was a real eye-opener. Since none of those behaviors happened while in person, the only thing I can attribute the change to was the sudden shift to being online all the time.

June 18, 2021 at 03:25 PM · "Uh oh, we have a problem, Houston!" is not a phrase (it is not a "colloquialism") that today's children would know. Never having used the child's name in addressing them makes me wonder if you need to look at the kind of impression that you are giving.

I once had a teacher who was a retired elementary teacher. She always addressed me as "sweetie." I thought that was very creepy.

June 18, 2021 at 05:33 PM · Hi Anne - just to clarify, I used this child’s name often and never addressed them as “Houston,” or any other pet name/diminutive, aside from that one instance 4-5 months into us working together. The reaction was surprising to their mother as well, since she was familiar with the phrase too. I have since dropped the phrase from my vocabulary when I teach.

June 18, 2021 at 11:00 PM · This discussion so far assumes that student means "child," and perhaps that's because we adult students are (rightly) treated as a different breed, including the emotional self-regulation that is considered an aspect of maturity. Hopefully my coming from the adult learner perspective can still add something useful, even if just to remind teachers that music itself can be a comforting salve in times of stress. Christian said above that meditation helps him, and my parallel thought is that studying music, and especially how to play, is itself a great form of meditation. When I'm focused on getting exactly the right pitch and tone, when I hear and feel the ring of my favorite D note --my mind is completely clear of everything else...no worries, no troubles, no problems...just a beautiful D from my fingers through the wood and strings and into my ear and mind. So perhaps that aspect of music-making can be pointed out to a child (or an adult) that it is a form of meditation that clears the mind of all troubles and soothes the heart and body.

This meditational aspect of music is something I first became acutely aware of in the years before I decided to become a musician myself. My son was only in Middle School so didn't yet have stupid homework and so I was taking him to concerts at the Yale School of Music usually 5 or more nights a week. As soon as we parked the car and began walking on campus, the gorgeous ornate gothic Old World stone architecture and courtyards was portal to a new world devoid of our problems and stresses of ordinary life. Upon entering the beautiful and quiet concert halls we had a ritual of settling into our audience seats, shedding jackets and hats and quieting the body and mind, slowing our breathing and reading the program with focus and anticipation. Once the lights dimmed and the musicians appeared on stage, our quieted minds were ready for complete focus on the music. These concerts were essential parts of our emotional health and life-education in what would otherwise have been some very trying years.

Then about 6 years ago when I decided to become a musician myself, it didn't take long for me to enjoy using my brain and attention --expanded through the fingertips and ears and really a general "being"-- that was a discovery of a whole new way to learn beyond the study of books that I had always loved. Music both clears the mind and expands the brain into much of the body, perhaps like athleticism might for others (I notice Buri recommends books that allude to sports and athleticism, training and tennis game and coaching, etc).

Summing it all up for the screaming child might be as simple as saying "music makes us feel better." Or "music is our friend through any trouble." "Music makes us better."

June 19, 2021 at 01:13 AM · Will, I tend to think of good music practice as meditative, but I mean specific meditation techniques that I have found in being effective emotional regulation tools, like metta practice, which, once trained, can be deployed whenever - Really what I'm getting at is that these practices are about regulating ourselves, because if we are emotionally disregulated, then we are going to be poorly attuned to someone we are trying to teach or otherwise help, and that collapses the space for a student to be able to be with their emotions.

There are other vipassana techniques I have found helpful that train sensitization to felt emotions in the body, and from an attachment perspective, the work of Daniel P. Brown at Harvard is really exciting. I'm currently wrapping up a week-long meditation retreat, so I'm in the thick of this very thing, as it were.

June 19, 2021 at 07:50 PM · Caitlin, thank you for starting this important discussion! This last year in particular, as we've been given privileged glimpses of students' home lives through the Zoom screen, has given me more context and insight into the wide variety of home environments my students are coming from.

I think prioritizing emotional intelligence and self-awareness in any educational setting is vastly important. After all, as musicians, our ultimate goal is to communicate feelings, emotions, and experiences to the audience, and if we can't identify them for ourselves, how will we possibly convey them to an audience? Giving students a rich emotional vocabulary to apply to both their own feelings and their music is so valuable.

And, on a personal note, when I was recently asking a couple of my students what strategies they would use to help calm their nerves before upcoming performances, they remembered learning box breathing from you at camp last year and it was helpful for them, so thank you!

June 20, 2021 at 02:46 PM · The thing about colloquialisms, and also folk songs, is that a student’s knowledge about such things varies, to the individual. I’ve had quite a few students who’d never heard the American tune “O Susanna” for example, and also younger ones surprised me when they did know certain older-generation songs. And with sayings, if their parents, relatives or friends use a phrase they may know it - or not. I grew up with my elderly grandmother and to this day I have a small repertoire of odd, early 20th-century verbal expressions that pop out: “Oh I’m just tickled to death!” Excuse me, Mrs. Niles?

Students (and parents) can occasionally melt down, to the utter surprise of teacher and possibly themselves. “What did I do!” the teacher wonders. It’s worth asking, but sometimes in those cases, the emotions were simply already running high. It’s not always easy to see or predict all of that, but Caitlin’s idea of being aware of and sensitive to a student’s emotional states and habits, and of having some tools to appropriately handle emotions that pop up during the lesson, is a good one

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