Music and the Secret to Freedom through Suffering

In answer to my quest for self-expression through music, my son gave me a music lesson that I am eagerly looking forward to trying.

I had always been caught in the catch-22 of wanting to play music expressively yet not having the technical skills perfected enough to be able to put expression into it. I was acutely aware of the fact that in order to “lose myself” in the music, I had to play well enough that I didn’t need to think about what I was doing as I was playing it. It wasn’t that I felt I had to play perfectly because of some perfectionist impulse. It was that my imperfect playing forced me to hyperreflect on how I was doing and what I was doing so that my attention to the technical side prevented spontaneous expression from taking place.

I explained to my son (the musician) that the way of playing that master jazz pianist Bill Evans suggests is not to approximate how the piece is supposed to sound but to play one part of it and play it on a simple level at first, playing your best at that level and gradually adding more aspects or parts to the piece as my skills are built.

While this way of playing allowed me to avoid hyperreflecting there was still something fundamentally and deeply unsatisfying about it. When a feeling deep inside seeks expression through music it needs a vehicle for that expression. Playing at a simple level is not a big enough vehicle for the emotion that is seeking expression to come through it.

He told me this is not the only way. There is another way to play music. There is a way to learn to be a child again. “Play a certain scale, only the notes within that octave. Pretend you’re a child, that you don’t know anything about music,” he said to me. “You’re experimenting and you want to see how much you can get out of this,” he said. “What can you focus on?” I suggested only playing chords, and I did that. Then I played only two notes or only staccato or only a trill. He kept asking me to find a different focus and I had to keep thinking of new ways of experimenting each time.

He called this meta-thinking about playing. He said I might try to play with my knuckles even or try to play only on white notes and then only on black notes. I could do the same with rhythm, counting “one and two and three and four” or counting “and two and three and four” – leaving out the “one.”

The idea is to make a limitation or box for myself and only play within that box, and see how much I can get out of it.

In the process of getting this lesson I received much more that I bargained for. Besides gaining a tool for self-expression in music it opened my eyes to discover a new meaning to the freedom gained through suffering.

Let’s start with a few definitions. For Frankl freedom in the higher human sense is defined as “freedom to” rather than “freedom from.” The need to explain this has become clear to me whenever I hear objections to the possibility of finding meaning in suffering. Their protest is based on their perception that we are limited, sometimes very limited they emphasize, in our choices.

For Frankl we are always limited. We are not free from conditions. Yet our limitations provide the framework for our freedom, just as the ground beneath our feet allows us to push off of it and walk.

Another definition to put in place is “suffering.” Frankl sees suffering as a condition of life that cannot be avoided. Moreover, suffering is a personal experience. There is a basic suffering in the human condition, which he calls the tension between what is and what ought to be. Therefore I would say we suffer when we feel our limitations and wish to stretch them.

And stretching is exactly what we do when we discover meaning in a suffering situation.

Let us go back and examine the music lesson and see how it applies to suffering. In the music lesson I created a box to put myself into and being in that box forced me to see “how much I could get out of it.”

When someone is suffering they are limited. When they find meaning in their suffering they are discovering how much they can get out of their limitation. The limitation in a way actually provides a framework in which to expand in “freedom to.” The woman without hands expands and extends her abilities and learns to use her toes as other people use their fingers. The blind person develops an acute sense of hearing and of sensing objects that are in front of him.

Our sufferings and our limitations are a springboard for our freedom. The boxes we put ourselves into and the boxes we find ourselves in do not have to confine us. They provide a framework for expansion. Just how much can we expand from within our boxes? Experiment and find out.

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