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Rictor Noren
Rictor Noren

Anxiety and the Art of Listening

Understanding anxiety through music.

Living with stress and anxiety can be all-consuming. There’s little that prepares us for the vagaries of the unquiet mind, and it’s this that we’ll explore. There are many ways of addressing anxiety and most are outside of the focus of this discussion.

I’d like to look at how we can use music to mollify our anxiety, or at least describe it. Listening to music can have a salutary effect on the listener if chosen carefully.

It’s important to challenge our script by not returning to our “favorite” songs/pieces, as these can often hold unpleasant memories.

Naturally there are all sorts of music that can lead to a calming of the mind, but for this paper, we’ll focus on a very small corner of the music of Schumann.

In 1838 Robert Schumann wrote his beloved Kinderszenen. This is an enchanting collection of short pieces for the piano that reflect, as its title suggests, “scenes from childhood.”

I would turn the reader’s attention to the first scene, “foreign Lands and People,” in which Schumann paints a winsome picture of gentle understanding through the eyes of a child.

They’re knowing eyes, but a child’s nonetheless. He reminds us that there were (there must have been!) times when our minds were quiet. Schumann allows us to remember, even if, as is well documented, his own life was troubling.

His melodic writing is pure, unencumbered and without guile. “Foreign lands” is quiet and quieting. So too is the final in the series, “The Poet Speaks.”

Whether or not Vladimir Horowitz is your favorite expositor of this work, I encourage my students to witness the 1987 video of Horowitz playing Kinderszenen at the Musikverein in Vienna. The final 30 seconds of the video is a masterclass in the calmness of mind, repose, and dignity. It’s a glimpse into the beauty of an aged man’s countenance at the end of his career, a man who has accomplished everything in music, and has the grace to acknowledge it.

Ironically, Horowitz suffered tremendous gut-wrenching anxiety throughout his career and personal life, and yet presents as a visage of resolve.

In “the poet speaks” there’s no caustic wit, no biting irony, only the freedom from self.

Perhaps the “unexamined life” isn’t worth living, but the “poet” suggests otherwise. For him, it’s the over-examined, or anatomized life that leads to anxiety.

Schumann allows us to be and to reflect, not as a philosopher, but as a child ­– and aren’t the reflections of a child the purest example of self and moment?

Whether or not music dulcifies our anxiety, it can provide a place to put it, a storyboard where ideas are worked out, massaged, and sometimes discarded.

Listen to Schumann’s narrative without prejudice, as a child would, and remember what it was like to hear for the first time.

About the Author
Rictor Noren

Rictor Noren is a violinist and teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and MIT.

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