A friend from Iran recently saw my TED talk and asked an interesting question. (Note to reader: if you’re curious, just Google Doug Goodkin TEDx talk). She asked me to explain more about what I meant when I said that music gives power. Here’s what I wrote:
Power is the ability to have some measure of control over your life. When you feel powerless, it means someone else is making decisions that affect you or that you don't know how to manage something in your life or you don't have enough knowledge or information to make something work for you— like when my computer won't respond when I push a button!!!
Music will not give you political power (though it can give you a voice to speak up to people in power), but it can give you a spiritual power and a way to survive feeling powerless politically. That's how black folks survived the brutality of 400 years of slavery. The world is vibration and music is vibration and working directly with vibration gives you a connection to the world and the ability to shape and give form to things. Life may be brutal, but music is a place where you find shelter from its storms.
Power is about control and the power to control the sounds you make on an instrument is literally in your hands. The power to shape vowels and consonants to sing with good tone and force, the power to coordinate your limbs and muscles into a coherent rather than random physical expression is a power open to you regardless of gender, race, class, religion and so on. Even if you’re disabled, you have this possibility— the numerous blind musicians, people dancing in wheelchairs, one severely-impaired girl connected to a computer who could generate sounds raising her eyebrow.
All that’s needed is intention and guidance. By committing yourself to practice and studying music to deepen your understanding, you gain the power to play, sing and dance better, to understand how to improvise in this style or compose with these chords or choreograph a dance that makes sense. You have the power to shape your expression. And you can see—and hear—the results of your efforts. The more you practice, the better you get, The more you study, the more you understand. That’s powerful.
So if I'm feeling happy or sad or bored or confused or angry. I have the power to express those feelings or change them by sitting down at the piano. If I need jazz, I can play jazz. If I need Bach, I can read and play Bach. If I need sounds that no one has made before, I can put my fingers down on any keys and begin to improvise and follow my thoughts and feelings. I have the power to name, own and express my feelings and thus, I'm not at their mercy.
People who don't have this power—which can also be found in writing poetry or prose or stories, in painting, sculpture, weaving, in cooking, in gardening, in hiking and connecting with the natural world, in dance, in drama, in gymnastics, in meditation— are at the mercy of their feelings and whatever life hands them. If they don't have the inside power to feel or create beauty, if they can't feel their worth as a human being or unlock their power to fully live and love life, then they start to use their outside power to dominate, hurt or control others. They can do it with words, always criticizing and insulting, with money, using wealth to inflate their status, with physical force or look to machines to extend their power— guns, bombs and beyond.
And that's the story of the world in a nutshell. So if we want a better world, it has to start with the children and we have to help them develop the skills and habits to create their own self-power. Children in particular feel powerless because they're smaller, just beginning to discover the power of language and reading and writing and numbers, at the mercy of their parents for food, shelter and bedtimes. That's why they love super-heroes and love the fantasy play of them being big, strong and invincible. That's fine, but meanwhile, they need to develop the discipline to craft their own sense of mastery in things. Music, of course, is just one of those things, but in my mind, one of the most powerful because it combines intellectual mastery with physical mastery with emotional expression and spiritual connection.
Make sense? Now I’m off to practice the piano.