Music, Depression, Oppression, Salvation

Patient Expert

This is a short piece about music and depression.

A few days ago, the young Korean violinist, Ji-Hae Park, gave a TED Talk, entitled, The Violin and My Long Dark Night of the Soul. Ms Park began with an exuberant rendition of Vivaldi. Then she put down her violin and revealed that she had once suffered from severe depression and had been in total despair.

Depressives, of course, are drawn to music and the arts and literature. The condition informs their work. Writing in the Opinionator blog on the NY Times earlier this year, composer Keeril Makan disclosed that "the act of composing is in a dynamic relationship with my emotional life."

But something else seemed to be going on with Ms Park. "The violin," she related, "which meant everything to me, became a grave burden to me." Ms Park did not elaborate, but we can take an educated guess that the musical prodigy career path that she had been pushed into had taken her to the breaking point. In short, she had been leading someone else's life, probably her parents (her mother was her first teacher).

I received an insight into this a number of years ago when I fell into a conversation with a clinician I met during a social function at a psychiatric conference. This individual counseled students at Juilliard. Juilliard is one of the most demanding environments in the world. Not surprisingly, kids feel the pressure. Some of them feel they have been pushed into pursuing a musical career by their parents and are fearful of letting them down. Parents often think they are doing their children a favor. Something has to give.

Ms Park launched into a mournful rendition of Chopin. Then, as the piano took over, she stated that in the midst of her hardship, it was music that restored her soul. Music can be a turning point in our recovery. In Darkness Visible, William Styron wrote how he was able to reconnect with memories of joy in his life when he heard the "sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody." The sound, he wrote, "pierced my heart like a dagger."

Music has that kind of effect. Ms Park tucked her violin back under her chin and resumed the Chopin. Words cannot describe it. That is the beauty of music - in your own internal communication with your psyche, words do not get in the way.

So here we have two faces of music: the oppressive force of other people's expectations vs the emotional life-blood that held out the hope of healing. It turned out that Ms Park shifted the orientation of her career from strictly classical to one that reached out to a wider audience. This proved to be her joy and salvation. "Play your life," she urged as she laid into a rocking version of Handel.

For how music helps in my own recovery, please check out: My Latest Didgeridoo Experience.