How Music and Einstein Teach Kids about Energy and Life
The experience of living and learning through the imagination
Music teaches us that there is creative potential in every moment waiting to respond to our energy and imagination. This wonderment is already naturally a part of a young person’s world. My son, when he was younger, used to sit on the couch with two little plastic men or cars, one in each hand, and make all kinds of sounds and “stories” as he called them — creating a vivid world with just those two objects. Through performing music, kids connect to this innate openness, questioning and exploration as it underlines in them the understanding that that there’s much in life that we can feel and experience that isn’t tangibly seen or fully understood. It teaches them to think beyond boundaries, and to recognize firsthand that much of life is still a question mark.
When kids join a choir or band program, or take violin lessons, the music experience influences how they perceive and experience the world. They learn that there are relationships in the space between things, that there is always room to grow, that perseverance is measurable and that energy is a visceral experience. The music and energy moves them into new territory where they experience something beyond where they normally go. Young people connect this experience to life, as music conveys the similar energy to life in so many ways — and they come to understand that life (and music), is always moving, changing, and taking us somewhere.
During the Covid pandemic, this kind of experience is even more precious. Caution and fear has undermined our confidence and obliged us to shut down and protect. Many of us worry and imagine potential harm in the everyday experiences and social interactions that we have with others. Music is the opposite experience, whether we’re learning to play an instrument, performing as an artist, or sitting as a listener and enjoying the live, spontaneous experience inside the moment. Music invites young performers to take a different kind of chance, to take risks, to make blatant mistakes in front of others, and to trust themselves when they’re put on the spot and the moment is now.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how energy is one of the key essences of the music experience. We focus on notes and sounds, but if you think about it, music is primarily energy. I’m amazed that when kids play music in their school band or string orchestra, they don’t seem to hear that it’s out of tune, or that the notes aren’t always right (or even close to right). To them, not much is amiss — it’s exciting and emotionally gratifying to play. But how can kids find joy and excitement in all that noise?
Perhaps it’s because they’re attuned to the energy more than the notes — the majestic and excited energy of the main title to “Star Wars” or the cool and mischievous energy of the theme song to “Mission Impossible” is stronger than the notes themselves — the “imagination” of what the music is supposed to sound like overshadows the reality.
When we see those joyful kids playing music — we get swept up in the energy and emotion of what they are pursuing. Kids are not yet constrained by perfectionism, and performing music harnesses this joy of striving and going with a flow over being conservative and not taking a chance. Over time, their sensitivity for good tone, constant rhythm or listening to the others starts to emerge. And if they’re lucky, they never lose this original energy that swoops and pulsates through the experience.
And so this is how music teaches kids to live life. They experience the visceral experience of emotion, energy and force that connects them to many experiences that are beyond what they might experience or be aware of in their everyday life. They come to understand that there is much to life that’s between things, around things, invisible, and part of the sparking creative process or imagination. This connects their experiences of music to science and the wonderment of finding the answers so many big questions —the energy inside atoms, quantum physics, black holes, galaxy clusters, the expanding universe, and motion that is there supporting and creating life yet not visible, or even all-knowable.
Albert Einstein was passionate about playing the violin. He connected the imagination that he used in his scientific questioning and theorizing to the creative inspiration he felt while playing his violin, particularly Mozart. His second wife, Elsa, said that he often went back and forth between playing music and scribbling notes as he worked though the problems he was exploring in his mind. “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” he declared. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music …” His theory of relativity, and the famous equation E=mc² (energy = mass times the speed of light squared) was brought about his extraordinary curiosity and persistent imagination.
The equation E=mc² is essentially about mass and velocity being interchangeable with energy. As an orchestra and opera conductor, I understand this concept in my own way as I conduct an orchestra and move a mass of sound of varying densities and layers to manipulate thousands of moods of energy. Isaac Newton’s second law of motion (force=mass times acceleration) explores energy as well — again a concept felt so immediately in the performance of music.
Music is a living experience of so many of these scientific principles — power, force, speed, acceleration, density and gravity. Power comes from use of air by the wind players and singers, from bow speed in the strings, from acceleration and deceleration, from purity of intonation; distance between notes creates tension, gravity, density and transparence — all of this is part of the energy of music. Young students learn to ‘hear’ colour, ‘feel’ intensity, ‘see’ rhythm, and ‘understand’ force. They get a visceral appreciation for the unseen elements of life and start to understand each element from a new perspective. In the mathematical flow of breaking down rhythms, students experience fractions in a flowing puzzle of moving energy. At the highest level, math is a beautiful abstract art form, and the patterns of it are felt in the structure and relationships embedded within music.
Young musicians feel a visceral connection to the rhythm, power and vibration that they experience from the inside out. They start to understand what it is to project and to manipulate energy through their experimentations through music. They come to understand that energy is an invisible but tangible force in everything we do in life — as we negotiate relationships with people, manage struggles and tensions, and persevere through failures to find success.
Most importantly, music gives a young person some of their first understandings about how to transcend a common moment — that there is a place that is beyond, that wasn’t planned, or expected. Believe me, children find this place often when they perform music. It doesn’t have to be in a concert. Every time they get together with friends in their school band rehearsal, they are experiencing this unusual experience of riding a wave, finding a groove, getting off track and finding a way back, or the rush of pure excitement and fun.
When we experience the joy of pure creative energy — the kind that takes us on a ride that we didn’t expect — we learn that there is potential waiting in every moment that might take us somewhere unexpected. All of the discipline, hard work and focus we’ve prepared goes into this moment. We start to understand how Einstein found a spark, and why he said:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
What we see is one thing — the realities, knowledge and facts that students come to learn are tangible markers in their development — but through their music, young people start to understand that there is life in the space and relationships between things, there is potential in the invisible, that there is a rhythm of life lying in wait for them to discover it, that there is force, power and energy behind every aspect of life. There is a question mark about what makes up life — a wonderment about where a spark might lie and where a creative flash might come from.
There will be an understanding that life is about the creative energy that’s within all of us, waiting for us to touch upon it’s potential. Whether these are future scientists, financial analysts, journalists, mechanics, doctors or entrepreneurs in the making — to be curious, to ask and answer questions, to experience the potential in their creativity and intellectual thought, waiting to take them somewhere beyond where they’ve been or understood — this is the gift of music (and Einstein’s imagination) for all.