Gabrielle Fischler, Power of Language Director & Violinist
Jennie Brent, Power of Language Program Manager & Cellist
Benjamin Atherholt, Power of Language Music Coordinator & Composer
The following is an excerpt from an in-depth conversation with The Power of Language team where we discuss how we use the Yale University’s Mood Meter in conjunction with the musical voices of Copland, Pachelbel, Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Schubert, Wieniawski, and others, in order to help students identify and process their emotions. Thank you to Benjamin Atherholt for arranging these composers’ works so beautifully. We hope that this will provide you with a deeper understanding of why we are committed to creating a safe space for students where joyful learning is possible through our Power of Language program.
J: What is the mood meter and how do Ben’s arrangements work with it?
G: The mood meter was created by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. It’s an app that helps you navigate how you’re feeling. The idea is that if you can process and become aware of how you’re feeling, you can become more in control of your emotions. If you are experiencing painful emotions, you can learn coping skills to manage them. If you are feeling pleasant emotions, you can learn how to nurture and cultivate them. The mood meter categorizes emotions into color blocks: yellow is high energy, comfortable emotions (joyful, excited, confident, etc.), red is high energy, uncomfortable emotions (angry, frightened, shocked, etc.), blue is low energy, uncomfortable emotions (sad, lonely, worried, etc.), and green is low energy, comfortable emotions (calm, peaceful, safe, etc.). As a team, we chose excerpts from classical music works that fit into these color worlds and Ben arranged them for violin and cello. This is how we categorize emotions for students. In our workshops, students learn to identify these emotions in their bodies and to articulate them with their words, by first identifying them in the music. “High energy” and “low energy” can be associated with any emotion, so they are easy to identify. “Comfortable” and “uncomfortable” emotions are also pretty easy to identify. We have decided to use the words “comfortable” and “uncomfortable” rather than “positive” and “negative,” which have connotations. As a society, we are taught from a young age that painful emotions are bad or negative—that we cannot and should not feel them—that we should just shove them under the rug. This idea is especially ingrained in school, where kids spend most of their time.
J: I think this is also connected to the whole concept of being “well behaved.” What does that mean? To be “well behaved” means that you’re always polite, you’re always obedient, you’re always complying with what other people want. That if you have sadness or anger, or you feel pain because of something at home or something at school, you should not show it. That’s what it means to be “well behaved.”
G: Right. And music is a place where you don’t have to behave in that regard, which is why it feels like a safe space for so many of us. A lot of people think that classical music is only calm, but that’s not what it is at all. It’s a genre that expresses every emotion under the sun. As a musician and a listener, it’s a place where we are encouraged to express all of those emotions—emotions that we’re “not supposed” to be expressing in other places.
J: How do the Power of Language musical arrangements help to create a safe space for students in the classroom and what does a safe space mean to you?
B: I love that live music is a part of POL. When you hear live music, there are vibrations that soothe you, and that allows you to really listen. You’re hearing the vibrations in a way that relaxes you.
J: I actually never thought about that until you talked about it a few weeks ago, but it’s so true.
B: It’s not the same as on a CD or a computer—you hear music in a very different way.
J: Is this something you think about because you remember it from when you were a kid?
B: Yes! The first time I heard the Rite of Spring was at a concert hall where you can sit above the orchestra. I remember that I had just started to play bassoon- I could maybe play a scale or something. The bassoon solo was fantastic, but I didn’t really know much yet. What I was really impressed by was the percussion because I could really feel it. I could feel it when it got louder, and I could feel it in my feet. So I think that’s where that idea came from.
J: And vibrations in general are really healing.
B: There’s a trend right now where when people hear “classical music” or “strings,” they immediately think “relax,” or “calm.” We’re not only presenting calm, relaxing music with these arrangements, but they do create space. That’s why it’s so different from recorded music.
G: And with singing, you can feel the vibrations in your throat. The second main feature of live music is actually seeing it.
J: There’s a person right there in front of you, so you’re connecting with actual humans.
G: Right. As musicians, if the students see us and form a personal connection with us, they’ll also have more of a personal connection to what we are creating.
J: What do you think is so important about taking time to just listen?
B: I think creating a safe space means creating a space where you can just be in that moment. Kids take on so much and we learn from such a young age to not take time for ourselves.
G: We’re taught that since birth, literally.
B: Yeah. So taking time to be in the moment is important, and I think that’s what these arrangements do.
J: When we talk about music as a safe space in which we are just listening and not supposed to have an opinion, I think it comes down to right brain vs. left brain. The left brain is our analytical side—it has to do with words and logic and judgment. The right brain is our intuitive, creative side—it is connected to flow and feeling. To me, that’s one of the most special parts about music—that there are no words. I think it is a form of connection that doesn’t require you to analyze or judge or use words in any way. If you’re really connected to it, you’re just feeling and you’re not thinking, which I think is one of the most important parts.
G: Yes. And it can inspire thought.
J: For sure. But I do think it’s super important, because how often are we encouraged to actually stop thinking throughout the day? I think it’s amazing that now there are actually times in school where students are encouraged to just sit and not think, not judge, not analyze.
G: Like meditation.
B: I think some of my best thoughts have come when I’ve stopped thinking.