Language as a Healing Power

Language as a Healing Power

November 17, 2019


I became connected to the Power of Language last spring, performing cello alongside violinist Gabrielle Fischler for 2nd graders at KIPP Leadership Primary. Deeply inspired by the work, I have since joined Lyrica Baroque’s team as the Power of Language Program Manager. I am thrilled to be a part of this meaningful organization and excited to watch it grow.

One of the many reasons I fell in love with this project is that I believe very strongly in the extraordinary healing power of the arts. I also believe, now more than ever, that all children should be receiving some type of emotional education. My drive to advocate for these principals is due in part to a disturbing shift in our society. We are living in a time of skyrocketing depression and suicide rates in children. Schools’ priorities often lie in test scores rather than the well-being of their students, and funding for arts education programs is at an all-time low. At times I have become disheartened by the feeling that arts education and mental health care are at the bottom of our list of priorities. I, along with my Lyrica Baroque colleagues, are fighting for a world in which emotional wellness is valued as a basic human right, and where children are encouraged to explore their inner worlds with joy and spontaneity.

I was very lucky to have been raised in a family that valued the arts, creativity and individual expression. Both my parents are writers and they instilled in me the notion that art is an essential aspect of human existence. In retrospect, I see how special and rare this upbringing was. When I was seven, I heard the cello for the first time and begged my mom for lessons, which she agreed to. I was very self-motivated from the start—I always wanted to practice and was eager to improve as quickly as I could. My need for self-expression was what fueled this drive. Though I seemed like a very happy child, I was struggling with a lot of painful feelings that I didn’t have the tools to express with words, and that I hid from everyone around me. I remember the feeling viscerally when I discovered I could transmit these emotions from my heart into my instrument and out to the world. It gave me some semblance of power, and it made me feel seen. When I performed, I felt like I had a voice that mattered, that people heard, and that perhaps might be understood.

The struggle for expression is universal, common to children and adults in one way or another. None of us is born with an innate ability to perfectly vocalize our feelings to the outside world. This is partially due to the fact that it takes a long time to build a vocabulary large enough to approximate the complexities of human emotions. Moreover, feelings are fundamentally non-verbal, and therefore language will always be imperfect. Another huge problem is the constant stream of messages that children receive from the world around them—from parents, teachers, friends, celebrities, the media, etc.—telling them they shouldn’t talk about their feelings. While seemingly harmless and almost universally accepted, phrases like “don’t cry,” “don’t be a baby,” “be a man,” etc., deeply ingrain in children the belief that what’s valued is strength, and that strength is the suppression of ‘weak’ emotions.

The Power of Language is a curriculum that sends children a different set of messages. We want to establish in our students the knowledge that everyone experiences the full gamut of human emotions, and that ‘negative’ feelings are not bad, they simply are. Painful emotions are signs that basic human needs like love, closeness, peace, safety, or trust, are not being met. To ignore these deficits can be dangerous. Resilience calls for vulnerability, not suppression.

In our workshops, through a variety of arts-integrated activities, students develop the tools they need to identify, own and express their personal range of emotions. Through interaction with musicians, they start this process at its most basic, non-verbal level. Last spring, I was struck by how easily the vast majority of children, no matter their background, life circumstances, or level of education, could identify whether a piece of music is ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ ‘calm,’ or ‘angry.’ Gradually, we build on this vocabulary and encourage them to relate the feelings in the music to feelings in their own selves. By demonstrating the universality of emotions, children will feel less alone, become better communicators, and develop a greater ability to empathize with others.

Language takes on many forms. While art can often express the amorphous, chaotic world of emotions in its most raw and powerful form, verbal language is important for specific understanding, healing relationships, and personal growth. In my opinion, both are extremely valuable. As an artist and someone personally invested in the progression of mental health care, this project is a wonderful way to connect my two passions. In a macro sense, it is an opportunity to help bridge the seemingly ever-growing divide in our country. In a world where we have become increasingly fixated on and frightened of that which makes us different, The Power of Language encourages children to explore their own beautifully complex emotional landscapes, and to become more aware of the humanness that connects us all.

-Jennie Brent