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the orchestra world

a confessional

As I think back to last year at this time, I realize that the pandemic was not even on my personal radar (I gave up most news consumption via radio or television in 2016). The orchestra was playing a Classical subscription concert this weekend, with Augustin Hadelich playing (god-like) the Paganini First Violin Concerto. Lots of chamber music activities were afoot: the Arnica Quartet was rehearsing a quartet and guitar program, 45th Parallel was rehearsing an all-Nordic program. I was having evenings out at local breweries with friends. Life was pretty good.

Then everything changed.

I don’t have to tell anyone that my professional life was turned upside-down by the lockdown in mid-March. It was, and is tough. But a larger problem is that the changes that have been necessitated by the social-distancing protocols have taken a toll on my mental health. This is a far from unusual situation, but it’s not common to hear about it from people in a public setting. I’ve been pretty open about my battles with clinical depression. With medication, regular exercise, and occasional bouts of talk therapy I’ve been keeping it in bounds.

My self-confidence and self-esteem have taken major hits, however. A lot of this is due to the fact that all of my performances since lockdown have been recorded and, for the most part, archived online.

I’m super self-critical. To a fault. It is a fault of my nature, and I know where it’s coming from, but my strategies to curb this knee-jerk reaction have been less and less successful as time has gone on. This is not a new problem. When I was talking to a friend that I’ve known for over 30 years about pandemic life and my feelings of inadequacy about my musicianship and the technical level of my playing, they said “Your relationship with the viola has always been complicated.” True.

But with things that I’m playing as live or virtual performances staying up on the web essentially forever, this self-criticism has become pathological. I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to be able to perform in small groups or give solo recitals anymore if this keeps up. I don’t actively enjoy performing, and haven’t for quite some time. I want to, but can’t find a way forward to doing so. I enjoy being done with a performance. It’s a relief to just have it done, and with that comes the endorphin rush that most others get from the act of playing and making music together.

I used to love digging into a new piece. I used to love listening to music. I used to love rehearsing with others. Now my first reaction when I learn a new piece is “this is hard, I can’t possibly learn this to the standard expected of me”. And it goes downhill from there. Every act of playing becomes an onerous task, a chore, a thing to be done before I can just sit and do nothing, or ride the bike, or read a book.

I read stuff written by other musicians about how they can’t live their lives without music, and how essential it is to their existences, etc. I feel envious of them. I know that somewhere deep down, I agree with them, but it’s so far removed from my actual experience of playing and performing now that it seems irretrievable.

Part of this has been triggered by a performance I watched of myself last night. It was of a wonderful new piece by a young composer on the rise. And I felt like it was such a profound failure on my part that I couldn’t even look at the screen. I felt like everyone involved knew that it was below par, but was just being too nice to say anything to me about it. My wife said it was wonderful, and I know to trust her judgement, but my brain just wouldn’t let me. I heard from friends that they loved it. But my brain wouldn’t have it.

I don’t know where I go from here. I feel like I’m pretty close to rock bottom. I can’t imagine feeling much worse. I’m writing this to see it on the page and work things out in my head. I’m not writing this so people will say “Oh, Charles, you’re so good and amazing. Yadda, yadda.” I wouldn’t believe it anyway. If I had a clear-cut alternative to what I’m doing now, I would simply quit the viola and never look back. But I don’t. And I don’t really want to quit. But it’s close, I can feel it. I confess.

[note: I showed this to my wife and she said to publish it, so I did.]

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

8 replies on “a confessional”

This was an incredibly courageous post! I’m truly sorry that you’re not doing well with this; I hope you have professionals helping you. I’ve felt some of this depression myself; don’t like it very much. Hugs to you and your dear wife. I am anxious to enjoy future performances of yours, and feel lucky to have met you and enjoyed your work. Be well???

Thank you so much for sharing so openly. I appreciate it and I know it resonates with others too who are feeling similarly. I hear you on the pandemic internet postings…it’s just too brutal…I think the wrong things get emphasized when we’re not playing for people in real life and seeing what really moves them and makes a difference to them. There is so much intangible that we can feel in the moment, and while recorded music can supplement that, it’s like eating just ok sushi which can remind you of the really great sushi you had before. It’s still nice to eat the sushi sometimes, but it wouldn’t give much pleasure if it wasn’t associated with the really good stuff. I won’t say “you’re so good, you’re amazing” since you don’t want that…but I will say that playing with you is so enjoyable, and I always appreciate what you bring in your musicianship both through playing and your comments. I always learn and grow when I get to play with you.

A few years ago I was on the fence about taking a sabbatical and jumping into administration. Sergio Carreño told me to go for it, that you will be ok taking the risk, but regret it if you don’t. Maybe this is me passing it on. You will be ok doing something else and pausing the viola. It is ok to reach out (when you decide what to try) to your networks for opportunities. Your viola playing is amazing and will continue to be because you put in years of work. I took almost 10 mths off from playing and a few weeks of Schradieck got me back for 2017-18. The viola will never leave you nor will music.

COVID could be the time to experiment. Utilize your networks to try new things to see what interests you career wise.

Just a few of my thoughts. Oh, and I will be calling you soon, pick up if you feel inclined:)

Charles, thank you for your courage in expressing this. I have been experiencing much the same thing. My personal flavor of this is the corrosive effect on my playing from loss of conditioning and strength. I can’t seem to find a way to duplicate the effects of a full playing schedule. Applying the standard we use for recordings to what are essentially live performances is brutally painful, and I don’t know how to avoid that, either. You have been my go-to “reality check” colleague/friend for years and I have always been so grateful. (Every player should be so fortunate to have a trusted friend who is such a great musician sitting in the next chair over!) So, sorry, but I’m still going to tell you how wonderful you always sound! Because it’s true!! Let it be a drop in the Sisyphean bucket we all carry in the fight against perfectionism…I think that for so many performing artists, “back to normal” will be much harder and more complicated than we realize…

Hi Charles, Thanks for your honesty. You are definitely not alone, and it was good to read something that echoes a lot of what I have been feeling this year. Is it the video aspect of the work now? The fact that we are not performing regularly? That we are not enjoying the normal, social benefits of the work as normal? That we are from Tacoma? Ha! The videos do indeed feel like a chore, despite the pleasures of seeing colleagues. I , also, have a VERY hard time accepting any of my playing as anywhere near decent. With 20 private students I do have some distraction from the performing and so am thankful for it. But, I have been surprised how difficult it is to feel any kind of normal when performing. I suppose each of us is going through all this with whatever issues we have in our “back pockets” . I wish you well on this bumpy journey, and I will be bumping along that road along side you. Cheers.

What an admirably brave and honest post. I’m sorry you’re going through this. But I’m glad you’re addressing your anxieties instead of denying or covering them up, which I’ve learned the hard way always winds up coming back to bite us later anyway. Most if not all artists — heck, *people* — have feelings like this at times, especially now, with so many of us reeling in the face of so many challenges. When we share them as you have here, we usually find that we’re not alone. Just knowing that helps by itself, and so can the ideas offered by others who’ve gone through similar straits. In summoning the courage to put it out there, you also set an example for the rest of us, and you let others who are dealing with their own issues know that we’re not alone either. So you’re not just helping yourself by sharing — you’re helping others too. Thank you, and bravo, and good luck weathering this storm. It will pass, and you will find a way through it, not necessarily involving your primary passion. Finding other avenues toward self worth to go with your main one can be a good thing too — eggs, baskets, etc.

When thinking about other possibilities, remember what you just demonstrated, again: you’re a good writer. Also a nice, decent, honest, smart, perceptive, thoughtful man people enjoy having in their lives. I know that doesn’t solve the pandemic problems, but I hope it helps a little. You bring a lot to the table just by getting out of bed.

Hi Charles, I am sorry to hear about this struggle that you are having. I sincerely hope that you can hang in there. Please know that there are readers and listeners like me who only wish you the best.

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