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.]