I’m back! (sort of)

Yesterday was the first day I got back on the bike (off of the indoor trainer), and it was a glorious day! This is looking west from the Springwater Corridor along the Willamette River.

If all goes as planned, this is my final weekend of convalescence. I’m up to 90 minutes of playing a day now, and well on my way to more than that. My progress over the past week, especially, has verged on the exponential, which is heartening!

Next week, I’ll be playing the first half of the Classical 4 program, which will mean for me that I play two pieces by Lili Boulanger. The Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto (with the fabulous Stephen Hough) is reduced down to six players, and since I’ll be sitting DFL for this concert (orch-dork speak for “Dead F-ing Last”), I’m done for the night. It will be an easy way to come back to work, evaluate the stress level on my body, and then see how I will structure the rest of my return to full-time status.

The next ‘big’ program is Classical 5, which mostly consists of the massive Symphony No. 6 by Gustav Mahler. I’ll need to be careful approaching that week, and be realistic about my energy reserves and the amount of stress I can put on my recovering shoulder muscles. The orchestra is being great about allowing me to come back on my own terms, and would rather I come back slowly than try to come back too fast and miss much more time – which is my sentiment exactly.

It has been such a strange journey these past few months. Normally I get to the end of the summer break and am raring to go into the new season. In this case, I lost nearly three months, and my need for structured time has become only more acute. To say that I’m beyond ready (mentally) to come back is the understatement of the year!

Needless to say, I’ll blog my experience of coming back to work, and hopefully it might help those who suffer similar experiences to have something to compare their experiences to.

the anxious musician


The Seeds of Anxiety

The anxious musician is me. I think this has always been the case. I’ve never felt like I was good enough to be in whatever position I’ve found myself. It began in high school, when I was in youth orchestra, and hadn’t really blossomed as a musician. I saw the ‘cool kids’ that were doing well with the best teachers, and who got all the attention. I knew that I loved music as much as they did. But I was invisible, or nearly so. I didn’t know why, but [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]my brain told me that it was because I wasn’t good enough. Not just as a player, but as a person.[/pullquote] It’s funny, how this early attitude maintains itself. I’ve always felt like some sort of imposter – fearing that someone would unmask me for the pathetic pretender that I felt I actually was.

Environment is Key

What has become clear to me is that it’s all about comfort and support. The best performances I’ve given in my professional career have been in places where I felt a true rapport and sense of camaraderie with my fellow musicians and the audience. [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The worst have come where I’ve felt like I was being judged at every moment, that every phrase contained a crucial moment where I could ruin everything.[/pullquote]

In moments of clarity, I realize that I am qualified to be doing what I’m doing. I understand that mistakes happen, and they are in the past immediately, and what comes next is what matters. Those moments of clarity are fleeting, however. It doesn’t take much to throw an artistic personality off balance. We are trained from the inception of our studies to be critical of our performance. We are warned that if we don’t practice until it is perfect, someone else will. We are subject to intense peer stratification in music school that makes Predator look like Kindergarten Cop. If you are naturally endowed (or skillfully engendered) with a healthy sense of self, you can make it through these trials with most of your faculties intact. If you’re not (my hand raised over here), then it’s a recipe for, if not a steady downward spiral, then periodic downward spikes with some frantic attempts at self-arrest. In my quest for solutions, I’ve found a couple of helpful sources, which, if you’re like me, you might also find of interest.

Brené Brown

Brené Brown is a YouTube TED Talk phenomenon. She has spent much of her professional life researching the mechanics of shame.

Amy Cuddy & Miranda Wilson

More recently, thanks to a recent Facebook post by David Eby, I discovered this article by cellist Miranda Wilson which talks about physical ways of combatting performance anxiety inspired by Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy.

It is a hard battle, and when you find yourself in an uncertain and possibly hostile performance environment, these tools can make all the difference. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Super Bowl Whining?

The following thoughts were posted by violist-composer Kenji Bunch on his Facebook page this morning. They were written in response to his timeline full of classical musicians complaining about the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. I think that what Kenji says is right on point.

For my classical friends who were disappointed/offended/alienated/etc. by Coldplay’s show yesterday, specifically the way the YOLA students were incorporated into it, here are a few thoughts:

1. Commercial music and musicians are with us, not against us. Composers’ royalties are subsidized by their revenue, orchestral seasons are aided by Pops ticket sales, film scores remain an important entry point for many people into our little world. Though their training and techniques may differ from us, musicians working in this field usually like, respect, and admire us “serious” musicians. Why then, do we self-servingly anticipate “classical music’s big moment” at the Super Bowl only to deride the band that graciously created the opportunity and bemoan their misuse of the great maestro Dudamel? Just as we snarkily complain about Taylor Swift’s lack of “real” musical talent, until she donates thousands of dollars to our orchestras. It’s like we want to have our cake and refuse to eat it because we’re gluten free, too.

2. You don’t own your instrument. I mean, of course you probably do own the particular one you use professionally, but my point is this: you represent merely a brief moment in time within the lifespan of your instrument and for the continuum of history in which it travels. You’ve no doubt worked hard for a long time and made many sacrifices for the study of your craft- I have, too- no one denies that. And if you choose to dress up like a footman from Downton Abbey, sit down and read sheet music on a stand when you perform, and include your audience in the experience only by standing up to acknowledge them at the end of said performance when you allow them to applaud your work, that’s fine.

But if a group of young, colorfully outfitted Latino musicians play those same instruments while smiling, dancing, and perform a memorized version of a soaringly orchestrated pop song for millions of viewers worldwide, it’s also fine, and it’s also classical music. And it’s also quite possible they’ve just done more in a few minutes for the future of your instrument than many of us will ever do in our lifetimes.

Are jealousy and bitterness the best way to respond to this notion, or could it be possible that we should simply thank these beautiful kids and the folks who gave them this platform? I dunno.