Throughout my life, I have dealt with anxiety on a daily basis. Even as a small child, I remember having anxiety attacks and being afraid of social interaction. Finally in 2011, I was diagnosed with both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder and subsequently prescribed medication. I have had my ups-and-downs over the past several years, but in general, I can say that my life is a lot more livable and enjoyable on medication (my wife can attest to this as well). It took my doctors and I a few tries to find the right medication and dosage, but the trial-and-error process was definitely worth it.
The un-medicated years were tough, but I was typically able to conquer my demons. I have always suffered from performance anxiety, and it was definitely very bad at the beginning of my musical career. As a young student in middle school, I would play so softly, because I didn’t want anyone to hear me make a mistake. I really didn’t want anyone to hear me at all. No one really believed that I would be good at music back then, but I worked at it, practiced, didn’t give up, and I gained some confidence along the way. By the time I was in 8th grade and transitioning into high school, I was a decent musician. I wasn’t great, but I had potential, and my teachers began to notice it and started to treat me in a different way. I started to feel like I belonged in band, in the music world, and during high school, I began to break out of my shell. I started playing more confidently, I didn’t shy away from exposed parts or solos, and I let my personality show through my music.
I began to love and enjoy music so much that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it, whether that meant playing or teaching. So, I went to college, and faced a whole new array of obstacles. I’m an anxious person, and college brought a new set of people to face, a new set of rules, a new level of commitment, so I had to adjust. Through hard-work and putting myself out there, I overcame my performance and general anxiety once again. Even though it might have been helpful, I never utilized any psychological tricks during my formative years. If I had a bad performance, I picked myself up and tried again. A combination of practice, a relentless work ethic, and stubbornness helped me achieve my musical goals: getting into grad school, earning my DMA, playing in numerous professional orchestras, winning an orchestral audition, etc.
Needless to say, I have put so much effort into my musical career that it is a part of me, and a very big part of my identity. Music is not only my career, but it is my main interest/hobby. I love it so much that I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to do next. I have gained a lot of confidence through my musical pursuits, and it really transformed me from a shy introvert, to someone that finally felt comfortable in his own skin. My achievements in music became a huge part of my self-worth, the primary part, and I was really happy, because I was succeeding.
This, unfortunately, is never a good thing and turned out to be my fatal flaw. To judge one’s self-worth through achievements is a slippery slope, because these things are so fickle and fleeting. Yes, I should be happy and celebrate my achievements, but this should never solely determine how I or anyone else values themselves as a person, which is what happened with me. Unfortunately, when my injury occurred, and I started to notice issues with my playing that wouldn’t go away, I panicked. Over the course of three years, I tried weird things, constantly changed my embouchure, changed mouthpiece placement, and eventually, I lost the ability to play for a while. When this happened, my life came crashing down. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself, because playing the horn was my world. It’s what I wanted to do with my life, and I had this goal of becoming a college horn professor, and now that I couldn’t play, I didn’t know how to adjust. I put too much value into the wrong things, and I was unable to put my life into the correct perspective when things started to take a turn for the worse.
At first, when the playing injury happened, I was in denial. For a long time, I did not want to confront the fact that I had a problem (several problems), and I kept brushing it/them off to the side. I didn’t think that this could happen to me, so I wouldn’t allow myself to believe that it was that serious. I decided to keep going about my business, and I told myself that things would get better over time. I was also under the impression that I didn’t have time to deal with this injury. There are all of these unwritten rules, and if I wanted to make it, I needed to audition more and win an orchestral job. I didn’t have time to wait and let myself heal properly, because I needed to do all of this stuff to get a job, and if I didn’t get a job in a certain amount of time or before a certain age, I would be deemed a failure, and since my personal identity and self-worth was involved, I felt like a horrible person as well.
This lack of perspective didn’t allow me to listen to my body and ignore outside (and inside) influences or pressures. My embouchure was not ready, but I pushed myself too far, and put too much emphasis on career outcome/goals, which in the end, severely altered my career trajectory. It has taken me 7 years to fully overcome these problems. Just think about that…if I had done the smart thing, maybe just take a few months away from playing, I could have saved myself 7 years of grief, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog right now.
Of course, if I’m trying to blame the system or the “rules” for my problems, then I’m lying to myself. Even though things need to change, we can’t make excuses for ourselves. We are the ones that have to take action, and I was unable to be truthful to myself and others. When my injury happened, I was afraid, so I didn’t accept it. When my career wasn’t going in the right direction, I was afraid, so I became more of an introvert and stopped trying. Instead of being happy for others and trying to emulate them in order to find similar success, I was angry. Angry at them for succeeding, angry at the system for not giving me a chance, and angry at myself for a multitude of things. Like I’ve stated in other posts, I was severely depressed, and for those of you that have dealt with depression, it is a mental disorder that is very difficult to overcome, and I suffered with it (as well as my family) for approximately 4 to 5 years.
In the end, I had to make the decision to overcome my depression. It took a while, but one thing that really helped was learning how to develop a positive image of myself. I needed to understand that even though my life had not gone the way I expected, I wasn’t any less of a person because of it. At the time, my self-worth/confidence was basically non-existent, and I had pretty much spent the past five years just continually tearing myself down. I also didn’t listen to others that were trying to support me. My perception of myself was so awful that I couldn’t take any positive comment the correct way. I would twist it in my own mind until it became completely negative and only added to my torment. Of course, my mind still tries to do this on occasion, but I value myself now, so I’m able to brush these negative feelings aside and know that they are untrue.
This is the key: learning how to value yourself as a person. Don’t judge yourself based on career success and/or failure. Careers change, goals change, and life changes constantly. Learn to be comfortable with who you are as a human being and don’t base your self-worth on merits. These things don’t last long, and just like the old adage, “money can’t buy you happiness.” It can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t fill that void. It’s the reason why people with bi-polar disorder will go on shopping sprees and buy lots of things during “high” periods. Everyone gets excited with a new gadget or toy, but what happens when that “newness” fades? There’s no substance within the relationship, which is why I had to make changes in my life.
First, I needed to change my relationship with music. For so long, I had judged myself based on my musical accomplishments that I had lost the joy of making music. I needed to find that happiness again, so I decided to make enjoyment the main reason for continuing to play. I love playing horn, and there is no reason why I should stop. During my struggles, I seriously considered giving it up, because things were just so unpleasant; however, I just couldn’t imagine my life without music, so it took some time, but I figured it out. I’m still practicing a lot and playing at a high level, but I’m not doing it just to make money or to get a job anymore. If I don’t want to play a gig or teach something/someone, I’m not going to do it. Earlier in my career, I wasted too much time worrying about what other people thought, and I took every single job or gig thrown my way. Now, I’m focusing a lot more on what fits best for me and my family, which led to the other big change that I had to make.
If music wan’t going to be the most important thing in my life, then something had to take its place. Thankfully, I had something that could and should take its place. The one thing that helped me successfully overcome my depression was my family. At first, when my depression began, I felt like a failure, because I was unable to provide for my family. I had spent 10 years in college, and I had just graduated, so I was supposed to start making the big bucks. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and I was extremely hard on myself. After wallowing in my own self-pity for a while, I finally realized that these individuals, my wife and kids, didn’t care about these things that I was constantly worrying about. They loved me and valued me for who I was as a person, and they didn’t care what job I had as long as I was present. This really helped me to develop a new sense of self-worth, and I began to realize myself that my job nor my career mattered as much as I thought it did. I had a great deal to be happy about. I was able to spend a lot of time with my kids and enjoy watching them grow up, and I was still able to teach and make a difference in people’s lives.
Even though I’m still searching for break in my career, I’m not discouraged, because now I have the proper mindset. I have a job that allows me to help provide for my family, but it stills gives me the time and opportunity to pursue my real interests. I’m still teaching my college students and private students, and I’m also trying to create my own opportunities by composing and forming groups to perform my music. It’s tough and a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I’m also still able to spend time with my family, which is super important.
In the end, I think it really is just about having the right mindset and keeping the important things in perspective. Hopefully, I can continue to keep my life in the correct perspective and not let my career pursuits dictate all aspects of my life as it once did.