Conquering the fear-god

When I have placed fear of making a mistake in the god-chair of my psyche, I play quite a lot worse. This is not a surprising or shocking revelation, of course, but because I’ve been playing so much of late, the difference has struck me anew. When I am terrified, my movements are more stilted. When I am afraid of making my entrances in case I make a mistake, and I am more likely to be late on my entrances. It’s harder to get a good sound, because I am more stiff, more tentative, have less flexibility and therefore less control from a technical standpoint. Of course, then a vicious cycle begins in which I fear making mistakes, and then I play worse, and then I make more mistakes, and then I fear them more, etc ad nauseum.

When I was in my first masters program, upon me playing something out of tune during a lesson I was having just a day or two before my recital, my teacher said, “There’s always something ugly.” Because I have an ego-identification with being ugly, incapable, and irresponsible, this went straight in, burning an acid path into my heart. I accepted it as a part of who I am. And my already extant fear of making intonation mistakes got an upgrade and was elevated to punishing-God status. It is very easy to project those judgements externally, and when I am in an internal place of fear, it’s easy to assume that others are feeling that way about me too. And then, every external input gets run through that filter.

Music and the music world can feel so wildly vulnerable, because when you perform you are out in the open, can’t hide. So this issue of mine gets quite a lot of play sometimes.

But music and the music world can also be incredibly healing. I had the exquisitely wonderful experience this weekend of performing in a concert in which the joy of the music, the performers, and the audience was palpable. The sense of connection was loving and vibrant. To be able to do that, to be in the heart of the glorious sound-ocean that is ensemble playing is an honor and a joy.

Prior to that concert I called my boyfriend and said, “Can I make mistakes and still enjoy myself?” In the conversation that ensued, I was able to kick fear back down to a more appropriate position in my internal landscape. And then, not being consumed with fear, my heart was open for more possibilities, and was able to receive the joy that arose during our performance.

Contrary to what that fear-god claims, self-flagellation does not in fact make me a more responsible human being; just a more unhappy one. And unhappiness is not a virtue.

All of this applies in other areas of life too, of course. It’s hard to muster or execute with grace when tied up in chains of terror of being wrong. I am slowly accepting this lesson in my heart, and allowing it to penetrate my feelings and my actions. There’s nothing wrong with fearing being wrong, or being not good enough, etc, etc. But using that fear to build a cage doesn’t help anyone. So, I am working on engaging with the fear from the point of view of discovering whether it has a useful message for which I can thank it and then dismiss it, or whether its aim is merely to reduce, imprison, and punish. Then, I can expand my point of view, open the window, and invite other input.

The value of music, and of being a musician

In my darker moments, sometimes I start thinking that being a professional musician (in the way I am currently doing it) is an inherently selfish act. Why?

Because I love what I do, and I often don’t get paid for doing it (the performing and the practicing).
Because I could be spending that time with my kids, who miss me when I’m gone.
Because I don’t play for an established large symphony, with a salary and benefits, which would help support my family in addition to the teaching I do.
Because there are lots of much better cellists in the world performing the repertoire I’m performing, and doing a better job of it, so really, who does it benefit for me to be inadequately replicating their efforts?
Because music is not important in the way medicine is, or teaching kids in school. It’s a cultural accessory. Should I really be devoting so much of my time and energy to it?

There are other areas of my mind and heart which recognize the fallacies in the statements above. But in a society which is so focused on money, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of thinking that my worth is inextricably tied to my income, and the ways in which I make that income.

Ted, bless his heart, has started referring to my practice as work when he talks to the kids. He has explained that he believes it needs to be perceived as work, just as much as my teaching hours. So, the other day when I said I was going to go practice, he said to the kids, pointedly, “Yes, Mommy is going to go to work.” His support makes me cry tears of joy, and also of grief for the message I have received in so many other ways that what I do is not really that important. My practice hours have always been the schedule item that most easily falls off the schedule, deprioritized in favor of kids’ appointments, family business & logistics, etc. Also, I am a procrastinator, and so there’s the layer of resistance I feel, the tendency I have to fight to want to go to bed or relax when I have time with childcare, instead of practicing. Because of that latter internal struggle, I am even more apt to blame myself, or to view practicing as a luxury, or something that’s not really crucial in the broader picture. Sexism plays a role here, too; this is an inner narrative to which I am sure a lot of women can relate.

I talk to my students sometimes about the role music can play in their lives lifelong, and I believe in what I say. I believe in the curative, inspirational, meditative, restorative, intellectually and emotionally and physically and spiritually impactful and interweaving powers of music. I believe that it expands our minds and hearts and souls, and that a society that does not highly value art and artists is impoverished in important ways. I believe it affects us holistically, that being involved with music is more than receiving and giving pleasure, that it can help us re-join the disparate parts of ourselves. I believe all of that.

And I also believe that my unique voice, my unique combination of training and heart and mind and intention, is important. I believe that I can contribute something important.

I will always have that internal despair that can yell or whisper or sneer that I am a loser and that what I’m doing doesn’t matter. But I do have examples large and small of the ways in which music has changed people’s lives, in the moment or the hour or the forever. And I need to hold onto those.

I’d love to see readers’ comments with your stories of your relationship with music and what it means to you. Let’s add to the cultural narrative in a positive way, in this, a tiny corner of the internet.

Thanks for reading!