Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Sometimes It Takes a Crisis, Part I

Sometimes it takes a crisis to shift one's life in a different direction. For many classical musicians who improvise, it took a crisis to get us started. In this entry I'll start to explain, using my own story as an illustration.

Once I started improvising and discovered the world of Music for People, I found that I was far from the only classical musician to have a burn-out experience and turn to improvisation as a way to recover and reorient. It seemed that, aside from a few college kids with open minds, almost everyone at my first Music for People workshop was middle-aged or older, had undergone some sort of crisis, and was looking for not just a new relationship with music, but a new relationship with ourselves. Each of us who was trained as classical musicians felt he or she had burned out on an overdose of perfectionism.

Perfectionism does not mean that one does everything perfectly, of course. Perfectionism means one does not value an accomplishment or activity unless it is done perfectly. While some people become overt perfectionists, that kind of annoying person who does things "perfectly," others of us are more covert. If we don't think we'll do something perfectly, we may avoid doing it. Or procrastinate about doing it, and then do it too late to do well. And nearly whatever we do, we find fault with and devalue it.

My life had been filled with perfectionistic self-loathing, anxiety, and depression, as well as intense, debilitating shame. Not that there had not been moments of joy, of triumph, and of pride. Those were the exceptions to the general rule, however.

With my cello playing, the cycle would go something like this. a concert would be coming up. I'd be filled with optimism that I would prepare so well, and play so well, that I'd be genuinely happy with the performance and hence with myself. As the performance grew closer, I would practice and practice. And my fear of playing badly would grow. I'd become more anxious about making mistakes or playing out of tune, of being boring, of whatever, and become more tense and self-critical as time went by. During the performance, I'd not only be very self-conscious and hypercritical, but also I'd be projecting these and other condemnatory thoughts into the audience.

No matter how I played--and with all this going on, it was unlikely to have been my best playing--I would find myself disappointed. And not just disappointed, but quite ashamed. Humiliated. A depression would set in that would last for weeks or months.

Yes, I was screwed up, and not just when it came to cello playing. But this is how it played out with the cello.

It was all this perfectionism that had kept me from creating my own music in the first place. I used to wonder why some people were composers and I was not. One day, when I was an undergraduate at Peabody, I was thinking about a piece by a student composer I was going to play. And it hit me: I was not a composer because had this music occurred to me, I would have thought it was not worth writing down. Music did occur to me from time to time, and I always thought it was not good enough.

Same thing with improvising. I had read about Beethoven's legendary improvised performances. Somehow I decided that unless I could do that, improvise complete, harmonically-complex pieces, there was no point.

Much of this was the result of the fact that I dedicated myself to becoming a cellist as a way of being "better" than other people. 32 years later, I now understand that as a 15-year-old I had a compensatory fantasy of being a famous cellist. I was skinny, unmuscular, bad at sports, shy, ashamed, etc. And on top of all that, I was horrified by the growing realization that I was gay--which I desperately want not to be.

After some humiliating remark from a jock, I developed a fantasy that I would become a famous concert artist, and then they'd all be sorry they had been mean to me when we were teenagers. I remember it happening. (Now, of course, I realize that even if I were a famous concert artist, it's unlikely that any of those kids, now adults, would realize it.) This fantasy of being superior was, obviously, my way of compensating for feeling so inferior.

Ah, but how amazingly an adolescent fantasy can create the paradigm for much of one's subsequent life. I didn't recognize it as a fantasy. I thought it was a destiny.

Since the point of playing the cello had now (secretly) become to be better than everyone else, to be beyond criticism, to be superior, a tremendous weight was added to my already emotionally overburdened shoulders. And this fantasy created a new hell. Unless I was playing as well or better than famous cellists on recordings, my playing, and I, were no good.

Now, in essence, I was my playing. If my playing wasn't good enough, I wasn't good enough. And it worked the other way around, too, I'm sure. Because my experience was "I am not good enough" then no matter how I played, I hadn't played well enough.

When you have to be better than everyone else, and play better than everyone else to be better than everyone else, it's an impossible task. And if you have to be better than everyone else so that you are not inferior to everyone else, it's a recipe for disaster, unless, unlike me, you are blind to reality. I did not minimize my mistakes and weaknesses. No, I'm the type of guy to seize upon them, magnify them, and obsess over them.

By the time I was about 35, all this, and other issues, had built up to the point that I had what one might have called in an earlier time a "nervous breakdown." The silver lining in that dark cloud was that it led me to begin improvising. And I'll continue the story in my next entry.

1 comment:

jim o said...

Hi Eric-
This is great stuff, and very readably written. I hope you get a lot of feedback about how useful it is to see someone's path and process revealed in this way.

Jim Oshinsky