Music Education Manifesto (In Devopment), Part 1: My Past Griefs as a Classical Musician

For a long time, I have contemplated the nature of classical music instruction.  The general known format of it at present is basic.  A student studies individually with a teacher, during which s/he learns the physical technique of playing, while also learning repertoire.

Musicians also accumulate experience while playing with other musicians, whether it be via a beginner’s Suzuki group class, a string quartet or a full symphonic orchestra.  And then there is the aspect of performance.  To prepare and practice a piece to performance level, one must be diligent and steadfast in the practice room.
During my childhood and college years, I was passionate about classical music myself.  I started as a violin student, and then switched to the viola as a tween.  I continued through high school, during which I enjoyed being a part of the Long Island and NYC communities of young musicians.  It was a lovely group of people, and I ranked highly among them in my abilities.  I felt proud and confident in myself.
I continued on at the college level by attending conservatory for college.  This provided me the chance of playing with top musicians, admittedly far more skilled than I.  Participants and winners of international competitions, elitely groomed since childhood.  Doctorate students, preparing for professorships.  People who traveled often, summoned by Europe for performance opportunities.  None of this was within my grasp, and so I was saddened.  Impossible to make up for lost years indeed.
But I made the best of it.  I took violin pedagogy classes with a renowned pedagogue who directed an incredible pre-college string academy.  I also studied with her privately for three summers.  Working with her really opened my eyes.  First off, I realized that performance music education requires a particular type of mental focus.  The most skilled of musicians have practiced with this mindset since early childhood, mostly because their parents were actively involved in their child’s practicing.  Young children cannot be expected to prepare efficiently, so their parents act as teachers at home.  Every day, the parent reinforces the teacher’s commentary and assignments.
I had none of this as a child.  No one was ever intensely involved in my practicing.  And even as a teen and young adult, I still struggled.  Despite my motivation, I rarely was able to get myself to practice, even when I wanted to.
This was because of my mental illness.
Around the age of ten, I started experiencing depression.  It haunted me terribly when I practiced.  Sitting alone in a room, cruel thoughts of self-depreciation plagued me.
You suck.  You will never be good.

Perhaps standard for a musician, to be hyper-critical.  But the thought was so relentless and persistent, that I would be driven to the point of tears.  Certainly, sadness was unpleasant, so I avoided practicing as much as I could.

 

This did not bode well in college.  To keep up with my colleagues, I had to practice at least three hours a day.  But I could barely manage an hour.  Again, the tears flowed, and the internal voice of self-criticism only grew louder and more desperate.  Desperate, because the stakes were higher.  I saw my classmates progressing beyond me, and I viewed the whole affair as a huge competition.  I needed to “beat” my classmates in proficiency, and yet I was the one getting “beaten.”

No one knew the scope of my emotional turmoil.  No one.  There was no way that I could have described the experience to anyone.  Even if I did, I feared that I would just be outed as a “lazy musician,” too undisciplined to practice.  I also did not have the perspective that I have now.  I didn’t think it was mental illness.  Again, I thought it was laziness.
Indeed, I started to get fed up with the whole classical education style.  The whole one-on-one instruction approach.  I found that many professors seemed to have their “favorite” students, whom they would treat with greater kindness and regard than others.  Some naturally favored students who were more proficient than others, but others would favor students who shone no brighter than his/her peers.  Very often, favoritism would be determined by personality.  Professors, having chummier rapport with some students than others.
It appalled me.  As a silent observer, I noticed that the preferred students generally were offered more opportunities.  Perhaps being selected to play in a masterclass with a visiting, renowned musician.  Being placed in a higher chair in an orchestra.  (Note: orchestral auditions were not held at my school for the first half of my degree.)  And besides opportunities, there was just… positive regard. Teachers truly believing in their students, instead of just paying lip for a tenured paycheck.  Favored students would progress through repertoire more quickly.  Teachers would push them harder, give them riskier assignments and advocate for them more strongly during juries and auditions.
It made me sad, because I didn’t feel favored in this way.  I started feeling desperate, and schemed ways to become a “favorite.”  I learned that, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years at college, my professor was to take up a ten-day residency at a masterclass event in the south of France.  I instantly wanted to go.  I thought that if I went, I would then become a “favored” student.  Even though my mother absolutely did not have finances to send me on a $2000+ trip, I begged.  We sold most of our paltry collection of gold to pay for it.
And so I went to France.  I spent the ten days with a frown on my face, trying to focus and “earn my favor.”  I failed to realize that the trip was intended to be more of a vacation than a grueling process.  The grounds were an old farm, converted into an artists’ space.  I lodged in a villa, and would walk among the reeds and trees to the main courtyard during the day.  Meals were served in a rustic, wooded dining area where French cheeses, meats and wines were served.  The relaxed attitude of it all disgusted me, and in rebellion I decided to become a vegetarian halfway through the trip.
Lessons occurred daily.  During one, my teacher gave me the constructive feedback:
“Your playing is inconsistent.”
The comment addressed my performance ability.  When playing a piece, I would make technical (physical) errors, and upon repeated trials, my errors would occur in different places.  It was a frustrating comment, because I saw no way to solve the problem.  I still could not practice focusedly for more than a half-hour, before the tears hit.  And no matter how much I repeated a passage, trying to perfect it, the mistakes would not go away.  In retrospect, I realize that my mental depression even affected my physical capacities for the instrument.  It made my arms and fingers sluggish and spastic.
As I saw it, there was no way I could cure my inconsistency.  I also took the comment personally.  I believed that I was labeled as inconsistent as a person.  That there was some flaw in my character that made me an inferior musician.
Perhaps so.  Mental illness does afflict one’s manifestation of character, sadly.
The trip ended, and I returned home.  While I did not turn into more of a virtuoso overnight as I had hoped, I did notice a more positive favor towards me for the next school year.  I felt more optimistic about my future as a musician, and practiced more enthusiastically.
And then I began to discover a new joy in playing from another source.  I took a body kinesthetics/awareness class, and this allowed me to understand physical technique on a new level.  I started to reteach myself how to play the instrument, and I began to find more joy in physical posture than in the music itself.  With posture, it was an experimental, tangible process.  Music was too amorphous.  Too subjective…
Because honestly, I had no idea what made one musician better than the other.  Indeed, if two people play with the same technical accuracy as one another, it would make sense that they would have the same career prospects and outlook as one another too.  But it didn’t seem such.  My own preferences for who I liked also seemed not to jive with the popular opinion.  At times, I’d see an excellent musician perform, yet I didn’t like what I heard because I felt a revulsion towards their stage presence.  Dare I say personality.  Many musicians seemed indeed not to be personable nor entertaining people.
But my judgment was colored too.  Already, I was suffering from depression and acute envy.  I hated everyone around me, because they seemed to excel without being impeded by the sadness that I faced.  It felt unfair.  But also, during my senior year of college, I began to develop schizophrenia.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the symptoms crept up on me, first episode-style.  I started to believe that excellence in music was due to a magical, spiritual property that the elite possessed, which I lacked.
I frantically tried to figure out how I could cultivate this property within myself.  I joined a meditation group on the college campus affiliated with a guru in India.  I meditated morning and night in their way, traveled an hour-and-a-half by car on Sundays to meditate with a group and went on weekend retreats every few months.  This culminated into a trip to India, where I meditated in the presence of the guru himself with 50,000 other abhyasis.
After returning home from the retreat, I struck gold, so I thought.  I started feeling “energy” in my body, which I could move around my person… up and down my spine, through my extremeties.  I thought that if I channeled this into the instrument, and the music, I would be a godly musician.  I also able to “sense” this energy everywhere I looked.  Subliminal messages were everywhere, and I became consumed with the concept every waking moment.
I maintained my face for a semester, but eventually had a psychotic breakdown.  I was hospitalized, newly diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder.  After discharge, I finished out the year in a daze before quitting my masters degree halfway through.
Much of my musical grief was caused by mental illness.  Paranoia, envy, depression, fear, self-deprecation, magical thinking… it all attacked me in the practice room.  In retrospect, I wonder what could have been different.  What could have eased my pain?  I’ve contemplated this question for nine years, and now I finally have an inkling of an answer…
*****
Stay tuned for the second installment of this entry.
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I’m an Inconsistent Musician… oh Joy!

In the past, I found myself in many a situation where I was criticized.  It hurt when I was a child especially, on the playground with teasers and taunters galore, throwing names and jeers at me.  I was not resilient, but instead took it personally.  When dwelling on those petty words, I found my spirits diminished.

And then I studied the violin and viola.  Always at lessons, teachers would offer constructive criticism, intended to improve my playing abilities.  But again, I took it personally, and it was too much to bear.  I became sad, and avoided the instrument as much as I could.  I hated the viola, yet I enjoyed the opportunities and life it provided me.  For college, I attended a prestigious conservatory, where I played in orchestras and ensembles with top musicians.  I studied with renowned professors, and myself fell in love especially with baroque performance practice and violin pedagogy.  My academic education in lecture halls was excellent also.
Since I was in conservatory, the stakes were higher with constructive criticism, and so I felt even more depressed.  It was hard for me to detach music-making from my personhood.  Perhaps I was studying music for the wrong reasons.  When I went to lessons, I was not looking for musical guidance as much as talk therapy, if you will.  I wanted someone to care about me.  Some brilliant professor who would care about me and my potential from a sincere place, instead of someone just paying lip.  I noticed that the more “favored” students matured into better musicians, so it seemed.  As for who they selected to favor?  It seemed arbitrary and unfair.
Somehow, I had to make sense of this nonsense.  That’s just how I am, I guess.  So I coped by reasoning to myself that these professors were akin to gods.  Masters of music, paragons of spiritual enlightenment, and eternally justified in their arbitrary favoritisms.  And so every word they uttered in lessons was the bread of my life.  I contemplated on their “wisdoms.”  I aspired to be a musical master myself, so that I could join the ranks of these deities.  So that I could wield the superhuman power of musical expression and flawless physical technique.
Naturally, I was sorely disappointed in this quest.  Not to mention, my spiritual musical aspirations steered me in a direction that would not lead to gainful employment.  As I neared the end of my degree, this reality hit me.  There was no job waiting for me.  Instead, there was only the open world of networking and freelancing, and I didn’t have the energy for this.  I was too depressed and lethargic.  And for me, music wasn’t about the music.  It was merely a way for me to develop my character.

The greatest criticism I perceived was delivered unto me in July of 2006, while I was attending a ten-day masterclass in the south of France.  To explain the circumstances:  My viola professor at the time was instructing violists there, and several of my college colleagues also made the trek to the place.  Amidst the pastoral environment of the French countryside, we enjoyed leisurely music-making, excellent food and performances in a couple of medieval-aged churches.

But I was unable to enjoy any of this as a vacation.  Instead, I attempted stern discipline within myself.  My reason for attending this masterclass, was because I wanted my professor to favor me. I thought that I’d be a better musician if he favored me, in the way I had described above.
In one of my daily lessons, he delivered the bomb.
“You’re inconsistent.”   A piece of constructive criticism, yet not elaborated on further.
The most frustrating aspect of the musician personality, as I have perceived, is the lack of verbal eloquence.  A frustrating trait for me to deal with especially, because verbal eloquence is the greatest joy for me.  Of course, my professor meant well.  But his comment was like a dagger in my gut.  Here I was, playing my best, and now this criticism.  The reason why it perturbed me so, was that no solution was offered.  How could I have “fixed” this inconsistency?
And so I absorbed it to be that I, as a person, was inconsistent.  My character.  My spirit.  My mind.  My right to be alive.  I thought I was such because I lacked musical talent.  And because of lack of talent, I would never reach musical enlightenment.  The comment made me feel utterly doomed.
In retrospect, I can attribute my “inconsistency” to a couple of factors.  I was dealing with difficult, relentless mental chattering, which completely obscured my ability to practice effectively.  A year after this particular episode in France, my condition worsened, and I experienced my first psychotic break.  My mental chatter and depressions turned into schizophrenia.
But my musical woes root from another cause as well.  I now know that I have Hyperacusis, a hearing disorder.  When I listen to music loudly, as I do when playing the viola under my jaw, I become disoriented within a half hour. I feel dizzy, I get cold sweats, with anxiety and delusional thoughts galore.  Listening to music with earbuds also procures this same effect for me.  I am not sure how I developed Hyperacusis, but I know this much:  I have tiny ear canals, and I have had many many ear infections as a child.  I even venture to say that the way I hear music and sound in general is perhaps different from the norm.  The grandest frustration I still experience is when I record myself making music.  Violin, viola, singing with guitar, what have you.  What I hear in my ear is not what I hear on the tape recorder.  No matter how much I try to revise my playing, it still fails to improve.
Sometimes, I wonder if it was music that made me crazy.  I think it contributed.  Whatever physical torment it was that music inflicted upon me, was small in comparison to the emotional backup I developed in reaction to my father’s sadistic tirades.  Dare I say such.  From him, I learned that I should remain quiet and compliant.  Counter-intuitive for a musician.
As for solving my musical inconsistencies, I don’t much care now.  There is no need for me to have to “prove” or “defend” myself against a criticism hurled at me ten years ago.  It was my own overreaction that caused thatwound in the first place.
I look forward to better days now.  I look forward to the day that I am no longer afraid of the violin.  I don’t have to practice “the right way” in order to prove myself to pedagogues I used to know.  They are no longer deities to me .  Really… whose lives are they changing?  Who is changed by their art?  Sure, I can get box seats to a MET Opera performance of Mozart’s Zauberflöte, enjoy the tunes… but what else?  Have I gleaned anything profound from the musicians themselves?  Their little fingers pressing against strings, faces blowing into conical bores… The most I would gain is simply the mind of Mozart himself, for it is HIS composition!
I ramble now. I only wish to impart here… Inconsistency has become a proud badge I wear.  I’ve had a varied life due to bipolar impulsiveness and schizophrenic delusions.  Traumatic to experience, but humorous to recall.  Ha!  I had a British accent for a month!  Ha!  I maxed out a credit card to travel to Denmark for an orchestra audition, only to learn that the orchestra didn’t exist!  Mental illness is silly indeed.
Maybe it is such that I needed these failures in order to get my head out of the clouds.  Because now as a writer I am very consistent… so it seems.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Time Slips Away. I Want to Manage It As Best As I Can.

Again, it’s been a while since I wrote.  Life happens, days pass and time slips away.  Even though every single day is chock full of stimulation and memories, there is also that which remains neglected.  For me at times, it is writing.  Which is very unfortunate.

Sleep takes a lot of my time.  I take Clozapine, which is a very sedating drug.  As a result, I sleep at minimum 9 hours a day, if not more.  It has improved since before, ever since my psychiatrist suggested I take 3 Clozapine pills at night and 1 in the morning.  But now I feel more tired throughout the day.  For Labor Day weekend, namely Saturday and Sunday, I took big naps.  I never take naps.  While I enjoyed the luxurious rest, I also felt angry.  I could be writing instead!

But really… if you want the bed and breakfast experience, all you have to do is take a nap.  Much cheaper.  Maybe I should change my sheets to some yellow shade with little flowers on it, if I really want to go B&B style. That actually might help me feel more rested.  I’ve found that the little things we do for ourself, when accumulated, have the ability to make us happier.  And also feel more control in our lives.  I would decide to change my sheets.  I decide what I choose to put on my walls.  I decide to allow myself to take that nap.  When I allow myself to make decisions like this, I grow more confident.

Wow, this is all over the place.  Let’s return to the main point of this post:  Not enough time in life.

For me, there has been another major change in my life.  About 2 months ago, I joined a bootcamp gym in my neighborhood.  It’s pretty expensive, but there is no comparison between this place and a regular gym.  At this place, there are hour-long bootcamp classes where you get your butt handed to you.  Finally, I feel like I have found my fitness home.  I feel that this gym has the ability to bring me to my full athletic potential.  There is always room to push harder in the workouts.

And yet that takes up a lot of time.  Precious time that I’m not sure I have.  I do the workouts, and then I have to go home.  I don’t have a car either.  Waiting for public transit, riding public transit… I wouldn’t say it’s stressful unless I’m stuck standing, although this doesn’t happen often.  But still… when I get home, I’m not in the mood to write.  I mean, sure I’ll write in my journal, pen against paper.  But this is more akin to self-care and personal introspection.  It has no professional bent to it.

I think that somehow, I have to trick my mind into thinking that work-related writing is recreational and relaxing to me.  Then again, rest is so important.  It can never be neglected.  Because when I am a workaholic, it prevents me from enjoying the little things in life.  Like enjoying the trees.  Marveling at pigeons pecking at the sidewalk.  Seeing the people around me, engaged in their work, walking down the street, going to their destinations.

A few months ago, Huffington Post allowed me to have a blog on their site, so that I can instantaneously post articles.  I am happy that I have this opportunity, and yet I’m not writing as much as I’d like.  Again… I’m tired.  I’m also working on an article about NYC Crisis Respite Centers.  I have to say, that journalistic articles are more difficult and time-consuming to write.  I learn as I go, given that I don’t specifically have a bachelors in English or Journalism or whatnot.  But I’m learning fast, nevertheless.

The problem with lack of sleep and overall fatigue of this sort, is that it serves to erase the mind of thought.  Or at least it slows thoughts down.  It also causes drowsiness, which is difficult to push through.  Pushing through can even make it worse, I fear.  It can cause headaches for me in my sinuses.

And then there is a third new component I’ve added into my life: Spirituality.  After years and years of being burned by several religious practices, ranging from conservative Christianity to meditation under a guru in India, to spending thousands of dollars on bogus psychic services, it was apparent that I was seeking.  Yet I was too mentally unwell to differentiate between the “spiritual ream” versus “reality.”  I do really believe that some of those who experience profound mental illness attribute their symptoms to be a spiritual gift that connects them with a higher world.  For me, I once was completely lost in this “realm,” to the point that I recognized everything happening to me to be “divine occurrences,” “meant to happen.”  Everything had a subliminal messages, specifically for me and no one else.

Over the years, there has been only one spiritual healer who has helped me without hurting me in any way.  He is a Reiki healer I’ve worked with since 2010.  Recently, he has been involved in this new meditation practice, and so I feel that it is safe for me to do also.  When I have setbacks, worries or fears, I talk to him about these and he helps me to become more grounded.

As drowsy as I am right now, I don’t want to give up these aspects of my life.  I’m not giving up writing.  I’m not giving up fitness.  I’m not giving up spirituality.  And it’s not the best idea for me to go off of my medications.  But how do I manage?  How do I keep going forward, without burning out?

Perhaps the pinnacle of tiredness is that which accompanies parenting.  And I am not a parent, nor will I ever be.  Taking this into consideration, “tired” is likely a natural part of life in the 21st century.  Which still is not good, but alas, Reality.  I hope I can pull through.  Faith is all I have to keep me going.  That, and friendship.

C’est la vie.