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.