Failure and Success

I had an experience today that was both a failure and a success.  Most people call them learning experiences.  That’s a grand statement, but for those with depression and severe anxiety, you don’t learn, you just repeat until you learn to cope.

Today’s story relates to something I wrote about a long time ago on this blog, but don’t talk about it much.  I graduated from college with a bachelor’s in music performance.  I was good.  Not the greatest, but I played well enough I could have made a career out of it.  About 6 months after I graduated, I started having panic attacks. I won’t say music was the trigger, but I will say I was unable to perform in any capacity.

What does anxiety mean to a musician?  Well, imagine you are onstage, with hundreds of people watching.  You can’t breathe.  Your chest feels like somebody is crushing it.  Your fingers won’t move because they’ve suddenly become cold and stiff.  All you want to do is run off the stage and hide in a corner.  Now imagine you’re halfway through a Beethoven symphony, or plugging through a solo piece.

I think the closest I could liken this to is this:  One time, in Las Vegas, I was in my car and stuck at the intersection of Flamingo and Maryland Parkway.  Las Vegas traffic being what it is, I was sandwiched at the turn signal in the middle of a bunch of cars and unable to move.  My brain decided that was a perfect panic moment, and instead of my body having the freedom to flight (panic attacks are flight-or-fight), I was stuck sitting there. Vegas traffic lights are dumb and long, but I swear that 3 minute time period felt like an hour.  The light eventually changed, and I had enough sanity left to pull into the first driveway and sit there until I composed myself.  I’ve never forgotten that moment because for a brief time I was sure I’d either pass out or run out of my car.  I held it together long enough to get through it, and after I got home I sat shaking in my living room until it all passed.

Like the time I panicked and dropped a full basket in the checkout lane at the grocery store and ran out, I had immense shame.  I felt like every person was staring at me and judging me.  I never went back to that store, and for the record, I never drove through that same intersection again.

Back to music: one of the many reasons I gave up music after I graduated was because I was unable to sit on a stage for any length of time without having a panic attack.  I remember my last performance before I quit.  I barely held it together, and when it was over I swore I’d never put myself in that position again.  I’d say it weighed heavily in the favor of quitting.  So I quit.

Years later, I found myself playing again.  I was in a better place.  The panic attacks had abated to the point where they were no longer several times a week but at the worst a few times a year. I stood on the stage, and I had the confidence to get through what I was doing.  I’ve done multiple solo concertos, duets with famous musicians, and pushed through heavy-duty arias.  Never once did I freak out.

And then there was today.

Today wasn’t quite any other day.  For some backstory:  I’m mostly okay, and I’m honestly ok now.  That said, I’ve hit a rough patch with the depression.  Up until last week, I spent the previous month hiding in my house, avoiding humans, and in general trying to shrink up into nothing.  I promised I’d do a Mozart Sinfonia with some other winds in my orchestra, and while I could not give a single fucking crap, I pushed through it and got the music under my fingers.  I put reminders on my personal calendar to make sure I did the work.  I made myself sleep by taking a half-dose of Benadryl, even though most days I barely scratched out 4 hours.  In short, I made a promise, and I made myself keep it.  Even though I really didn’t care.

In addition, I was asked to play at a small fundraiser for the orchestra.  All of my previous experiences were amazing, so I figured why not.  I dusted off Marcello and ran it a few times to make sure I was cool.  I was cool.  I had enough threads to hang onto I knew I could do it.

That was all well and good, but my brain decided otherwise.  I had that stupid music down.  I can do it from memory in my sleep.  Today, I just couldn’t.  It’s like I burnt out all the energy I had with work, and by the time I hit that fundraiser, I was broken.  I made it through about 2/3 of the second movement, and then the full panic set in.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t think.  I actually stopped the accompanist (who was our guest soloist for this concert series). He was such a kind man, he gave me a minute, and said “where would you like to pick up?” I took a breath, gave him a measure, and finished it.   When it was over, I pulled out enough words to thank everyone for their patience.

That wasn’t the amazing part.  The amazing part was after the first set was over, everyone came over to talk to me.  One patron said, “I don’t know why you would get nervous for music illiterates like us”.  Another gal, our amazing coloratura soprano, said “You make me feel so much better about my mistakes! You are always so perfect, and never mess up. Now I don’t feel so bad about the time I forgot the words to that one song.”.  Another lady said “Don’t even worry, I hear you perform flawlessly all the time.  I just wish you could have enjoyed the music as much as we did.”

After that whole experience, Previous Me would have been embarrassed. I would have run away and never played again.  I realized I not only held it together, I did it with grace.  I cracked jokes with the audience.  I smiled and chatted with people.  After the performance, I explained what happened to everyone that came to chat with me.  I talked about the difficulty of the piece.  Explained what anxiety is like.  Told them to come to the concerts, because I’ll be just fine. And they were all loving and caring because they’ve heard me play before and just want the best for me.

I’ve not shed one single tear over that mishap, and I’ve pulled out the strength to push through the upcoming concerts where I’m a guest soloist.  No, I am not cured of the depression sinkhole I’m in.  I just know I can still do it, and this will pass.


Grounded for Life

We all know I’m a cat lady, and I have cat lady things to share.

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About 10 days ago, my cat Salem vanished.  She must have gotten run off by a dog, or spooked.  Generally, her little jaunts are temporary (few hours), but this time she stayed gone.  Every night I put out a sweater of mine, some water, and a bowl of food on the back porch in the hopes she’d turn up.  I had almost given up on her returning – it’s not like her to vanish for days on end.  The most she’d disappear was 5 hours, and she’d usually show up howling by the back door around midnight when she realized it was cold outside.  At any rate, 10 days after she went missing, I’m doing dishes when I hear a ruckus by the back door.  She then comes streaking into the house followed by Jack and Spot.  Completely unexpected, but I’m so happy she’s home.   She was pretty dusty/dirty, and she’s very thin – I mean, she was scrawny to begin with but you can actually feel her bones right now.  I’ve kept her trapped in the house for now while she rests.  She’s mostly eating and napping right now, but she gets lonely really easy and cries if she can’t see any of us.  As long as Spot is sleeping next to her on the bed she’s a-ok.  Other than that, nobody seems to pleased with their confinement (Spot is currently howling in the kitchen because I won’t let him out).  She’s grounded so all of them are grounded!  Also, Salem has tracked in every pollen out there with her, so my sinuses are pretty miserable right now.

End Cat Story.

I decided a couple of weeks ago to try dating again.  I was getting a little bored and fidgety trying to keep myself occupied.  I’ve been running.  I’ve found little things to do here and there.  I’ve spent tons of time in the garden.  I planned a vacation.  I’m practicing a ton.  Still, it’s a very quiet and solitary life, so I thought it would be nice to get out and meet some new people.  I went back to Ye Olde Dating Site and threw up a profile with pictures of my oboes, pets, and green hair.

This time, though, things will be far different.  There will be no more “well, I guess it’s ok” or “I suppose I can deal with that” when looking at certain aspects of people.  I’ve not pigeonholed myself so much that I’ll never find some strange ideal that will forever only exist in my head.  I have, though, learned to spot the things that really don’t work for me.  Therapy has been such a good thing for that.  I know myself better than I ever have before, and I know what I need, and above that I know what I deserve in life.  It’s not an ego thing.  I do not think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread.  But I am also not such a bad person that I can’t choose for myself because the most I can hope for is for somebody to like me.  This self esteem thing is really interesting.

Point is, I actually did meet someone, and been seeing him for a very short while so far.  The thing I like the most about him is that he’s a lot like me, where we both enjoy our personal time and our routines.  So I get plenty of the space that I need, especially right now.  Getting out of the house and routine are things that we both appreciate, so we’ve planned a couple of excursions already, just to do them.  And he likes me for who I am.  If it goes well, great.  If not, I’ll have a buddy to go do fun things with for a little while.

Other than that, garden is in good shape.  Everything I planted took, except the kale. It was so happy last year.  However, the ones I got were a little sickly, and didn’t handle the shock from planting.  Oh well.  Here, have a picture of the side yard, it’s pretty.

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Holy Shit Snacks

Now that I’m digging out of my personal well of misery, I’m actually able to focus on some of the insanity that can be called our Presidential Election.  Summary:  OMGWTFBBQ.  Logically, I know there are limits to presidential power.  Our country is supposed to be equally balanced between executive, legislative, and judicial.  One cannot do things without the other.  You want change? Uproot congress.  Hate on him/her all you want, but remember: the President has a great deal of power and is our spokesperson, but the President does not decide how everything works.  It’s like a coach in a basketball game.  The President can strategize and push initiatives, but cannot control every movement of our government.  That said, it’s somewhat scary to know the likely nominees aren’t people of good character, and if one of them gets his way I could be lumped in with the rest of the the immigrants and booted out.  So for now I’m going to hold to the idea that while we may elect an idiot to office (okay, I’ll concede:  when don’t we do that), overall s/he’ll have a congress to contend with and probably won’t get to do much other than embarrass us.  A lot.

Our town was visited recently by a couple of Republican nominees who both held rallies a couple of blocks from my house.  One filled up the streets.  The other didn’t.   I didn’t mind the rallies at all.  It’s expression, support, and a way to hear what someone has to say.  The thing I did mind the most was the absolute hatred surrounding them.   I was out walking one of those afternoons and passed by a small group of supporters talking about the rally.  They weren’t talking action, phone calls, or door-to-door campaigning.  They were talking about how they felt the election should end with certain democrat candidate in a wheelchair, in jail, or dead.  How can you wish another human being dead or injured just because you don’t agree with their politics?  How can you encourage beating up the opponent’s supporters?  Oh, right.  Let me go look at all the wars going on in the world.

It’s just gross.  And sad.  On to slightly less gross and sad things.

Running is still going great.  In fact, it’s getting much easier.  My last post was about my fight with my brain when I go and do this.  I can now say the fight has diminished, and I’m finding some peace with it. I still undergo the first stage:  Convincing brain I should go run when the alarm goes off.  Beyond that, once I’m out the door it’s just time to pound pavement and think.  I can toss off 3+ miles without stress or misery, which for me seems like a miracle.  I thought about going 4 miles today, but I had a meeting to get back to and needed the time to wind down.  Trust me, I’m a total spaz post-run, and if I don’t decompress a bit I sound crazy.  My next goal will be five miles.  When I hit that, I’m going to start in on half marathon training.  I don’t have a particular one in mind yet, but I’ll find one and get it done.  Because why not?  And because I can.

We got through the storm.  It dumped a ton of snow on the mountains, but we mostly dealt with super gusty wind and rain.  I did have the pleasure (pfft) of driving up through said snow to Incline on Sunday for a rehearsal.  Very wet snow, so the roads weren’t too terrible.  I have a violinist friend, Trudy, that is nice enough to accompany me on those drives so I’m not going it alone in a white-knuckled panic attack.  Honestly, I like driving.  I don’t mind inclement weather.  The part that kills me is anxiety.  I pretty much run through every worst case scenario in my head.  Oh no, I never think things are fine.  I pack for every contingency.  I am one of those people with the emergency water, flares, chains, food, blankets, and cell phone chargers in their car.  It makes me feel better.  Now apply this type of thinking to the rest of my life and you can see why I’m a mess most of the time.

We’re doing St. Matthew Passion in orchestra right now.  It’s an amazing and beautiful piece of music.  It is also a huge pain in the ass to play.  I have to swap through all three instruments (oboe, oboe d’amore, and English Horn).  The parts I play are long and never let you breathe.  When I finish the bass aria near the end, I’m positive I want to lay down and pass out.  Can’t do that, I have to pick up my oboe and do the finale.  I am allowed to pass out when it’s over.  I think.  Still, it’s my third year playing it, and it really is a good experience that lets me build some super chops and exercise all of my oboe kids.

Until next time!

False Spring

I’m not sure if the daffodils and tulips got the memo that the “spring” we’re having now is fake, and they’re likely to be frozen in the near future.  Either they did and they don’t give a crap, or they don’t and they’re in for some misery.

I have been doing ok.  I had a top-of-the-world moment last week.  I felt great.  I felt like everything was possible.  I had so many amazing realizations I couldn’t keep up with them all.  This was also a false spring.  That said, because of the help I sought, I knew there would be another dip.  Oh yeah, it happened.  I’m not as on top of the world as I was.  It’s okay, really.  I think it’s safe to say I have a lot on my mind, and I’m feeling a little low.

These things happen when you’re wresting with the memories and demons I am.  People tell you things.  You remember things.  They get overwhelming sometimes.  For me, it’s not another crash.  This is good.  The things that are stressing me out or making me sad are just…things!  I get them.  I know why.  I can feel them without wallowing.  This is an improvement.  It’s not causing me to hide under the blanket and shut out the world.

I’ve still been running.  So much running.  Put away quite a few miles this week.  I had planned to do a 4 mile run today, but I just couldn’t muster up the energy to do it.  I’m sore.  I’m tired.  My feet hurt.   I could have done the run, but I would have hated every second of it.

To compensate, I decided I should go on a hike.  This is not something I’ve done in a while, and moreover it’s not something I have done alone before.  I nearly chickened out. Hiking through the mountains alone is a daunting proposition for a paranoid person like me.  What if I ran into a bear?  What if I got stung by a bee?  Yeah, still haven’t gotten that epi pen yet.  But I pushed through the fear.  Sometime around 9AM, I just said to hell with it.  I was going.  It was a nice warm day, the sun was out, the sky was blue.  I bundled up the crazy dog, and went.

It was glorious.

You know, when I started hiking a few months ago, I was really out of shape.  I could barely handle a 1.5 mile walk with the dog.  The weight I was carrying hurt.  It made me tired.  I whined.  I’ll tell you what – the work I’ve done over the last few months made it so easy.  I powered through the climbs I could barely do before without stopping.  At one point I was towing the dog along, and he’s generally been the one dragging me.  It was quiet.  There was a whole valley before me, and skies forever to contemplate.  Above all, I was using different muscles, so my aching feet and calves didn’t care because I wasn’t pounding pavement.

I’m feeling good from being outdoors.  I’m going to go again tomorrow.  The things whirling around in my brain are still there, but they become less of a cacophony when I’m keeping the rest of my body busy moving.  They quiet down and let me think about the solutions, and less about the problems.  I’ll run again on Monday – don’t worry about that.  I found some new places to run, so I need to go explore those and do my lookit-how-far-I-went-victory dances in neighborhoods where nobody knows who I am.

This is what I saw today.  It made me feel at peace, so tomorrow I’m going to go find it again.

Luther Trail


Playing With a Famous Violinist

When I dusted off my oboe several years ago after a 7 year hiatus from playing, the most I had really hoped for was to play in a local community orchestra with the occasional solo and to not suck while doing it.  So I worked at it.  A lot.  And miracle of miracles, the oboe skills returned, and I gained some tricks along the way.

I play now with Toccata-Tahoe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and have had several opportunities to perform concerti with the orchestra.  In addition to that, we’ve been fortunate to be part of the orchestra playing with classical violinist and Red Stradivarius owner Elizabeth Pitcairn twice a year.  I’ve learned a lot from her, even sitting back there in the woodwind section.  She’s very detailed when explaining the intent, themes, and even sub-themes within the concerti she performs with us.  I have yet to walk away from a performance series with her without having strong knowledge of the piece we played.

A few weeks ago I received an email from our Maestro, James.  Elizabeth was coming to play with us in a few weeks for the next series, and she was wondering if I’d be willing to perform a Bach double concerto for oboe and violin (BWV 1060) with her at the private soirees to help her practice for her upcoming performance.

HELL YEAH.  I squealed like a girl.  Oh wait, I am a girl.  Me, of all people, being handed this kind of opportunity.  That was followed by “omg omg omg <potty words> omg omg omg”.  Then that was followed by “Oh god I’m not nearly good enough”.  Then that was followed by “I’m gonna do this.  I CAN DO THIS.”.

So I spent 2.5 weeks stuffing Bach into my brain.  I was told we were only performing the first movement, but we (Elizabeth, me, and Donna, our orchestra-pianist) managed to have the other two down well enough that we voted to do the whole thing.  I can play Bach.  I can do it well.  But that doesn’t mean I know everything, and above all I really don’t know how to be a graceful, cool as a cucumber player like Elizabeth.  Therefore, I went in prepared and ready to absorb what she does.  And after a few rehearsals and performances with her I have learned these things

Appear Cool When Performing.  I have no doubt she has her own set of stresses and fears.  I’m positive things don’t always go perfectly every time she plays.  Sometimes things grind to a halt mid rehearsal.  She never displays a sign of panic or upset, just indicates where to pick up and keeps going without a big to-do. This is a huge one for me.  I’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t completely fall apart when things go wrong for me, but recovering is a hard one.  I had a mild moment of panic during our first performance of the duet, and it took me almost 15 measures to recover.  I need to be better at saying “well, that wasn’t great” and just keep pressing on.  And stop making faces.  You aren’t supposed to make faces when you screw up in a performance.

Knowledge is Power.  Honestly, this was something I had a hard time with when I was younger, and could never understand why it mattered that Schumann was between mental breakdowns when he wrote X piece.  But it does matter.  It matters to know the origins of what you are playing.  A small fact could change your entire approach to a piece.  Over time I’ve done light homework on some of the solo pieces I’ve played, but after watching Elizabeth dispensing information like a Knowledge Candy Machine I am resolved to be better at really absorbing the history and themes of the piece I’m doing so I know where it’s all coming from.  As opposed to relying entirely on my ears to tell me.

How to Act When It’s Over.  I am absolutely not a graceful person.  I wear nerd t-shirts and Doc Martens and my hair is blue.  When I find myself in the limelight, I tend to react as well, me.  I can still be me.  An excited nerd.  I want to learn how to be more professional when performing, and above that more professional after solo performances.  How to convey to the audience my appreciation for listening to me, even when I’m completely out of breath because Bach refuses to let you breathe at all ever in your life. How did none of his performers die, this I want to know.

Know the Material.  Since I thought we’d only be playing the first movement, I burned the biggest chunk of my time on it. I had it down.  I had it 90% memorized.  Since my fingers were on auto pilot I was able to tune my ears on the violin and hear what she was doing, and mimicking it as needed.  The second and third have been rougher for me.  It was only our last go-round that I was able to relax my omg-what-note-is-next panic and start listening for phrasing and overlapping lines.  I have a few days before our last performance, and you bet your hiny I’m going to be beating movements 2 & 3 with a small bat until I have it cold.  Point is, if you are too busy worrying about notes and fingerings, you are too busy to make actual music out of the piece in front of you.

Always Do Your Best.  I am not nearly on the same playing level as she is.  That does not negate my responsibility to perform to the top of my ability, even if it’s not the same as hers.  I do not get a free pass because I am not as good as her.  What I should do is perform the absolute best I can and not have excuses for when things go wrong.  If they go wrong, fix them.  Do better the next time.  And better the time after that.

This will be one of those things I’ll carry with me for years.  These are lessons that I will apply to my playing for the rest of my life.  They are good lessons that will carry on into my work life and personal life, and I’m glad I’m still open enough to learn them.