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.


Oh, this thing

I suppose an update is in order about my tooth issue.  I arrived home from my glorious vacation (really, aside from the tooth problem, it was amazing).  I booked an appointment with the dentist for the day after my return.  When I got there, they did x-rays, poked around (without any valium to chill me out, that was stressful), and the dentist pronounced I fractured my tooth.  Not any fracture.  A fracture in four places.  In other words, I bit down hard enough to crack my tooth in four places, and one of them down to the root.

Now, I have had a mouth guard (custom) for several years.  I clench my teeth.  I do it when I sleep.  I do it when I work.  I lost it about 3 years ago.  I had this awful habit of pulling it out in my sleep – it was this little piece of resin that fit over my front teeth.  I pulled it out one night in my sleep, and it vanished.  I think the cat batted it into some random place never to be seen again.  So yeah, never got it replaced.  And as such I resumed my bad sleep-teeth-grinding-clenching habits.

As a result of this new fracture, I had three choices:  try to let them fix it (would not work in the long term), have them replace it with a bridge (NO – it would vibrate when I played oboe), or replace it with a new post and crown ($$$$$).  I went with option 3, only after they swore up and down I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference when playing.

I take valium to go to the dentist, even for simple cleanings, because of my anxiety.  I now had to go to an oral surgeon and let them pull out a tooth and do a bone graft.  Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, I had the option to be put completely out for the procedure.  Not that it really stopped the anxiety. When I arrived, I had to sign a sheet that basically listed every worst case scenario from being sedated.  As I sat in the chair, all of that ran through my head.  I was shaking and terrified when they put in the IV.  The most humorous part was as I started to go under. I remember feeling each new effect of the sedative and asking if I was going to die.  This was the conversation:

Me: “Ben” – he was the doctor – “I feel dizzy, am I going to die?”
Ben: “No, you’re fine”.
Me:  “Ben, I feel like I can’t breathe, am I going to die?”
Ben: “No, we’re watching your vitals, everything is just fine”
Me: “Ben, it’s getting hard to talk, am I going to die?”
Ben: “That’s normal too, just try and sleep”
Ben: <muffled words – I was out at that point>

An hour and a half later I woke up, and his assistant was greeted by me asking “I can’t see the hippos anymore, where are they?”

Suffice it to say, I felt like the world’s biggest dork later on.

Anxiety is a pain in the ass – the most normal sensation always means YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  It’s so hard to explain that bit of anxiety to someone.  It’s kind of like going into your house and seeing a crack in the wood floor, and automatically assuming the house is going to collapse on you.  There’s no in between.  There’s no logic in place to say “yeah, crap, crack in the floor”.  It’s always, ALWAYS, worst case scenario.  This bleeds into everything in my life, and quite frankly makes it really difficult.  I live like this since my mid-20s.  I’ve developed ways of dealing with the anxiety, but it is always there, under the surface.  So I cope.

So back to the tooth.  Everything went normally.  Destroyed tooth was yanked.  Bone graft done.  I healed up just fine, although it took about 3 days to get back to eating solid food.  I had a minor complication with a fragment of bone poking out, so I was banned from oboe-ing for about a month total until it settled back where it belonged.

Right now I’ve still got the gap there.  I am playing again.  Net side effects from the hole are excessive drooling when I play. Seriously, I collect so much water in my horn now, it’s gross – I have to keep swabbing and blowing out the upper joint.  Second weird effect is the tooth behind the gap resonates when I play a D above middle C.  It buzzes a bit, and my inner ear itches.  Luckily, oboe is not a long-note holding instrument so when I’m plowing through Bach the feeling is fleeing.  Long tones are a bitch, though.

I go back in one month to get the post put in.  I was promised the heal time will be less than a week.  After a month, I’ll go to my dentist, get a crown, and VOILA.  New fake tooth.  After all of THAT is done, we’re getting me a nice mouth guard for sleeping (again), and hopefully my sleep tooth clenching will be a thing of the past and I won’t have to live through all this again.

It’s been one year and 10 days since the last time I was told what a horrible person I was. It’s been an interesting year.  I tried hard to let that little awful anniversary pass, but I couldn’t.  Next year will be better.  And the year after that I’ll remember it without hurting.

Today, however, I was reminded by The Man Friend™ (ok, more than a friend, shut up) that I am wanted and needed.  Maybe I’ll remember that more next year than the Awful Memory.




Maybe another half marathon?

Many moons ago I ran a half marathon.  I think I want to try it again.  I’m back up to 3/3/3/4 miles a week.  Granted, my running is still pretty slow.  However, it was slow the last time I did it, and I eventually got my speed up to something reasonable.  The thing I like the most about doing it is my brain is pretty much 95% endorphins all the time.  The thing I dislike is the amount of time it takes.  I have to be strict with myself, and run whether I feel it or not.

I’ve booked the first week schedule starting for next week.

It’s time to farm

This year I’m going to scale it back a bit and stick with what is successful:  Kale, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers.  I’m also going to get more berry bushes.  I may or may not try basil again.  I’ve only ever once managed to get it to grow successfully.  I think I found the right place for it this time, but I don’t think the ground was kind to it.  So I’m going to try the same spot again, but stick with pots.

I’m hoping the apple trees make it.  They are starting to bud, right on time for the next freeze.

Flat Pianos

This is more of a gripe, really. Let me tell you a story about the oboe.  Unlike most other instruments, you cant just “pull out” things to make it flatter.  Oh sure, I remember my band teachers telling me to pull out my reed.  When I grew up I learned that makes hardly a dent in the pitch.  The oboe is so dependent on the reed that all the wishing in the world won’t make it play in tune unless you make it to play in tune.

I make my reeds at A-440.  There’s some range in there – I can usually pull it 15 cents in either direction with my embouchure when required (and believe me, it’s required when the trumpet section gets excited and goes sharp).  But there’s a limit, and I hit that like a brick wall this week.  I’m doing a gig with a choir in Tahoe.  It’s actually a lot of fun – we’re playing Puccini.  It’s not a full orchestra, so it’s being supplemented by the piano.  . And the piano is about 18-20 cents flat.  I’m not sure if it hasn’t been tuned, or if it was tuned by someone that forgot to reset the tuner calibration.

Point is, I came in with my nice A-440 reeds and I was ridiculously sharp compared to everyone else.  I wound up gutting my reed mid-rehearsal to drop the pitch down to painful levels.  So, I did finally manage to flatten the reed enough to make it work, and in the process I may have killed it.  I give it two practice sessions tops before it curls up and dies on me.

Moar Concertos

I get to do the Bach duet again (the one I did with Elizabeth) in June.  This time with Josue Casillas covering the violin part on flute.  Finally, a chance to take another stab at that long and meandering second movement I didn’t get quite right in January.

And to make it all more amusing, we’ll be doing a piece by Fasch.  Flute and oboe duet.  Except I’ll be playing the flute part on that one.  I am on board with this idea because this has some tricky work in the upper register, and it will give me a chance to give it a workout.

I’m going to have to practice a lot to pull all of this off!


I’m going on another one, YAY!  I wanted to go to Greece.  However, scheduling and timing failed me, so I’ll be hitting Spain, France, and southern Italy.  I’m sure I’ll see a few of the required sights, but quite frankly I just want to be chill, enjoy some of the luxury, eat too much food, and fly home so fat that they charge me an extra baggage fee for my ass.


I don’t have much time nowadays to burn on games, but now and then I give them a whirl if they are interesting enough.  I have a pal that had pestered me (forever) to play Bioshock.  Then he gifted me the games – Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite.  I tried to play Bioshock, but it was so spooky I couldn’t get past the first few levels.  A few weeks ago I was bored.  House was super clean. I had nowhere to be, and I wanted to do something fun.  So I opened up Bioshock Infinite.  And started playing.  It wasn’t scary at first – and by the time the blood and gore started I was so hooked I couldn’t stop playing.  I’ve played a good chunk of the game to date, and I’m really enjoying it.  And once it’s done I’ll probably go back to Bioshock and try that again.  It’s really nice finding a new game to enjoy.  It’s been a while.


I’ve been reflecting a lot on the general quietness of my life.  It’s been around 3 months that I’ve been on my own again.  I’m still talking to my therapist.  I’m slowly but surely finding myself and the things I like to do again.  Finding new hobbies.  Finding new things to do.  Taking care of little projects I’ve missed out on over the last year when I was more or less broken.

I do feel lonely sometimes.  I feel regret that things turned out the way they did, and I feel sad for what I’ve lost.  And I am also extremely grateful that it all happened this way so I could have my own personal spring.

That’s all I have to say about what’s floating around in my head.


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.

Trying is Better Than Regret

For my birthday, I decided to try something different.  I scheduled a vacation to Seattle the day after my birthday.  Flying?  Hell no, I wanted to try something new!  After my wonderful experience on a cruise, I decided to try the thing I always wanted to try: A TRAIN.

Spurred on by pictures on teh intertubes and stories of people’s experiences on trains, I booked a 21 hour trip on Amtrak from Sacramento to Seattle.  I thought of taking the train out of Reno, but would have had to switch trains and then sit around for 9 hours for the Seattle bound train to depart.  I voted instead to just drive the 2.5 hours to Sacramento since it would be shorter.

Arrived early enough to go get a nice dinner before the trip.  At 9:30 PM.  And everything nearby was closed.  After several attempts to find an open restaurant, I eventually gave up and drove to the nearest McDonalds.  In a sketchy neighborhood.  With scary people.  After stuffing my face and then being informed by the manager they were closing, I headed to the Amtrak station, parked, and dragged my luggage in.  Upon arrival, I got the first alert: the train was running an hour late. YAY.

Luckily for me I had a booking in a sleeping car, so they had a special area set up with padded seats.  And by special area I mean a roped off area with some thinly padded chairs and fake trees surrounding it.  Exhibit A:

2014-10-02 22.52.32

They were very nice fake trees.

A while later, I got the second email:  Train was running behind.  Instead of the 11:59 AM departure, it was now scheduled for 1:49 AM.  I wasn’t able to rest – mostly sat around and watched the poor hapless parents trying to convince their kids to go to bed and stop eating candy.

Finally they called us to the train.  After an epic trek through a concrete lighted path that seemed to never end, we were in line to get on the train.

2014-10-03 01.15.33

We were shepherded into our “bedroom”.  I’ll tell you now, the pictures they show of those rooms use such a wide angle lens it defies the laws of physics.  With the beds extended out, there was just enough room to slide along the side of the bed..barely.  They are also small.  The rooms look like they hadn’t been upgraded since sometime in the 80s (the faux wood paneling around the light and temperature controls was a dead giveaway).  The bathroom was just a shell of plastic.  You heard everything.  Our neighbors had issues with gas.  FYI.  thnx.

So teensy tiny room aside, I was prepared to deal.  The attendant they had on the car was really nice.  They had coffee, juice, and water.  The room was worn but relatively clean.  The door didn’t shut unless you put the power of hercules behind it.  Still, I was on a train.  Since I was having my usual travel stress, and I slept approximately 4 hours before I was up.

Now, the best part of being on a train is being able to just sit and chill and watch the scenery roll by.  Then there were the bad parts.

They apparently serve breakfast between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM (this may be hyperbole), and WOE UNTO YOU if you arrive at 8:30 am.  In light of the fact I got on the train really late, and as such I wasn’t ready to eat until 8:30.  Went to the dining car, and was greeted by surly waiters and waitresses that made it seem like I completely put them out by asking for breakfast at 8:30 AM.  Luckily meals were included in the trip – the menu had the prices and they were beyond insane.  It cost at least $20 a person for breakfast – for sad eggs, a sad little biscuit, and bacon that looked like it was dehydrated, reconstituted, dehydrated, and then fried to a marginally warm status.  At least the coffee wasn’t terrible.  After consuming our meager rations and disdain from the waitress, we headed back to our room.

Like I said, at least there was nice scenery.

2014-10-03 12.28.14

The attendant came by to schedule lunch, but we weren’t hungry.  This leads into the other relevant fact about train travel:  you’re traveling on lines used for freight trains.  The majority of the ride was pretty smooth.  As somebody prone to motion sickness, I was fine.  Somewhere around the middle of Oregon, we hit a patch of rails that felt like they hadn’t been maintained since they were put in.  The train started rocking back and forth.  And suddenly, I was motion sick.  After chugging some dramamine and getting a couple of hours of extra sleep (after the previous four hour “nap” the night before it was welcome), I finally settled in.

We scheduled our dinner at 5 (they do reservations so everybody doesn’t mob the dining car).  Again, prices were fairly impressive.  And again, our meals were included so we didn’t have to pay.  I had the herb chicken.  It was a little better than breakfast, but not by much.  Imagine airline food on a train.  That’s what we got.  Of course, it was served by the same surly waitress we had for breakfast. After that, pretty much sat in our cabin miserable until the end of the train trip, which mercifully ended at 8:30 PM.

On the positive side, I’m glad I did it.  It’s something I always wanted to try, and had I never done it I’d think I missed out on something.

I suppose I did have high expectations of this trip.  Considering the price I paid, I expected far more from this little jaunt than encountered.  I think Amtrak is missing out on a huge opportunity.  I always visualized an overnight train trip as a land cruise.  In reality, it’s far from.  I think they have the general right idea, but the implementation is extremely poor.  The staff is a mixture of nice and bitter.  The train itself is pretty beat up and probably due for a huge overhaul.  They could also use some tracks of their own to ensure a smoother ride.  I won’t be taking Amtrak again for anything – I’d rather fly. I’ll miss out on the beautiful scenery, but I won’t be trapped on a miserable ride.

Fortunately, it didn’t ruin the whole trip.  The rest of the little Seattle visit was spectacular.  Got to spend time with great friends, and got to see all the sights.  But that’s a story for another blog post.

Things I learned recently:

Trains are cooler in theory, sucky in application.

Surly waitresses are surly.

Amtrak management needs to be replaced.