Hello Old Friend

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Right after I arrived in Missoula in January, I received a facebook message from one of my gym friends. She invited me to go with her to a community meditation being held at a wellness studio just around the corner. I was so excited to see her again and looked forward to the meditation too. I enjoyed the session and really liked Laura, who facilitated the meditation. Two weeks later, I enrolled in a weekly mindfulness meditation class at her studio. At the beginning of the first class of the session, Laura told the class, “Ok, for the first five minutes, we’re going to do power introductions. Spend 30 seconds getting to know the person next to you and then move on! Go!”

I turned to a young woman next to me and asked her how she came about to taking the class. She motioned towards Laura and said “I know Laura because we both play flute in the Community Band.” I exclaimed “Omigosh, there’s a Community Band in Missoula?! When do they rehearse?”  She replied, “Yes! They rehearse on Monday evenings, and rehearsals start this month.”

Here was an opportunity to get back in music and to get to know people. And was it a coincidence – I just happened to have brought my horn with me to Missoula. The following Monday, I drove to Sentinel High School and walked into the band room. Everyone was so nice and welcoming, the music for this concert was very enjoyable, and the conductor was fun and energetic. But after the initial excitement of the first couple of rehearsals, I wasn’t enjoying myself. What in the world was going on?

I started playing horn in 4th grade. It came very naturally to me and I loved it. I had found something that I was really good at and threw myself into it 100% – my mom never had to tell me to practice! In high school I started taking private lessons and by junior year I knew I wanted to major in music. After my undergraduate degree, I went to the University of Michigan to get my master’s degree. Those were the pinnacle of my horn playing years. I was surrounded in school with some of the most talented musicians in the country, I was playing tons of gigs, and just completely loving my life.

After graduating with my master’s, I stayed in Ann Arbor and took on a large studio of private students to go along with my orchestra gigs. That Fall, the principal hornist in the Ann Arbor symphony was unavailable for the first concert of the season, so between the rest of the section we shared the principal parts. I was assigned to play principal on a little Milhaud piece. It had a easy little slurry solo, nothing technical at all and in a very easy range. When we started rehearsals and got to that piece, I thought, nothing to it – a piece of cake.  But….something was just not right. I struggled with this simple little solo. I couldn’t explain it or put my finger on it, but I just couldn’t do it. My playing just wasn’t easy and natural like it always had been. All I could think was that I wasn’t practicing enough since I was teaching lessons all day long. So I practiced more and more, thinking it would fix itself, but it didn’t get any better – in fact, it got increasingly worse. I started to become a little frantic. For the first time in my life, I started losing my nerve. Those nerves manifested in a quiver in my lips as I tried to play. Like a total loss of control. I tried with all my might to control it.  The harder I tried to control it the worse it got. I didn’t confide in anyone and tried to hide my increasing discomfort and declining performance. 

One of my gigs at that time was Assistant Principal in the Flint Symphony Orchestra.  We were performing Brahms Symphony #3 and I was offered the chance to play 3rd horn. I jumped at the opportunity to play my own part. The third horn part in that symphony is beautiful, with a multitude of solos, most of them high, soft and completely exposed.  But as the rehearsals commenced, the pressure I put on myself in the wake of my declining performance started to take its toll. I was surrounded by colleagues with whom I’d played for years at the University of Michigan, and who had known me as one of the strongest horn players in the studio. I felt like I had such a high standard to live up to, and the harder I tried to regain any semblance of my past level of playing, the worse it got. My performance and confidence deteriorated over the span of the rehearsals and not surprisingly culminated in an awful performance. My mind was racing in overdrive with fear through the entire symphony.  I was petrified of and dreading each solo as it approached. Completely overwhelmed with nerves, feeling totally naked, alone and exposed, my whole body shaking along with my lips, I obliterated each solo. It was the worst, most humiliating and embarrassing experience of my life.  I felt like I let myself down, I let the conductor down, I let the audience down, I let all my friends and colleagues in the orchestra down.  I was completely devastated. It was like a betrayal. The one thing in my life that I had always depended on to make me feel good had deserted me.

My struggles continued over the next several years as I desperately tried everything I could think of to turn things around. I took lessons from several teachers around the area, hoping that someone might be able to help, to find out what was wrong and why my lips were quivering. I took several months off, hoping that when I picked my horn back up that the problem had gone away. Finally I decided to go back to school for my doctorate, hoping that I might right the ship. I went to the University of Iowa, and once I was back in school, I was able to manage my nerves and the discomfort. I started to gain back confidence in myself. After receiving my doctorate, I was hired at the University of Louisville as the Assistant Professor of Horn. But the pressure I continued to put on myself to perform to a certain standard – now in a full-time professional job situation – brought about a decline in confidence and along with that, a rapid decline in my performance.  After my short two-year stint at U of L, I was not rehired. I gradually stopped applying for other teaching jobs, and soon gave up playing my horn for a career.  I played and taught less and less as each year passed. Finally, three years ago I gave up teaching and playing altogether as it just became way more struggle than fun. I gave away my huge library of music, put my horn in the closet and closed that chapter in my life.

Back in Missoula, I wondered why I was struggling when this should be FUN? There was nothing on the line. There was certainly no pressure in this community band.  I sat in a quiet meditation one morning searching for clarity, and I realized that the discomfort I was feeling in rehearsals was because I was worried that people would hear my lips quiver. That they would judge me for that. That I would let everyone down again. But – no one was expecting anything from me.  The expectation was coming from myself. From still not accepting myself and that my lips quiver and I don’t play like I used to.

I wasn’t ready to give up again. Even though it was uncomfortable for me to hear myself, I started to play every day, just a little bit. I set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes, and gradually increased until I was practicing 30-45 minutes a day, just to get my muscles used to playing again. Because of that, I had a bit more endurance during rehearsals and it helped me relax and by the dress rehearsal, I felt more comfortable and confident than I had in a long time.

The night of the concert arrived. As the concert started, the nerves reappeared in full force and my lips started quivering almost uncontrollably. I sat there and thought to myself, there is no threat here. I am under no external pressure whatsoever. I was hoping that realization would allow me to relax, but years of conditioning cannot be overcome with one thought. All I could do was to accept how I was playing at that moment and do the best I could. I came home after the concert with mixed emotions, but I looked in the mirror and told myself “Good for you Alise. Good for you for getting out of that closet and putting yourself and your fear out there.” I realized that I couldn’t expect DECADES of my expectation for perfection to disappear after just my first playing experience in years.

The pressure that musicians put upon themselves to be perfect can be overwhelming. We judge ourselves and judge others on missed notes or other imperfections. Gigs and jobs are based on competitive auditions in which missed notes are the difference between employment or unemployment.  I was easily able to handle that pressure up until a certain point in my career, but once I had playing challenges, I completely crumbled under that pressure. And allowed it to take away a real source of happiness and fulfillment in my life. Years ago I remember talking to an old colleague from the University of Michigan. She had also given up playing and said she felt overwhelming relief. She said that the pressure to play at a certain level felt like an albatross around her neck. A ball and chain that she carried around on a daily basis. I instantly related to that. What a shame that the joy that we originally had from playing our instrument turned into such pain.

I have said for the past three years that I will no longer let my fears rule my life. And playing my horn has been one of my biggest fears. But I’m keeping my horn out of the closet. I’m going to play in the Summer Band here in Missoula and continue to play in the Community Band. This is a great opportunity for me – can I love and accept myself  despite having what I’ve believed to be a huge flaw? It’s been part of me for over 30 years and I’ve been fearing and fighting it. I’ve been rejecting myself that whole time. Can I let go of the belief, created over decades, that something is wrong with me? If I’m trying to love myself unconditionally, I must accept that it is just part of me and part of my journey, and it’s ok. What if I embrace it and make friends with it instead? I just might allow myself to recapture the old joy – I know it’s right there waiting for me to come back.

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