Our musical cheerleaders

This card seems pretty obvious to me but can be easily forgotten during stressful times. In the midst of severe anxiety, one may have the tendency to isolate which is not a good thing to do for many reasons. Our friends and family love and care about us. In the long run, however things play out (literally) in our lives, their love will not wane. Their support is an important counter to self-flagellation.

When preparing for an audition or what is perceived to be a high-stakes performance, surely keep friends and family in the loop. My friends who do not have any connection with the classical music world ask me the best questions about what it is like to play the violin professionally. Some of my favorites are: “What does a conductor do?” “Why do you all look so serious when you play?” “Does your arm ever get tired?” “What is that sound you all make before the music starts?” “What is a concert master?” “Is second violin a different instrument?” I used to feel awkward about answering these questions. For a while I felt kind of like a classical music ambassador but after a while I didn’t feel good about putting myself on a pedestal with good friends. Now I look forward to being able to make light of what I do and not take myself so seriously. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to answer the first one: “Ya know. I’m not really sure what the conductor is there for!”

For too long classical music has felt disconnected from my relationship with the “outside” world. Truthfully, many of the classical era masterworks are just as relevant today as when they were written. A very famous composer from early in the 19th century set out to write a piece about a new leader of what he hoped would become a new world based on freedom and enlightenment. Unfortunately, before the piece was completed, the composer discovered that this leader had become a tyrannical despot just as bad as the monarchs he had replaced. The composer completed the piece and gave it the more general title Eroica. The composer was, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven. My point is that even though most of the music we “classical musicians” play was written long ago, we can make the connection to current issues in our lives such as losing faith in a leader who we had thought was the embodiment of all we thought was good.

I like to play concert programs for friends and family before public performances. It feels like a soft audience that a good friend of mine calls “friendly fire.” I usually say ahead of time what my intentions are. I make it clear that I don’t expect them to say anything or even understand what I’m doing. I explain that I need to know what it feels like to play a particular piece non stop in front of an audience. Sometimes I even verbalize any concerns I have about a particular spot in the music or an issue with the venue. It is kind of a confession for me that I’m experiencing anxiety and I need to mentally rehearse what it will feel like to be in that situation. The reaction from “soft” audiences has always been positive and uplifting even if nothing is said afterwards. Playing for friends and family is also a good way to rehearse any relaxation techniques you plan to employ such as belly breathing, hypnosis, isometric muscle contraction and release, or mental rehearsal.

Maintaining communication with friends and family members is important for mental health in general. They may spur you on to answer for yourself why you chose to perform a particular program. I’m hearing a good friend’s voice in my head right now saying “just play because you love music.” I can hear in her voice her kindness and admiration of the ability to play music. It is so easy for us to get wrapped up in self-criticism and shame about our perceived flaws as musicians. It helps to be constantly reminded that this ability is something special. People who never learned an instrument or who tried and found it wasn’t for them, really do marvel at the thought of taking an instrument out if its case and producing beautiful music from it.

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