Dealing with Depression

This is a topic that still isn’t talked about as much as it should be, especially within the music business. Depression is real, and I suffered with it for a few years before finally pulling myself out of it. I feel that a lot of people still don’t see depression as a real affliction, and that those of us who suffer with this mental illness are afraid to seek help. We don’t want others to know, or think less of us, because there are those people who feign certain illnesses and issues all the time. It’s not fair. There are plenty of people who died too young and/or ruined their career by trying to live and deal with depression on their own. Too many people have tried to drown their sorrows with alcohol or illegal drugs.  Thankfully, I was not one of those people, but it happens.

I’m not a medical doctor, therapist, or psychologist, but if you think you have depression or a serious problem with anxiety, please go seek professional help. I did not seek professional help for my depression, so it took longer than I expected to get better. I have been taking medication for my anxiety for several years, and I do think that medication saved me from myself; however, I should have sought help and things could have played out differently. Now, I hope that I can at least use my experience to help others.

There are many different forms of depression, but clinical depression or major depressive disorder is defined as follows by the National Institute of Mental Health:

It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.

It’s a vague description, but I really think that depression can manifest in different ways depending on the person. For me, I didn’t notice this at the time, but I became a completely different person. I didn’t sleep well at all, I gained about 80 pounds, which I still haven’t been able to lose yet, and my personality changed as well. I became agitated/irritated very easily, and I just had a lot of anger for no reason. I was angry about everything. My road rage was awful, and I’m surprised that someone didn’t hurt me for some of the stupid things that I did. I also began to lie a lot. I’m the type of person that is pretty reliable and is always truthful, but I started telling little lies here and there, and then it steamrolled into something bigger. I didn’t want anyone to know what was going on, so I just made stuff up when I needed to get out of doing something. It’s a wonder that I didn’t get lost in all of the lies.

Aside from those things, I also became kind of lazy. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a hard worker, and I always did what I needed to do and more to attain a goal. After the depression really hit, I just started to give up on things very easily. Any negative thing would affect me so much that I would shut down for a little while. It was a horrible feeling, and I know that I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around through all of this stuff. I should have reached out for help, but like I said, I was afraid, ashamed, and a whole bunch of other feelings that I can’t count.

That being said, the big question is this: How do you deal with depression? Like I keep saying the best way to deal with it is with a professional. Also, you can talk to other people within the profession who have gone through similar circumstances, like myself or anyone else. It’s important to realize that you are not alone and that your mental and physical health is more important than worrying about what other people might think of you. Life is bigger than that and if someone can’t be understanding and supportive, then maybe they don’t need to be in your life. This is a tough profession, primarily because there are too many highly qualified individuals and not enough jobs. The system is broken and it unfortunately looks like it won’t be fixed anytime soon. It also means that universities and conservatories will need to change the way that they prepare us for what’s to come after graduation. I received a great education, but I was prepared to play in an orchestra, teach horn players, teach at the collegiate level. I was not prepared to be denied jobs because I am over qualified. I was not prepared for that crushing sense of despair that I felt when I realized that I could not find a job to support my newborn child.

I don’t say all of this to depress anyone or to try and deter them from pursuing a career in music. I’m still fighting the good fight, but we need to be ready to evolve very quickly. Plus, everyone needs to know how brutal it is out there. Once you graduate, you are on your own, and you better have a plan. I have a plan now, but it took me longer than I expected to get there.

So, back to the original question: How do you deal with depression? I don’t have an easy answer. It’s been a tough road, but I know that I overcame my depression, because I decided that it was time. I realized that I was the only one that could change myself. I had to decide what I wanted, and I had to make myself get to work. Once I did this, I really did start to feel normal again.

For me, I don’t like to talk to people, so this blog has been very therapeutic; however, that still doesn’t mean that you can refuse to get help and be fine. I’m lucky, but you or someone else may not be as lucky. If you are suffering from depression, seek help. If you know someone who is suffering, give them support in any way that you can. Every little bit helps.

Breath Attacks

As a younger horn player, I struggled with attacking first notes. I felt so much anxiety over missing the note that I would be unable to make a sound for a few seconds, then it would finally come out. Sometimes it would sputter, kind of like when you try to crank your car on a cold morning, and other times I would need to consciously relax myself and allow the air to move freely in order to produce a sound. I would blow, but my upper body was so tense that I wasn’t blowing enough air to make a sound. Unfortunately, this “hesitation” in my attacks resurfaced after my injury.

This problem seems to always prey on me when I have lost all confidence in myself and my abilities as a horn player. When the hesitations first started to occur, it was because I hadn’t built up enough confidence through positive experiences. I was also very afraid of putting myself out there (Remember that I am an introvert and that drawing attention to myself isn’t something that excites me). After the injury, I didn’t think that I would be able to play anymore, and my my embouchure setup felt foreign, which didn’t help my confidence. I didn’t know what note would come out, so I was afraid to play. I was also afraid, because I was really embarrassed of how I sounded. I knew how well I could play, and I didn’t want anyone else to know how bad things were, because I didn’t want anyone to think less of me. Again, I was linking my self worth to my current abilities as a player, which was not a healthy situation.

The way that I overcame both situations was a combination of diligent practice and the fortification/reparation of my mental state. I have already talked about how I’ve been working to change my mental fortitude, and I will continue to do so, but this particular post is meant to focus on a particular type of exercise that helped me along the way to overcome the hesitation, and anxiety, I felt before attacking a note. This particular exercise, or group of exercises, involved the use of breath attacks on a daily basis.

Breath attacks were a daily part of my routine during undergrad and grad school. I was introduced to the Caruso Method while struggling to become a horn player, and I used many of the exercises to help build my strength and endurance. I guess that I should credit these exercises for turning me into a “high” horn player, even though there isn’t such a thing any more. When I practiced the Caruso exercises regularly, I was able to comfortably play above a written c”’. I never really went through the whole book, because I just felt that the first two exercises achieved the goal, and everything else felt like overkill. Here are the Caruso exercises:

Breath Attacks - Caruso Style

Breath Attacks - Caruso Style - High

The catch is that you have to keep the mouthpiece on the face the whole time. Caruso gives you breaks to breath, but you breathe through the nose, either in or out. Don’t loosen the corners of your embouchure to let out air, because even that small change will lessen the benefits of the exercises. The first exercise should be done twice, I forgot to add the repeat sign. The second one, which obviously focuses on the high range, start at your own pace. Go as high as you can, until you either can’t play the note or have trouble with the slur. At this point, take the mouthpiece off of the face, rest a minute, and then try again. If you still falter on the second attempt, then it’s time to stop. If you’re successful, then keep going. At my best, I was able to play up to a written f”’. It wasn’t the prettiest sounding note, but it helped my confidence, and made play a written c”’ feel a lot easier to play.

Another breath attack exercise that I used to improve both accuracy and stability in the high range, is a short exercise that I received from Bob Pruzin. Pruzin was the Professor of Horn at The University of South Carolina for many years. I studied with him for a time, and he had a very specific way of doing things. Some things were great, and others were a little on the gimmicky side. This particular exercise really helped, and I’ve used it off and on ever since:

Breath Attacks - Pruzin Style

Play with a metronome and take the mouthpiece off of the face between each note, because you want each breath attack to simulate a first attack. I love doing breath attacks in the high range, because there is no room for mistakes. Your embouchure has to be set correctly for each note, which really helps one to feel the note. We can sometimes get away with not being perfect with the help of the tongue through articulations, but that’s not so with breath attacks. They help with accuracy, because, like I just mentioned, you really feel the note and get a better understanding of what needs to take place to perfectly and efficiently play each note throughout the range.

During my undergrad, when I was first afflicted by hesitation attacks, I worked on breath attacks using the Singer – Tone and Control Studies – Ex. 1. I would breath attack the first note, and then attack the following two. I would use a metronome, set anywhere from quarter = 60-72, and I would also take the mouthpiece off of the face between each attack, simulating a first attack each time. Here is a portion of the exercise:

Breath Attacks - Singer Style

You would follow the same chromatic pattern up to a written f” or g”. Then, do the same with the mid-low range, starting on e’ and working down chromatically to a written c. This helped a lot, but I also developed a similar exercise that challenges your ear and accuracy a little bit more:

Breath Attacks - Singer Style - Johnson Version

This is only a portion of the exercise. I start it on a written g’, and then the exercise works chromatically, alternating up and down, from this note, ending on a written g and g” respectively. It’s a great way to work on accuracy, and it will hopefully rid one of hesitation attacks as well.

Another exercise that I have used recently to build and maintain consistency in the pedal range is a version of the Pruzin breath attacks. It takes the same concept, but shifts the focus to the extreme low range. The goal is to get a really good, loud blast for each pedal note. If you can play the notes really loud, then you’re doing the right thing. I never worked on breath attacks in the pedal range until working with Bill Caballero. He suggested it, and it helped, so I’ve used it myself and in my teaching.

Breath Attacks - Low Horn Blast

I wish I could say that breath attacks will fix all of your problems, but they won’t. These exercises will help you through the process, but perfecting your attacks takes time. Work with a metronome, record and/or video yourself, play in front of people as much as possible, and believe in yourself. A lack of confidence is normally the prime suspect when dealing with hesitation attacks. It’s also a good idea to observe the amount of tension present when trying to start notes. Any amount of excess tension in the upper body will negatively affect one’s ability to play with ease. I know from experience. I would feel a lot of tension in my shoulders and neck, and my throat would tighten when trying to start notes. This would also affect my breathing. When starting a phrase, I would always take shallower breaths and be unable to to play through long phrases.

Stay positive and trust the process.

Staying Positive & Redefining Success/Failure

I’ve been really busy lately, and very tired. Even though I’m tired, I still have to keep practicing. There have been plenty of days where I have been tempted to just skip a practice session and lie around on the couch watching television, or spend time with my family. I knew that regaining the ability to play at a high level would be challenging, and I was also prepared to make sacrifices. Probably the most difficult sacrifice has been to give up that extra bit of sleep or rest. Last year, I wasn’t really practicing that much. I would get home from work and normally choose to be lazy. Now, I’m waking up earlier to fit in a warm-up session everyday, I’m practicing every chance I have at work, and I’m also setting aside an hour in the evening to practice at home. It’s a relentless schedule, because I have something to do at every moment, whether it’s teaching, practicing, preparation for teaching, research, etc. I’m physically and mentally exhausted, because I am working harder than I ever have before. And trust me, I have bad days. Days where I just don’t feel like doing anything, or days where things just go completely wrong. In the past, these days would have discouraged me, and I probably would have just given up for that day, or for the entire week, maybe even the entire month. I knew what I wanted back then, but I just didn’t really have the drive, the belief in myself, or the belief in my plan, which is the most important thing right now. The difference between now and even a year ago is the fact that I have a plan. A detailed plan with both short and long-range goals; however, this plan looks and feels a lot different from the one that I had in Graduate school.

The short-range goals are things that are attainable. Like, developing and following a practice routine for each day, working through some anxiety issues, performing with others, working a specific piece or technique, etc. I have also had to redefine my definition of both success and failure through this process. Before, success was being perfect, and being perfect meant that I had a chance to win that job. If I didn’t get that job, then I was a failure. The very first orchestral audition that I took, I almost won. I finished runner-up, and afterwards, I expected to find success again and win a job. Each subsequent audition that I did not win began to weigh on me. My definition of success was winning a job, and I kept folding under the pressure. It wasn’t that I couldn’t play at a high enough level, it was the fact that I was putting too much pressure on myself. After not winning an audition, I would come back and practice even more, because I believed that something was wrong. I wanted to be perfect, and this pursuit led to a couple of things. It ultimately drove me to my injury, and it also drained the fun out of playing horn.

So, here’s the big question: How do you stay positive, when all you do is fail? This was what kept me down for so long. I believed that I was a failure, because I had not achieved my version of success. So, changing my perspective was the first step. Then, I had to redefine my version of success. Of course, I want to play at a high level and perform in all different kinds of settings, but, is that really success? Am I successful if I win a job in an orchestra? Am I successful if I obtain a full-time job at a university? At some point, I realized that I had to stop measuring my success through the trajectory of my career. I just wanted to have fun again. I wasn’t playing horn that much, and when I did, I was not enjoying it. My primary focus since reaffirming my dedication to the horn has been trying to find that gratification of doing something that makes me happy. If I’m enjoying myself, then I know that I’m on the right track. It doesn’t matter if I miss notes, or if I don’t win an audition, or if I don’t even get called to play gigs anymore. I’m doing this for myself, and no one else. That may be selfish, but I’ve spent too much time worrying about what others think.

Focusing on having fun has allowed me to stay positive when things get tough. Also, I’m setting different goals for myself that revolve around having fun. I still want a college job, but that isn’t the measure of my success anymore. Instead, I’m focusing on playing in chamber groups, which is something that I really enjoy. I’m writing and arranging music (and being published!). I’m practicing so that I can play/perform certain pieces, not just so that I can win a job. I’m conducting a horn ensemble and also writing music for said ensemble. I’m doing research again. I’m also focusing on becoming a better teacher for my private students. These are my goals, but they are also things that I want to do, as well as things that make me happy and that I enjoy. Whether or not these endeavors land me a university or orchestral job is a moot point. The main question that I have to ask myself: Do these things make me happy? If I’m happy and having fun, then I’m a better person, more confident, and more invested in my life.

If you’re not having fun and enjoying yourself, then something is wrong. Throughout my own process, I’ve been determined, and I set a practice regimen that I follow religiously, but I don’t know if I could have made it this far if I weren’t enjoying myself. I already tried doing this for the money and the job before, and that failed. My advice is that if you can’t find a positive personal reason for doing something, whether it’s a job or other interest, then you’re only going to get so far. Money isn’t everything. A job isn’t everything. Sometimes we need to do it for ourselves. I tried to live without the horn, and music in general, and it made me miserable. So, find out what’s important to you, and figure out a way to set goals that will and should lead to success, but without sacrificing your happiness and well-being. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, because you never know if you’ll succeed if you’re too worried about failure.