Value Yourself

Throughout my life, I have dealt with anxiety on a daily basis. Even as a small child, I remember having anxiety attacks and being afraid of social interaction. Finally in 2011, I was diagnosed with both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder and subsequently prescribed medication. I have had my ups-and-downs over the past several years, but in general, I can say that my life is a lot more livable and enjoyable on medication (my wife can attest to this as well). It took my doctors and I a few tries to find the right medication and dosage, but the trial-and-error process was definitely worth it.

The un-medicated years were tough, but I was typically able to conquer my demons. I have always suffered from performance anxiety, and it was definitely very bad at the beginning of my musical career. As a young student in middle school, I would play so softly, because I didn’t want anyone to hear me make a mistake. I really didn’t want anyone to hear me at all. No one really believed that I would be good at music back then, but I worked at it, practiced, didn’t give up, and I gained some confidence along the way. By the time I was in 8th grade and transitioning into high school, I was a decent musician. I wasn’t great, but I had potential, and my teachers began to notice it and started to treat me in a different way. I started to feel like I belonged in band, in the music world, and during high school, I began to break out of my shell. I started playing more confidently, I didn’t shy away from exposed parts or solos, and I let my personality show through my music.

I began to love and enjoy music so much that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it, whether that meant playing or teaching. So, I went to college, and faced a whole new array of obstacles. I’m an anxious person, and college brought a new set of people to face, a new set of rules, a new level of commitment, so I had to adjust. Through hard-work and putting myself out there, I overcame my performance and general anxiety once again. Even though it might have been helpful, I never utilized any psychological tricks during my formative years. If I had a bad performance, I picked myself up and tried again. A combination of practice, a relentless work ethic, and stubbornness helped me achieve my musical goals: getting into grad school, earning my DMA, playing in numerous professional orchestras, winning an orchestral audition, etc.

Needless to say, I have put so much effort into my musical career that it is a part of me, and a very big part of my identity. Music is not only my career, but it is my main interest/hobby. I love it so much that I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to do next. I have gained a lot of confidence through my musical pursuits, and it really transformed me from a shy introvert, to someone that finally felt comfortable in his own skin. My achievements in music became a huge part of my self-worth, the primary part, and I was really happy, because I was succeeding.

This, unfortunately, is never a good thing and turned out to be my fatal flaw. To judge one’s self-worth through achievements is a slippery slope, because these things are so fickle and fleeting. Yes, I should be happy and celebrate my achievements, but this should never solely determine how I or anyone else values themselves as a person, which is what happened with me. Unfortunately, when my injury occurred, and I started to notice issues with my playing that wouldn’t go away, I panicked. Over the course of three years, I tried weird things, constantly changed my embouchure, changed mouthpiece placement, and eventually, I lost the ability to play for a while. When this happened, my life came crashing down. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself, because playing the horn was my world. It’s what I wanted to do with my life, and I had this goal of becoming a college horn professor, and now that I couldn’t play, I didn’t know how to adjust. I put too much value into the wrong things, and I was unable to put my life into the correct perspective when things started to take a turn for the worse.

At first, when the playing injury happened, I was in denial. For a long time, I did not want to confront the fact that I had a problem (several problems), and I kept brushing it/them off to the side. I didn’t think that this could happen to me, so I wouldn’t allow myself to believe that it was that serious. I decided to keep going about my business, and I told myself that things would get better over time. I was also under the impression that I didn’t have time to deal with this injury. There are all of these unwritten rules, and if I wanted to make it, I needed to audition more and win an orchestral job. I didn’t have time to wait and let myself heal properly, because I needed to do all of this stuff to get a job, and if I didn’t get a job in a certain amount of time or before a certain age, I would be deemed a failure, and since my personal identity and self-worth was involved, I felt like a horrible person as well.

This lack of perspective didn’t allow me to listen to my body and ignore outside (and inside) influences or pressures. My embouchure was not ready, but I pushed myself too far, and put too much emphasis on career outcome/goals, which in the end, severely altered my career trajectory. It has taken me 7 years to fully overcome these problems. Just think about that…if  I had done the smart thing, maybe just take a few months away from playing, I could have saved myself 7 years of grief, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog right now.

Of course, if I’m trying to blame the system or the “rules” for my problems, then I’m lying to myself. Even though things need to change, we can’t make excuses for ourselves. We are the ones that have to take action, and I was unable to be truthful to myself and others. When my injury happened, I was afraid, so I didn’t accept it. When my career wasn’t going in the right direction, I was afraid, so I became more of an introvert and stopped trying. Instead of being happy for others and trying to emulate them in order to find similar success, I was angry. Angry at them for succeeding, angry at the system for not giving me a chance, and angry at myself for a multitude of things. Like I’ve stated in other posts, I was severely depressed, and for those of you that have dealt with depression, it is a mental disorder that is very difficult to overcome, and I suffered with it (as well as my family) for approximately 4 to 5 years.

In the end, I had to make the decision to overcome my depression. It took a while, but one thing that really helped was learning how to develop a positive image of myself. I needed to understand that even though my life had not gone the way I expected, I wasn’t any less of a person because of it. At the time, my self-worth/confidence was basically non-existent, and I had pretty much spent the past five years just continually tearing myself down. I also didn’t listen to others that were trying to support me. My perception of myself was so awful that I couldn’t take any positive comment the correct way. I would twist it in my own mind until it became completely negative and only added to my torment. Of course, my mind still tries to do this on occasion, but I value myself now, so I’m able to brush these negative feelings aside and know that they are untrue.

This is the key: learning how to value yourself as a person. Don’t judge yourself based on career success and/or failure. Careers change, goals change, and life changes constantly. Learn to be comfortable with who you are as a human being and don’t base your self-worth on merits. These things don’t last long, and just like the old adage, “money can’t buy you happiness.” It can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t fill that void. It’s the reason why people with bi-polar disorder will go on shopping sprees and buy lots of things during “high” periods. Everyone gets excited with a new gadget or toy, but what happens when that “newness” fades? There’s no substance within the relationship, which is why I had to make changes in my life.

First, I needed to change my relationship with music. For so long, I had judged myself based on my musical accomplishments that I had lost the joy of making music. I needed to find that happiness again, so I decided to make enjoyment the main reason for continuing to play. I love playing horn, and there is no reason why I should stop. During my struggles, I seriously considered giving it up, because things were just so unpleasant; however, I just couldn’t imagine my life without music, so it took some time, but I figured it out. I’m still practicing a lot and playing at a high level, but I’m not doing it just to make money or to get a job anymore. If I don’t want to play a gig or teach something/someone, I’m not going to do it. Earlier in my career, I wasted too much time worrying about what other people thought, and I took every single job or gig thrown my way. Now, I’m focusing a lot more on what fits best for me and my family, which led to the other big change that I had to make.

If music wan’t going to be the most important thing in my life, then something had to take its place. Thankfully, I had something that could and should take its place. The one thing that helped me successfully overcome my depression was my family. At first, when my depression began, I felt like a failure, because I was unable to provide for my family. I had spent 10 years in college, and I had just graduated, so I was supposed to start making the big bucks. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and I was extremely hard on myself. After wallowing in my own self-pity for a while, I finally realized that these individuals, my wife and kids, didn’t care about these things that I was constantly worrying about. They loved me and valued me for who I was as a person, and they didn’t care what job I had as long as I was present. This really helped me to develop a new sense of self-worth, and I began to realize myself that my job nor my career mattered as much as I thought it did. I had a great deal to be happy about. I was able to spend a lot of time with my kids and enjoy watching them grow up, and I was still able to teach and make a difference in people’s lives.

Even though I’m still searching for break in my career, I’m not discouraged, because now I have the proper mindset. I have a job that allows me to help provide for my family, but it stills gives me the time and opportunity to pursue my real interests. I’m still teaching my college students and private students, and I’m also trying to create my own opportunities by composing and forming groups to perform my music. It’s tough and a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I’m also still able to spend time with my family, which is super important.

In the end, I think it really is just about having the right mindset and keeping the important things in perspective. Hopefully, I can continue to keep my life in the correct perspective and not let my career pursuits dictate all aspects of my life as it once did.

 

Things They Don’t Teach You in School: Student Loans Suck!

If you are a child of the 80s or 90s, then you probably have some form of student loan debt. I know that student loans have been around for a while, but I feel that my generation was fooled the most. Starting in the 90s (possibly earlier), there was a real societal push towards the college prep track. Basically, we were told that if you didn’t go to college and get a bachelor’s degree, you weren’t going to find a good job. This mindset caused a huge influx of student enrollment in U.S. colleges during the late 90s and really transformed the higher education system into more of a big business model than a place of higher learning. Granted, I loved college and graduate school, and I am still trying to find a job as a professor, but the more I learn about the system, the more I realize that it’s all about making money. Look at the astronomical rise in college tuition as proof of this point. When I attended Augusta State University in Augusta, GA as a college freshman in 2001, the cost of attendance was roughly $1200 per semester. Today, Augusta State is now Augusta University after merging with the top medical school in the state, the Medical College of Georgia, which is also located in Augusta. AU is now a research intensive institution and is even more focused on making money rather than the quality of instruction. If I were an incoming freshman at AU for the fall, I would pay over $9000 per semester….that is an increase in tuition of approximately $8000 per semester. This isn’t even a big college, with less than 10,000 students enrolled. Needless to say, college is expensive, and I could continue to discuss the supposed reasons behind the rise in tuition, but my main point is this:

STUDENT LOANS SUCK!!

No one really warned me about these loans when I was in school. My parents never went to college, so they didn’t know, and my college professors didn’t really warn me about them either. There were a couple of passing comments about loans here and there during undergrad, but most of my professors never discussed it. The common thought at the time was, “I need a college degree to make it, so let’s do whatever it takes to get it done.” Also, don’t think that you can trust the people in the Financial Aid Office, because it is their job to get you approved for the money you need to pay for college. If you enroll in school, then that is their job security. They’re not going to warn you about the pitfalls of student loans. They won’t tell you that you’re going to accrue several thousands of dollars in interest while you’re in school, and if you go to grad school and defer, then just keep on multiplying that number. They won’t tell you that your interest rate is going to be so high that it will take 5-10 years to pay off even $1,000 of that loan debt (think of a credit card bill, but with a much higher payment and interest rate). Sure, you can consolidate through another company once you get out of college and get a job, but your debt to income ratio will probably be so high that a lot of the good and reputable companies won’t touch you.

Don’t ever take out extra student loan debt as a way to cover living expenses while in undergrad or grad school. My wife and I made this mistake, and we are still paying for it. I won assistantships for grad school, but I still took out loan money for living expenses, because we had no idea what to expect. I don’t remember the exact number, but I know that I took out around $15,000; however, through several years of deferment, we now owe over $30,000 on that loan…even after paying on it for about 5 years.

At the last Southeast Horn Workshop at UGA, I was speaking to one of the employees at the Siegfried’s Call table (very well-known and reputable horn dealer/shop), and he was telling me that a lot of students are taking out more student loan debt to pay for new horns (about $10,000 to $12,000). While at WVU, I had the same idea and took out another student loan to buy a new horn. Well, that original loan amount doubled through the deferment process, and we now owe probably a little less that $20,000 on it. If you are thinking about taking out more student loan debt to pay for a new instrument….DON’T DO IT!! It’s really easy to get that money, but paying for it afterwards is not worth it. Make the smarter choice and go to your bank or a local credit union that will work with you and give you a much better interest rate.

I put all of this stuff out there not to scare, but to inform. Please, make better choices than I and countless others in the past. I know that most musicians want to go to grad school, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t, but you need to be smart about it. Sure, we all dream of going to Eastman, Juilliard, Indiana, Northwestern, etc., but is it really worth accruing $90,000 worth of debt for a job that might pay in the $50,000 range? There are plenty of assistantships out there and a lot of wonderful teachers, so there’s no reason why anyone should have to pay for a graduate degree. Plus, like I stated above, don’t make the stupid decision of taking out loans to pay for living expenses…find another way. Save money, work an extra job, ask a family member for assistance…do what you need to do to keep from making a big mistake.

Here’s a bit of advice that we all probably need to hear and/or think about more often: Learn from other people’s mistakes and make the better choice.

An Efficient Embouchure, Confidence, and Air Support/Control

These three qualities/aspects of playing may not seem to have anything in common, but in actuality, they are very similar and all equally as important. In order to be a good musician, one must master each of these concepts. When we are learning to become a musician, we always seem to tackle these issues individually and hardly ever tend to see the association between them. Since suffering my injury and going through the subsequent rehabilitation, I have noticed a striking similarity between these three ideas. From my perspective, I have come to realize that these three qualities CANNOT exist without the other.

Once I began suffering from Embouchure Overuse Syndrome, I began to notice a drastic decline in both my confidence and the ability to use my air efficiently while performing. This was primarily due to the fact that I was utilizing an inefficient embouchure. I know that there were a multitude of problems created by my inefficient embouchure, but these are two areas in my playing that I struggled with the most during my rehab. I actually began to regain my technical facility and flexibility first after fixing my embouchure, and I believe that this helped me to begin to feel more confident in my playing, which in turn, continued to elevate my playing ability in general.

My loss of air support seemed to be directly derived from both maladies, my loss of embouchure and confidence. It didn’t happen at once, but over a period of 6 months, I began to notice a drastic decline in my ability to play long phrases, and my sound went from being very colorful to just mediocre. Personally, I know that these side effects were mostly due to my lack of confidence. Normally, when an anxious person suffers from an anxiety attack, you sweat, shake, lose the ability to concentrate, and suffer from shortness of breath. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I had been scarred so badly that I began to suffer an anxiety attack every time I picked up the horn. I was so afraid of playing and messing up that I was unable to take in enough air to produce a quality sound, and sometimes, I was unable to produce a sound at all. Initially, I thought that something else was wrong. I began to wonder if I had lost my air control and support due to my weight gain and lack of exercise (Thanks, Depression!). Maybe it was due to the fact that I wasn’t practicing enough. Yes, I’m sure these things had an affect, but my anxiety was the root of the problem. Once my condition began to improve, my air support and control came back. I still need to exercise and lose weight, but my anxiety had to be conquered first.

The funny thing is that even though my embouchure was back to normal, and I was beginning to regain some confidence, I still suffered from issues with my air when performing in front of others. My anxiety was so advanced that even though I knew that I was improving, I was still scared to play for others. Nonetheless, I still put myself out there and subsequently gained more confidence through these experiences. I’ve noticed that as I become more confident, my anxiety is more controllable, and I don’t have to think so much while I’m playing. This means that I’ve also been able to utilize my air more efficiently, which solidifies the fact that my air support not only depends upon an efficient embouchure, but also relies heavily upon my confidence level.

I have always suffered from anxiety, so it comes as no surprise that I would need to face my nemesis once again to regain control of my life. This whole ordeal affected pretty much every aspect of my life in a negative way, so I’m glad that it’s over, but I can honestly say that it has made me stronger. I think it has also forced me to re-evaluate my teaching, and I do feel that I have become a better teacher throughout this process as well.

Some more thoughts about air. I wish that I could give everyone some magical tip that will fix all of your problems, but I can’t. However, I will say that most, if not all, problems can be solved through hard work and determination, which is what it took for me to overcome my issues. One thing that I have noticed is the fact that as I have become more efficient with my air, I am thinking less and less about the process and more about the result. I’m not thinking about how to create the sound. I have a clear concept of the sound that I want, and then I just do it, no extraneous thoughts involved. When I’m teaching younger students, I do give them specific instructions, “Use more air,” “Faster air,” “Energize the air,” etc., but I also explain that I’m trying to teach them how to intuitively use their air in order to become more efficient. I constantly point things out in the music, especially whenever slurred leaps are involved. I try to remind them that every time they see a leap, they should begin to “energize” or “churn” the air more quickly on the bottom note to prepare and support the shift to the upper note. If you take worrying about air out of the equation, then you can just focus on the note, which ultimately gives you a better chance to be accurate.

It all really boils down to efficiency and confidence. If you’re efficient, you’ll be more confident, and with confidence, you can achieve a great deal. Efficiency is the key factor, but for someone that suffers from sever anxiety, confidence plays a major role in how I perform and how I sound. Even if I’m playing efficiently, I will not sound good unless I am confident in my abilities. Confidence takes to time to develop, but I promise that it is worth it. I’ve felt the difference twice (lack of confidence vs highly confident), and it is really a life altering experience. Remember that everyone will progress at a different rate. For me, it took longer due to my anxiety, and I also had to surround myself with the right people. Just don’t give up, because like I mentioned earlier, if you put in the work, it will happen.