Becoming a musician -- again

After trying a "practical" career path, I went back to music -- only the "impractical" is practical for me

By Cary Tennis

Published March 27, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Almost one year ago, I returned to my career as a musician after spending a number of years outside of music pursuing a "normal" job. Despite the success I was lucky to enjoy during an economically tumultuous time, working outside of music made me feel like a fraud, like my life was a charade -- surrounded by people with whom I could not identify, doing work that supported projects that, I believe, ultimately do more harm than good to society overall, and letting my talent and passion for music languish.

Through career workshops and classes, books, certain friendships and self-reflection, I finally found the courage to return to music. The crux of my focus now is addressing and putting to rest the reason I left music originally. I believe that the essence of my motivation was to raise a white flag and surrender to the "practical" thinking and fears that had been instilled in me by my parents, particularly my mom (my dad passed away when I was a teenager). These fears show up when I am practicing, rehearsing, performing and auditioning as a little voice of doubt that tells me that I will never conquer my nervousness and insecurities sufficiently to be able to present myself as I am capable of playing for each rehearsal, performance and audition so that I might have a chance at making a viable living as a working musician. Even though I have made tremendous progress in dealing with nerves since returning to music, I am terrified that my anxieties will always cripple me -- causing me to freak out and botch things the moment the music becomes tricky or exposed or requires sensitive handling. I am scared every day. More than that, recently I am finding myself waking up with a vague sense of depression each day that seems to add an additional weight on my shoulders as I am forced to soldier forward through the murkiness. Sometimes, despite all the positive responses I receive, when I come home I just want to cry and cry and cry.

I suspect that finding strength in my own person, an identity separate from my mom, is a piece of enabling myself to enjoy success. I have begun to put distance between us (reducing phone calls from multiple times a day to weekly calls and, for the first time in my 30-plus years, not going home for every family holiday). But I still become enraged at her requests that I go home for the holidays and feel guilty for not going. When I do attend, it takes me days to recover from the arguments and moments of humiliation that occur during my visits. Am I out of my mind to want space? As for my career, I don't want to wait until I have dealt with my "mommy issues" before I enjoy success. In fact, I don't think I can wait. I will be dead before I manage to redesign my relationship with her so that the picture includes two distinct people and I am invulnerable to her opinions and am no longer gutted by my worries of becoming the disappointing daughter.

So where is the balance? How can I grab ahold of the things I want with enough conviction that they do not slip through my grasp?



Dear Hopeful,

First, congratulations for the courage you showed in returning to music, and for the careful, thoughtful way you have battled through your fears and faced the implications and difficulties of your choice. It is admirable and our culture benefits from it.

Because you say you are scared every day and are waking up with a vague sense of depression, you sound like a good candidate for cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to help with anxiety and depression and can also help you deal with those little voices.

If you want to get started right away, you could order Dr. David Burns' book "Feeling Good" and start right in on your own. And/or find a good cognitive behavioral therapist.

The medical problems of performing artists is a recognized field of study with an academic journal dedicated to it. Music performance anxiety is not yet a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Assocaition (the DSM-IV) but it is something for which many treatments exist, and about which a major book has been written -- "The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety," by Diana Kenny.

This journal article, which reviews treatment options, says "cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) seems to be the most effective" but notes that further investigation is desired.

Informally, I would say this: You need to get rid of those little voices and gain control of your practicing and performance. CBT can help with that. You also want to understand how your family affects your feeling and behavior, and perhaps how they got that way. The branch of psychology known as family systems theory could be helpful with that. Lastly, to understand how this has all been affecting your choices and identity for years, you might want to spend some time doing psychodynamic therapy with a talented and insightful psychotherapist or psychiatrist.

That would be a setting in which you could explore the question, Why, really, is the "practical" of such importance to your mother? Where did that come from? And why has your decision to return to music caused your mother to act the way she is acting? You might discover that this need for "the practical" is actually a multigenerational family myth; reliance upon and belief in it may have been emphasized by your father's death.

The point of doing all these various kinds of work is this: To be an artist, you must know yourself. We cannot always know ourselves thoroughly without help because parts of ourselves are hidden away. They were hidden away long before we knew we would want to explore them. They were hidden away during childhood or after certain traumatic events. We cannot get at these parts on our own. We don't know how. Art can help but sometimes we get stuck. The techniques for self-exploration we have acquired along the way are not adequate. So it is necessary to enter into formal arrangements and study, rather like the formal study of music.

For those reasons, all of these things would be helpful -- psychodynamic therapy to understand what is going on inside you; family systems to understand your family myths and beliefs and how they affect you; and cognitive behavioral therapy in order to counter the negative messages in your head and perform to your maximum ability as an artist.

Cary Tennis

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