Category: Tangents

I’d Rather Be Heard Than Seen

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Fear of the spotlight.

Is this really a fear of mine?  The spotlight is actually something I’ve come to loathe.  So why did I go into performance?!?  Because I wanted to work on the best repertoire with the best teachers!  And I LOVE to play the piano.  I enjoy sharing music with others.  I just don’t like to be watched!

When others are physically near me, I like our activities to be either cooperative or parallel.  I don’t like the action of “spectator.”  I don’t want to be a spectator, and I don’t want to be the object of a spectator.  I don’t like watching or being watched.  Even when I view something like a movie or TV show, I am engaged.  I am thinking and responding.  (I often write my thoughts in response to what I’m seeing.)  Plus, the recorded medium allows me to do so without the actual persons being stared at.  In Mass, I don’t watch the liturgy; I am part of it.  Even when I gaze at the Eucharist, I am not a spectator; I am communing with Jesus.

I feel deeply and intensely that the sacredness of my Person is being cheapened in the eyes of a spectator; I am being  objectified.  Even if that objectification is in “positive” terms (admiration, awe, delight in my artistry), I don’t like how it feels, because I know fully that I am not an object; I am a Person, a Sacred Being.

So how do I cope with being watched when I perform?  Mostly, I have learned how to exercise a psychological “bubble.”  When on stage, there’s enough distance between the piano and the audience, it’s possible to focus my mind so entirely on my music that the rest of the world becomes a sort of perimeter, and I don’t allow my mind to wander to the edge.  I know it’s there, and I accept it as my context, but I don’t engage with it beyond being aware that I am throwing my heart and music out to it.  I simply hope some souls will graciously catch my gift, but I give it regardless.

I imagine “natural performers” are eager to receive their audience’s energy and not only enjoy interacting with it while performing, but actually thrive on it.  Clearly, I’m not a “natural performer”!  Recently, nearly all of my live music-making hasn’t technically been performance because it was the liturgical music for Mass.  When I play in Mass, I am actively worshiping.  I also lead or facilitate others in their worship.  Given that where I’ve served in Mass the instruments have been either in the back or in a loft, or partially hidden behind a pew, I wasn’t watched, except by the cantors or choir who were joining with me in making the music.

I’m certainly not saying performance is bad!  As a teacher I help my students learn how to manage the performance scenario.  I’m just acknowledging that, even though my career has often put me in the spotlight, it’s not a place I prefer.  I am happiest when I can interact with an individual or a small group of people, with everyone involved, engaged, contributing as well as receiving.



Teachers are students too!

Even though this isn’t quite on topic for this blog, I’d like to write about an experience I recently had with a piano student.  I had prepared a set of exercises I categorized as “Mental Warm-Ups” for a specific student to prepare her for a quiz on related material.  I had designed the questions to lead her mind along lines that would help her organize her thinking for the quiz.  I knew this student’s approach to problem-solving was often more creative than straight-line logic. But I also wanted to expedite the time given to this activity in the lesson that day.  So I set up the questions as “puzzles.”  The first set presented several sequences; she was to complete each series.  The second was a collection of whimsical mnemonic devices; she was to match each saying with the info-set to which they referred.

What I neglected to take into account was 1) this was an unexpected activity, and she perceived it as a pop-quiz, even though I had said it wouldn’t be graded, and she didn’t even have to finish it; I just wanted to see what was familiar to her; and 2) I hadn’t assessed her emotional state before I introduced the activity.  It turned out she had had an extremely exhausting day, out in the sun, had suffered an injury that while minor was painful enough she had taken some Tylenol – yet it was wearing off, and because she had made great progress with her repertoire she was disappointed to start with theory.

I had given her the activity to do during her brother’s lesson.  Before I knew it, she was in tears.  She hadn’t been able to finish the activity before her lesson.  She exclaimed in tears “but I’m not ready!”  Oh, my heart broke!  This is a girl who is so generally conscientious and responsible yet seemingly “laid-back”, generous towards others, usually cheerful, and typically very prepared.  I apologized heartily for having surprised her with the activity, reminded her it need not be finished, would not be graded, and in fact we could simply set it aside for another day.  She replied (through her tears) “I feel like I should know all this, but I don’t!” I assured her “Well, I think too you really do know all this, but maybe you just don’t know it today while you feel tired or stressed.  That’s really okay; we can come back to this some other day!”  I looked at her mom who quickly explained the exhausting day her daughter had already experienced before arriving, and assured me I should not take her tears personally!

I didn’t even look at her theory paper.  I set it aside and we focused on selecting repertoire for her recital.  She quickly recovered her composure and we had a productive lesson.  She was so restored, at the end of her lesson I dared to ask her if she would feel comfortable taking the theory test (for which the “Mental Warm-ups” were meant to prepare her), but do so orally, rather than on paper.  (I knew it would go much faster that way.)  She brightened up at that idea, so we talked through the test, and although she initially gave the en-harmonic name for two tones, and I prompted her to correct them, she clearly thoroughly understood all the objectives of the test.  Upon finishing, I said “You aced it!” She apologized “I feel like I didn’t really do it all on my own.” “Well, even with those two prompts, I’d say you did at least 99.9% on your own; I’d call that an A!” She laughed and seemed satisfied with her achievement.

Because she did so well with the test, I asked her if she minded if I looked at her theory paper or to leave it for next week, or I could even throw it away without ever looking at it.  She said we could look at it and seemed completely content to do so.  It turned out she had answered all the “puzzles” except for one!  Wow.  I was really surprised, given how distressed she was previously.  Everything she had answered was correct.  She simply had not been able to figure out one of the whimsical sayings.  Even though it was a matching activity and the correct answer was left by default, she felt thrown by the fact that she didn’t positively know it for herself.

I’m pretty sure the tearful crisis really was “just” the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” However, I believe it was important for me to see (and reckon with the fact) that my student deeply valued finishing her work, and how important it is to her to feel prepared.  I sometimes tell my students “I not only want you to know what you know; I want you to know that you know what you know!” Meaning: my goal for my students is to work to the point where they not only can play their music well, but to play it confidently and with self-established/affirmed poise.  However, I don’t always work through their theory activities with the same thoroughness.  I was terribly remiss in not recognizing my most conscientious students would apply all their learning to all their endeavors!  I need to help empower them to do that successfully.

My student was smiling and laughing, and even thanking me for a good lesson by the time she left.  I heartily thanked her for making that possible!  I am so blessed to have such kind teachers in the guise of my students!



Today I’m struggling with melancholy more than usual.  Melancholy is different from depression or sadness or grief or any other feeling in that category of unhappy/painful emotions.  It’s visceral and lively.  It takes over my mind and my heart.  My heart aches.  I ache excruciatingly, but it’s not for a particular person or thing.  It’s more in response to the fullness of life and beauty and sweet things, sweet beautiful meaningful things.  All that is good and beautiful and true flooding me can make me feel profoundly melancholic.  Why?  What is it physically that happens to me when I feel this?  Are my thoughts and feelings responses to something initiated biologically?  Or is it the other way around?  Feeling and thinking and listening make it more pronounced.  I have to do something.  Something that takes me “out” of myself.  Usually I do something mundane like wash the dishes or organize something or read a book.  Today I’m letting myself write while I feel this because I want to communicate to others what this is like.  I’m sure there are others who feel this.  It’s probably more closely related to anxiety than any other diagnosable thing.  I think the ancients considered it a type, or sometimes a sickness, or a type who tends toward this sickness.  I think today the scientific community simply wouldn’t use the word “melancholia.”  They would dissect it for possible biological conditions, most likely finding some kind of deficiencies.  Am I simply hungry?

The strange thing (although not at all strange to me) is that I find this such “native territory.”  I can remember having this feeling to some degree from the time of my earliest memories.  I know sometimes even at age three I would sit on the kitchen floor while Mom was working, and the cats were licking my pajamas, and although I liked being there with Mom, and I liked the cats’ attention, I also was aware of sunbeams falling on the floor and somehow they made me sad; I felt such a strange crux of realities; I felt present and elsewhere; I felt happy and sad; I felt belonging and otherly; I felt tangible understandings and mystery.  Of course I didn’t think all those words.  I think feeling melancholy comes from hyper-awareness, maybe too much observing while not balancing that with engaging.

So why am I writing this in this particular blog?  Does feeling melancholy having anything to do with having experienced abuse?  I don’t think it does necessarily or directly since I can remember feeling it even when my circumstances were fairly idyllic.  But I think being someone who is prone to melancholy is probably more vulnerable — more vulnerable to anything, including abuse.  I think that’s the essential requisite for experiencing melancholy: no borders or shields between sense of self and sense of context.

Sometimes I feel so full of feeling, I feel like I need to vomit.  Except that it’s not like when you’re sick and might actually need to vomit.  It’s more like when you drink a really sweet and thick milkshake too fast and your throat feels so full that you almost gag.  So often I find myself describing my extreme emotions in terms of digestive issues!  Hmm.

Is this helping me to describe this feeling?  I don’t know.  I hope that if anyone reads this who has felt this might take a little comfort in knowing you’re not isolated.  Any type of feeling of being overwhelmed can make us feel helpless and isolated.  But this too shall pass.  I won’t say “this is just a feeling” because it is also bodily discomfort and it engages a type of perspective.  But I can say with certainty this feeling of Melancholy is not your Author or Lord or sum-total of your Being or your Destiny; it’s just one of the arrows in your emotional/psychological quiver.

Another thing I find that helps me when I feel overwhelmed with Melancholy is to breathe more deeply.  I too often find myself holding my breath.  And I can hold my breath for “too long” — that’s an artifact from having been an oboist.  I remember doing exercises with my oboe teacher and achieving the capacity to exhale for over four minutes.  Exhale!

What prayer helps me when I feel this?  Lord-God have mercy on me for I am but dust.  Jesu juva; soli Deo gloria.  Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.  Jesus, hold me!

Imagining the Spirit holding me in something like a spiritual Dew-Drop helps me greatly.  Like my spirit is in the amniotic sac of my Creator-Who-Births-Me.

Abba!  Papa-Mama-Lord!  Save me!

I think some might say I’m having “liminal” experiences.  They might be correct.  But while I’m experiencing this, what does it matter what it’s called or how it’s analysed?  The whole essence of this is complete immersion in sensing, feeling, communing.

That’s a helpful point for me.  When I’m celebrating/ receiving the Eucharist, I feel this intensity of openness and vulnerability yet without pain.  Hmm.  What does this teach me?  I need Jesus to transport me through these “waters.”

Well, dear Reader, do you experience Melancholy?  Care to share any of your experience with me?  Did any of my ramblings give you insights or comfort?