I’ve lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember. When it’s part of your daily life,
you develop a relationship with your anxiety; you can’t help it. For me, like too many other
people, that relationship involved: spending hours every day being anxious, trying to stop
feeling anxious or (my favorite) feeling anxious about the possibility of maybe being anxious
later, and what I could do to make sure that didn’t happen (it always did). It becomes a sad,
hidden, lonely routine. A manageable but not very fun way to live.
I long ago accepted the fact that anxiety would be a daily struggle for the rest of my life,
and it mostly has been. Though it’s had its ups and downs, through a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication, my anxiety’s become much more manageable. You figure out ways to cope. I self-medicate by surrounding myself with people, staying extremely busy, and never letting myself be alone with my thoughts. When I was alone and idle, my anxiety would inevitably skyrocket. My nightmare was a situation in which I wasn’t making music, had no direction in life, and felt isolated from society.
Since the pandemic started, I have made no music, felt totally directionless, and spent
the entire summer on an isolated farm without a single other house in sight. I have never felt
less anxiety in my life. What’s the deal?
Some backstory: My anxiety is unusual in that it’s almost never content-based. Instead,
it manifests as a sinking, hollow, soul-sucking sensation in my stomach, always beginning in the late afternoon and continuing until 10 or 11 PM. Every day, out of the blue, for no reason.
Sometimes anxious thoughts do come, but they’re always a reaction to the physical sensation, rather than the cause of it. It’s such a helpless feeling. One second I’m totally fine and happy, the next my gut is crumbling in seemingly random despair. Nothing in my external world has changed, yet my internal world is unrecognizable. The problem is not only the daily struggle–it’s that the struggle just seems so tragically pointless.
Something that links all anxiety is that it always involves the future. It takes us out of the
present, surrounds us with worry, and plants us firmly in the ground of the worst case scenario. It only lives as an endlessly time-displacing phenomenon. This fits right in with classical music. So much of life as a musician is preparation – worrying about the future, about being good enough, about whether what you’re doing right now is the best possible use of time.
For years, I prided myself on coming to every lesson as prepared as was humanly
possible. I tried to foresee every question that might be thrown at me, any changes that might be requested by my teacher. When I started conducting, I prepared for rehearsals by
anticipating any even remotely likely orchestral problem and formulating several possible
solutions. I wouldn’t allow myself to look at a score while I conducted – if every note wasn’t
well beyond memorized, I wasn’t prepared. I know my diligence made me a better musician.
I’m not sure it made me a happier person.
Since the pandemic started, I have lived 100% in the present. There’s simply been no
choice! The future only stretches as far as dinner - I barely have plans for the next hour, much less the next week or month. When my CMRT colleagues ask my availability for things, I respond “I’m free till next March, so anytime works!” I’m able to listen to my brain and my body, be spontaneous, and enjoy whatever I’m doing to the fullest.
I used constant work and maniacal preparation as a distraction from what was going on
in my head. Now that I have no distractions anymore, I’m realizing that maybe the only thing I needed a distraction from was my need for distractions. And as it turns out, the inside of my
brain isn’t so bad after all.
Eventually the time will come when my schedule is no longer completely empty for six
months at a time. How do we apply this focus on the moment to life outside quarantine? I’m
still trying to figure it out. What if we practiced more based on the subjective experience of the now, with less looking forward to or preparing for a certain audition or performance? What if our goals were more focused on the best way to enjoy music in the moment, instead of at some arbitrary point in the future? What would happen? What if we stop trying to be “prepared”, but allow preparation to develop organically from loving each musical moment as it occurs? What if we reframe it completely, forget about musical moments, and start thinking about life moments? I don’t know the answers to these questions - but I can’t wait to find out.