Updated: Aug 13, 2020
My name is Laura Yawney and I am a co-founder of Classical Musicians Roundtable. I am an early-career oboist pursuing orchestral performance, and I live with anxiety and depression. For many years and through many moments in my training, the nagging ambition to play orchestral music at a professional level has made it difficult for my musicianship and mental health to coexist harmoniously. I know I am not alone in this, and for that reason my co-founders and I have committed to creating space for classical musicians to begin talking about music and mental health. The CMRT hypothesis is that if we engage in a dialogue with one another about the emotional experience of being classical musicians, we will find a deeper understanding of each other and perhaps make the professional field space a safer, more courageous one. Maybe that empathy means we can have deeper relationships artist to artist, and that can translate to our craft. Maybe we can make music that goes deeper, that is more sensitive and vulnerable, and that has an even greater capacity to do what music does—to instill in our audiences and ourselves the truest sense of feeling human.
During the six years of my music education, my brain changed and I felt it. I believed that the
path to success would require that I overexert myself, overcommit my time, and overreach for goals that I was not ready for. Admittedly, it felt kind of romantic to completely submit myself to the process. Something about being 100% dedicated to the work, mind and body, appealed to me. It would also be untruthful to say that those efforts did not yield some success in the long run; but underneath the occasional victory was a current of anxiety, exhaustion, and an ongoing wrestling match with my relationship with music. Training to be a professional musician can consume every facet of your life if you are not careful, and most of us are constantly trying to balance ambition, maintenance of our humanity, and enjoyment of performing music.
In classical music, you must believe in perfection at some level. You strive for it as if you believe it is possible, but you are also trying to accept that you will never achieve it. My teacher at the University of Delaware, Jeffrey O’Donnell, once passed down to me a piece of advice that his teacher gave him: every time you walk offstage, you should be disappointed. At its best, this means there is always improvement to be made—that the pursuit of excellence is never ending, and it can be a fruitful and joyful one. However, at its worst, it means that satisfaction is indicative of resignation, stagnation, and perhaps even arrogance. To speak to my teacher's compassion and wisdom, he always insisted we take these controversial tidbits with an enormous grain of salt. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, we push and pull with being proud of ourselves for the work we’ve done and the urgent need to do better.
The first time I sought professional help for my mental health was my junior year of college. The first thing that happened in therapy was I began to see how my conditioning as a musician was bleeding into the rest of my life: my relationships with others, with myself, my creativity, and my success and failures. I was staring at a different kind of mirror, acknowledging for the first time how unforgiving of myself I had become, musically and non musically. However, slowly and surely, I learned to see that music still has the capacity to be the avenue for healing, even when it caused some of the wounds. I have learned that there is room for humanness even when you are chasing unworldly excellence, and that humanness is the most important thing to lean into when making music.
Here so many of us are, pushing and pulling and wrestling despite the hardships we’ve
encountered in and out of the classical music field. It’s a testament to how far love for the art
form can get you. This is not to say that passion alone makes it possible to withstand the
challenges we face existing in the professional music world—it is not. It is also not to say that
there is any glory in existing there at all. The success is in the simple act of existing, with your creativity and curiosity about tomorrow intact.
The relationship we have with classical music is like our relationships with the people we love: there is give and take and a necessity to nurture. You must establish boundaries. It is okay to let some of your identity live there, but not all of it. Balance is key, and our work is full of contradictions that we have to hold. Being a musician has given me a tough skin, while the
artform rewards vulnerability. So much of our work is done in solitude, while the greatest
victories are almost always shared with others. I am endlessly grateful that so many amazing
musicians in the world created art that inspires us to keep pursuing those victories.
We do not like talking about the health of our brains. Those of us that live with mental illness are aware that our symptoms have the tendency to make others uncomfortable. However, it is undeniable that musicians share a very unique experience in what we do. Holding space for one another and ourselves and speaking about the truth of our experiences allows us to share the task of carrying the load. It is my belief that building a foundation of empathy and understanding about mental health in the classical music community will make it a safer environment for those who work in it, and will also allow us to create better art. If we start valuing human sensitivities and vulnerabilities over the idea of perfection we’ve been taught to strive for, if we listen to each other about how we’re really doing, perhaps the music we make will reflect that. Perhaps we can start to walk offstage a little less disappointed.