Huddled into a ball, I sat on the floor of my music college student accommodation and cried.
This was me in 2002. Suffering horribly for one simple reason. Because of a case of mistaken identity.
I was a foreign violin student in a prestigious German conservatoire. The way I saw it was that my music career was finished. I was in such agony from playing the violin that I couldn't bear to hold the thing for more than 10-15 minutes, I was being assessed on my ability to perform, everyone around me (or so I thought) was practising for 6 hours a day and I was losing my ability to do the one thing that made my heart sing----make music. The inner struggles I created during this period (out of a misunderstanding of how my mind worked) spiralled into utter obsession. I tried absolutely everything I could just to feel better about myself. But that was the point. It wasn't myself that I was experiencing. I was feeling my capacity to think. I was feeling Thought in the moment. And I had confused my true identity with my feelings about myself.
Fast forward 15 years and one of the things that really stood out for me when I read Can Music Make you Sick?, a study commissioned by Help Musicians UK and conducted by The University of Westminster and Music Tank when it came out a few weeks ago, was just how common the experience of anxiety, depression and other inner struggles is for musicians.
What also struck a chord for me was how easy and innocent it can be for a 'serious' musician to confuse their music with their sense of self. Or their body with their sense of self for that matter. I was doing both and boy was I too serious about music!
If you mistakenly believe that you are your music, then logically, if you can't make music then you literally cease to be. If you confuse the true, deep essence of yourself, with how much you practise, your repertoire, your last gig, your reputation, your shoe size...bla bla bla...then you mistakenly believe that you (your true self) really can be augmented or diminished. I'm glad to say it cannot.
If it could, that would mean that your wellbeing could be at stake if your career fails. That right there, according to the report, is a widely held misunderstanding. In fact, it's not just in the music industries that share this kind of misunderstanding----it's rife.
It may actually sound motivating on the surface----'music is my life' you hear people say. 'You're only as good as your last concert'. Lots of my students told me 'I want to get better', when I asked them what they wanted to achieve at the beginning of the academic year. But the comforting truth of the matter is simpler, and for you 'serious' musicians out there, probably quite difficult to hear:
YOU are not your music.
YOU cannot be improved.
YOU are already complete.
YOU cannot be broken.
YOU do not need your music in order to experience complete wellbeing.
YOU existed before your music.
YOU exist independently of your music.
And for all the people who don't immediately think of themselves as musicians, you could replace the word music for any of the other things we commonly confuse our true selves with: a career, your status, your children, your family, a relationship, a car, a bank balance, or a marriage.
This is not the same as saying that musicians don't need to practise in order to play better or learn new music. Stuff happens when we work----sure. But the desperation that ensues when someone thinks that their entire sense of self hangs on something can be so damaging. As I described earlier, I know this from bitter experience.
When I say 'true' self I'm talking about that inner spiritual being that is drawn to create in the first place. Not the idea of who you are, but who you are truly.
The funny thing is, even though I've been looking closely at the Thought-generated nature of the human experience for several years now, I still catch myself acting from time to time as if my feelings are telling me something negative about who I am. It just tends to happen less and less. I guess it's just the most naturally human thing in the world to create meaning from what we are feeling.
As the old adage goes, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.
When it comes to who you really are though, and for the sake of clarity, I'd actually go one step further:
It ain't broke. There's no 'if' about it...
There are several ways you can get involved in the growing community of flourishing, happy, healthy musicians and performers who are awake to the future of performance psychology.