Tacet- Taking a Break
So, it’s been a while!
The last time I updated this blog was just over a year ago (naughty, naughty) and even though I’ve been playing in that time, through one thing and another I never got round to writing again. Terrible, I know. So since my last update, a lot has happened both good and bad. I started at one of the best music colleges in the country… and also left one of the best music colleges in the country. I was lucky enough to play for one of the best bands in the UK and also took part in some of the best concerts and contests a player can compete in. I then also did something I thought I would never ever do. I left banding.
So I left music college and I left banding. Both actions seem a bit weird for someone who loved banding and music so much she set up a blog about it, right?
So this post is just going to be simply about why. No please-feel-sorry-for-me sob stories you’ll be glad to hear. In truth there is nothing to feel sorry about. This is just going to be an open, honest post about the situation that I and no doubt other players have found themselves in. I hope it helps anyone who feels that they or someone they know is going through a similar thing- even if it just shows that you’re not alone.
In my opinion, being involved in banding and music in general is one of the best things a person can do. Through banding I developed a talent that can bring many playing and teaching opportunities. It taught me that talent wasn’t enough, having an open mind to criticism and working on these criticisms are the two main ingredients of success, something I then applied to school and then my career. It brought me the discipline of giving your all, even when you’re not feeling like it. Turn up to rehearsals, work hard on your part and give everything you’ve got on stage (and don’t drink too much if you have work in the morning). It was a good grounding that I feel shaped who I am today.
Yet being a musician, whether professional or amateur can have it’s drawbacks for some.
When you think about it, performing is a strange hobby. You’re actively putting yourself in a situation that most people regard as stressful. Sitting in front of a bunch of people, with an equal probability of either playing well or looking like a wally.
How do we do it?
Well, I suppose it depends on what type of player you are. Some players go on stage and feel little to no nerves at all (I envy those people- how do you do it?) and if they give a less than decent performance they don’t sweat about it. Others are plagued by nerves and think about a bad performance for longer than it took the composer to write the piece. For the worst of us nervy players, it can cause anxiety, nerves, trembling and, at worst, nausea (I’ve still got fond memories of turning green at my first national finals playing Principal Cornet).
So why do we do it?
I’ve always been the latter of the above performing personas. Right up until I’m sat on that stage, I’ve felt nervous to the point of nearly being sick, shakier than a jellyfish sat on a washing machine and wondered why the hell am I putting myself through this?! For me, like most players, it’s the thrill of playing well. No matter how big the audience, how grand
the venue or whether we came in the prizes, there is literally no better feeling in the world than walking off stage knowing you gave your best performance. Also the social aspect of meeting up with your mates, playing and potentially having one too many in the bar is also the reason we do it. The memories you make from stupid post-contest antics are talked about for years after.
So how did this affect my playing? I’ve always been a worrier and a negative thinker, but it was only when I turned 16 that I noticed that this worry was becoming excessive and irrational. Two years and multiple appointments with doctors and counsellors later, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Which is basically like a game of roulette, some days you cope and push through it other days it’s like someone has pressed a big red panic button and there’s pyrotechnics and people running round your head banging pots and pans shouting “WE’RE PANICKING! STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND PANIC! WE DON’T REALLY KNOW WHAT WE’RE PANICKING ABOUT, BUT WE’RE PANICKING!” Yeah those days aren’t great. Long story short, for the last 18 months I spent a lot of time living in my own head, plodding along without actually experiencing my life, just trying to get through the days. For a long time banding was a release from this stress and working my way up to playing for a band like Leyland was one of the most amazing playing experiences of my life. They were a brilliant bunch of musicians who really inspired me and a great group of friends that really made my banding experience enjoyable. I got in the practise or rehearsal room and the outside world didn’t matter. More importantly, I had the confidence to know I could do it.
However, you know how I mentioned criticism before? As well as taking criticism well in a rehearsal setting I was very, very VERY good at listening to my own self criticism. This can be good when preparing a contest or solo competition piece and great for fueling progression because you’re not sitting on your laurels thinking ‘wow, I’m such an amazing player, if I could just make a band of clones of myself, I’d be on to a winner. Black Dyke who?’. But self-criticism is a danger when it becomes the only thing that goes through your head when you’re playing. Every other player seems to become better than you. Nothing you ever do is good enough and your efforts become worthless. After just four months at music college I managed to get myself into a state where I felt like there was just no point to me playing anymore and this wasn’t a reflection on the college, it was a case of me not controlling this self-critical personality, to my own detriment, plus my anxiety in general taking a bad turn. When I came home for Christmas and a visit to the doctor, it was decided that it probably wasn’t the best idea to go back. This problem became worse and something I couldn’t get myself out of and by summer I was fed up with playing and life in general because I saw my anxiety as a barrier to everything. General worrying, frequent panic attacks and a personal family issue was the straw to the camel’s back and the thought of spending four hours a week and then contesting with this all going on inside of me, brought on a slight meltdown and by slight I mean the Mount Vesuvius Vs Pompeii incident was a calmer affair. I decided that it was time to step back. In my head at that time, I regarded my playing as failing anyway so what was the point? The cornet went back in it’s case and was banished to a corner of the house and I didn’t want to think about picking it up for a long while, if ever.
For me previously, taking a break from banding was unthinkable. What would I do? How would I fill the time? Knitting and crotchet aren’t really my thing. Never really been into sport. My lip is gonna be pants too if/when I ever decide to go back. A week after making my decision I started thinking that maybe this wasn’t a good idea, but the thought of going into a bandroom and mentally bullying myself didn’t really seem fun either. I needed to sort myself out first. After a few months, posts from fellow banders on social media about contests, concerts, freezing their knackers off playing carols at supermarkets began to stir my interest in banding again. The regionals came and went without me playing in them for the first time in eight years. It was after this that for the first time in ages I actually WANTED to pick up my cornet again. I wanted to work on a piece, even if it was just a bit of Carnival of Venice for my own amusement. If I could get through a week of personal practise and actually enjoyed it then maybe I would go to a band rehearsal. Full time banding still didn’t appeal to me but I wanted to get back in a rehearsal room. I went down to a local band, Golbourne, just for a blast to blow out the cobwebs and having friends there and it being local made it slightly less scary. Playing awesome repertoire from Malcolm Arnold and George Allan and not sounding as pants as I thought I was going to, seriously boosted the ol’ confidence and for the first time in a long time I sat and played and enjoyed it because I wasn’t shouting at myself in my head.
So is a break worth it? I was one of those banders that if you asked me this question a few years ago I would have said “don’t be daft, it’s band that matters, pick yourself up and get on with it” (I was very much death is the only excuse for not playing kind of player). Now I would say, nothing matters more than your health and how you feel. If you played rugby and broke a leg, you wouldn’t hobble on to the pitch, attacking people with your crutches in an attempt to tackle? (actually that sounds like quite a good spectator sport). You wouldn’t enjoy the sport because you’d spend most of your time in pain and possibly in the sin bin for grievous bodily harm. Same with mental health. I would say, if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing whether it’s banding or anything else for that matter, then stop. It doesn’t have to be forever and you’re not a failure for doing so. You can still go and watch if you want, you can practise privately or leave it completely alone. It’s YOU that matters most, and you have to do whats best for you and you alone. Players will always be needed and there always bands and players that will value your playing, even when you think a broken kazoo sounds more tuneful than you.
I’m not trying to talk anyone out of playing, if you’re enjoying it and you’re healthy and happy then parp on! The word play means to ‘engage in activity for enjoyment’, if you’re not enjoying it and things are getting you down, a time out could be the thing that saves your relationship with playing (trust me, you’ll miss it sooner or later).
Mental health is a common topic with musicians. Like I said, performing is stressful and stress can play as much havoc with the mind as Donald Trump let loose with a nuclear warhead. Did you know musicians are three times more likely to suffer a mental illness? If you feel something is wrong, talk to someone. I’ve linked some useful sites below for advice and help, including mental health advice specifically for musicians.
You’re never alone and help is available. Don’t let mental health mute your sound.
Simply click the hyperlink for more information.
Help Musicians UK– UK’s leading independent music charity. They have a 24/7 mental health support phone line plus information on where to get help for mental health and many other issues musicians face.
The Musicians Union– advice for all aspects of musicianship including health and wellbeing.
MIND– Advice and support on all types of mental illness and where to find the help you need.
Anxiety UK– Advice and support for those suffering with anxiety conditions.
CALM– CALM is the Campaign Against Living Miserably, for men aged 15-35.
NHS Mental Health Helplines – Links to a plethora of helplines for any and all kinds of mental health from depression and anxiety to bipolar and OCD.
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