I recently watched a TED Talk given by Brené Brown in which she spoke about how courageous vulnerability is, and it made me think about what I write on here. You can watch the full video below if you like:
I share a great deal of what I learn through my own teaching experiences, but I don't spend much time being truly vulnerable, even though that type of sharing tends to be the most educational for me. As my conservatory professor Judy Bose used to say, teaching is 80% who you are.
Bearing this in mind, I want to talk about depression and anxiety, especially since these two diseases are so widespread in the music community.
I have lived with depression for as long as I can remember; when I was young, I just thought that that was the way I was, but as I got older I came to realize that I had been living through long periods of depression punctuated by brief interludes of feeling good.
Going to music school didn't do much to help this go away; spending six straight years in a state of constant scrutiny, where my performance was examined and critiqued on a microscopic level, only made my insecurity and depression worse. Stress, sleep deprivation, and constantly-changing living conditions didn't help much, either.
It wasn't until a year ago, when I started having panic attacks, that I finally sought help. A panic attack is, at its core, a misfire of your body's natural fight-or-flight instinct. It's a scary thing. It can last a long time. It's hard to describe to someone who's never had one and it's hard for your friends or loved ones to be around you when you're having one because there's not a whole lot they can do to make it go away.
Although I had pretty much resigned myself to living with depression, the panic attacks were what forced me to look for answers. It was alarming, to say the very least.
At the time, I didn't see depression and anxiety as what they are: diseases. They're chemical imbalances in my brain that can't be willed away any easier than I could will away heart disease or a broken bone.
Instead, I saw depression and anxiety as weaknesses, inabilities to deal with the normal ups and downs of life. I saw them as part of me, something that shaped my worldview and how I interacted with other people. Because I saw them as who I was, it took me a long time to admit that I needed some help.
Luckily for me, I have a few people in my life who recognized my decline into major depression and anxiety, and they strongly urged me to see my doctor. One of them, to whom I am continually grateful, even accompanied me to the initial visit. I felt such a sense of shame and weakness when I walked into that appointment, but beneath that, I felt something else: relief. The thought that I didn't have to be that way anymore seemed so nice but so impossible. I didn't want to get my hopes up, but more than that, I was so afraid that the doctor would tell me that I was perfectly normal and that that was just how people felt. That there was nothing she could do for me.
But fortunately, that's not what happened. The need I had denied for so many years was seen and heard. My doctor assured me that I was not weak or silly for seeking help. She referred me to the specialists who still help me. She gave me the resources I needed to come back to life.
Although I wish I didn't have to deal with this disease, I know that my lifelong struggle to feel safe, secure, and fully engaged in life has made me a better teacher. It has made me more patient and kind. It helps me to listen carefully to make sure I really understand what my students tell me. It helps me to create a safe, comfortable environment in my studio where my students can learn and experiment without fear of judgment.
To anyone reading this who suffers from these diseases: you are not alone. You are not weak or broken. Yes, you have an illness. But the good news is that it's a disease, not a character flaw. There are lots of options for you. You don't have to live your life feeling numb, scared, or alone. There are lots of highly trained people out there who dedicate their lives to helping people just like you. And you are worth helping.
For more information about depression, visit The National Institute of Mental Health's website.
My students are doing so well these days! They always work hard and come into lessons ready to learn, but in the past month or so, a lot of them have reached previously-set goals, which is always really gratifying for me to see.
One of my long-time students recently summoned the courage to audition for her local district music festival, got in, and had a great time at the festival. She's also working on undergraduate-level music and concepts even though she's only in eighth grade. I wonder if she'll pursue music as a career.
A newer student of mine came to my studio several months ago as a novice with the intent to get good enough to join her school band. This past weekend, she came into her lesson and told me that she had spoken to the band teacher and signed up to join band in the fall. She's very excited and I'm proud of the progress she's made.
One of my adult students has been coming to lessons consistently despite having had some dental work that makes playing the flute difficult. We've had a chance over the past few weeks to look at some concepts that might normally get put on the back burner during lessons; body mapping, mindfulness, and how to practice when you aren't feeling well have been popular topics in our meetings these days. I have a lot of respect for his dedication to music and learning despite the physical challenge of working around dental pain.
I like to think that I have something to do with the great progress my students are making, but the truth is that it's a team effort. I give my students every bit of knowledge I can and do my best to be aware of their needs, but they also put in the effort at home during their practice time. In the case of younger students, the parents also play an important role; they are the ones who buy the instruments and music, pay for lessons, drive the kids back and forth, and make sure they practice. This is no easy undertaking!
I'm grateful to have such a dedicated and fun group of students; I really enjoy going into the studio every week and doing my part to get these kids (and adults) where they want to go.