My journey in music started with choir and piano in primary school, and found its way into percussion in high school. I loved my school music experience for the friends, but most of all, I loved learning pieces, learning to phrase, and expressing my emotions through music.
Once in year 8 when I played marimba at a school concert, I made an audience member cry. I had been told I was great at conveying emotion through music, and it made me think, “maybe I can really touch people by doing this thing?” I felt like I was the biggest boss in the world, and knew I had to pursue music.
Then university started. It was all about technique, the hours, the precision. I remember going to my first concert class, and hearing students sniggering at this violinist whose intonation was a little off. Everyone was always complaining about the course and how there wasn’t enough time to practice. I perceived the whole environment as completely negative and draining.
Then I was watching others around me spend hours in the practice room, who were able to leave their insecurities at the practice room door, and smash out 7 hours of practice with seemingly little sweat.
Then came the stress, the self-doubt, the pressure. I was practicing incorrectly, and developed a bout of severe RSI. I couldn’t stay in my practice room for more than 2 hours without crying. I had convinced myself I was never going to make it. I was a complete mess, emotionally and physically. At the end of first semester, I wanted out.
3 years later, I have figured out that many of these feelings were a result of severe anxiety, which I’ve worked through with copious amounts of meditation, yoga, venting with friends over lunch, and having my psychologist on speed dial. But also, a lot of it is due to the fact that I’m a highly sensitive, emotional person, like MANY other musicians out there.
So what defines a sensitive person? People would refer to them as “emotional”, because they feel both happy emotions and sad emotions to a large extent. They often are emotionally influenced by the emotions of others; for example, if someone close to them is feeling low, they will often take these emotions on themselves. I call these types of people “Emotionites”. (Sidetrack: if you feel the low emotions more often than the high emotions, and it’s severely impacting your relationships with others and your ability to lead a normal life, please talk to someone about it or seek professional help - there is a way out!)
Many of you Emotionites may have had a journey that started similarly. You chose music because of the emotional appeal - you just LOVE music, and you love the way it makes you feel. People have probably told you that you perform the music really well, because you can naturally feel it. But when the pressures of university and life and everything in-between tell you that you need to practice MORE and you need to play FASTER, it can become a mechanical, sportsman-like practice. And in the end, band practice was probably at the same time as athletics trials, so although this is not the case for everyone, I’ll assume a majority of us are less athletically inclined. Therefore, even though emotions are the reason that many of us are driven to music, emotions are ironically the things that can drive us away.
Here’s not to say that the less-emotional, more athletic or disciplined musician doesn’t love music any less than us emotional types - generally, they can work hours and hours on end, and are often exceptional technically. Even though the musicality in a less-emotional person may not be as innate as in a more emotional person, musicality, like technique, is a learned skill, so these types end up being incredible musicians. But highly sensitive people, the ones who may find it hard to focus, or be in a practice room all day, are also just as important and essential in a world that’s so driven on results and deadlines.
So as I go along this journey of learning to be a little less sensitive, here are some things to consider for the emotional types out there:
- Time is your best friend!
Over the years, I’ve been told “this is the only time in your life that you’ll get to practice”, and that scares me, because if it was true, then I’ve wasted 2 years of my undergraduate degree watching reruns of Friends whilst eating a whole jar of Nutella feeling sorry for myself. But thank god it’s not true! There are always ways to make more time, whether that’s taking a gap year and mooching off your parents, considering further study, or stretching out your course. There’s time to make mistakes, and there’s time to work hard and get your life and your playing together. Of course deadlines are important, but when you take off the pressure to “be good” within a closed time period, things start happening a lot faster, and with less stress!
- Time-out is your better friend!
Just as you would take a day off if you feel as though you’re coming down with a cold, it’s equally valid to take a day off when you feel like it’s all getting a little too much. They’re called “Mental Health Days”, and they involve reading books, baking cakes, going for walks, and watching obscene amounts of reality tv without any guilt whatsoever. You’ll find that the next day you’ll feel recharged and motivated.
- Learn to control (but not hate) all the feelings
Sometimes we need extra help to control negative and unproductive feelings, whether that’s exercise, meditation, yoga, seeing a psychologist, listening to music (pop music!), or taking voodoo medicine made out of tree branches from the witch doctor down the road. If it works for you, it works!! It’s equally important not to be ashamed of being emotional, because it’s part of you, and probably part of the reason you chose music! (Unless these emotions come under the umbrella of depression/anxiety, in which you should undoubtedly go seek help!)
- Just do it!
Sometimes Shia Leboeuf knows best, and no matter how upset or discouraged or unmotivated you are, it’s worth digging deep and finding the reasons you want to pursue music, whether that’s the insane euphoria you get when you play with others, or that orchestra concert you went to back in high school that inspired you, or that audition you really want to win. It’s worth making a “Inspiration Board” with photos and quotes that motivate you and can help you visualise your goals.
A music conservatorium sometimes feels like the Hunger Games, as it seems like only the strongest survive. But what defines someone as strong? Someone who doesn’t cry? Someone who can push through? I am a firm believer that those who cry often, or feel anxious, are just as strong as those who don’t, they just don’t see their strength themselves. To put it in terms we can all understand, an overly emotional person is like a broken down Steinway; they don’t seem like they’d be that useful, but once you create time to fix it up, replace the strings, give it a lick of paint, they’ll play better than any other piano.
Ultimately, the ups and downs make us Emotionites great musicians - we can feel all the emotions, and can draw on that when we perform. But in an environment which can be competitive and often unemotional, sometimes the most emotional people are pushed away from pursuing their music dreams because they feel inadequate to those who are able to push their feelings aside. However, music needs both types of people; while the less sensitive types push us Emotionites to practice more and to reach unprecedented levels of technicality, the more emotional types teach the less emotional types how to feel the music. And of course exceptions exist - there are emotional people who are better technically, or less emotional people that are better musically. Ultimately what I’m trying to say is every type of musician can teach other types of musicians valuable lessons, and no one is more or less worthy of being a musician.
So if feel like you’re inadequate to those who clock in the practice hours, or you feel like you’re not determined enough to “make it”, or if you feel as though you’ll seemingly never get over your performance anxiety, take a good hard look at your inner Steinway and start looking at how to fix it, because even though it may not look like a Steinway, it’s still a freaking Steinway!