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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

Musical Anxiety

Pride is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins.
-- Wikipedia

Michael David Crawford, Consulting Software Engineer
mdcrawford@gmail.com

June 25, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

I have a problem that I don't know how to overcome. If I'm ever to fulfill my ambition of going to music school someday, of learning to compose symphonies, I must overcome it.

I taught myself to play the piano starting twenty-three years ago, and have been taking lessons for three and a half years. I have even composed some songs of my own. One would think that I would know many different songs by now, but I don't.

Panama Hat

My New Panama Hat

I only recently understood the reason: learning new songs makes me feel like an idiot, and that makes me feel very anxious. When I practice, I usually take the easy way out and work on perfecting songs I already know. This comes at the cost of only rarely learning anything new.

The Prelude In C from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was showing great promise when I managed to overcome this fear one night and learned to play the first page of its three-page score. But I've had more difficulty with the second page; a couple months after starting it, I can still play only the first page.


I brought this up with my teacher Angela today; we spent most of my lesson time discussing it. She had some good ideas for overcoming it; one was to focus on the end result, that is that if I persist, I will be rewarded with the ability to play something new.

Another idea she had was to try sight-reading simpler pieces. I did so at the end of my lesson. I've written before about my poor sight-reading ability, but I seem to be getting better at it recently.

I have always known that I'm a smart guy; I had an easy time with most of my classes in grade school. I have a Bachelor's degree in Physics and work as a self-taught computer programmer. But I'm afraid that I've been committing the deadly sin of Pride all my life - I enjoy the fact that I'm smart, and enjoy doing things that make me feel smarter.

I hate learning new songs because they are powerful reminders that I'm not as smart as I like to think I am.

Now, I am sometimes able to overcome my musical anxiety. It doesn't disappear, but I somehow find the courage to face my fear. When I can, I learn new songs very quickly. My problem not that I lack musical ability, it's that most of the time, I don't even try. If I were able to overcome my anxiety somehow, I would learn new songs like the blazes.

This isn't the same thing as stage fright. I know from stage fright; I get it real bad whenever I play at an open mic. Ironically, I know that the only way to overcome stage fright is to face it by playing in front of audiences, so I play open mics quite often.

Stage fright has an effect on me that is different from the anxiety of learning new songs. Stage fright turns my fingers to jelly, so I don't have the strength to press my keyboard's keys. It makes my hands shake real bad. It makes me forget how to play a song partway through, so I have to start over and try again - yes, I've done that several times, in front of live audiences.

The anxiety I'm describing is quite different from that. I have no problem with weakness or shaking. What I have a problem with is facing up to my own ignorance. What I have a problem with is that it takes me a lot of work to learn new pieces, and so I take the easy way out - I avoid even trying to learn at all.

What I must do is to allow myself to feel stupid.

I must embrace my own ignorance; it is the only way I will succeed with my musical ambitions.

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