Ambition, obsession and the danger of addiction


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Learning an instrument should be fun from the start, it is also frustrating, nerve-wracking, surprising, full of opportunity… and when the concerts start it becomes infectious, thrilling, nerve-wracking, exhausting, invigorating… the juxtaposition of emotions when there is an audience in close proximity.  This is the thrill of performing, the chemical changes, the fear and the elation are a few of the effects that have to be appreciated and enjoyed. 

Each performer copes differently with the resultant feelings of being the focus of attention and many are ‘hooked’ on the sensations that accompany the music.  Confidence and self-belief have an important effect on the artistic presentation and the state of mind of the instrumentalist can influence both positive and negative outcomes.  When I assess my life as a performer it has mostly been dispensed from a positive outlook, very rarely have I suffered from the debilitating effects brought about by anxiety and the one time that I remember experiencing that effect was as the consequence of personal difficulties not musical ones.  Learning how to put yourself in the best mental state in order to perform is very important and controlling the urge to find something in a bottle or a packet that will help you reach this state, whatever is happening in your life, is another skill to acquire for the professional musician.

When there is ambition there must be a plan, even though this might not be written down, a goal or an end result has to be in mind.  During the progress towards the goal the plan may change and sometimes the goal will be modified but this is normal.  Another important part for achieving the ambition is having a way to monitor progress, a detachment from practice and ability gathering to be able to measure how well you are developing.  This skill is difficult to achieve when you are engrossed in the music, the instrument and the performances but it is necessary for the musician to be able to take an overview of their successes so far and what to concentrate on next.  If music becomes an obsession it is very difficult to disconnect from the routine and it becomes hard to see improvement. ‘How near am I to accomplishing my aims?’ and ‘am I still on course?’ are questions that are put to the back of the mind.

Some musicians relinquish this process and rely on the advice of others; teacher, manager or colleague, and in this instance there has to be trust and respect.  This should be regarded as a long-term collaboration rather than a fleeting appraisal and finding the right person for guidance can be another intricate procedure, just like learning the instrument.

As soon as a musician performs to an audience there are some chemical changes in the body that need consideration and recognition.  The ‘fight or flight’ production of adrenaline when in a stressful situation is a commonplace sensation for the majority of performers.  In the body adrenaline helps the senses and muscles to work more effectively and the ‘rush’ generated by a demanding situation generally aids the performer.  Blood flow and breathing rates increase and nutrients are released to sustain muscle activity although the less important organs have reduced functionality during this period.  Being in a continuous state of an adrenaline high can weaken the immune system and cause digestive problems as well as overworking the heart.  This is evident in many people when they succumb to illness when they take a holiday. 

The more unpredictable feelings that need to be understood occur during the ‘crash’ after the event.  As quickly as adrenaline is released to give the feelings of invincibility and confidence it can disappear leaving an anxious, negative and sometimes depressed condition.  What strategy each individual uses to manage these changes can lead to habits (sometimes expressed as addictions) that try to emulate the feelings (or highs) that naturally occurred during the performance.  Many performers ‘party’ after the occasion, this is to celebrate what has happened but also excite the body rather than allow the ‘crash’ to take effect.  Habitual partying after engagements can lead to increased intake of stimulants as the body becomes immune to their effects and a dangerous spiral into addiction is possible in this situation.

I have been through this cycle of events with alcohol but fortunately a change in circumstances allowed me to realise the danger before it took control.  I was living away from home fulfilling a six-month contract, two performances a day, six days each week.  By the second week of the run I never looked at the music, never even bothered to open the ‘pad’, as I had remembered it all and the muscles had memorised their movements.  I started to have a pre-performance drink as well as a post-performance few and before long I was having a glass, then bottle, with breakfast.  I cannot recollect what happened during the last months of this run, where I stayed or what I did other than perform twelve shows each week (on automatic pilot?).  This is a situation I never want to be in again, life is for experiencing and I like to be aware of what is happening, and the incident taught me many lessons.  The two main ones were about my ability to commit to a long period of time in the same place with the same music and how to cope with the routine of performance.

I survived and have performed many thousands of times since, my ambitions have changed during the years and I can still take a dispassionate look at what and how I do things.  I have evaded a number of habits that could have become addictive and still enjoy alcohol but now I remember the evening.  Controlling or accepting emotions and trying to smooth out swings of mood has been difficult but at least I know why it is happening, even if sometimes I cannot control how it effects me.  Music still excites, frustrates, infuriates and beguiles me but most of all it has the ability to make me happy, some might say that it is an obsession but I still consider it as ambition.

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About derangeddrums

Composer, percussionist, musical director, teacher and educator. My music has been written for audiences in palaces and in the street. Music is my vocation and my passion and I hope you enjoy it too.
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