Friday, 26 April 2013

(Un)Musical Chairs: How to Face The Fear and Win

A Personal Essay concerning my being a rather large 'fraidy cat

 My career as a master mute musician reached its height during my membership of the school concert band. 
Let me explain.

Every Friday afternoon, for the last eighteen months of high school, I’d trudge away from the school exit and into the auditorium at the far end of the building and go through the same motions. Dump bag; assemble my flute; glumly mingle with animated peers. After a few minutes, this chipper mass would assemble, and then sit on, sets of cold blue straight-backed chairs. A chill would always be hanging in the auditorium, making goosebumps prickle up and chafe against trousers, shirts. None of the other band members were perturbed by the clinical surroundings - they always pulsed out enthusiasm, voices wavering excitedly to match fluttering hands. In fact, conversation would continue right up until our teacher  would stride to the podium and lift her baton. The band would raise their instruments, poised, and our conductor’s stick would drop and the bluesy notes would run like liquid silver from clarinets, saxophones, almost all the flutes.

Almost all. I would be miming along, my fingers stubbing the instrument to the tune but my mouth never daring to breathe life into the instrument. 

The reason for my silence was simple: I was consumed by a near-demonic emotion I call The Fear - terror that spawns inactivity. Convinced I wasn’t as good as the other band members, my fear of playing badly made me stop attempting to play at all, both during rehearsals and outside. It was self-perpetuating. I practiced less, so became less confident; I became less confident, so practiced less.

The Fear, however, doesn’t solely operate within the musical sphere, but can rather curl its fingers round hosts of activities. Avoiding going out for a run because that the (marginally) slimmer neighbor might see your flailing; allowing your pen’s ink to congeal for fear someone might snigger at your screenplay; keeping a competition flier firmly locked in a cupboard somewhere. All of these are instances of a prevailing sense of inadequacy that produces lifelessness. All these, then, are examples of The Fear.

This isn’t a feeling that people should blithely shrug their shoulders at, either. The Fear wastes legions of hours, both those belonging to the victim and those of others involved tangentially. It can distort self-esteem and create huge levels of cognitive dissonance, especially guilt. In my case, I’d waste two bloated hours pretending to be a flautist, then be driven home by a willing parent (“anything to support our musical child!”) while I sat beside glumly wondering how I got into this mess at all. For me, all the boxes were ticked.

We should, then, aspire to face The Fear wherever we spot it, should do our utmost win out. The framing out of this contention, however, is based on a presumption that all might share -namely, the idea that it’s all too common to be constricted by this emotion. Surely no-one can get themselves into such ridiculous situations that The Fear requires? Who would willingly sit down alongside a concert band and play dumb for so long?

But that’s the thing - The Fear can snare a victim in two distinct, equally effective ways. The first is what psychologists semi-poetically refer to as a ‘flashbulb memory’, widely regarded as a memory so vivid it sears itself into the mind and is able to affect a person from a single episode. I, for example, haven’t driven on the motorway since what was supposed to be a leisurely journey home from a conference at St. Andrews. I set off on the drive early, well before the sun was anywhere near setting. When it began to slide down the sky like a running egg (as it did an hour or so into the trip) I found myself hurtling down the M80, suddenly locked in a deathly staring contest with the sun. Blinded for a quarter of an hour, I was terrified, convinced of my imminent dispatch from the earth. Mercifully, I did somehow arrive home intact, but that memory, like a flashbulb, punches itself to the forefront of my mind every time I get into the driver’s seat. From now on, my longest driving sessions are usually no longer than a weekly sojourn to Tesco’s for some salsa (discussed in an earlier post - points for continuity).

In case you're wondering, I'm the one who looks like he's wandered in having just come from a fun day of murdering
The second way The Fear operates, however, is not through a definitive event but rather through gradual increments. Very rarely does The Fear blind - it often chooses to be subtle, delicate, more like the moon sneaking to its place than the sun lowering itself down.

Take my flute playing. After that first week or so of practice, aged nine or so, I was pleased to find I’d managed to get a kind of warbled sound out of the thing, and from there began to tackle increasingly complex tunes. To me, every note, pure or faulty, was helping me improve, so I’d play twenty minutes a day, constantly, consistently. It never felt like practice. Moving into the start of high school, everything was still only on the up. I started doing graded exams, and their reports gave me outside evidence of my progress. I played at weddings, joined the school band. 

Then, one summer, I went on holiday. Somewhere in France - a trip with family -swimming, climbing, meandering, a bustling fortnight brimming with activity, so though I brought the flute and did play a little, it often lay dormant on some table. The week after, I was camping with  a mass of gruff adolescents aspiring to be like their cooler older siblings who viewed any music besides Nickelback as an utter waste of time. Although I played there, too, it was in even more sporadic, stubbed periods of time, only when well away from the judgment of those sharing my tent. Then, after this, I helped at several children’s holiday clubs at home, finding myself too exhausted to even think about playing. And so on, and so on.  By the end of this leviathan summer, my flute stayed packed up in its box on a windowsill, forgotten by everything but the odd burst of sunlight. 

At start of the new term I eventually picked the instrument back up, but when I blew into it, the notes seemed to come out flabby, despondent. My fingers felt like slugs, my eyes glazed over the notes that seemed to dance by themselves on the sheet in front. I was confused, disappointed - after ten minutes of stress, I clumsily stuck the parts in the case and thrust it back on the sill, promising myself I’d try again later.

Like Pokemon, the Fear can constrict.
As in Pokemon, it's very frustrating.
Of course, I didn’t try again for a long stretch of time, then a longer stretch after that. By gradually playing less and less, first without realising and then consciously shirking practice, The Fear was able to petrify me into silence. Eventually, I found myself going to the band I once enjoyed now out of obligation, too paralysed at my own inadequacy to play.

So, assume you’ve seen yourself in my example and self-diagnosed yourself with this malady: what can you do? How can you face The Fear and emerge victorious? There are two viable alternatives available:

Option one: keep playing and push through. The pursuit of a goal almost always brings difficulties, and often the best way to overcome them is to simply strive on. This may sound obvious to some, but others may need to hear that their self-doubt can be overcome:

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get Busy - Dale Carnegie.

An illustration, perhaps, to make this option less abstract. Several streets in my area, despite stopping at dead ends, are all connected by a river that runs behind the back gardens of the houses; a stream overgrown with trees and brambles and patches of soft marsh. Children, as a rule, are drawn to short cuts, and when I was younger I would cut by this grassy, slippery route to get to a friend’s house, dirtied, but a few minutes faster. 

Originally, the friend’s parents would thrust me back to my own house to change my disheveled, muddy clothes, but interestingly the more I travelled via shortcut the easier the journey became to navigate cleanly. As the tall grass was beaten down under foot, as the branches snapped back and the best stepping stones assaulted with marker pens, I managed to subdue the obstacles that seemed so dominant through regular treading and re-treading. 

Face your Fear
 (but wear a helmet and/or cup if your Fear has talons)
Similarly, putting on the shoes and running each day; applying each criticism of your script or novel (or essay); every mangled note will brush back the brambles a little more. In time, The Fear will have been exorcised through repetition.

In contrast to this, Option Two: walk away, might be seen as negative and defeatist, but it’s important to emphasise this strategy is not synonymous with giving up. Giving up, in this context, would be to sit in the chair continuing to mime. Walking away is about getting off the chair and finding a new skill to invest time in. Personally, it wasn’t until I gave up the flute that I was able to spend more time writing seriously, channeling those wasted hours into something that has since blossomed. Option two is not defeatist, then: it was through the pain of walking away that this essay is here to be read, critiqued. 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which option is chosen. What’s paramount is that the Fear’s pervasive consequences - wasted time, deflated self-esteem and guilt - are fended off. The worst thing that can be done is to sit dejectedly on that cold blue seat, too petrified to move away, too scared to play. Instead, let’s battle The Fear and make it too afraid to try attacking ever again.

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