Picking the Right Poison

Music is a complicated topic for me. 

When I was about 13-years-old, I remember having my first mental breakdown. All I remember is being totally and completely overwhelmed with my life and by stress that I shut myself in my room for an entire day and simply cried. What calmed me down was a CD my mom really liked called “Songs Without Words”. It was an album completely made of piano covers of songs/short contemporary piano music. It calmed me down as I listened to an instrument that had a huge impact on my life from a young age. That’s what I wanted to do. I decided that I was going to do music. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. 

Saxophone was something I had always been good at. When I picked up the instrument at 10-years-old, I did it because my best friend was playing it and it was the only instrument that no one in my family had played. I begged and begged my mom because I didn’t want to play percussion like my dad. My band director, who happens to still be one of the most influential people in my life today, granted my wish. When I started, I was a natural. I never had to practice like my best friend whom I took lessons with. I would show up, play what was on the page, and was eager for more. It was fun. 

My band director noticed my potential and kept trying to keep me at first chair. Somehow, I would always sneak my way down to the bottom of the line with my best friend. I didn’t care what part I was on. I was having fun. 

In junior high, I started to play the baritone saxophone. For those of you who don’t know, it’s one of the larger saxophones that usually plays with the tuba parts in bands. It was a whole new beast, but I took it eagerly. But I remember one year at Christmas, we were with my mom’s family. I have a cousin who is a music teacher. When I first told her that I wanted to be a band director, she told me the first thing to do was to switch back to alto. Bari sax, while important, doesn’t see a whole lot of notes. The parts are easy. I would need to get used to seeing harder music. 

It took me a few years to switch back. When I did, I was in private saxophone lessons for the first time and improving at an exponential speed. First came the new reeds. Then came the new ligature. It snowballed quickly into sitting in a church basement with my private teacher who brought me a vast array of mouthpieces to try into getting my first and current serious horn. I remember crying when I got it. 

After only a few months of lessons, I was already playing the Ferling etudes which are usually studied in college. In fact, I’m going to work on them this semester. My private teacher was a doctoral student in the studio that I currently reside. He taught me my major scales, prepared me for my first All-State audition (which didn’t go as well as I had wanted), and was the first person who right off the bat took me seriously as a saxophonist. 

But of course, he graduated and was moving to Texas with his wife after my Junior year of high school. Never fear, he told me whom I should take lessons with next. A masters student with an education degree that was also in the Iowa studio was looking for new students and had a very similar teaching style. I also knew of a very talented doctoral student who was at Iowa as well. I asked Scott, my teacher, if he thought this doctoral student would be good as well. He told me that while he knew he was a great player, he didn’t have the education degree and he also didn’t know what his teaching style was like. He felt consistency was key. He told me I should really go for the masters student, James, but that it would be a good idea to take trial lessons with both teachers. 

I liked James better.

He was welcoming, not condescending, but also knew what my weaknesses were and how to work on them. Unfortunately, I just didn’t practice as much as I should have. But James was excellent and prepared me for my college auditions. 

January of 2011. Auditions were a month or so away. I decided to take a lesson with Dr. Tse before my audition at Iowa to see what his teaching style was like. I remember being so nervous. I idolized the musician and professor. He had the most incredible sound out of any saxophonist I had ever heard. I still remember sitting in that church basement with Scott and him telling me that Dr. Tse was one of the top 10 saxophonists in the world right then. In all honesty, he still is. 

Dr. Tse took me in, listened, and gave me feedback. He immediately addressed some of the larger concerns like how I was holding my horn, but he said he could tell I had a good concept of sound, I just needed some help achieving it. Mostly, he believed that my mouthpiece was to blame but also that I was too tight. I needed to relax. With a smile, we worked on the Creston sonata and Bozza aria. He was kind, but not too kind. I could tell he was tough and that he was holding back some since I wasn’t really his student. It was a trial. It was a great lesson. I knew that none of the other teachers I had had could hold a candle to this man. He was the real deal. So I was set. 

Fall of 2011, I was the only incoming freshman at Iowa. I was scared. I was scared shitless. I was accepted as a BM Performance with Certification which means I was a performance major going for an education degree as well. The studio was incredibly intimidating. The graduate students vastly outnumbered the undergraduates, the only music studio at Iowa to do so. The only person to come talk to me on a regular basis was my former teacher, James, and a senior who was the only BA in the studio, Annelise. 

College hit me hard. The lack of support I received from the studio at first overwhelmed me mostly because the next person closest to me in age was Calvin and he was lightyears ahead of me as a player. He was also strictly a performance major. I didn’t really care about that difference though. Only that he was so much better than me and it was intimidating. Even now, intimidating seems like a huge understatement. The only support system I had from my freshman year, or rather I should say the only people with whom I felt comfortable was the people in marching band. But even the older ones immediately came after me saying that Tse was a horribly mean person. As they liked to call him, he was a “dream ruiner”. They were envious that I had made it into the studio and they had not. I didn’t know what to say. They weren’t particularly good players, so it wasn’t like I blamed Dr. Tse for not admitting them. But these were also my friends. What was I to say? They had greater influence over me than the people in studio. Even out of all the people in studio, the first person I clicked with was someone who had a huge problem with Dr. Tse. 

The further into my freshman year I got, the more overwhelmed I was with it. I started getting very sick all the time. I felt scared to leave my dorm room. Even marching band became taxing because of all the people in it. I had remembered a conversation I had with my dad just a few months before, right before I graduated. He said something to me along the lines of me having an anxiety problem. As a psychologist, he could always tell, but never really felt that he knew what to do with it and me having struggled with it for so long himself. So after talking to him about it, I decided to see a doctor at the student health. I described my symptoms and for the first time, I was correctly diagnosed. You see, when I had first noticed the symptoms of heart palpitations back in my sophomore year of high school, the sudden change in heart rate made me feel dizzy and out of breath. They thought I had exercise induced asthma. 

After that, I started taking antidepressants. After a month, I started noticing changes. Good changes. I felt more at ease around groups of people. I was able to concentrate more fully. The constant, nagging urge of worry was lessened. The more I continued medication, the better I felt. 

Then came my studio performance. 

I was so, so, so incredibly nervous. Nervous doesn’t begin to cover it. Playing in front of all those incredibly talented saxophonists and Dr. Tse and having them critique me…

The day came. I played a piece I didn’t feel great with. I was nervous. So nervous. I felt sick the entire time I was on that stage. Don’t get me wrong, performing makes me nervous, but I had never faced something like that. I was able to put on an entire program of music my senior year of high school and still the nerves I had that day never compared to playing in front of my studio. Playing to the experts that didn’t make me feel welcome. 

I immediately walked off stage and started to break down. 

Everyone rushed over, telling me of what a great job I did. Telling me not to worry about it. James and another girl named Brooke were probably the most helpful. Brooke drove me to band, tears and all, and told me about her first studio performance. She said it was a good thing I took it so seriously because that’s what would make me a great player. She didn’t take it seriously and she wished that she had. 

Then came my next lesson with Dr. Tse.

He was not as supportive. He was worried. Worried that if I reacted like that in a studio performance that I wouldn’t be able to give a senior recital. I started to explain what I thought was going on. I told him how that had never happened to me before. How I had put on an entire recital just a few months prior without any kind of anxiety like this. It didn’t shake him though. He was determined to get me on the BA track. For me not to be a performance major. He felt that my anxiety was too much. 

In turn, I think he made it much, much worse. 

The next few years weren’t good. Things went from bad, to worse, to slightly better, to relapse, to improvement, to complete mental breakdown. I declined heavily after the spring of my sophomore year. Over the next 6 months, I was hospitalized twice with suicidal ideation and self harm. I couldn’t get myself out of bed in the morning to go to class. Saxophone became a source of fear instead of a love or a dream I was pursuing for a career. I still haven’t quite gotten over that fear. I’m extremely unsure as to how I’m going to conquer that this semester. Especially when I have a new teacher who doesn’t know about any of this and I’m playing new repertoire. 

I’ve been debating for a long time whether or not I want to play saxophone in band. For the last two years, our band has been so short on clarinets and so heavily represented by talented saxophonists that I’ve offered myself over to play clarinet. I think in turn it made my fear of saxophone greater. This being my final year if not just semester in band, I’ve been thinking I should really play saxophone. At the same time, though, I’m so incredibly scared. I’m so out of practice. My fellow undergraduates are even lightyears ahead of me. People tell me I shouldn’t give up because I’m good, but is it really worth the sensations of choking, numbness, dizziness, and sudden, rapid heart rate? Should I just stick to clarinet because it lets me avoid that fear or at least postpone it a little longer? 

Of course, the band assignments came out today. Due to the large numbers of people needing band credit, Dr. Tse figured I should play clarinet because I can, because of the shortage of clarinets in the bands, and because of the overwhelming numbers of saxophonists. It makes sense, really. I’ve been playing clarinet for the last two years. But it bothers me that he didn’t even ask. Last year, he assigned me to saxophone first until Professor Kastens asked me to play clarinet. I don’t know if they had possibly talked it over before he sent it out, but I doubt it due to the question mark he put beside my name every time. 

I know it’s my fault. If I really wanted to play saxophone, I should have said something or now is my chance to say something. The problem is, I don’t know what I want. I don’t know if I’m ready to face that fear that head-on in front of my peers. On top of the stress of everything else in my life, it doesn’t seem wise to try to jump right on into saxophone. At the same time, I miss it. This could be my last opportunity to play in a concert band for the rest of my life. I sincerely hope it isn’t though.

Especially because that’s what made me fall in love with saxophone. It wasn’t the solo music. I’ve never been one for solo music. It just seems to selfish. I love performing in ensembles. Quartets. Chamber. Band. I love it. Performing with people to collaborate to come up with something so spectacularly beautiful. 

I have to pick my poison, so to speak.


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