This Isn’t About Mental Illness

Earlier this week, I was sent an article about the most relaxing songs according to neuroscience (written by Melanie Curtin), reportedly able to make women in the study doze off, and one capable of reducing anxiety in men and women by up to 65%.

Honestly, this sounds too good to be true. As a first-year grad student with limited social connections (no, Mom, I’m fine, just still new to this place), performance requirements, day job, homework, bills, and a stipend that almost covers my cost of living, the idea that ten songs can fix my day-to-day anxiety seems a little unrealistic. Especially in an era where everyone (it seems) has any variety of anxiety to manage, all different yet with the same name. If it was that easy to rid ourselves of it, wouldn’t we all be cured?

I don’t like to write about mental illness. I don’t like to copy-and-paste all the disclaimers necessary to make it appropriate for everyone (as if it can be appropriate for anyone), and that alone will fill my word count enough to omit any original thought. Therefore, this is not about mental illness or solving it. You can Google search your way through that one without my help.

The beauty of the diversity of stress and anxiety is the idyllic journey of self-awareness that comes with learning which remedies work for you and which don’t. Currently, my go-to method is lying on my back in the floor of my shared office, listening to carefully-selected music, breathing as deeply and slowly as I can, and hoping no one walks in.

So when I got this link about songs scientifically proven to fit in this playlist, I was immediately interested.

Curtin includes a Spotify playlist of the top 10 songs from the study (which I’m listening to while writing this), the top one (“Weightless” by Marconi Union) written in collaboration with sound therapists for this exact outcome: elements are especially crafted to reduce the listener’s heart rate and reduce stress. While the article doesn’t specifically outline the most effective rhythms and harmonies, first listen shows several similarities to what I look for in music on my own playlist.

In general, listening to music isn’t the most relaxing thing for me. Curtin mentions listening to music as a good way of disconnecting from the pressures of a technologically connected society (by use of the same technology, no less), but usually music is the very thing I need to “disconnect” from. Blame the formal music training. Listening doesn’t “turn my brain off” much of the time, and actually becomes a major distraction. I think this is true for many musicians.

There are two yoga nidra classes I’ve been in that illustrate this issue. One teacher played meditative music during the warm-up flow, then had the room silent for nidra, and I had my most successful meditation in a group setting of my life. Another teacher played no music during the flow, then had an eastern-influenced melody while she guided our meditation towards a scene of us dancing freely around a fire, then the melody was played over a techno beat and my imaginary fire dancer immediately sat down and crossed her arms in anger until enough of it nearly sparked an anxiety attack. One of these was led by a music professor.

I use music in my at-home yoga practice, and it’s the same playlist I turned on lying on the office floor last week. Without knowing what science says makes a song relaxing or not, here’s a down-and-dirty breakdown of what I look for:

Inspires deep, slow breathing.
This seems easy: slow tempo. You’re not going to naturally breathe fully to any dance track, and that 60 bpm (beats per minute) is the standard tempo of tranquility for a reason. But there’s more to it than speed. The song also needs to facilitate long breath larger than four beats. Many ballads, though slow, still heavily emphasize beats 1 and 3, which creates an “inhale four beats, exhale four beats” pattern (or in eight out eight, or in four out eight, et cetera) and don’t account for your breath as it deepens and stretches longer than simple forms.

This also refers to harmony. Beats 1 and 3 are emphasized because those are typically where the chord changes occur. If the harmony is elongated past two beats or four or eight, the song itself actually feels like it’s breathing, I kid you not. Quit laughing, when you find the song that does that you’ll be obsessed too.

Melodies that are either instrumental or don’t emphasize lyrics.
This is a complaint I get about classical music; there’s nothing to focus on when there are no words. But that incorrectly termed lack-of-focus is exactly what I’m looking for. It must be effectual (largely achieved by the previous requirements) and doesn’t bring my attention on the music itself, but rather lets it wander naturally as encouraged in meditation.

Contemporary instrumental music can sometimes be densely orchestrated to make up for the absent lyrics. There is something said for music (orchestral or not) that relies on harmonic movement rather than rhythmic. Lyrics in another language are also an option.

I want to float in this music.
I only know one way to describe this. In that incredibly successful nidra mentioned earlier, I imagined myself in a shallow part of the ocean, lying on my back in a sea anemone, close enough to the surface to see the the sun clearly but hear nothing. I wasn’t still, but swayed gently with the anemone. It was a lot like the second scene in Finding Nemo when Merlin is asleep in their coral reef home and the camera is facing up, just before Nemo interrupts.

If it doesn’t make me feel like I’m napping in endangered ocean features, I’m not interested.


I’m not entirely sold on the playlist as a whole. Some songs I entirely disagree with (“Pure Shores” by All Saints and “Someone Like You” by Adele are great songs for late night drives, but maybe not for floor breathing), and others have found their way into my normal rotation (how did I just now find Watermark by Enya?) Honestly, most of these are still lukewarm to me, maybe because I haven’t really tried to relax with them (I have just been writing at my desk), maybe because I’m still loyal to my songs. Here are my top 3 choices not featured on that list to supplement the ones I’m not into:

  1. CMF by Caspian
    1. sounds exactly like I imagine falling in love sounds like
    2. listen to this whole album
  2. Hands by Moving Mountains
    1. simple melody, simple lyrics (breaks my second criterion, sue me), and you’ll sing the guitar melody all day
    2. listen to this whole album
  3. Window by Album Leaf
    1. listen to this whole album
    2. then listen to everything by this artist

Coupon Clipping (Are You Proud, Mom?)

I think about groceries a lot. Sometimes I honestly look around a room and think, “I maybe the only person here who doesn’t hate Walmart.” Any room. (In my defence, I’m partial to the Neighborhood Market rather than the Super Center, but that’s neither here nor there.)

There is something distinctly spiritual about grocery shopping, and I tend to develop a very loyal and obsessive relationship with my chosen store. I approach the cart racks like early Roman Catholics would approach the altar: reverent and at peace, with a well thought-out list in hand (optional at altar). Even if I’m filling my reusable canvas bags with only wine and cereal, grocery shopping temporarily puts me in the ranks of adults with (probably) steady paychecks, Christmas card lists, and a mailman they know by name. I want to be them.

Being from western Arkansas, land of Walmart, I’ve never really considered competing stores—they didn’t exist. When I moved to Denver last summer, I think I might have stepped into a Walmart once, in the first month I was there, and quickly abandoned it for the closer King Soopers (which was also abandoned for the smaller and prettier King Soopers on University Avenue, over five miles farther from my apartment than the Colorado Boulevard location, but atmosphere is important and reigned supreme). Occasionally I’d hit Trader Joe’s after work for bread and Greek yogurt, but only certain times of the week to avoid vegan moms and their way-too-well-behaved children. My grocery store runs were more ceremonious and disciplined than any organized religion I’ve ever been in.

Now I’m in Dayton, Ohio, far from King Soopers (though the membership card is still on my keychain, hopeful) and resentful of supercenters. Nearly three months in and I’m still trying to view this as an adventure, a quest to find my new favorite grocery store. I’ve tried Meijer but I’m iffy on the pronunciation so I avoid it; I never have a quarter with me to get a cart at Aldi and end up cradling bananas and frozen vegetables more often than I like; I’m not suburbian enough to enjoy Target that much.

Then, on a fateful evening, I was introduced to the Kroger coupon app.

Don’t get excited, I still haven’t been to a Kroger. There was one in Fort Smith according to my mom, but I have no memory (there was also a K-Mart and tourism, of which I have limited memory). I’ve also not used coupons since our family went through the Extreme Couponing phase, complete with binders and multiple transactions in one trip. Perhaps this is my chance to fully become my mother just like Judy Blume warned; perhaps this will become a sad love letter to grocery affairs of yore.

I’m trying to not get my hopes up—the iOS app has 2/5 stars—but this could be the start of something new.

Please Livestream Responsibly

Studio class: An hour a week (or more) when all the music students of one applied professor get together for performances, lectures, and presentations.

I’ve been lucky to know studio class as a safe space. I’ve always been around such supportive flutists who really and truly want to see each other succeed, and give each other the tools to do it. It’s the ideal place to get through that first rough performance before an audition or recital—it’s just you and your colleagues, no competition, no ranking.

Studio class is a safe space. Until you film it on Facebook Live.

I have always struggled with being the best, which is inconvenient because I’m painfully aware I don’t stand a chance. With anything, fill in the blank. I don’t wear much makeup because I think I missed the age where it’s forgivable to do it badly, so now I just say it’s “natural” but really it’s quitting. You don’t see me putting my beauty routine on Facebook Live for a reason. 

Social media is usually blamed for this comparison syndrome. Yeah, I often strive for my hair/house/pets to look like my Instagram feed, and I won’t post a picture if I’ve found enough flaws (awful makeup skills, subpar camera resources, messy house, etc.), but I fell short even before I was on personal social platforms. My Neopets were far inferior to everyone else’s and it truly bothered me.

I will gladly support artists online. But in this world, I’m purely a consumer; I’m far too chicken and self-conscious to post my playing where someone might listen to it.

Then I agreed to help get our studio classes livestreamed.

Yesterday was our second livestream of the semester. The first one was to test the waters, ending after the piece was done and left out our comments and critiques. It was posted entirely from my iPhone and is shaky enough to be distracting. It got nearly 2,000 views and the most shares of anything else we’ve done.

Yesterday was an hour-long livestream (still entirely on my phone, but remarkably more steady) of three concerti for an upcoming competition this weekend. Suddenly, our bubble feels far less safe.

There is a popular philosophy among musicians that mistakes belong in the practice room only. You should only perform as the most perfect version of yourself, and don’t let anyone peep at the man behind the curtain. Yesterday, I messed up live on the internet and I can’t take it back.

This was an incredibly humbling experience. I thought I was over my performance anxiety, but seeing that tiny iPhone propped on a stand at the back of the hall alerted me to the audience I could be stressing over.


This feels just like a recital I’m not prepared for.
Everyone’s gonna hate this, and by extension, hate me.
Everyone I’ve ever befriended has access to this.
According to the internet, this is the most accurate representation of me as a performer.
Ohmygosh that piano is way brighter than I thought it would be.
I am representing not only myself and the studio but the entire grad program.
“Is this really the best they could get?”

(I hadn’t even played a note yet.)

All this over a livestream that had no more than 8 viewers at its peak and averaged around 3. I didn’t even really mess up that badly (not that I’ve listened past the first ten seconds). And this was for the edification of the entire class, not my own hyper-critical audition. Really, as far as career-destroying acts go, this was pretty benign.

I feel like I have so much to prove, like I have to be an immediately finished product. Progress is linear and if someone can pinpoint a weakness of mine that is a strength of theirs, I’m failing. I can’t let anyone know I’m failing.

I can’t believe I still think this way.


The best thing I learned from this is that I ain’t shit. And thank goodness for that. I’m allowed to be a work-in-progress. My mistakes aren’t restricted to the practice room, musical or otherwise. I’ve known and implemented this in other facets of my life, and I learn over and over these aren’t perfectly compartmentalized.

It wasn’t an honest performance; I held back far too much for it to be authentic. I guess if I can say the most embarrassing video of me on the internet is a bad performance, I’m doing fine.

I still removed the tag, though.

I Fell in Love with a Musician (Again): A Concert Review

It’s 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. I just got home from a Chamber Music Yellow Springs concert at First Presbyterian Church. It’s raining, has been for hours, and I want nothing more than to sleep.

Instead, I’m sitting on my couch, in heels, grilling a sandwich, and writing this with the window open, because I know I won’t sleep until I do.


String quartets make me regret my instrument choice. Not only can string players swear while practicing (instead of having to halt air flow, curse breathlessly, and resume—a habit that has lately gotten me in trouble in lessons) and play whole entire chords at once, they also get all the coolest literature (to anyone who says string quartet isn’t the most metal instrumentation: Grieg String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor). Growing up in a small Oklahoma school district, orchestra wasn’t an option; it was band or bust. I’m not even sure I would’ve picked orchestra if I had the option. I only joined band because my friends did, and I’m pretty sure I never would’ve been friends with people who picked orchestra.

Tonight, twelve years after that decision, I sat in that worship hall watching Calidore String Quartet, knowing entirely I would’ve been their friend.

These tickets came to me by way of a text message Saturday night. I had other plans, cancelled them, and was offered an extra ticket I had a hard time giving away. Here, I hope, those people I offered it to will find remorse and redemption.

The previous owner of the tickets said: “The Janáček will be one to see. I couldn’t do the Haydn or Beethoven without…” *pantomimes nodding off*. Most of this statement was true.

The concert started with the Haydn Quartet in D Major, Op. 64, No. 5, “The Lark,” which was by no means a snoozefest. It was the most Haydnian music you could ever imagine, with luscious melodies and comedic interjections that sometimes go right over the audience’s heads. Honestly—and no offence to Franzie here—you could forget the music entirely with this group. I’d be alright watching them on mute; I’d still feel in the silence. The three lower voices (second violin, viola, and cello) were perfectly in sync. They were the company dancers, choreographed and rehearsed at the barre in front of a wall of mirrors by a tough-love Austrian lady. It was a beautiful, wordless conversation. So mesmerizing I overlooked entirely the soloist of the group, the first violin. He was in a world of his own, moving in and out of the company’s shapes—or rather, above, since he was the Lark. I have nothing to say about Haydn’s music because I didn’t listen to it: I watched it. The audience begged to clap.

The concert closed with Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127, which was plain mean. I understand why this was programmed here: It’s the longest piece, it would have to stand on either side of the intermission alone, and it’s common practice to have the longer single piece at the end. But, as an audience member, it was exhausting. I wrote no notes on this one other than “why,” and “there was exactly 1 sexy moment in the entire piece,” referring to the second movement, Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile, which was s e v e n t e e n   m i n u t e s   l o n g . This note was taken at minute 8, which in adagio time is more accurately hour 2. In true Beethoven fashion, the last movement was covered in false endings that just moved to another key, which is when I realized Beethoven is an asshole.

None of this matters, though, when I mention the Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer,” who stole my heart like a true Russian aristocrat and crushed it.

You may recognize the name as an affectionate reference to Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, dedicated to violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (probably also why Beethoven was programmed, but I’m still bitter), which inspired the Leo Tolstoy novella of the same name. This quartet is a dramatization of this novella.

The story follows Pozdnyshev, a misogynistic, hard-hearted man who doesn’t believe in love or gender equality, and his ill-fated marriage of passion and vicious fighting. He possibly loved his wife in the early years, most likely for her beauty and status, and this optimism for their future shows in the hopeful melody of the first movement. It is glorious, like a ship just leaving the docks, but lacks genteel manners needed for longevity. The dance melody of the second movement is celebratory, yet leaves something behind, a fog over the courtyard. The performers are happy, too, but it’s bittersweet: They know the ending.

The third movement shows the dark side of their home life: Passionate material love interrupted by hatred. Now the performers have transferred fully from musicians to thespians, telling the story with every part of their body, not just the instruments. Here, Pozdnyshev’s wife has taken up piano and began playing the Kreutzer Sonata with a violinist she soon falls in love with. The first violin and cello share a new melody, sweet and knowing—the love and music making shared in infidelity. It is interrupted by screeches of rage by the second violin and viola when Pozdnyshev learns of his wife’s adultery. He is telling his story on a train afterwards, and the fourth movement is reflective of the first, a shadow of itself. The performers lean back in their chairs, broken. They all ask for forgiveness with Pozdnyshev, who has been convicted of his wife’s murder.


What is it about live music that makes it so easy to fall in love with the performers? (I will call it love, despite Pozdnyshev’s fellow passengers contesting him on what makes true love; they surely would argue what I felt couldn’t possibly equate love, but I tell you that is all it could be. After all, as Pozdnydshev said, “What is love?”) Live music is itself a shared experience, a strong unifying one; a great performance is also vulnerable, and inspires the audience to be just as open and raw. I feel like I was laid bare and examined, despite never making eye contact with a single member of the quartet, and I’m unashamed. It is impossible to not instantly fall into a deep, temporary love right there on the poorly-cushioned pew. I selfishly hold this in me, and choose to ignore this experience wasn’t mine alone and is (to some extent) shared with other members of the audience. By intermission, I’m thankful no one took the extra ticket to break this illusion.

It is now 11 o’clock. It is still raining. My sandwich is gone. I will go to bed dreaming of Russia and my life as a string musician.

Relocated

I’m approaching the 2-month mark since moving to Ohio, with little to show for it.

By the time I reached this point in Denver last year, I went on several road trips, live performances, and met so many people Facebook keeps reminding me I friended a year ago. Flash forward 365 days: I’m sitting on the living room floor of my two-bedroom apartment I share with my cat, drinking coffee at 12pm, watching the leaves fall from my window, googling road trip ideas in Ohio, a state I only peripherally knew existed before living here.

There are several differences between now and last year. I’m going to grad school instead of beefing my resume with an unpaid part-time internship; I live by myself in a town where I’m the obvious new kid; my money goes to living expenses and school-related things, and I no longer have a killer part-time second job that lets me read on the clock while also ensuring I have plenty of money for my Nation of One; I’m in a city a quarter of the size of Denver where servers ask if I’m meeting someone later, and then look taken aback when I say I’m here by myself (this could be changed if I were less reclusive and sought companionship more—I’m not yet to the point of full-on friendship, but if you add up my works-in-progress, they equal maybe three whole friends. The point is, I wasn’t expected to change this behavior in Denver).

In summary: Fewer mountains, more questions about my name (which is very exotic here?), and I’m dubbed the eccentric out-of-towner known to YA male fiction writers.


 

“Why would you move from Denver to here?” I’m asked by everyone, brows furrowed, words soaked in incredulity.

Denver was a temporary stop, my last physical address (and current one, according to my mixed up New Yorker sub. Hope whoever got my magazines by mistake appreciated the fiction sections like they should). My hometown in the Arkansas River Valley is exactly like this city, just displaced by 800 miles to the southwest. Fort Smith, too, is caught in a post-industrial decline, though on a smaller scale, and newcomers are working to revamp the downtown scene into an arts center. There is local history taken for granted, and the kids who grew up there claim there is nothing to do, which is complete bogus. Dayton and Fort Smith are twin cities and they don’t even know it.

Yes, it was—and remains to be—a major adjustment from Denver (the gas is higher here?) and I miss that city differently than I miss home, but just as severely. I miss it because the people of Denver were excited to live in Denver. There was a city-wide pride that I wish I saw in Fort Smith, and what I saw growing when I went back last summer. I don’t see that here.

Perhaps I’m searching in the wrong places. Small town universities aren’t the best place for that (looking at you, students of UAFS). I need to find that inspiration I was so excited to take back to FSM those months ago. Luckily, until I require a second job, I have weekends to spend on small solo adventures, so when I leave I can actually say I’ve been here.

Readers, get ready for a travelogue with mediocre photos.

First Day Manifesto

Crippling self-doubt. Shouts into the void. Opening tabs and shutting them again. Stressful Netflix binge.

Day one of a blogger who hates the term “blogger.”

What could I write about? What would anyone read? I am just another college grad pouring money into a site. I take photos on an iPhone and a Nikon point-and-shoot, using a free editing software. My day job is a teaching assistant at a school of music in Ohio, 800 miles from home. I buy my clothes second-hand and they’re promptly coated in cat hair once I take them home. I think going to bars alone is fun and I love classic films or horrible B-movies; otherwise, television is a waste. I’m addicted to Instagram. What could I write about? Who would read it?

This is the box all artist movies strive to break. I can’t cater to one interest because I don’t have just one; I can’t separate any from the others. My practice schedule dictates my fashion choices, and my coffee taste is influenced by whatever performance I’ve just seen: Nothing is independent.

The relationships between these things are what I want to explore, because nothing is compartmentalized and none of us are unbiased. I wanted an outlet that is the middle section of a giant Venn diagram, so I created one. I’m not sure who else will find this.

This is day one, in a simplified retelling.

I’m not here for readers, though I know they exist—I can’t be the only one reading personal blogs regardless of subject matter. I am here for a shelf on which to put these things. I’m not sure what it will look like in the end. I hold in my pocket the right to change this blog as I need. It will fill the shape of its container and move into whatever I can carry. I give it the right to remain fluid.

Thanks for the option.