Mental Health, Music and Me

May is Mental Health awareness month, and so I thought it might be helpful to talk about it.  It is my experience that many full-time musicians deal with some mental health issues: anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD are among the most common.  I have many friends in music who are also dyslexic, and though not a mental illness, if undiagnosed it can add to the depression and anxiety one deals with on a daily basis.

Most people who know me probably wouldn’t think that I have dealt with all of these maladies except dyslexia since I was a kid.  Hell,  I didn’t really KNOW until last June when I had an anxiety ‘attack’ while on tour last year.  I’ve long known that both my father and mother dealt with both anxiety and OCD, even though we didn’t use those words back in the day let alone call it mental illness. And my paternal grandmother also dealt with an assortment of mental health issues that seems to mirror mine. And, I hate to say it, but I see my four adult daughters deal with these issues at varying levels themselves. And I also knew that a lot of mental health issues are genetic.

The thing about mental illness is that denial, or even just lack of understanding, is part of the illness.  I won’t lie to you. I’ve known I was fucked up since I was about 8 years old when I knew I was ‘different’ from normal kids. But until last June I never used the phrase mental illness to describe my maladies. And because I’m a smart SOB, and a pretty fine actor I was able to ‘fool’ people into thinking I was a gregarious, confident and healthy person. Myself included.  But on the inside. Holy fuck-what a worm riddled mass of fear, anxiety, depression and anger my poor brain was.

Folks who know me know I struggle with sleep. Getting to sleep.  And I have for as long as I can remember.  I slept with a nightlight in my room until I was 10 or 12-it helped keep the terrifying thoughts at bay-a little bit. Because once the room was dark and all I was left with was my own thoughts-it was terrifying. And still can be.

My inner thoughts have always been on the dark side. Especially at night. I imagine ‘real-world’ scenarios where bad things happen to me and those I love.  And I can have an argument with someone in my head days or hours before I see the person. And I get angry and can stay that way for days, weeks, even months under the ‘right’ conditions.

In the 80’s when I was in my mid-20’s my first marriage was starting to implode.  So we went to therapy-something my wife stopped doing, but I continued doing.  As I look back the folks I was seeing for therapy really didn’t have a handle on the organic piece of mental health; it was all about how we thought and then acted.  It helped, I began to act differently, and even begin to get a ‘handle’ on the thinking piece of the puzzle.  If you’ve read these blogs you’ll find what I learned from therapy in much of what I teach to budding performers and musicians.  Self-talk, the words we say to ourselves, may be the most important conversations we have. I learned to put ‘screen doors’ on my ears and visualize the ‘bad thoughts’ going in one ear and out the other. Those who deal with my cocktail of mental health issues understand how looped base thinking can affect them-those bad thoughts just keep going round and round until we either feel them and let them go or act them out.  I got much better at letting them out. But I still didn’t feel better. Not on the inside. And as you can imagine my marriage ended in an ugly ball of flames.

And then the most wonderful thing happened. I got carpal tunnel syndrome and the possibility that I might lose the ability to play the guitar helped me get my priorities straight. And there began the process of becoming honest with who I was, who I am, and who I wanted to become.

And this was brand new territory for me. I’d never asked myself who I was, what I believed, and how I wanted to act. I took my lead from my father-that’s too nice. I didn’t have options of being who I was as a kid. Kids don’t get enough credit in my opinion. They know way more than adults think they do. I knew that my father didn’t like who I was-I think I scared the shit out of him because we were so much alike-so I did my best to be the person he could like.  I learned to be a chameleon. I have an ability to fit myself into almost any group, no matter how deplorable. I had learned how to read people and give them what they wanted.  I used to think it was a gift. Today I think of it as a curse. Because it was a really difficult ‘habit’ to break.

Playing an instrument is a wonderful tonic for me-it helps me with my mental illnesses. The music I compose and play is music that helps ease my anxiety and depression. And let’s face it, it gave me a healthy way to deal with, and even use my ADHD and OCD for the power of good.  I mean, what normal person sits down and draws out fingerboards with all the notes from open position to the 12th fret for 5-6 tunings? As a way to relax? And how many 35 year olds are willing to relearn how to play the guitar

And as someone who believes that the ultimate responsibility of a musician is sharing their music with a live audience it forced me to deal with my anxiety head-on.  When I talk to folks who have ‘normal’ stage fright I nearly laugh.  Their hands shake and their voice quivers a bit, but have they been having daily nightmares about performance, do they lose their ability to eat a day or two in advance of their performance? Does it give them diarrhea? (Sorry to be graphic) Does it make them snap angrily at everyone around them over things that really don’t matter?

The last piece of my mental health puzzle was when I realized the role that cannabis has played in my life the past 25 years. Remember, as I was coming to many of these realizations about myself, we were in the Reagan era of “Just say no”. And marijuana was touted as one of the most dangerous drugs on the planet.

But a good friend of mine in Taos, NM knew I was dealing with a pretty bad case of depression at the time and offered to find me some cannabis-he said it’d help. At that point I hadn’t smoked in over a decade. At the time I was proud of the fact that I’d taken on some of my issues without medical or chemical intervention. Just done the hard work of therapy and using 12-step Co-Dependency meetings do try to temper my chameleon-like nature.

The first time I used cannabis after that decade was pretty amazing. It definitely helped me deal with my depression, and looking back I now realize that’s when the dark thoughts started to abate, and my ADHD and OCD had much less control over my behaviors. That’s still true today.

But most of what I’m talking about in this blog today is relatively new information to me.When I look back at my life, actions, and feelings now I can see the role my mental illness played.  And it makes me wonder what my life would or could have been like if I’d known and acted on my mental illness when I was a much younger man. Or if my parents had. But the times were different then. We didn’t know what we know now.

My hope is that if you are dealing with mental illness you’ll get help-both chemically and therapeutically. I’m not suggesting you smoke weed if that’s not for you. Or play the guitar if that’s not your thing.  I know that there’s not enough cannabis or guitars in the world to help me with my issues if I don’t do the therapy work and learn new ways of thinking and acting. It’s something I will work on the rest of my life. But please, seek out the help you need.  It’s pretty amazing when you get the help you need.

The good news for me is that I no longer beat myself up for being fucked up.  Owning my mental illnesses has really given me tremendous freedom, as well as making me even more responsible for how I act and feel than ever before.

And yes, I still suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD. But they control me less than they used to do.  And I can more easily see my thoughts and actions for what they are and act accordingly.

And I am closer to the person I want to become than ever.

 

Be well friends.

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Not all mistakes are created equally

 

One of the things I’ve noticed about some of my students is that they react the same way to each mistake they make.  Typical reactions are anger, fear, or shame, and mistakes of any kind stop them dead in their tracks. They try to back up and attempt a do-over.  That in itself is a mistake.  Music keeps moving, whether you make a mistake or not. If you are in rehearsal mode, playing songs all the way through, then don’t EVER let a mistake stop you. Spend your rehearsals practicing getting yourself out of the self-inflicted jams.  It’s truly the fastest way to improve your performances.

A master musician is not someone who doesn’t make mistakes, a master musician is someone who hides their mistakes well.  Learn how to hide yours.

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And learn the different types of mistakes musicians make; is it mental or physical?  If you simply flubbed where you put your finger GET OVER IT, and keep playing. Physical errors happen to the best musicians and athletes on the planet. Do not spend a millisecond of your life berating your playing for this kind of mistake. IT. IS. NO. BIG. DEAL.

Of course not every physical mistake is the same either. Did you make a physical mistake because you don’t have the right technique or correct fingering for that passage? That’s different from a simple flub. Don’t stop playing, but acknowledge the problem and when you’re done playing spend time on fixing it. If your technique or fingering is incorrect, go back to work, slow everything down to about half-speed and practice the right moves until they feel natural.

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The mistakes to be hyper-aware of are mental errors.  Any sports coach will tell you that mental errors are the unforgivables in sports.  They are in fact, unforced errors.  But there are two kinds of mental errors. One is thinking you are doing the exact right thing and doing it only to find out it’s wrong.  And the other is a brain-fart.

In the first instance, instead of berating yourself, figure out what you were supposed to do, get committed to that and play through it the next time the correct way. In the second instance-get over it-it’s not a big deal; it is a mental version of a physical flub. The first instance speaks to having bad information, and the other speaks to not being mindful. Both are worthy of correcting.  I’ve noticed a huge uptick in the quality of my rehearsals since I’ve become mindful of being mindful.  BE. HERE. NOW.

And please, don’t ever give yourself the goal of playing mistake free.  It won’t happen. Even on nights that I’ve been flawless in my performance I’ve made more than a handful of mistakes; the difference for me is that I don’t telegraph my mistakes, I’ve probably made the same or similar mistake before, and I’ve planned an emergency exit of sorts. This is more for my benefit than the audience’s.  If I’m not affected by my mistakes I’ll play better, and both the audience and I gain from that.

So figure out the kinds of mistakes you’re making, make the right corrections, and go play music that inspires and moves you. If you do that, you’ll inspire and move us.

Cheers, kb

Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My! Part 2: Should I or Shouldn’t I

While it can be a real pain in the ass to those around me, I am gifted with an incredible desire to always get better at what I do. It’s the reason I wake up in the morning, and I honestly can’t understand any other way of living.  The day I wake up and don’t want to improve myself will likely be my last day. To me, self-improvement is my reason to live.

The way this shows up in my musical life is in my experimentation. I am incredibly inquisitive. I love trying new strings, capos, slides, guitars, tunings, and picks. My experiments have yielded tremendous results for me personally. But luckily I am also pretty self-aware, and I know that I typically respond favorably to anything ‘new’ and different.  I LOVE change. Embrace it, and actively pursue it.  I know change causes stress in many folks, but for me change is like taking a great big bong hit of the best weed I’ve ever had; it inspires me and unlocks music that may have never found the light of day otherwise.

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The Power of Wow

Today I was reminded of the power of wow, and today that experience came from playing great instruments.

Truth told the last couple weeks have been hard guitar weeks for me. I’ve been working very hard to get ready to go on the road for a mini-tour the first full week of June which has included lots of office work, and I also had a less than satisfying visit with my father and family over his 90th birthday in Northern Michigan that included TSA hassles and gridlock.

I use the phrase playing the guitar to describe what I do and the word play is important. Play requires a certain mind-set, and mine was nowhere close to allowing me to play. I bounced back and forth from being a hyper efficient self-employed business man, and frustrated traveler/son.  I still spent time on the guitar, but man it was work. Real work. It was like doing push ups, or running on a treadmill. It was just exercise. I wasn’t playing at all.

Luckily I recognized that, and last week when I got back I told myself to chill. Most of what I was frustrated about was beyond my control, but anything that was within my control was dealt with immediately. And that really freed up my mind.

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And since I’d been fighting my baritone while I was in Michigan (my fault, not the guitar’s), I picked up my 20 year-old 12-fret which had recently been restored to its former glory by its maker, Alan Carruth.  And my immediate thought was wow. Just wow.

It sounded so good, and of course behaved great. I was once again transported by the power of wow. And because it felt so great I played with some reverence for both the music and the guitar, which translated to nice tone, improved dynamics, and really fluid rhythms. Ah, I was playing music.  I wasn’t working on the guitar.

And today, for the first time in several weeks I picked up the harp guitar and later the baritone guitar I had fought with last week. Holy Shit!! Twin Wows!  Both drew me in and seduced me. And again I was playing music not working the guitars.

People don’t know this about me, but I can go months without playing a particular guitar. So much depends on how much I’m touring, who I’m touring with, and what guitar has grabbed my particular fancy. And the last couple of weeks the wow has been the 12-fret guitar. But a couple of weeks before that it was the high-string, and before that it was the baritone. And before that it was the piccolo harp guitar.

As long as I’m playing a couple of hours a day, it really doesn’t matter which guitar I’m playing. I’m keeping my hands in shape, and if my hands are in shape it only takes me a few days to put together a 90 minute concert spread over 3 or 4 guitars.But I always try to follow the ‘wow’ because that’s where the playing is, that’s where new music is, and that’s where, when I’m really lucky, I can find a transcendent performance.

For me following the power of wow keeps me fresh. And staying fresh is so important when you’ve done something for over 4 decades, and something you still do a couple of hours of almost every day. It helps that I have five great guitars, but you can find wows in lots of different ways just on one guitar.

Putting on new strings, try a new tuning, trya partial capo, put the capo higher than you ever have before, play an old favorite song you’ve long neglected, plug in and turn up the amp really loud, record a video, or perform live. All can provide players with a wow-a breath of something fresh and exciting. Something that seduces us and draws us in. Something that makes 90 minutes FLY by. If we’re going to continue to grow as musicians it’s important to stay open-minded and keep asking ‘what if I?…” Following the power of wow does that for me.

What’s your wow? Find it, pursue it.  The power of wow, is powerful indeed.

Cheers, kb

Attitude

This morning I was reminded just how important the attitude I bring to the guitar can be.  I got in a bit of a kerfuffle with my bonus mom this morning who is an absolute control freak and will not endure her dog to be disciplined even when said beastie snaps and growls.  I am a huge fan of the dog training I learned through the Monks of New Skete, and got very wolfie with Oliver. I don’t hit dogs, it’s both wrong headed and ineffective.  But I do believe in doggie discipline and I put him on his back, growled and asked Ermy and the rest of her staff to ignore the dog for 45 minutes, basically a doggie timeout.  Not only did she totally ignore that she heaped affections him, basically reinforcing his behavior.  Needless to say I wasn’t happy.

I’m not sure why I thought it would be a good idea to play the guitar at that point, but it is my sanctuary, especially during these family visits.  But man, even though my body and hands were feeling better than they have in a couple of week I sucked. I rushed everything, was sloppy as hell, and even spaced out parts of pieces I’ve been playing for 25 years.  It was ugly.

And then I took a deep breath, put the guitar down for a bit and collected myself. This was at about the 45 minute mark of my session.  I was bound and determined to get through this. I calmed myself, relaxed and played the last 3 or 4 tunes well. Not spectacularly, but I didn’t rush and played with dynamics for about 20 minutes. I can’t say that it was fun, but it was satisfying to work through it.

I’m not sure if I’ll have a chance to play again today. It’s my Dad’s 90th and there’s a big party and then packing to fly home tomorrow.  But if I do play, I can guarantee you I’ll have a better attitude or I won’t play at all.

Because IMHO playing with a bad attitude is worse than not playing.

Cheers, kb

The Good, the bad, and the ugly

Yesterday was one of the more frustrating days I’ve had on the guitar.  I had been up since 3am traveling to Michigan when I finally got to play the guitar at about 4:30 in the afternoon.

There was a hive of activity as family members arrived to celebrate my dad’s 90th birthday Monday so I took my baritone guitar out on the back porch to chill and get some of the road off my hands.  My stretching and warmup went well, but the guitar was NOT cooperating.  I had put new strings on it before I left, and with the temperature dropping and humidity rising my guitar did what guitars do; it remembered it was a tree and was moving all over the place.  It was especially wonky when I played in its lowest tuning Dropped-D intervals starting on Bb.

After about 15 minutes of pulling strings and fighting the guitar I said screw it and tuned it up to DADGAD intervals starting on C and it handled it much better. Not great, but I got in about 45 minutes of playing that wasn’t satisfying at all musically, but did do the one thing I was looking for and that was to knock the rust off. I kept telling myself not to be pissed at the guitar, it was just doing what was natural, and that kept me relaxed enough to accomplish my goal.

This morning I had vastly different goals.  I wanted to play some music. My hands felt decent, not great, but my stretching session went well and I hunkered down on the guitar.  And I learned a lesson. As much as I’d like this guitar to be tuned lower for standard and dropped-D intervals the strings just don’t have the mass required to do that.  And the truth is, this guitar loves any alternate tuning a whole step lower than standard.  Any and all alternate tuning sound amazing bE amuse the string gauge is perfect for those tunings.

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And I played music for about 75 minutes.  The guitar sounded and felt fabulous, everything worked, and I played in CGDGAD, DGDGAD, DGDGBD, DGDGBbD, and DADGAD intervals, and the guitar LOVED it.  Every single note, even the ones I  fluffed.

While I’m a little bummed about not being able to play standard and Dropped-D material on the Bari, I’m a believer in using a guitar in a way that suits it best. Since I got my 12-fret OM refurbished about 10 days ago all the standard and dropped-D stuff sounds fabulous on that, so I’ll perform that material on that guitar. It’s a no-brainer. And  I’ll use the Bari for what it does best.  Also a no-brainer. I will use this information as I start putting together my set lists for my June concerts, and I know my performances will be better for it.

Frustration isn’t always a bad thing. To me it just signals that something isn’t working and I need to find a solution.  And today I did. I listened to my guitar and came up with a winning solution.

What did your guitar teach you today?

Cheers, kb

 

Long toss

I’ve been a baseball fan since I watched the Cubs one day in April ’63 at a hotel room in the Chicago area while my folks were looking for a house; don’t worry, I had a baby sitter other than the TV.  Baseball still captivates me. A team sport that is largely played one-on-one between the pitcher and hitter.  As you know my teaching vlogs and blogs are peppered with sports analogies.  But there’s a reason for that.

Much of the way I approach my practice on the guitar was learned on a baseball diamond, and later tennis courts and golf courses.  Learning most crafts requires time on the practice field repeating things over and over and over again to build strength and muscle memory.  Golfers call it digging it out of the dirt.  Lessons are great; vitally important in fact. But not as important as the playing that happens between the lessons.

Yesterday, was a very demanding day on my hands away from the guitar. The whole week has been. But yesterday was  brutal. I wrote and edited a blog, wrote lots of emails, booking emails, and edited a bio. All in all, about 5 hours of work at the computer keyboard. And then I weed whacked the yard.

I had played the guitar for nearly 5 hours Wednesday, and another 10 or 12 from Sunday through Tuesday.  When I was finally able to pick up the guitar  last night, Thursday May 19th for those of you reading this late, I had NOTHING in my hands. I played a little harp guitar and a little 6-string, but after 30 minutes I just put the guitars back in their cases. I was being smart. If I’d done anything more I’d have hurt myself.

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So today, I made sure I got the guitar in my hands first thing after I wrote my morning pages and answered and sent a few critical emails; about 9am.  But I went into it knowing how spent my hands were the night before, and that I had to mow the lawn later this afternoon.  I went into it like a starting pitcher who throws a long toss session after a complete game start having thrown 130 pitches a couple days ago.

I stretched for about 15 minutes before I picked up the guitar, and then played a bunch of chromatic scales and did some right hand warm-ups on my 12-fret OM, standard scale guitar.  Slow and steady, and I played softly. Everything I played I played with zero tension. I did this for about 6 or 7 minutes.

Then I played a couple of ballads in DADGAD, really just letting the guitar do the heavy lifting, and after about 10 minutes my hands felt great. My forearms were, and are, still a little tight, but nothing that stopped me from playing. That’s the best part about stretching and playing relaxed; you can get more out of tired muscles.

I moved on up to mid and uptempo pieces in DADGAD that were played at full speed but half the volume-that trick really saves my hands-it’s something I’ve learned to do on concert days as well as days I’m recuperating.  And then I finished up playing a difficult medley in EbBbEbGAD tuning at full volume and full speed.  Total elapsed time from stretching to casing the guitar was 57 minutes. This was my version of long toss.

I will probably play later again tonight. I usually do after I mow the lawn, and it will be a shorter version of this morning’s long toss session but played on the harp guitar. But I’m really looking forward to it, and while I know I won’t have my A game, I’ll have fun and get some work accomplished.

Tomorrow I travel, and won’t play guitar until late in the afternoon or early evening if at all. But I’m ok with that now because a day’s rest after the week I’ve put in might not be such a bad thing.

I hope you have a great day on the guitar.

Cheers, kb