Wednesday, May 30, 2007

MCAT hangover

Hiiiii!! I am done with beast! I wrote all about the gory details and my near breakdown (in hindsight, it was actually kind of funny) the first few minutes on my other blog. I get my scores on June 27th and at this point I am cautiously optimistic. I may not get the scores I want on each individual section but I am hopeful that my cumulative score is still ok.

But enough about the MCAT! Let's talk about oboe.

The final week before the test I was unable to practice at all because I was just not in the right frame of mind. The only way I could stay calm was by thinking about or studying for the test ALL the time. The first few days after I was done, I was just too tired. So I just started practicing again this week.

Thankfully, I don't sound as bad as I had feared. I am having trouble keeping my corners in again and my mouth is getting tired sooner, but my sound didn't regress like I thought it would. My fingers were what took the biggest hit. I feel so darn clumsy right now.

My next lesson will be next Monday so I still have a few days to practice and to make a reed. I will be practicing the first movement of my Marcello and will also start on the Mozart. I think I'll take the first 15 bars or so. I also have to do some long tones and scales.

I don't have much to write yet, but I do hope to spend a lot of time on my oboe this summer. I'll keep you all posted!

Friday, May 18, 2007

On beta blockers

Thanks for all the comments on that other post, by the way.

I should be reviewing more biology or sleeping but instead I am up thinking about beta blockers, which I guess are at least marginally related to my studies.

The reason I am taking beta-blockers is for a heart condition I developed 4 years ago. I wasn't playing oboe yet and had already quit the sax. I began to notice that everything I did felt like I over-exertion. I frequently felt the "fight or flight" feeling. It began to interfere with my ability to handle everyday tasks. They ruled out things like adrenal gland or pituitary tumors and eventually we realized that for some reason my heart had started beating too quickly all of the time. It was downright scary. As I lay in bed every night with my heart pounding in my chest, I would wonder if I would wake up to see morning. The cardiologists couldn't figure out the WHY, but since the symptoms were severe (and confirmed on various tests, i.e. it was not in my head) they decided to treat the symptoms with the beta blockers. Eventually we got the dosage right and my heart rate is now in the normal range.

I brought up breathing in my post because I have always been a shallow breather. My Dad would yell to me about it as a kid. Sometimes I wonder if the shallow breathing was part of what caused my heart to go haywire in the first place. Maybe all the shallow breathing forced my heart to work harder (or to think it needed to work harder) to get oxygen to all my cells? Hmm. Just my own little theory. Because even with the beta blockers I still tend to hyperventilate when I exert myself. So there may be some respiratory aspect to my condition that is still untreated. And maybe that same thing is causing me all my headaches at my lessons. Or maybe I am just looking for excuses.

When initially prescribed them, I knew nothing about musicians taking beta blockers for anxiety or stress since I was very much in the fringes of the musical world back then (and I guess I still am). So it came as a pleasant surprise to me when a few months into the regimen I realized that I was getting bolder about my harmonies at church. I had been singing in our "choir" for a decade and had NEVER sang solo and was always loathe to get picked up by the microphones. The few times they tried to get me to sing on my own, I got so nervous that my teeth chattered and I broke into cold sweat. I realize now that it was nearly a panic attack. My voice would either come out tiny and quivery or would completely disappear. All of a sudden the person with the good ear became tone deaf and arrythmic. I simply broke down artistically due to the nerves and so always preferred to be in an ensemble where I didn't stand out. I was delighted to finally be able to do the things I wanted to do without the panic. Within a year I was able to finally sing solo at my church. Now I do it all the time. I wish I could say that I grew up and that I overcame my irrational fears. But no, I know NOW that it's just the beta blockers.

So it sounds like on top of the heart thing, and the possible (but improbable) lung thing, I definitely have some anxiety issues. Otherwise the beta blockers wouldn't have "cured" me of my stage fright, right?

All of my oboe playing has been "under the influence" so I know no other way. It's been great to be pretty fearless about my playing. Fearless for me, that is . . . which might not be saying much. Less than a year into playing I got together with respected friends of mine to try to form a woodwind quartet. I can only imagine what I sounded like back then, yet I wasn't really nervous about them hearing me play. If anything, I was excited about it. Then again I think that at that point my passion for the oboe was still so novel that I was just happy to share my love of it with others. I really need to get back to that point. At this point I've overcomplicated things with emotional issues. Playing is not about my love of the instrument so much anymore. I've gotten all worked up about not being "good enough" yet or am too busy whining about not having people to play with. All these feelings play out at my lessons these days I think. But I digress . . .

I wonder, with some degree of fear, what would hapen to my playing if i stopped the medication. If I am a nervous wreck at lessons now, what would happen then? This past Sunday I played the intro to a Mother's Day song at my church. While I warmed up when the church was empty I produced a very nice sound, but when the time came to actually perform I did get nervous and my sound and pitch were both iffy. If I had to go off the beta blockers will I be able to even get through a lesson? As it is I am fighting back tears at most of them. Would I be able to play at all? Or would I completely break down like before, unable to play anything closely resembling music? Scary thought.

Or perhaps, as was suggested, maybe the beta blockers are holding me back in a way. Maybe letting some of the nervous energy back in would help my musicality. Well, we won't know for now because my use of the medication is not really elective so I can't just stop cold turkey. But my doctor did recommend to stop if I conceive (no, I am not trying just yet).

So maybe in the not so far future we'll be able to use me as an experiment. I don't think there are that many other musicians in my situation where they were on beta blockers BEFORE they began to play an instrument. It was a coincidence that I was placed on beta blockers and then years later had to deal with anxiety issues in music. Now I am curious to see what will happen without them. Given my penchant for anxiety, however, I have a feeling that things will just get harder. *sigh*

Now in the meantime if I could just recapture the joy of playing just for the sake of it, then maybe everything will be ok in the end.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day!

Best wishes to the Moms out there who read this. I hope you and your families have a wonderful day.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Latest lessons

After that one good lesson about a month ago where my teacher told me she wanted me to start learning the Mozart, I've had two not so great lessons.

In fact, I am starting to worry that my lesson habits are starting to get ingrained. I know that part of it is nerves. I think I get a bit starstruck around great oboists and add that to my already high level of anxiety, it makes for a bad situation. Then there is the negative inner dialogue. We ended up spending quite a bit of time addressing this during the last two lessons. I really don't want these lessons to become therapy sessions again, so I have to put an end to this behavior ASAP. Once my MCAT is over (13 more days!! *gulp*) I hope to read some of the books I have on this.

The other issue that is coming up and driving me nuts is my breathing. Remember how I am on beta blockers because my heart beats too fast? I have often wondered if there is a respiratory element to my mystery ailment. My husband and I have both noticed that I seem to hold my breath a lot and that when I do breathe I breathe extremely shallowly. So I am coming into this picture with yet another disadvantage. My teacher feels that this, more than anything, is what is keeping my playing from being where it could be right now. She doesn't think it's my not-always-consistent embouchure, my messy fingers, or anything else. She feels that my improper use of air is the number one weak area at this point. I need to take in a lot more air, a lot more often, and then once I do I need to use it better, to make it warmer and faster and to play through my phrases. I think she's probably right about this because when I hear recordings of myself I realize that certain elements are ok, but that that my playing sounds disjointed. My phrasing is cut off because I interrupt the air stream when I shouldn't.

I guess I should be happy that even though my embouchure is STILL not perfect and that my fingers are messy, that I can still play. But then again, this whole breathing thing is so basic that I am having an extremely difficult time retraining myself.

With my test coming up, I think my aim is just to practice every day, perhaps for only 30 minutes. Rather than focus on the music I am playing I am going to try to focus on my two problem areas. For one week I will play whatever (scales, long tones, random music) and focus only on eliminating negative inner dialogue. I will only allow myself to critique my playing at designated times during the practice. I will also try to allow myself to think of what is going well more often. Perhaps that will help my brain reinforce the good things. Because what's happening at lessons is that I will be playing mostly ok, my teacher notices something that is off, then when I play the phrase again I focus so much on the wrong area that the other good things disappear. This is happening pretty consistently and we're both worried about that. I have to find a way to stop the mind games. Once I get rid of (or at least tone down) the "I suck" voices, I will then focus on breathing. Hopefully taking good breaths will become natural at some point and then once I learn to have all that air inside I can figure out how to best use it.

The good news is that it wasn't all bad. My teacher was really excited about my sound during my scales. By the way, she has me playing them as sixteenth notes now and I have to try to play them as fast as possible. Some of them I am playing at quarter note = 100, which is twice as fast as I was playing them a few months ago when I was doing eighths at that same speed. I guess that's progress. Especially since I am intimidated by fast playing.

Among the crappy parts, some parts of the Marcello (we're back to the 1st mvt) actually sounded really good. She was happy about how much it has improved since I started it. That made me happy :-)

I may not be able to post again until after my test. Please pray that I do well because I REALLY don't want to have to retake this and am desperately looking forward to the summer and to being able to devote myself to my oboe as much as I want to.