Instrument of Torture

I play through my scales again, feeling like my life is on the line, even though I had already been practicing them for an hour. Logically, I know that my scales are just fine, even better than fine, but I can’t seem to stop playing them. Practicing French horn used to bring my such joy, but now it feels like a trap. My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) already takes so much away from me, and now not even band is safe.

I started playing French horn the summer before 5th grade, and I immediately loved it. I won’t lie, it was extremely frustrating at first, but once I could play more than five notes I was hooked. I wasn’t always the most motivated to practice, but once I joined band that changed.

Since I moved from a small private school to a public school when I went into middle school, I hadn’t had an opportunity to be a part of a band yet. It took me a while to get used to not being able to fully hear my own sound, but I loved the feeling of more safety that came with playing in a group. However, OCD kept sending doubts into my head. What if I messed up and everyone hears me? When I messed up (because I definitely messed up a lot) I knew at least some people, if not the entire band, would hear and probably judge me. All of the sudden, the safety of being part of the band became a judgement trap.

I struggled to play while in band. Most of the time I would play, but every time I went to play a note I was filled with fear that I would mess up. I wouldn’t play loud because it would make my mistakes more obvious. Everyone around me sounded pretty good, and I didn’t want to bring the band down. At this point practicing was no longer optional. While practicing was still enjoyable to me, I had to do it daily (and would get really stressed if I missed a day). I slowly adjusted to the fear I got while playing in band, but I was still not very loud while playing. I was told by many people that I was a really good horn player for my age, but I didn’t really believe them because I heard all of the mistakes I made. As I progressed through middle school I slowly built confidence in my ability to play French horn (honor bands are a really good confidence boost). However, my 8th grade solo pretty much shattered any confidence I had.

Once a year in 7th and 8th grade, we had to perform a solo and get rated. It was part of the band requirements and everyone did it. Naturally, I was nervous, but my 7th grade year had been fine. However, I wasn’t so lucky in 8th grade. While I was playing my anxiety kicked in and my throat started closing up. I was still able to play, but I had a sort of gurgling noise (I didn’t notice while I was playing). The person listening pointed it out to me after I finished and I was extremely confused. I hadn’t heard anything out of the ordinary, and I had no clue what happened. I ended up getting the second highest rating (a superior instead of a superior plus) and once I got home I cried, convinced that I was going to get laughed at and fail band.

After performing the solo I was working in my lessons some to try to not make the gurgling noise, but that was difficult since I couldn’t really hear it myself. My lesson teacher mentioned that I naturally play more in the back of my mouth instead of the front, which was probably why I was having a weird noise (I hadn’t yet realized that my throat closes up when I get nervous). At this point I was extremely confused, and very self conscious about playing. I didn’t have much of an issue with any gurgling noise after the solo because I wasn’t stressed, but I was always worried that it would come back. I tried playing more in the front of my mouth, and it sort of worked until I forgot and played how I normally did. I managed to make it through the rest of middle school without much incident.

Once I entered high school I was encouraged to try out for All-State, and my stress levels skyrocketed. I still hadn’t figured out exactly what had happened to make the gurgling noise, so I didn’t know how to stop it. Yes, playing more in the back of my mouth doesn’t help, but since normally I am okay I didn’t know how to prevent it from happening again. Every time I practiced I would listen intently for any weird noise, and I would freak out at any tiny noise I heard. I began to feel like whenever I played it didn’t sound right (even though it was fine since no one really mentioned much to me). I was absolutely terrified for All-State, but I figured I had an excuse if I didn’t make it since I was a freshman (at least that’s what I told myself).

I made it through All-State without incident (anxiety medications can be miracle workers) and I made All-State. At this point I realized that the gurgling issue in middle school was stress related, so I figured as long as I was on an anxiety medication I was fine. However, I wasn’t on that medication long because of side effects, and I was off of it before my next solo performance. Naturally, I was extremely stressed about performing at solo and small ensemble festival. I didn’t know if my throat would close or not, and I didn’t know what to do. All I could do was try to trust my playing ability and hope for the best.

My solo ended up going fine (I have no idea how I managed to stay calm) and the whole gurgling issue wasn’t as big of a deal anymore since I proved that I could perform without freaking out. However, all too soon I would be trying out for All-State again, and then the downhill spiral continued.

I ended up going on a different anxiety medication so I didn’t have to worry about freaking out (although I wasn’t on that one very long either), but I was still terrified that I wouldn’t make All-State. I had made it the year before, so I felt like I was expected to make it this year, which added a lot more stress. Over the summer my practicing kind of went out of control. Since I was pretty good at scales and had to rely on them to make up for my poor dynamic range, that is what my OCD attacked.

I developed a ritual (compulsion) of how I had to practice my scales. I went through my scales three times in a different logical order each time. To move on to the next scale in each round, I had to play it “good enough” three times in a row. My idea of “good enough” was pretty strict (and got stricter) so this took my forever. On harder scales I would be playing it for 10 plus minutes on repeat until it was done three times in a row to my satisfaction. My expectations kept going up and scales took my longer and longer every day, maxing out at an hour and a half straight (and then I had to practice the other stuff like etudes). While I was playing scales it felt like a life or death situation, with my All-State acceptance on the line.

Once school started I couldn’t practice scales that long, and I had to limit myself to just half an hour of scales. At this point I was convinced that I wouldn’t make All-State since I wasn’t doing my scales enough, and didn’t really think I should even try out. I was super busy with all of my compulsions in other areas of my life (mainly school) and I felt like I was taking the opportunity to try out away from someone who practiced more and actually deserved it. After being on the fence about trying out the band directors finally convinced me to try out.

I practiced as much as I could (I was running on 4 hours of sleep at this point so I couldn’t really get more than 45 minutes, an hour if I was lucky). However, it still didn’t feel like enough. I was dreading All-State, which felt like my impending doom. I knew everyone was expecting me to make it, and I didn’t want to let them down. I knew I shouldn’t base my ability based on if I made All-State, but I felt like my potential future scholarships were on the line.

I made All-State my sophomore year as well, much to my surprise. Missing school for All-State was a nightmare (so much so that it made me wish that I hadn’t made it), but I made it through it and even had some fun there. The solo performance that year wasn’t that much of an issue for me (I was so sleep deprived I really didn’t have any energy in me to care all that much). I still felt like I wasn’t good enough to have made All-State or be in honor bands, but I at least thought I was an okay player.

Over the summer, I didn’t allow myself to practice scales more than 30 minutes a day (which was extremely hard). I got extremely stressed, and had a hard time actually practicing. I avoided practicing some days because of the stress I knew it would cause, which made the next day even worse. Now that school has started I practice daily (it would feel like the world was ending if I didn’t), but now I feel like I am not All-State quality because I didn’t practice very much over the summer.

I am trying out for All-State again this year, but my stress levels are even higher than last year. I am actively working to fight my OCD, which makes my life feel like an ongoing war. I am on a low dose of anxiety medication, but I can’t go up because it makes me very drowsy (and I might not be on it by All-State auditions). I don’t feel like I will make All-State, but I can’t let myself compulsively practice or back out.

I feel stuck, torn between wanting to make All-State and fighting back against my OCD. I have thought about giving in to my OCD about band and focusing on other areas, but I know that by giving into one area makes the OCD in other areas much worse. So, I have to fight back and accept the uncertainty about whether or not I’ll make All-State. I cannot listen to what the OCD tells me, as convincing as it might be. I have to take my life back, clinging to the hope of being able to enjoy band once again.