Composer Frank Ticheli shares his experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which manifested in his 30’s in the form of chronic pain and impeded his ability to compose. We discuss how Frank reframed his relationship to his writing process in order to reconnect with his work, difficulties with medication and therapy, and how cultivating a dialogue with one’s subconscious enriches creativity. Lastly, we discuss Frank’s An American Elegy, commissioned by the Alpha Iota Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, and the role that educators can play in caring for and monitoring their students’ mental health during increasingly anxious times.
Composer Andrew Norman shares how his creative anxiety has led him into a current period of writer’s block. We discuss how his frenetic language captures how thoughts move in his mind, the underlying sources of his anxiety, and brainstorm together how he can move forward to reconnect with the joy of his creative process.
When you know something is wrong but can’t figure out what it is, you try anything to fix the problem.
When you also suffer from crippling anxiety, then you may find yourself too scared to deal with the problem head-on. At least, that’s the vicious cycle I found myself in.
And most importantly, sometimes the problem that you think is the root cause is nothing more than a symptom.
I had not been able to make the moves or get the traction in my music career that I had wanted. I thought a change of scenery would do me good.
This was confirmed for me when, in August of 2018, I isolated myself in a hotel room in Billings, Montana, for a week to complete my oratorio for the Indianapolis Opera.
I was raised Roman Catholic but converted to Eastern Rite Catholicism in college, and when David Starkey at Indianapolis Opera had asked me for a piece, I had set a few guidelines for myself:
- I wanted to do a piece that reflected my Hoosier upbringing
- I wanted to reflect my love of Orthodox chant
- I wanted to use a Hoosier poet
I fell in love with the work of Kenneth Rexroth because of his innate spirituality, which I connected with on a very personal level. “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh” is particularly interesting to me. Morgan Gibson, Rexroth scholar, writes that “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh” is “more explicitly prophetic than the other cubist poems in this volume. The title alludes to a legend that the Gurgler Glacier once covered Nineveh because its citizens did not feed a hungry pilgrim who was said to be one of the Magi. The calm of mountain solitude is broken by the thought of the inevitability of death for both individuals and civilizations. In trying to make sense of such loss, the poet recommends the kind of natural piety that sustained him through periodic disillusionments. Thus the poems of In What Hour move agonizingly through historical struggles towards a transcendent view of humanity in and beyond perpetual cycles of nature.”
It was this natural piety that gave me a cathartic week in the Montana backwoods and allowed me to finish this work. As I did, I reflected on how far I had come in my healing after the end of my abusive marriage and how far I had to go. I came to realize that I had to make more changes to deal with my depression and anxiety.
In January of 2019 I followed my gut on a two-year-long dream and decided to move to Mexico City. I was looking forward to starting over, new and anonymous, in a beautiful city that I love with all my heart. I naively imagined I would set up in my apartment, begin writing immediately, and life would fall into its place.
I was wrong.
While I had treated the symptoms of my PTSD and worked on accepting the loss of my marriage, I had never dealt with the underlying issues of depression in a medical way. I had lost weight and regularly exercised, but nothing else seemed to help.
“Me da una caja de sertralina, porfa.” One simple sentence completely changed my life. After a bad fight with my partner, and despite a previous terrible experience with psychiatric medication, I started taking Zoloft, an antidepressant, to help me regulate my moods and panic attacks.
A week later I sat down at my desk and began sketching my next work. I only got about ten seconds of music, but it was a victory beyond victories for me. For someone who was so tied up in and so consumed by anxious thoughts surrounding my writing and my work, being able to sit and focus seemed near impossible. And yet, I was able to sit and focus for a time, long enough to focus and complete sections of a work that I had been trying to write for close to nine months.
When I shared with a few people that I was starting this drug I was told a bunch of horror stories about how I’d never be able to write again, that I should find a “music counselor” (whatever that is), that Picasso/Seurat/Rexroth/Beethoven/Insert-name-of-an-artistic-juggernaut never medicated themselves, they turned their anguish into art, or any number of horrible things.
At first I responded.
“The truth is, many of the juggernauts of the past drowned themselves in opium and alcohol and every other substance under the sun trying to regulate themselves.”
“The truth is, I have to figure out a way for me to be okay.”
“The truth is…”
About two weeks after the anxiety started to fade, I realized I didn’t need to respond to other people. Responding to them didn’t do anything to change any minds, all it did was validate people’s own beliefs. I realized that I did not need to justify my medical decisions to anyone but myself.
For the first time in years, I could see that things would be okay. It became easier to tackle and take apart problems in front of me.
Most importantly, I realized relationships, work, school, art…indeed life, could be okay.
It will be okay. My life is becoming okay. Once I got help, I felt as if the last piece of the puzzle fell into place and I was able to finally move to where I needed to artistically.
it asks for nothing—but a world made safe
for truth, for beauty, for this tense blooming.”
— from Megan Levad’s “Volta”
We were generously gifted a bottle of Dom Perignon. My husband Bill and I saved it for something special and chilled it on November 8, to share with our friend Matt as we watched the election results roll in. Some time before midnight that night I posted a picture on social media with Matt holding out his hands as if to say “WHAT IS HAPPENING” and Bill giving our TV a middle finger. Our fancy champagne remains unopened, still waiting for something special.
I will turn 44 in June 2017.
And, I am worried.
In the last month, I’ve been turning around and looking back at some of my earliest social media posts to check in with my past worry levels. What an odd trip—a living memory lane sky-written on the internet, where we can watch ourselves stirring and seeking public feedback, placation, or applause, for the images and versions of ourselves we project online.
As a mom, composer, professor, and professional fun-haver, I reflect on the years before the prevalence of social media with some regret: I spent a significant amount of time torqued up and spazzing and saying not-nice things and cultivating a bubble of snark and worry around my being. I can also hear a spiky unsureness in the music I wrote in those days. It took me a handful of jangled years to choose to resign from my self-elected positions as Mayor, Treasurer, and Secretary of Worry Town. I was totally winning at leading Worry Town, because I could worry more and more awesomely than anyone else.
Here’s the thing about Worry Town: it is a reliable, comfortable, and seductive zip code in which to reside. Also, we are super great at inhabiting Worry Town. Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at; Worry Town is reliable because there is an endless abundance of stuff to worry about, isn’t there?
Or is there?
A while back, I was both deep in the throes of a divorce and overworking myself in an effort to pile up tenure-worthy lines for my C.V. Those years were screamingly intense. The dopamine hits I got from posting silly, positive stuff online felt useful, but it was more probably a perceived protection from presenting myself online as being vulnerable in any way.
During the divorce we transitioned our son into spending nights at his dad’s new apartment slowly. We started with Wednesday nights. Our son did great, but the first night he spent across town I sat lumped on my kitchen floor for a good, long, bewildered sob-fest in Worry Town. The next Wednesday I cried again, watched a movie, ate my feelings via a giant pizza, and cried myself to sleep. The third Wednesday I enlisted help. I called my dear friend Cynthia and asked if I could come to her house and cry there; at least I’d be around other humans.
After she put her two young boys to bed, Cynthia brought out a bottle of bubbly and calmly gave me an amazing string of sentences: “Look, these Wednesdays are forever now. They just are. They feel like a shitty kind of special. Drink your champagne. These Wednesdays can also be a time for you to re-group, to make plans, to relax, to sleep, to do whatever you need for yourself so that you can be better for your boy. You can make these nights a good kind of special. They can be your special time to have and shape any way you want, or to get done what needs getting done, or to figure out what are the right things to do. You got this. Cheers.”
By simply being a kind, thoughtful, reasonable, and supportive ally, this gift from a trusted friend changed my life. That Wednesday night was a magical turning point; it helped me flip over, turn around, and turn away from Worry Town. It was also the birth of #ChampagneWednesday on my social media posts, and a cherished time I continue to preserve for specialness every week.
Now, in this new 2017, as our highly politicized climate is doing its thing, my worry muscles are re-strengthening. I am not sleeping well. I am sort-of, kind-of, almost writing music. November and December were a blur and if I don’t back the hell out of Worry Town soon, I run the risk of morphing into full-throttled Angry Kristy. Not only does no one want to be around Angry Kristy, she is blindingly not useful to anyone. Besides, the music Angry Kristy writes is stale and grey and over-tries to sound interesting.
#ChampagneWednesdays remain a vital part of my weeks, yet since November 9 I’ve not known what to do with my online presence. I have loved social media, but it’s a funky house of dissonance for me: this house is too big for its tiny plot of land within the vast expanse of Complain County. Throughout this last election season, social media sounded like metal-on-metal bending, growling, screaming through a vat of bloody bile. I felt I was watching our collective ego over-functioning so much that it was eating itself.
Using social media to initiate and cultivate conversations about the gender gap in the contemporary composition world felt productive and useful to me, and I hope it was useful for our artistic culture at large. Observing others’ successes and joys online is like a lovely, cool glass of water when pitted-out on a sticky Midwestern summer afternoon. When studies began appearing with data tracking people’s “happiness levels” in relation to their social media usage, I made a decision to be as positive as possible in my online posts. Great! Awesome? That made me feel better about what I was throwing online, but so what?
As I read this article on November 19, I felt buckets of tension release from my neck and shoulders. Consider these sentences: “(Social media) diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive … but it can be disastrously counterproductive.” Yup, that resonates with me.
Things (seeds, herbs, trees, vegetables, clouds, babies), cannot grow if they are not given the proper environment in which they can thrive. This includes the delicious all-you-can-eat buffet of worry choices we cook up for ourselves; lay out a pretty menu and pick from it any time. In this new season we will undoubtedly have to turn and shift and adjust, and possibly relinquish, the current lives that we know for lives we don’t yet know. This has always been reality—the possibility our lives will be upended, uprooted, or undone at any moment or given time. What comes with this reality is a natural fear of the unknown. However, what we DO with that fear and worry is wholly up to us.
We may or may not see upending change with our country’s new leadership, and I’ve been sautéing some fresh daily specials for my worry buffet: I worry that it will be increasingly difficult for our young composers to make a living doing their art; I worry that our entire education system may be gutted; I worry that our society will, in fact, over-function so disastrously out of fear and division that we will be set back decades from our best social progresses into a total implosion of any modicum of civility; and I worry that our future may be a shitty kind of special.
When the worry creeps in, its antidote is patience.
Patience, I’ve found, is both a most difficult behavior to learn and sustain, as well as one of the most helpful behaviors we have. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience. Things take time. The best things—joy, love, music that moves people, social change, equality for all humans, getting one’s self out of a self-made snarkbubble—take careful, slow, meanderingly focused, craggy time.
To what must we devote our time in order to cultivate the environment in which goodness, justice, love, and gratitude can pervade our society? How can we, through our art and our interfacing with actual humans in person, be useful to these fellow humans and our culture of the arts?
I don’t yet know. I’m still working out ways I can be useful. But I do know that the time has arrived for me to turn away from the worry and turn over my social media presences to better uses of my time. Also, I believe that no matter the platform or interaction, by merely being allies—with patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, reasonableness, and support—for one another, and surrounding ourselves with other allies, we can change lives and change our culture.
Our time ahead may be an extremely tense blooming. It can also be an exciting and good kind of special if we commit to making it so. It can be our special time to figure out what it means to do what’s right for the world.
And we must answer the stirring of Love, by doing everything we can to turn ours into a world that is safe for truth and beauty to survive and thrive.
We’ve got this.
Coming and recent performances of Kristin Kuster’s music include works for the Baltimore and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, Lisbon Summerfest Chamber Choir, Network for New Music, and multi-percussionist Joseph Gramley. Her chamber opera KEPT: a ghost story with a libretto by Megan Levad will premiere at the Virginia Arts Festival, in conjunction with the John Duffy Institute for New Opera, in May 2017. When Kristin is not working, you can find her on her deck with coffee. An associate professor of composition at the University of Michigan, Kristin lives in Ann Arbor with her awesome son and her badass husband.