Trauma and the Musician’s Body
1. Rewired Circuits
In the fall of 2015, my career as a violinist in Chicago was in trouble. On the outside, my level of success appeared to be growing: after living in the city for seven years, I was receiving invitations to play on bigger stages and take on bigger challenges. But, unbeknownst to almost everyone around me, I was grappling with a problem I’d never faced before: performance paralysis.
That’s the name I’d come up with, anyway, since I had no idea what it was.
I’d get onstage to play a big Schubert piano trio, and halfway through the first movement, I’d feel a deep heaviness set into my arms and hands. Suddenly the temperature onstage felt bitterly cold; my colleagues seemed intimidating and inaccessible. I don’t want to keep going, my mind moaned. I want to stop. But, given the large audience of people gathered to hear us play, I couldn’t stop. I had to keep going. So, with great effort, I would drag my reluctant muscles into cooperation.
Once, after playing a major solo piece at a dress rehearsal at Northwestern University, I walked upstairs into my wife’s office there, shut the door, and collapsed into tears. “I don’t want to do it,” I wailed. The concert was in an hour.
It was a pattern: I’d bravely go through the usual motions of practice, rehearsal, and performance, but at some point, my system would crash, buckling under a massive, invisible weight. My mind and body would begin a campaign of passive resistance. And I, stuck onstage with my rebellious musculature, had to figure out how to get to the finish line.
I began to wonder—as perhaps all musicians do at some point—whether I simply wasn’t cut out for this work. My colleagues seemed tough and resilient, almost machine-like in their ability to execute. I may have appeared to be keeping up, but inside, I was being left in the dust. My mid-20s had included some profound challenges, including the death of my mother and the end of a long relationship.
Maybe I had changed. Maybe I just couldn’t hack it anymore.
Looking back, I can see now that my troubles extended well past the concert stage. For instance, while I had always been a bit of a jumpy car passenger, being in a car was now becoming unbearable for me. Riding in the backseat of a taxi, careening down Lake Shore Drive at night, I’d grip the leather seat until my knuckles turned white. I was sure the driver was going to kill us both.
Commuting by bike was becoming untenable, too. After 15 or 20 minutes of cycling, even on relatively quiet Chicago side streets, my tension and anxiety would erupt into a total meltdown. Sometimes I’d pull over and burst into tears after making it through a busy intersection. My therapist began to suggest that I take breaks on the sidewalk every 15 minutes. “Just to get your feet on solid ground,” she said gently.
Once, I had been a bold and enthusiastic performer. Now, my nerves were literally fried. My body couldn’t tolerate the adrenaline of a bike commute, let alone a concert. It felt like someone had re-wired my circuit boards.
Was it time to quit?
2. Shell Shock
In December 2015, during a Christmas visit home, I spotted a book called The Body Keeps the Score on the bookshelf of my father’s wife, Ellen. I’d heard the author, Bessel Van Der Kolk, interviewed on the radio before, and I knew that he did fascinating work with trauma and the body. He must really help a lot of people, I’d thought admiringly as I listened to the interview. But now, as I picked up the book and paged through it, I felt a different kind of recognition.
I’d never identified myself with the word “trauma.” Why should I have? I wasn’t a combat veteran, or the victim of assault. But as I read Van Der Kolk’s description of his first encounters with traumatized patients in the 1970s—soldiers recently returned from Vietnam— I was surprised to feel a kinship with these men. Like me, they alternated between feeling numb, jumpy, and dead on the inside. Like me, they were deeply “disorganized,” suffering from panic attacks, meltdowns, and a fragmented sense of self that left them disoriented and disconnected.
But why would I be showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress?
The book was like a chisel, chipping insistently away at the protective stories I had been telling about my own mental health. Sure, I’d lost my mom, and the grief was excruciating. But I wasn’t traumatized. I wasn’t ill.
In January 2016, sitting in the passenger seat on a drive to Michigan with my wife, I was still reading The Body Keeps the Score. Van Der Kolk was describing how his Vietnam veterans had a hard time moving on with their lives—because in spite of the horrific nature of their wartime experiences, those memories felt like the most important thing that had ever happened to them.
Reading this, I felt a curious tremor sweep through my body, beginning at the center of my chest and shooting down my arms like electrical pulses. As the barren Midwest winter landscape sped past me, I closed the book and started weeping. Something important was being unearthed by my reading, but I couldn’t articulate it in words. “I don’t understand what’s happening to me,” I cried to Susan.
Eventually, I did realize what was happening: why performing, cycling, and driving were so frightening; why I felt numb and fragmented; why pursuits that had previously been rich and fruitful for me now felt dry and meaningless.
In April 2012—three and a half years before I picked up The Body Keeps the Score—my mother died of pancreatic cancer. For three weeks that spring, I lived with her and my father in the dark, ground-level condo they were renting, helping my mother to die comfortably. It was my honor to take care of her. It was, perhaps, the most important thing I’ve ever done. But it also left me shell-shocked.
My mother’s death was not unmitigated ugliness. It was not the Vietnam War. In many ways, it was stunningly courageous, present, even beautiful. She had done fierce work to accept the reality of her terminal illness, and she passed this courageous presence onto everyone she touched.
But her death had also been grisly. At times, I felt like a helpless witness as she descended into a hell of pain and madness. The nights were especially frightening. I remember lying awake, alone in the dark downstairs living room, as she begged my father to help her, screaming that she wanted to die. Even now, the memory chills my blood and somehow toxifies my joints.
Before my eyes, my mother’s body—eaten by the cancer—utterly betrayed her.
For a brief time, my father and I were soldiers in a two-person platoon, gritting our teeth and facing up the unbearable. It was a kind of closeness that had never manifested in our relationship before; the kind of closeness that bonds together those who serve in brutal circumstances.
But, like all who volunteer to gaze at the unspeakable, I paid a price. For years, I could not clearly remember what my mother had looked like when she was well. She was seared into my memory as a corpse, gaunt as a Holocaust victim.
The particular way my mother died—her digestive system obliterated by its invader—haunted me. I could not bear to be in the presence of any similar pain. In April, as my Dad and I were planning her memorial service, my mom’s cat suddenly began vomiting hairballs. I became distraught, crying hysterically as the cat lunged from room to room, howling. “It’s all right, Ellen!” my dad admonished as he followed the cat around with paper towels.
Several months after mom’s death, my partner at the time developed an unpleasant combination of constipation and acid reflux. “What should I do? I’m scared,” he cried after an inconclusive doctor’s appointment. Although I am normally kind and attentive to a sick loved one, this time I recoiled in horror. I eventually ended up curled up in a ball on the floor of our bedroom closet, weeping and saying the word “no” over and over.
3. Trauma in the musician’s body
All of the symptoms I displayed—the flashbacks, the triggering, the panic and collapse—were examples of a system-wide imbalance that trauma specialists call dysregulation. In undischarged post-traumatic stress, the affected individual swings back and forth between hyperarousal (high levels of vigilance, fear, agitation, jumpiness) and collapse (lethargy, numbness, disengagement).
In a healthy nervous system, we experience these extremes regularly, but we can quickly restore homeostasis. Someone cuts us off in traffic; we feel a burst of rage. After a few minutes, our heart rate and emotional state return to normal. We get bad news at work; we feel suffocated by feelings of rejection and failure. But after talking with a friend and crying a few tears, we can breathe normally again.
In a traumatized nervous system, though, we’re like an elevator that zooms to the top floor—or the basement—and hovers there, stuck. The part of us that can usually “pull it together,” rebalancing us and restoring equilibrium, is offline.
The idea that has captured my professional imagination—and motivated me to tell my story—is that giving a concert performance could, in traumatized performers, actually be a trigger for dysregulation. The rush of adrenaline, the pressure to perform, the heightened vigilance and awareness: all of these conditions are also present in what psychologists call the “arousal cycle,” in which the human organism senses challenge or danger and begins a physiological response. In a traumatized nervous system, therefore, normal conditions of performance could send our stressed-out nervous system into overdrive or collapse, leaving us confused about how to navigate this important professional setting.
In classical music training, there’s a lot of talk about performance anxiety and nerves. But the discussion usually assumes a healthy nervous system. Rarely do we hear about the possibility that some of us may be carrying unresolved trauma—and therefore, dysregulation—in our bodies.
In the treatment of trauma generally, the psychological community is becoming increasingly interested in the crucial role that the body plays in recovery. They’ve learned that the crucial mechanism of interoception—quite simply, our ability to sense and feel what is going on within ourselves—is often compromised in the traumatized organism. They’ve learned about how allowing our bodies to reimagine past trauma—and then physically enacting the victorious escape we weren’t able to accomplish at the time of the event—can help us to digest and integrate memories that have trapped us in a brutal loop of arousal and paralysis.
As I examined the situations in which I myself was becoming dysregulated—on the bicycle, in the car, and on the concert stage—I began to identify certain resonances with what I was learning from the trauma literature. For example, the circumstance of being trapped, unable to escape a horrific or dangerous scene, is a key feature of many traumas. Did my heavy feeling of paralysis—of being “trapped” on the concert stage—have its roots in my frazzled nervous system? And was this experience shared by other artists who had experienced more severe traumas than my own?
I can’t answer these questions—in part, because the field of music performance is not currently trauma-literate. As students, teachers, performers, and advocates, we don’t yet have a common understanding, or common language, for the ways in which trauma is affecting our community.
But by publishing my own story, and the recommendations that follow, I hope that traumatized performers will recognize themselves and seek support and healing. I hope that the musical community—particularly schools and training institutions—will increase their awareness and understanding of traumatic stress. I also hope that this article will be the beginning of new collaboration and research among practitioners in trauma studies, mind-body healing, and the performing arts.
4. Trauma literacy
In order to create trauma-literate music schools, and music communities more broadly, we must make some essential changes.
First, understand trauma’s prevalence.
If we assume that musical communities are a subset of the general population, then we can safely conclude that an enormous number of our musical students, colleagues, and teachers are carrying the impact of traumatic events. One out of every five women is sexually assaulted in college. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent.
The National Institutes of Health recently found that 89 percent of Americans have been exposed to a traumatic event, and that about nine percent of adults have displayed “textbook” symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lifetimes.
Even if you think you don’t know anyone with unresolved traumatic stress, you probably do. Traumatic events are often surrounded by shame, silence, and secrecy. Traumatized individuals are reluctant to tell our stories, not only because they are painful to repeat, but because we fear traumatizing the people around us with the awful truth.
Next, make trauma awareness a part of existing wellness offerings.
Schools of music should engage the services of trauma-informed body workers, teachers, and therapists who can weave trauma awareness modules into existing offerings. Courses in Alexander Technique, meditation, yoga, stress reduction, and audition preparation can all include time for the discussion of traumatic stress. This will help traumatized individuals to recognize their own symptoms, and to seek support and healing.
This training is particularly essential for private studio teachers. Ideally, these teachers would be equipped with basic tools to recognize major mental health issues—such as depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress—and make appropriate referrals. The intimate relationships students develop with their teachers creates an unparalleled opportunity, and therefore responsibility, to identify students who are struggling.
Facilitate open discussions of mental health, and ensure the availability of care.
The effort to increase trauma awareness must be part of a bigger paradigm shift around the discussion of mental health in musical training. Depression, anxiety, burnout, and overwhelm must become subjects of open discussion, not demons to be battled in private.
Finally, acknowledge potentially traumatizing conditions of learning and working.
Unfortunately, some musicians would point to their musical training itself as a source of traumatic stress. Sexual harassment, abusive teacher-student relationships, toxic competition, and crushing perfectionism can all impede a musician’s relationship with her craft. Healthy institutions should work diligently towards a transparent, egalitarian, and emotionally intelligent culture that allows them to reckon with internal abuses and failures.
5. Continuing the conversation
I am not a psychologist or a trauma expert—although I’ve made an effort to share this piece with a few such experts, and to seek their feedback. I’m a musician and writer whose life, and self-understanding, was changed by the discovery of the traumatic stress framework.
I’m currently collecting musician’s stories about the impact of trauma (and other major mental health events) on their lives and careers. If you have a story to share, or just wish to discuss this more, please get in touch. Also, if you’d like to stay informed about the status of this project, you can sign up for updates.
Through that list, you can also stay updated on the Center for Sound Relationships, a newly growing organization I’m part of, founded by violist and psychotherapist Anna Schaum. Trauma healing, both inside and outside musical communities, will be one of our major initiatives.
For those interested in learning more about trauma, I’ve included a small resource list below, and I hope the comments will lead all of us to more resources and connections. ¶