Watching Whiplash

Watching Whiplash

The movie Whiplash, released in the fall of 2014, received high praise for its story of an aspiring music student and his tyrannical mentor. Yet many of us who are drummers felt the way doctors must feel watching Grey’s Anatomy. We looked for verisimilitude and found little. I went to Juilliard as a classical percussionist, and if the fictional “Shaffer” was supposed to represent Juilliard, there wasn’t a lot of similarity–raging bandleaders (no); “I set down the crucially important music folder and lost it” (never). There was, however, one area that was identical to my experience as a musician: get ready for performance anxiety because you are going to be judged.

From the first time we pick up an instrument, musicians are scrutinized by teachers in lessons and compared to colleagues. We’re subjected to auditions in which 100 of us compete for one position. For those of us lucky enough to win orchestra jobs, we find ourselves judged by audiences, reviewers, and conductors, a few of whom–while not quite lawsuit-horrible like J. K. Simmons–think nothing of demeaning those of us under their batons. We subject ourselves to this process because we are passionate about music and want to excel at creating it.

Playing music for a living is a great privilege. At some point in our careers, however, each of us has to acknowledge the anxiety that comes from constant judgment. Some musicians appear to handle it effortlessly. I have performance anxiety that came on like a train and has only gotten worse over the years of my career. Therapy (various kinds) and medication (ditto) have helped me understand it yet done nothing to make it go away.

My goal in life was to win an audition and play in an orchestra. I was lucky enough to have that happen. My second goal in life was to write about it.

The process felt very familiar. Both writing a book and learning to play an instrument went like this: Spend hours and years alone, practice, repeat, keep trying. We get good at what we do, not what we fantasize about being good at. Music is a great template for learning to learn. Kids aren’t just learning percussion or trumpet or flute, they’re learning delayed gratification. Those hours alone were the most thrilling part of the adventure because I realized that the only way to fail would be to give up.

Trying to get the book published and trying to win an orchestra job were similar too. Queries and auditions hit me with the same high rejection rate. That’s where I expected the similarities to end. I thought that the anxiety about being judged came from having only one chance to get it right. Even if you have food poisoning and have to leave the pit and barf (happened), you still come back for the rest of the performance because when the guy with the stick points at you, your job is to play. I thought writing a book would be more like making a studio recording—pressure is diminished when you have time for a do-over.

Instead, I felt the judgment begin before I wrote a word. I told a musician friend I was going to write a memoir. His response: what makes your life so special that anyone would want to read it? (Me, grudgingly: “Fair question.”) Yes, we write what we know but we also write what we like to read. I love to read about how one becomes an Olympic gymnast, a ballet dancer, a brain surgeon, a soldier, sober, cured. My friend might have been asking if I had the ability to write well. Of course I didn’t—I needed years of critique and rewriting to improve. But he also asked this: why did I think I was the person to explain how one becomes a drummer?

It was another good question. Just recently, I read both Rebecca Alexander’s and Nicole C. Kear’s memoirs about being diagnosed with devastating illnesses. Each was diagnosed at age 19, each would gradually lose her sight (and in Ms. Alexander’s case, her hearing as well.) Both stories were beautifully told, both were wonderful reads. Was only one woman competent to cover the same subject matter? No, because neither could tell the other’s story.

Most of the judgment comes when readers read. Publication is the author’s performance or—taking a cue from reality TV—the big reveal. It’s Judgment Day. When you write a book and send it out into the world, readers judge your story and how well it’s told. When you write a memoir, that story is about you. It’s impossible to believe that readers won’t also judge your life, as well as your decision to write about it.

But the reveal of reality TV and memoir writing are very different animals. If information is all you want to give or get, there are far quicker ways to accomplish that goal than writing or reading a memoir. You can go online and find out the color of Caitlyn Jenner’s fingernails, or you can read Jennifer Finney Boylan’s beautiful memoir She’s Not There in which she takes the time and care to tell us about being a young boy and wondering why her mother, when ironing her father’s shirts would tell Jenny (then James), “One day you’ll wear shirts like these.” My own publishing timeline is so long I sent my first rounds of queries by snail mail. That would be a long way to go just for revelation.

I’d answered my friend’s question but it led to two of my own. The first: if playing music or memoir-writing inspires judgment and judgment is painful, why do it? I think it’s because we have a desire to create. For me, winning an audition was exciting but the hours spent practicing, really digging for answers about what specifically I needed to perfect in order to play better than everyone else on a particular day—that was the true thrill. Creating that outcome was where the satisfaction came from. Likewise with writing: spending the hours pushing words around on a page and then rewriting and rewriting until I’d found the best way to tell the story—that was my source of gratification. That’s the goal for all those hours: telling the story so clearly, so beautifully, that the reader feels what the writer is saying. I spent many years trying to come up with that answer from a different angle. What makes the drummer Steve Gadd’s playing on 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover so riveting? He’s playing a relatively simple pattern; there’s nothing flashy about it. But he’s not the only one feeling the time—he plays so beautifully he makes you, the listener, feel the time too.

My second question to myself then, was this: if the most satisfying part of the process was writing the book, why publish? If the “performance” of a creation is what inspires judgment, why not just sit in a room, write the story, and leave it at that?

Here’s a story: in October 1991, I sat in front of the TV watching a trial unfold. It was the trial that was supposed to be Clarence Thomas’s but instead became Anita Hill’s. As she spoke, calmly and with dignity, even in the face of snickering senators who asked her if she was a “scorned woman,” I was connected to her. I’d had an experience with a person in power that was similar but I’d never been able to put words to it. That weekend, Anita put the words to it for me and for many others: It’s about power. We didn’t do anything wrong. If the coaches, bosses, teachers don’t know any better, they should now. This is something we need to start talking about.

In Hill’s testimony, as in writing, what we seek is connection. We crave it—we want to be bound to others. To understand each other we have to tell our stories. Art, music, writing, film—these are ways of sharing our stories.

Most people are deeply anxious about being judged. For some, repeated exposure helps, the way that getting small doses in the form of allergy shots can keep you from going into anaphylactic shock at the sight of a peanut. It hasn’t worked for me. I think I’ve come away from decades of performing with an exquisitely heightened sensitivity to criticism. It’s not possible to avoid being judged—sometimes, our harshest critic is the face in the selfie. But as writers, we can try to put words to those feelings. If we’re understood, we might not feel so alone.