Dealing with Demons
Dealing with Demons
We live in a world where the outside is increasingly at odds with the inside. When I look at what my dear colleagues are up to on social media, one highlight follows the other. All smiles in the dressing room, before the concert („I’m looking forward to…“), pictures of the applause („It was so great!“), all smiles after the concert („with XXX and XXX after the fantastic performance in X – life could be worse!“).
Of course, we rarely write about how we feel inside. Of course, we are all frustrated, in a bad mood, maybe even burnt out. But nobody writes that, instead there are holiday photos („We’re having the best time ever!“) with Aperol Spritz on the beach. While this vacation is hard-earned and much needed, perhaps far more urgent than having to tell the world about it and whittle away all-important relaxation time with daily photo sessions.
These are not all new phenomena. We Germans used to be famous for giving long and detailed descriptions of our state of mind when asked “how are you?” while being relentlessly open. In the meantime, however, the „American“ self-portrayal has prevailed: don’t show any weaknesses, everything is always great and „brilliant“. In the Reels everyone leads the perfect life – every concert is a triumph; life is one big party. If someone dares to be honest, there may be a few compassionate encouraging comments. But these usually come from people you hardly know and who don’t really make an impact in your personal environment: meant kindly, but it doesn’t cost them anything either.
In our job, which is a show job, even if we don’t practice moonwalking or play the Well-Tempered Clavier, this discrepancy is often brutal competitive pressure. If I show a weakness, it can affect my existence. For example, what singer would post „my voice is completely wrecked because I’m on the verge of burnout – I need to take some time off now“? Nobody – because immediately you would no longer be invited to auditions („Have you heard? XXX doesn’t hit the note anymore…“). The competitive pressures of our profession can be infinitely cruel and there is never enough space for everyone. A small failure, others are ready. That’s why we all present ourselves as invulnerable to the outside world, always in a good mood and up for action. It’s part of our self-promotion.
Alexander Bojcan (also known as Kurt Krömer), who I admire very much, recently made public how different reality looks in his book „You mustn’t believe everything you think“ , in which he talks about both his alcohol addiction and his treatment for depression. I think that’s very courageous, because of course being a comedian is also a „show job“, there’s competition and you don’t want to be seen as „difficult“.
These kind of books, while not revealing any profound news, are incredibly important, just as important as the courageous self-„coming out“ of LGBT celebrities once was, encouraging other people to come out in the open. „If he/she dares, then I dare too.“ We really need more books like this, like the wonderful book „Alk” by my dear friend Simon Borowiak, perhaps one of the funniest yet serious books about alcoholism that has ever existed. A book that can only be written by someone who is affected themselves, that’s the important thing about it. I am sure that Simon Borowiak has already saved lives with this book.
It is not a cliché that artistic professions attract special people. Most of the time these are more sensitive people who suffer in some form either from the world or from themselves and try to compensate with creative work. Or with the applause of a grateful audience that they have just made happy.
I know myself what drove me to art. Even as a child I found most of what people do in this world to be disgusting, mean and crappy. I only found humanity interesting when they managed to create something that in some way transcended all that suffering. Therefore, to this day, my greatest respect is for the people who bring a little bit of beauty into this world, be it through art or by doing what they do with great love and dedication. To me, any person who is lovingly devoted to something, whether it’s the perfect cake or a symphony, is artistic.
But of course, reality cannot always live up to this idealism. I think that as artists, we all know a deep inner blackness, precisely because of our sensitivity, that can sometimes get the upper hand. I first understood this when one of my teachers at Dr. Hoch’s conservatory suddenly stopped showing up for classes. He went into the woods with a gun and shot himself . Of course, there were no outward signs of this beforehand, but if we had looked more closely, could we have prevented it? Maybe yes, maybe not.
I don’t want to set up a theory, but of course it is the case that both a tendency towards drug addiction and mental illness are particularly common among artists. Very few take heroin or crack, but it’s no secret that cocaine or amphetamines also play a major role in classical music. But the biggest killer is likely to be alcohol, plain and simple, simply because it’s a socially acceptable drug and readily available.
How many fellow artists I know have become alcoholics or died from alcohol? I can’t even list them all, there are so many. But only the closest of friends notice, as they can seem to „work“ and even work hard with alcohol (or maybe even because of alcohol). And because, of course, they’re very adept at hiding it or allaying concerns. However, even with these colleagues, we must always ask ourselves: could we perhaps have intervened? There’s the well-known phenomenon of co-alcoholics, who don’t drink themselves but indirectly support the addiction of others by tolerating it…thus preventing them from being able to cure their illness.
Very often, hierarchical structures throw a spanner in the works – do you tell the famous director or composer straight in the face that they have an alcohol problem? Certainly not, because one fears the quick-tempered behavior of authorities, which often goes hand in hand with alcohol consumption. If you are hierarchically below them, you say nothing.
I’ve seen rehearsals where drunk directors humiliated people on stage. I have seen how overwhelmed and drunk conductors made a mess of musicians. But in the end, there is a bottle of whiskey in her dressing room, or the assistant director brings the next bottle of white wine. None of these are anecdotal stories, but are happening now, at this moment, somewhere in Germany or the rest of the world. And because everyone is silently helping, these people who are just plain sick are never healed.
Depression is the other big topic that is rarely talked about. The classical music scene in particular is relentless and much more sports-like than, for example, pop music. The Gallagher brothers (Oasis) have always been forgiven for their bizarre behavior or failed concerts, but if, for example, a classical pianist abandons a concert because he „can’t take it anymore“, he’s pretty much screwed.
One of my most wonderful piano teachers was deeply traumatized by such an experience – as a young rising star (and student of Artur Schnabel) he was supposed to play Schumann’s Piano Concerto. He became frightened with memory problems and stumbled, gave up, started again, failed again, then walked off the podium in embarrassment. He then became a fantastic accompanist and chamber musician, but I know he didn’t get over the experience until the very end.
I wrote above that we humans tend to pull everything down, but how the hell did we come to turn something so beautiful and free like music into a competitive sport in which one speaks of „failure“ when, for example the pianist Maurizio Pollini no longer hits all the notes in old age?
There are those who are lucky, such as the indestructible pianist Menahem Pressler , who died only recently at the age of almost 100, who never canceled a concert and never really cared if not every scale was perfect, because he was an amazing musician. But who knows what abysses lurked inside him? At least outwardly he was able to successfully overcome them, but what about those who can’t?
We need greater awareness and acceptance of our own and other demons. Especially in art you don’t have to „function“ perfectly because failure is also part of it. The great heroes of classical music – they were all by no means perfect, they each knew their limits. Only those who have limits can overcome them at all – what has been achieved without any effort is rarely interesting. We should not only admire perfection. But also, the way to get there.
Psychological problems such as depressions can very well have something to do with the pressure to perform. But there are also endogenous psychological problems that have nothing to do with traumatization or failure. I’ve taught a lot of composition students with problems like this – from ADHD to autism or schizophrenia. It makes me very happy when these students still manage to create compositions. But it takes a lot of patience.
Who among us can truly say he/she is „healthy“? Working creatively always means exposing yourself to a certain risk. I believe it is totally impossible to be totally free from these demons.
We all have different motivations for pursuing this profession. Certain humiliations at school played a big role for me. From 7th to 10th grade, I experienced daily bullying – I was beaten (sometimes completely unexpectedly and without reason), put in garbage cans, hung out of the window, spat on. These are situations that I will never forget, but from which I also draw a certain resistance, because at some point my powerlessness also turned into resilience, into an „I’ll show you“ attitude. At the time, I often imagined what my tormentors would do when they are 50, slouching in front of the television with a beer bottle without having made anything out of their lives. At a certain point, this created an energy that made me practice piano or compose for hours.
I also know the demons of an all-encompassing depression that paralyzes and incapacitates you to do anything. I remember going through such a phase in my mid-20s for no external reason. I was no longer able to leave the house. I spent weeks just staring at the wall. Hatred of myself grew daily. I felt like a failure, like a loser. I’ve probably never been this close to suicide in my life. None of my friends noticed this month-long phase because I just didn’t get in touch anymore.
At some point something amazing happened – I had noticed that the depression was consuming me more and more, draining all my energy. Until I couldn’t anymore. Strange as it sounds, suddenly I was too exhausted to be depressed.
That was the turning point. Although still incredibly weak, I got up and went outside. At the moment of an absolute low point, it suddenly became possible to do something again because doing nothing had become too strenuous. It was a bit like sinking into a deep pool and eventually you can’t help but push yourself off the bottom.
I don’t pride myself on this strange episode, which still puzzles me to this day. I have friends who have had much worse experiences: weeks, months or years in therapy, suicide attempts, unfortunately sometimes successful. But in a way I’m grateful that I know at least a little how it feels in such a phase and how little seems to help then. My respect for people who are exposed to these demons almost every day and who expend a lot of energy to defend themselves against them is all the greater.
None of us are invulnerable superheroes. But we live in a world that expects us to fake super heroism. If you look closely, you will see the signs. The musician who cuts herself during the break because the conductor put her down, the friend who always drinks a little too much and is always a little vulnerable. We shouldn’t care. In my phase described above, it would have meant a lot to me if one of my friends had called and asked about me, as I was unable to do it myself. Alcoholics will vehemently defend themselves if the bottle is withheld from them, but later they will be grateful if you didn’t look the other way.
Can we all really say that none of this would ever happen to us? Anyone can become an alcoholic if certain circumstances come together. We can all have panic attacks, fall prey to depression.
We must admit that we all know these demons. And support those at their mercy.
Sometimes admitting weakness is stronger than signaling invulnerability. And we are strongest when we learn to stand up again.
The more open and honest we are about this, the better we can help each other. Because most people cannot do it alone.