This post started life as an exchange with a member of classical music management last week, one that took me by surprise. I wanted to share the story now, because I think it’s timely.
Twenty-six years ago, around about the time I was completing the end of my first year of A-Level studies, I slipped effortlessly into an extended period of depression.
I say effortlessly, because hindsight informs me that I probably had a disposition for it.
I was a ruminator. Still am, from time to time.
I was also a loner and I got teased a lot at school. Don’t feel sorry for me. Quite a lot of other people had a similar experience at school. I don’t regard myself as special in that respect.
So, back to the depression.
I had the classic symptoms. Flat out in bed. Completely disinterested in the basic functions like eating, showering, or moving about. A tight, unshakeable feeling of terror gripped my stomach. Time seemed to go slow. Everything snowballed. I had no idea what to think or do to get myself out of it.
After about the second consecutive week of this my parents cottoned on to what was going on. This wasn’t me just going through a moody phase. There was something wrong. They (quite rightly) poked the bear. A catastrophic emotional outburst ensued.
This triggered an appointment with my GP the following day who I watched look over his own hastily scribbled notes, then look over the rim of his glasses, and say to me, “I think we need to get you checked into Kings Lynn hospital.”
Such swift referrals don’t happen these days. More is the pity.
I remember the moment my Dad gripped my hand as I sat in the car before we left for the hospital.
“It will be alright,” he said.
I wasn’t entirely sure whether he was reassuring me or reassuring himself.
My Mum, poised at the steering wheel, sped away. I clung on to my Dad for as long as the car stayed in first gear. After that, he couldn’t keep up.
The psychiatrist I saw – a well-built man with dark skin and a handsome face, dressed in a burgundy waistcoat with bright brassy buttons – told it to me straight.
“You have a confused sexual identity. That’s all it is. You have a girlfriend, you’ve told me that. But you also tell me that you think you might be gay.”
It all seemed so matter of fact when he said it like that, as though he’d found it in a text book and was reading it back to me denying the drama I’d concocted in my head.
“Now, which is it to be? If you had the choice between dancing with a man or dancing with your girlfriend at your school disco, who would you choose?”
“Well I don’t really know,” I spluttered. “That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”
“Which is it to be? Choose.”
The questions were, on the face of it, well-intentioned. He wanted to help. He thought he had the solution. He followed a path, and invited me along it too.
The truth was that I was incredibly scared. I was scared, because I was confused. And no matter how straightforward a choice people told me it was, there were too many variables. This isn’t a black and white choice, no matter what people say.
For those of us who seek truth through (sometimes) obsessive rumination, merely having to choose doesn’t help. We can only choose once we’ve explored everything, regardless of how long that will take.
All of this detail is necessary. But let’s move on a few years, to Lancaster University.
I’d ended up at University because of one chance conversation with my mother.
I remember the moment well. She was drawing the curtains to reveal the painful reality of a Sunday on the Norfolk / Suffolk border. I was worrying (surprise surprise) about my comprehension of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. “But I have to get three Bs to get to Lancaster,” I insisted, “and I just don’t think I know enough about the Winter’s Tale to scrape a B.”
Then came the zinger line.
“Well, maybe you should just take a year out and have another stab at the English A-Level. You know, if you don’t get the B, just take another year to get it.”
The reaction was instant (not unlike the reaction I had when I decided I was going to leave the BBC, as it happens).
“That isn’t going to happen. That absolutely isn’t going to happen.”
To this day, I’m unsure as to whether my mother knew how she was motivating me, but she was.
As it turned out, the English A-Level grade was a D, but Lancaster remained welcoming.
I’d billed University as an escape route, a path not only to adulthood but to a depression-free life, whatever that demanded.
It didn’t turn out that way.
The depression returned with alarming regularity. Blissful highs contrasted heavily with blistering, irrevocable lows. As each low returned it felt like the time that had passed in between had got shorter and shorter, as though someone somewhere was wagging their finger in my face and say, “You’d better pay attention this time, because I ain’t going away.”
I can’t say it was horrible. Obviously, I wanted it gone. I didn’t like it. But I didn’t pour out my heart and say “This is terrible I can’t go on,” to everyone. I sought reassurance. I reached out to friends and associates to right the boat and stop it from capsizing. I told a few what the detail was. They were marvellous. In fact everyone was marvellous – everyone who shored me up from 1991 onwards were amazing.
But something weird happened at the beginning of the third year of my degree.
I had reached the kind of rock-bottom I’ve since heard other people speak of. Not miserable. Not painful. Just a chilling sense of resignation that the end of the road had been reached and there really wasn’t very much else to go on for. And there was really no point in making a big fuss about all of this. But there really wasn’t anything, and if this was as good as it had got then at least I’d got this far.
I made plans. And they were plans I was fully intending to carry out. I’d thought how and when. I’d thought through explanations I’d need to leave behind. I’d looked at the terrifying prospect – the point of no return – and that’s where, again with hindsight, I’d hesitated. But those plans were there.
What’s interesting for me (and the justification for this post) is what stopped me. It is what prevented the action from taking place that makes me beam.
At the same time as making these plans, I had also taken on a conducting role for the Lancaster University Wind Orchestra. This was part of my conducting course that contributed to my end marks for the conducting and orchestration module I was studying in my third year with the utterly brilliant Prof Denis McCaldin.
Conducting was everything to me. As conductor I got to make decisions. I had the chance to rehearse things – I finally had a legitimate channel for that obsessiveness. I got to do some tangible. I got to hear the finished product in a way that no other musician in the band did. I got the chance to pick out the music I’d heard, and skating on faith and determination, convince, coerce and cajole people whose confidence was as low as mine, to make the leap and play.
We had weekly rehearsals on a Tuesday evening.
I learnt Holst’s tiresome suites for wind band, Gregson’s Festivo, his concerto for tuba and wind orchestra, and Nigel Hess’ captivating East Coast Pictures, (just listen to the last movement and imagine what conducting that was like), and Carl Davis’ exhilerating Galaxies (played below by the National Band of New Zealand, conducted by Howard Taylor in 2009). David Bedford’s Ronde for Isolde too – a set of variations on a theme – is a pleasing romp, but the variation 6’55” is unexpectedly heartbreaking.
Now I come to listen back to that playlist I’m struck by the power of the soundtrack.
Rehearsals were rigorous and thorough. I even made the principle saxophonist cry.
The wind orchestra was only supposed to play one concert each year (apart from the last ‘Last Night of the Proms’), but I insisted on there being two.
If the bloke in the second year had the audacity to insist that the University set up a Big Band (whatever the frig that was), then we were doing two concerts.
It was those rehearsals (and later the prospect of not letting the band down for the concert) that saved me from my plans.
But the mood swings were tremendous. Sundays and Mondays were spent practising the works in front of a mirror as a I listened to a recording. Tuesdays, and the hours after the rehearsal in Cartmel Bar, were the inevitable high point. But, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays were impossible.
For seven weeks, I vacillated, the only constant being the drugs from the on-site doctor’s surgery, an extension of the treatment I’d started back in 1991. The inevitable question now arises, were they making the situation worse?
The concert came and went. I still have the posters. I still have a picture of the band taken by my Dad in the Great Hall at Lancaster University (see above). On the shelf beside me as I type is a VHS recording of that very concert. He never knew. Nobody did.
That last paragraph gets me in the back in the throat. So, if it has you. Sorry, etc.
I mention all of this (in a much much much longer form than I did in the exchange with the arts manager I engaged with last week) not because I want to be morose, or self-indulgent. Don’t anyone think that this is a request for pity. Please don’t speak to those connected with all of this and offer apologies or sympathy or any of that nonsense – because that really hasn’t been sought and, more importantly, is rather redundant now.
I’ve shared it because I want to show what it was that scooped me out of the pits of despair, what stopped me from carrying out those plans. If it wasn’t for seven weeks of wind orchestra rehearsals I do really think I’d have done.
Music making – classical music – saved me from suicide.
Twenty-six years later, I am fine, by the way. Things resolved themselves (finally) in 1997, when I left arts management and headed to London to actually earn some money. There I met my met my partner on a blind date, and had an unequivocal, non-negotiable reason for coming out.
The aftermath wasn’t pretty. There was an enormous amount of guilt to assuage – that sense that I’d ‘hoodwinked’ people for so long, wasted NHS resources, and generally been a coward.
Inevitably, I don’t think that now. Such an experience helps with your self-awareness. It’s what’s fuelled the writing, the coaching, and the interest in counselling and therapy.
But it’s because of the exchange I had with that arts manager last week, when we sparred over whether or not it was OK for the audience to clap in between movements of a work, that I was reminded why it was I get so exercised about this subject.
The way classical music is presented – the gentle deference, the blissful moments of silence – give us opportunities for collective mindfulness. These are magical moments in live performance when performers and audience unite, and it almost always occurs when silence has broken out either before or after a performance. I crave that moment of stillness.
The wind band rehearsals, my music degree studies, the necessary concert-going, the classical music conventions. They were all part of the very thing that kept me going.
Don’t tinker with it
That’s why I want others to love the music I love.
But it’s also why I don’t want the thing that saved me to be trampled over by people who over-simplify the challenges with the genre’s wholesale appeal. Don’t wring your hands, apologise, try and make out that its a genre that is just as ‘cool’ as rock and pop. Don’t patronise, excuse, or denigrate by pointing out on-air how long a piece of music will last before the next one starts.
There’s an increasing number of people who overlook the core audience because they’re so preoccupied with those who haven’t found the concert hall yet.
What do they know? A little bit more now, I hope.