Old Yeller: one music therapist’s path to normal decibles

Talking to Tammy is like talking to a therapist.

A music therapist.

That’s what she is. A gentle, nurturing, ukulele-playing psychotherapist in purple pajamas. I message her to tell her that I’m running a bit late to our appointment. I’ve just resurrected from a 4pm power nap and I fix a cinnamon toast and hot green tea. My bones aren’t totally exhausted, yet I’m tempted to reschedule our conversation, which I rarely do because cancelations are for the weak. It’s my first hour of downtime after a string of performances (three in as many days), and I’m tired. Tomorrow morning I can rest. For now, I power through.

…in my pajamas.

Luckily, she’s in hers, too. They’re purple, in fact. I take this as a quirky love offering from the universe. It’s like the cosmos made me a cross-stitch pillow with the words “it’s all right, we’re all people” right above a snuggly-looking kitty cat.

Tammy says she is a musician, but not a performer. She is a pianist and violinist, but doesn’t have a piano (which by proxy makes me a professional chef / lingerie model). During her undergrad, Tammy developed an incompatible and troubling relationship with a “super talented” piano teacher, which is kind of her to say. I’ve come up with a lot worse names for less than favorable teachers, like “soul sucker,” “Hanon Harlot,” and “crazy psychopath in need of a beach vacation” …. Not that I’ve thought these through, or anything.

Said teacher was a yeller.

“Old Yeller?” I laugh.

Tammy pauses, and things suddenly aren’t quite as funny. I shrivel a little into my teacup. Sometimes I wonder if I should come with a mouth zipper.

Teacher would yell about a lot of things: scales, practicing, memorization. Old Yeller, in an offhand comment, once mentioned how she had seen Tammy out and about on a weekend…not practicing. As if a musician’s sole identity hinges upon 24/7, unadulterated practice (if it is, I’m in trouble). It’s a shame this outdated mentality prevails among educators. Music makers do a lot more outside the practice room than they do inside it.

Eventually, a missed note was enough to bring on nightmares and panic attacks, so Tammy made the tough decision to take a step back from the instrument, which I find insanely wise. I was a lot more self-centered in my early years, and worried about things like keeping score and whether I was a soubrette or a coloratura (which still plagues me, until Strauss makes it abundantly clear to me that I am the latter). Tammy wouldn’t study again until grad school, and even then, wasn’t emotionally ready to do so.

Tammy is pretty much the opposite of a yeller. She speaks passionately, but at a reasonable decibel level (take note, singers). An average piano student (weren’t we all), she never made first chair in orchestra, and her intrinsic drive for theory and performing topped out at tepid. Lukewarm, at best. In between her degrees, she taught elementary music at a charter school, which she describes as the “worst job of her life.” It’s ironic that she almost, almost glossed over this little detail. We muse at length about the trials and tribulations of classroom teaching. Come Sunday, she would dread the week to come, and lived a serious Jekyll & Hyde dichomety; her constantly stressed weekly persona was totally different and unlike her weekend self.

Hearing this, I want so badly to cry tears of joy and reach through the Facetime vortex to give Tammy a borderline inappropriate hug. Hearing this, I feel more human. When I taught public schools, I could never settle in a way the other teachers did. Friends of mine would seem so at ease, while I could be found rocking back and forth in the corner, panicking over broken xylophones (each of which cost the same, if not more than my yearly allotted classroom budget). I would fret over the constant, unending planning, the miles of red tape to accomplish nothing, or at best, very minor chips in the fucked up granite monuments of public education. The regular “state of emergency” (read: jammed copy machines, triple high priority e-mails) was enough to bring a summa cum laude graduate to her knees. Nothing ever flowed, and my body constantly fought the instinctual need to take flight.

Like me, she got out of it early on. Majoring in “pretty much everything,” she received a music theory assistantship and scholarship at a conservatory in Kansas, where she felt out of place, a nerd amongst the natives (an emotion not lost on most of the people I’ve spoken with). She would fall into step with her tribe later. The tipping point came when Tammy wrote the music for an international project competition with Disney. As a finalist, she flew to California, which was full of people who “really loved their jobs.” Theory was not doing it for her (AS IT DOESN’T FOR MOST, I might say), so she quit the program and moved to another graduate school for music history, then music education. Then she moved into a music therapy program and hasn’t looked back.

Her mom passed away recently; other than an extended weekend, she didn’t take any time off. Like beasts do. Her tribe rallied around her; showered her with cards and assignment extensions. Her peers would stop her in the bathroom to let her know she was cared for (in any other circumstances, this would be profoundly weird). “In other programs, and in performance, there’s so little flexibility for trauma.” An army of musician therapists to shoulder the burden of loss. I would surround myself with these people any day.

Losing her mom has made her a better therapist and lent a new perspective to her work.

“Well, my mom died, so I can probably get up in front of people and play a song,” she laughs.

I wonder what Old Yeller would think about that (it doesn’t really matter).

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