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Karen Allendoerfer

January Anxiety

January 6, 2009 at 12:26 PM

Last Sunday at church, in my daughter's Sunday school class, we each wrote down one thing we'd like to change about ourselves in the new year, and burned the pieces of paper. Thank goodness we did not set off the smoke detector. The kids loved this part of the class: everyone writing down something and crowding around the oven-proof bowl (but not too close). Although we didn't have to share what we wrote with the whole class, I feel like sharing mine anyway: I want less anxiety. I want to both manage the sources of anxiety in my life better and find within myself more constructive responses to stress.

Music, particularly playing my instrument, seems to be one of these more constructive responses. For whatever reason--sound, fit, dynamic range, personal preference--playing the viola accomplishes this purpose for me more than playing the violin does. I set an ambitious goal for the vacation period: learning the first movement of the A. Stamitz viola concerto #4. I did not achieve this goal, but I have worked seriously on the first half the movement and I had the perfect amount of music to play and discuss at my lesson yesterday.

I've been trying to memorize this section and I am almost there. Not quite: there are still short passages where I get derailed or have to slow down to allow my brain to catch up. But I am pleased with how the progress I have made in committing this section to memory has enabled me to focus my attention on creating a beautiful sound. I'm not saying that I've actually created a beautiful sound yet, but I like being able to focus on that, think about it, put my unconscious mind to work on it while I'm doing other things. It reminds me of what Mendy wrote in her blog too, about the advantages of being able to perform without looking at the sheet music.

The Korg tuner also, used in small doses during scales and problematic passages, seems to have done its job in improving the intonation. I'm both gratified and humbled by how closely related the improved intonation is to the "beautiful sound" that I am striving for. Specifically, I'm glad the tuner has helped me identify that problem and given me a plan for fixing it: all this works toward decreasing anxiety in the moment. It shuts up the little voice in the back of my head that whines, ineffectually, "be careful, be careful." My teacher agrees with and enthusiastically supports both of these steps, memorizing the piece (even if I still have the music there for the performance), and using the tuner in small doses. She was very pleased with my progress on the section that I did prepare, and we were able to spend the lesson on the more interesting aspects of phrasing, structure, and sound.

One of the reasons, however, that I've only learned half this movement so far and not the whole thing as I'd hoped, has to do with other things going on outside of my little world of practicing, with what I opened with in this blog: Sunday school at church. Our religious ed program has been undergoing a lot of transition and turnover this year. And I am co-chair of the RE committee, a volunteer job that I expressed interest in before I found out about all the changes coming down the pike. Had I known what I was getting myself into, I'd like to think I would have been sane enough to decline.

What's bothering me most (more than the work itself, which I mostly enjoy when I can get to it, although there is too much of it) is the attitude expressed by some of the people I'm working with that certain tasks, especially organizational or administrative ones, are both simultaneously important and "no big deal." According to this way of looking at things, I'm creating problems and anxiety by "making a big deal" out of it. This attitude seems to be taken by some people in stressful situations as an attempt to decrease anxiety, but I don't think it works at all. It's allegedly very "Zen:" you don't make a "big deal" out of it, but it gets done anyway somehow.

But rather than its having anything to do with Zen, or decreasing anxiety, I am starting to believe that the appearance of this attitude is a hallmark of something being out of balance. It is like being told that you "don't have to make a big deal" out of memorizing a piece, that it will "just happen" somehow. But as with good intonation or a beautiful sound, I don't think I at least can have it both ways: either it's important and I spend time/energy on it and put effort into it--I make at least a medium-sized deal out of it--or it's not important, and I don't.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 6, 2009 at 2:28 PM

Sounds as if your music is going well.  That is great.  With regard to the RE-type stuff, progress is only made because good people like you take the job seriously and do it.  If you leave it to the it's-no-big-deal crowd, not much is likely to happen.  Unfortunate that it is this way and impinges on your music, but it sounds as if it is a temporary issue.  Keep up the good work!

From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 7, 2009 at 5:36 AM

Karen -

I LOVE the Stamiz!!!!  Break a leg with that piece!  Isn't it a bit funny how our viola journeys have paralleled each other in many ways?  I agree, tuners in small doses helps tremendously in the unfamiliar realms of the fingerboard.  My Peterson Strobo-flip is always powered up on the piano for a quick glance when I'm unsure of a note.  I'm still training my ears to hear the differences between notes an octave above A on the A string, and F's (on all strings). 

As far as Zen moments in admin work or intontation, it still has to be done precisely each and every.  Mistakes are not tolerated, so they deserve your un-divided attention to perfect.  It's not all about "big-picture"... if you don't have a firm foundation in the smaller details to rest upon, then the big-picture is lost.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 7, 2009 at 12:56 PM


Do you have a recording of this Stamitz concerto, or know of one?  The only one I can find is the more well-known concerto in D by brother Karl. 

You too with the F's?  I wonder what it is about that note in particular.  I'm often flat with F's and F#'s on the viola C string, and sharp with them on the E or A string (on either instrument).  And F major is a really tough key for me to hear well in general.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 7, 2009 at 2:51 PM

I was just reading the "Sensitive Female Chord Progression" thread again and thinking of it in this context of anxiety.

The repetition of chord progressions that strikes most people in that thread as "boring" tends to strike me differently.  I'm rarely bored by repetition, as long as it is repetition of something I liked or was moved by in the first place.  But too much variety tends to make me confused, overwhelmed, and anxious.  

From Bart Meijer
Posted on January 7, 2009 at 6:32 PM


Have you ever observed a Zen monk or nun washing dishes? To them, washing dishes is the most important thing in the world, while they are doing it. As soon as they do something else, that in turn becomes the most important thing.

I imagine your position in the RE committee as rather like mine in a bunch of people preparing a service, some time ago. It involved a lot of juggling: what do I feel I have to hold on to, and what is better left to others?

I wish you much practical wisdom.



From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 7, 2009 at 10:05 PM

No, I don't personally know anyone who *really* knows anything about Zen (except maybe Buri, but I only know him from this online forum).  That's why I put this usage in quotes.   

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 8, 2009 at 12:54 AM

Karen, I tend to be a big deal person when it comes to dealing with issues rather than tasks. I find the more I think about certain issues the more I see, and bigger deal usually they become for me. Being someone hates to be simplistic, this big deal approach is only nature to me and I do not apologize for that.

I have to say, however, when it comes to tasks, as a matter of strategy, the best way to tackle them is to treat them as though they are not a big deal, even though I have serious doubt/worries about all the details.  Just do it and fix it along the way. Partly because I do not want my initial emotional reaction to have too much impact on me. Mostly I believe this odd truth that, to accomplish something, you’ve got to convince yourself and others that the task is easily achievable even though it probably is not. 

I find this strategic approach works for me the best in a stressful working environment. But maybe I’m talking about something entirely different as I don’t know the content of your case.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on January 8, 2009 at 10:14 AM

Bart, I'll elaborate on what you said about Buddhists -- that while they are washing dishes, washing dishes is the most important thing to them.  I've also heard that they must wash each dish as carefully as they would wash the Baby Buddha.

Karen, I, too, have had supervisors who give me the "No big deal.  Don't take it so seriously" line.  What they really mean is "Do it correctly and quickly, and don't bother me with details."

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 8, 2009 at 11:58 AM

Yes, Pauline, I agree that is usually what they mean, and it drives me nuts.  If they want it done quickly and correctly sometimes they have to be bothered with the details.  Or, if they don't want to be bothered with the details then they have to let me take care of those in my own way. 

Yixi, I like your explanation from someone who the philosophy/strategy works for.  It makes it sound less cynical when looked at that way.  But I have to disagree that there is value to convincing yourself or especially, convincing others, that a task is easily achievable when it's not.  To me that can easily acquire the flavor of a lie or a betrayal.  It becomes like the boy who cried wolf in reverse:  I hear it a few times and then discover that the reality is quite different, and I start to think that I can't trust anything the person says.  I don't think it's good for teamwork or relationship building, because those ought to be based on trust. 

Your point about not wanting your initial emotional reaction to overwhelm you is interesting, and totally understandable.  I'd agree that's important.  But don't you think there are other (better?) ways to manage that reaction than deception?  For me, far worse than any initial shock might be, is a creeping realization over time that I've really stepped in it (or was railroaded into it under false pretenses) and can't get out of it.

I suppose it might be appropriate when used sparingly, for a task that's truly large, life-changing and impossible to define, that one takes on a handful of times in one's life--say, with raising children.  People probably don't want to know or think about everything that that involves before they start, or they'd never do it! 

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 8, 2009 at 10:45 PM

Dealing with scattered and not detail oriented boss can drive all of us crazy. I think you’ll have to deal with people like that any where you go and it certainly is one of my daily challenges. It’s hard to build trust with bosses like that because they are neither competent nor credible. You have to protect yourself and do what you see fit.  I’m completely with you on this one.

Being deceptive is unethical and completely not acceptable in workplace or elsewhere.  I will be the last person to suggest that one should compromise one’s integrity to achieve a particular objective. 

The strategy I proposed was really an extension of self-fulfilling prophecy, a leap of faith, or the famous “Yes we can!”  You should acknowledge the facts, share all the information you have with others and still have the faith that things will work out fine and convince others the best you can. I don’t see how this can be compared to the boy who cried wolf. 

It is about being a good team player, whether being the leader in the team or the follower.  Having fully acknowledged the actual and foreseeable potential barriers, to stay positive and supportive is vital to be a good team player.  I like what Tina Seelig says, “when you are a team, the key is making everybody else successful.”

If a task is designated to a team, especially we have to do it no matter what, after initial brainstorming, to help others to achieve the common goal requires me to stay upbeat and confident that it is doable and not a big deal, and fix things along the way.

By task, I mean pieces works related to some project/initiative that come with a specific timeframe.  Raising a child to me more like a large project, or for some, it’s more like a program that is on-going.  This is not what I have in mind but I suspect the same principle applies.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 8, 2009 at 10:52 PM

I think being prepared to fix things along the way is a great strategy and I see a lot of value in that.  I guess my problem may be with the colloquialism "no big deal."  That means different things to different people.  To me, making a "big deal" out of it in no way means that you shouldn't leap right in, or be prepared to fix things along the way.

Also, I'm not talking about dealing with a scattered boss, I'm talking about a volunteer situation.  Where I have a serious problem with "no big deal" thinking in that case is that it's too easy to discount something's importance when it's officially  perceived (or sold) as "no big deal." Then, people are more likely to be expected to do it without pay, whereas if they were paid what it was actually worth in the marketplace, the expectations would be a lot different.  If I think about the church situation that way, it puts it in a rather stark light: if I did the same tasks for my employer, I would earn a salary and health insurance. 

I think this can be an issue for musicians too, especially in volunteer or community orchestras and maybe even in pro orchestras (especially with some of the pro players being asked, unfairly in my opinion, to play for free). Fortunately for me in my orchestra, there hasn't been an epidemic of "no big deal" thinking.  Last spring we had some issues with the bowings for the violin section, and  I decided that it was a big enough deal to me that I would take responsibility for the bowings and I became the concertmaster.  

That has been empirically more work than just trying to follow and figure it out week to week by the seat of your pants.  But at least for me, that work, that "big deal" of working out the bowings, scanning in the parts, and distributing them to the rest of the section by email, has still been worth it in terms of decreasing my stress level at rehearsals and making rehearsals more enjoyable, even without pay.  I was getting tension-related back pain again in rehearsals last spring, and it has gone away since I've been "making a big deal" of the bowings.  

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 8, 2009 at 11:52 PM

I couldn't agree more.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 6:14 AM

Karen -

I get all my recordings off of  So far, I have always been able to find any piece that I was looking for.

As far as the F-note problem is concerned,  it is the one note that really does not resonate with any of the open strings well, so you ear has a difficult time finding the correct pitch.  The best you can get is with the open A, which does not help much when you are playing that F on the A string :)  I try to get around this by playing all my F's with adjacent open strings or in chords where the other note DOES resonate well regularly and often so I can hear the interval. 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 12:08 PM

Yixi,  Thanks for posting that Tina Seelig link.  I especially like the part where she debunks "do what you love, the money will follow" and points out that passions are necessary but not sufficient. You also helped me think about a former work supervisor in a different, and hopefully more forgiving, light.  At the time, back when I was working for her, I thought she was completely divorced from reality, but I suppose (with the benefit of hindsight) that she was just trying to stay positive in a tough situation.  

In my current volunteer situation I've had a number of very good and helpful conversations with the people involved in the past few days that are helping me feel a lot less anxious.  Open, honest communication is the best solution.  

I haven't been able to express it very well here, but I feel like my musical adventures over the past two years have given me a lot of lessons that carry over to other aspects of life: leadership, time management, communication, motivation, and so on.  Tom--I think you're right, this rough patch is temporary and I'll soon be able to get back to more practicing and more concentrating on music!

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 11:51 PM

Karen, after your further explanation, I think your “big deal” approach is very much part of an effort to achieve excellence -- sounds to me you are already practicing the “never miss an opportunity to be fabulous”, which is my favourite Seelig advice.

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