Depression and violin playing

January 6, 2017 at 07:45 PM · Hey Guys,

Something I deal with on a daily basis is clinical depression, and suicidal ideation, which has had major effects in the way I live. Playing the violin is one of my coping strategies to help me deal with my emotions. It's one of the few strands of happiness I receive every day, which I am thankful for. However, this last year, I have been keeping a practice journal, however rather than making notes to my practicing, they turn into 'rants' about how much I suck. I work with a therapist in managing my thoughts, but I'd like to know you're input on how to stay positive and how to grow when practicing, without drilling my fingers, until I break out into tears of frustration. I don't mean to complain, but my deppression has brought the worst emotions out of me. I take antidepressants, but although it improves my overall mood, my thoughts are still very negative, which ends up making me feel like crap if I can't play something how it needs to sound. I hope you all can help me achieve some positivity in regards to practicing.

Thank you very much,


Replies (25)

January 6, 2017 at 07:51 PM · You can start with working your way through this. Then look for more CBT resources. Good luck.

January 6, 2017 at 07:58 PM · Hi-I'm not a therapist but I would say that being extra critical of your playing may actually mean that you are growing as a violinist and a musician, your ear is developing and you're thinking more about what you want to say with the instrument. That feeling of I can do better will never go away and it shouldn't. Try to acknowledge any successes no matter how small they may be. When I was younger I tended to improve in leaps so it was hard to notice incremental improvement at times which can be frustrating. It may also help you to set goals that are concrete maybe you should keep a practice journal. Good luck! -M

January 6, 2017 at 08:17 PM · I'm no therapist and there is not likely to be one simple solution to what is a very complex problem. But I recommend reminding yourself, before each practice session, that you are human and that humans make mistakes. It's OK to make mistakes. Maybe even change your goals--instead of "I will learn this perfectly," how about "Mistakes are an opportunity to learn?"

One of my teaching techniques is to find something good to say about a student's playing before I launch into a critique. The rule is that it has to be good, and it has to be true. There is always something good to find, even if it's just "I got the violin out of the case and played this even though I didn't feel like it." Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a younger student, or to a friend.

January 6, 2017 at 08:57 PM · Make sure that what you are playing and practicing is in pursuit of your goals and not the goals of another person. Also remember that skills don't develop overnight and, as my teacher said to me a very long time ago: "You cannot master music or the instrument, only move on to the next lesson it has to teach." As long as playing makes you happy that is all that matters.

January 6, 2017 at 09:27 PM · One of the larger reasons that I play violin is to keep my PTSD-anxiety-depression in check.

It sounds to me that your practice journals have become a way to brainstorm and criticize yourself, instead of actually writing about the progress that you've made without even noticing right now. From this point on, truncate the journal entries to one sentence only.

If you could only write only one sentence to describe your practice, would you rather waste the sentence on how bad you are, or the part/aspect you want to work on?

Furthermore here's my personal suggestion.

Play in front of some people you trust and care. Something that they will notice over time for sure is how much you've improved since the last time you've played for them. Also, take this as an opportunity to improve yourself until the next time you decide to show-off what you developed. Without question, you will at times get to the point "I can't play the way I want, I can't make the violin to sing the way I want to make it sound in my head". This will almost always stay with you. Use that as an opportunity to learn, what about it are you doing wrong? What can you do to fix it?

Think constructively. If you are off beat, get a metronome. If you are off tune, do more scales. You will never get to the "perfect" playing always, but be mentally conscious of it, and finish the piece you're playing. After, on your sheet music, mark that section, and practice that section at least twice each practice(Example, put a bracket on the bars, and put a star on top, and refer to it in your journal entry).

Another thing I do is that I play in front of my reflection almost all the time. Whether it be window, glass door or mirrors. Watch yourself play, and look at yourself when you make a mistake, but do not stop playing. You may notice something about yourself when you make a mistake.

January 6, 2017 at 09:38 PM · Something I saw recently somewhere (Quora?) suggested that a good life habit is to always be successful. Since we're never perfect, that means re-defining success. In the case of practicing, it might be doing 45 minutes and cleaning up your articulation on the D string, for that one passage. A little. Enough small steps of that sort, and you can find yourself completing a long journey.

Not that you should necessarily seek to find yourself miles from home... :P

January 6, 2017 at 09:42 PM · I think Steven may have a good idea about shortening your journal. One thing I read about in terms of effective journalling for depression is that you can try consciously looking for a few positives for each "negative" (or maybe call it thing to work on). Maybe just do a few plusses, write what went well, and then write one thing that needs work.

Another thing is to use your journal to plan next practice session, that way stuff you need to work on doesn't get framed as a negative, but rather the continuation of your growth and the work you are going to do. It will also have the effect of giving you a direction for your practice. If you set impossible goals for yourself, you will always fail to achieve them, so make the goals small ones that would be possible for a human to do.

Maybe write down a "prayer" or mantra for yourself and recite it before each practice session, relating to how you plan on practicing, your love for violin, being kind to yourself - stuff like that. But something that is positive and makes sense to you.

Maybe write a limit for certain exercises and set a timer, so that whether it is going well or poorly that day, you disconnect and force yourself to move on. It might help to give you a little space from the urgency of the problem if you know you made the decision before you got frustrated. Then stick with your plan.

Good luck!

January 7, 2017 at 01:22 AM · Hey Guys,

Thank you for your responses. Andres, I do use CBT and DBT a lot to problem solve and recognize distortions, but so far my success rate in properly recognizing negativity and feeling relief is very low. I agree that My practice journals have to be more reflective of what my successes have been, and I wish I could show you my journal, because it is mostly filled with sentences like 'I suck so much, why can't I play this' and 'I've been practicing this for four hours straight yet my fingers are still falling apart'. These thoughts tend to escalate towards suicidal thoughts, which is constant. Christian and Mary Ellen, I think a Mantra or an affirmation is an excellent thing that I can do. I have worked with using positive affirmations before, but not in regards to my practice sessions. In fact, I was practicing in the afternoon, And during that time I repeated to myself multiple times that I'm human, and I'm doing the best I can do. A lot of the mistakes I was making while practicing, rather than negatively approaching the mistakes I was able to work in a positive manner, and was quite succesful with some of the techniques I had been struggling on a few months ago. I will definitely try to write positives for every negative critique. Time will tell how I will feel in regards to my ability as a violinist, and I think changing this negative perception starts from here.

Thank you so much,


January 7, 2017 at 01:51 AM · I suffered with clinical depression some years ago. At the time I didn't recognize it as depression. I was aware that I was exhausted and not my old self, but I didn't make the connection to depression. It had been going on for years. I was no longer my rational self and was reacting emotionally to everything. I went to see the doctor because I was experiencing some drastic short term memory issues. He let me know that I wasn't experiencing memory loss but rather my mind wasn't forming the memories to begin with, the result of clinical depression. I couldn't see my way out until I started on anti-depressants and regained enough mental stability to really think about my circumstances and what needed to change. I had the advantage of being a fairly positive person. So I was already convinced that I could shake the depression by applying myself to my health and a careful analysis of my circumstances.

Depression is ultimately somewhat different for everyone, with many common elements.

One thing that everyone with depression knows, and people without experience with depression can never understand, is that you cannot really fully describe in words what depression is like. It's more of a null-ness, a void, and not so much sadness or just feeling down. It's also a very emotionally raw state, where you tend to react without thought. But it's really beyond description in a way that health people can understand. However, it is physiological, so many people with depression can take action to improve their condition by taking carefully considered and persistent action. The problem is that they are often trapped in a cycle of emotion or an emotional void.

I found that for myself, I had to examine my internal dialogue and take steps to alter my self-programming. If a person can recognize when they are thinking negatively, they can begin to change the direction of their thinking. "Fake it until you make it" comes to mind. Telling yourself what you should be telling yourself, even if you don't feel it. Also, forcing myself to react with thought and rationale instead of emotion really helped, something I couldn't have done without the help of medication. It's hard because the natural inclination is to think that making yourself happy is the proper antidote, but in fact that expectation can make you even more depressed when happiness eludes you. Rather being able to rationally analyze and banishing any extreme emotion is a better approach. In my case I needed make changes to my eating and sleeping habits as well. It took a lot of time and persistent effort, but I've now been free of depression for 16 years or so.

So it could be that your violin helps you. Only you can say. Or it may be that it creates the expection of happiness, which could ultimately have the opposite effect. You really need to be able to analyze yourself and use what you learn to take baby steps in a better direction for yourself.

January 7, 2017 at 02:13 AM · Hey, I'm sorry that things are so hard. I'm no expert in practicing or severe depression. My one suggestion, which may or may not work, is to spend more time playing with others, with an emphasis on fun. I'm really hard on myself but jamming with a traditional music group or playing pickup chamber music (with fun, non-judgmental people, never fails to lift my mood.

January 7, 2017 at 03:32 AM · Achuth,

This may sound bizarre, but another approach to violin playing could be to express your emotions. Violin is but a tool, a medium through which you can express your deepest sorrows and pain, as well as myriad of other feelings and share them non-verbally with the audience.

This challenge is no different than for other violinists, and we all, in our own way, strive to reach the point of being able to do so.

Many musicians suffered from emotional ailments, before the time we had a big basket diagnostic label called "depression". This is by no means to belittle the seriousness of your condition (I have a degree in psychology and had witnessed depression first-hand), but rather to invite you to approach it from an artistic point, first as a human being, second as a musician and third as a violin player.

As others pointed out, taking medications and having a good relationship with your doctor is essential. Mental illness is a complex challenge and has 3 major components: biological, psychological and social. Since everyone is different, the proportion (or the lack of) those 3 aspects needs to be addressed: some people need more medications and relatively less psychotherapy and social support. With others, it may be quite opposite - less medication and more psychotherapy, etc. Only your doctor and psychotherapist will have enough knowledge to prescribe the best approach in your case.

Violin playing, as others have suggested, can have a huge impact on your well-being, if you use it to engage socially and draw from it what we all do - enormous joy of a quite unique way in communicating with other ears, hearts and souls - with musicians and audience alike. It is important to highlight that playing violin can't and will not replace chemical therapy or psychotherapy.

Suicidal ideas require more focused approach and strong system of emotional support. Please make sure that you have all resources at your disposal, such as 24x7 hot-line, a psychiatrist you can call, or a trusted friend / family member trained in suicide prevention.

(I have worked extensively for 9 years in suicide prevention.)

Thank you for sharing your feelings with us in this public forum!

Keep playing. Be well.

January 7, 2017 at 04:15 AM · "This may sound bizarre, but another approach to violin playing could be to express your emotions"

I was about to say that, but without the "bizarre" part. What's bizarre about using music and violins to express emotions, e.g. sadness and anger, as Bach did? And contrary to the experience of just listening to such music, the experience of playing music can be cathartic.

Don't torture yourself over the imperfections of your playing. We all have them, even those with apparently perfect recordings. The violin is a great instrument of torture, but I think we're in it for the music.

January 7, 2017 at 02:37 PM · Recently I watched Simon Fischer's DVD, Secrets of Tone Production. The way Fischer explains it, the elements of good tone are all present in the violin, while each of us has the capability of mastering the movement of bow to produce good tone. Learning about how the violin works, and discovering in ourselves the capacity to direct out movements to get the violin to produce beautiful tone is a process of experimentation and DISCOVERY. It's all there, we just need to find it within ourselves. I suck, you suck we all suck until we find the magic combination of arm and bow that produces good tone, be aware of how we did it, and repeat it until it is rote. Fischer's message it to be aware of what parameters you must change to reach your best tone. If you journal, it may be useful to notate what effect you see when you work on one parameter at a time, for example, distance from the bridge, and what results you see: which results suck & why, versus which results succeed, and why. In other words, quantify what sucks in order to identify what WORKS. It is what we all go thru ... :)

January 7, 2017 at 03:29 PM · The little excerpt you provide from your journal indicates that, at least on one occasion, you kept hammering at one thing till you stopt in frustration. That may be counter-productive, alart from your delression. Have you tried using your journal before you start..."I will spen 15 minutes on a 2-octave A-major scale for tone, then work on the trill passage in X to clean the shift..." This means you set small goals. It also means you are thinking before you play, and more about the task.

What does your teacher bring to this issue for you?

Depression often makes us distrust our healing mechanisms. Resist letting your MUSIC become part of the illness. Love it.

January 7, 2017 at 04:48 PM · The gist of all the comments seems to be that "nothing succeeds like success." Therefore a formula for progress might incorporate finding some other thing(s) to do that will be successful in your mind and using that to inspire you through the tough job of developing the violin skills you want and other aspects of life.

It is in some ways based on Victor Frenkel's concept of "Logotherapy" which states most simply "if you can't solve the problems you have find one you can solve."

(Based on some personal experience!)

January 7, 2017 at 07:32 PM · I am sure music is one of the best ways of keeping a good emotional stability or improving it. But, for me, it is essential to play without any kind of internal or external pressure.You must just enjoy the music, and try to take with you the positive things, forgetting soon about the negative ones. That is what children do, and that's why they're usually happy. This advice is not only for music, but for life in general. Each day, before going to bed, I just think about the positive things I have had that day. Some days is meeting with somebody, some others is something as simple as the trill of a bird I heard going to work, or the shining sun, or a person who smiled to me, who knows. Each day is different and has its particularities.

Concerning music, I play the piano at a medium level in which I can play some Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Bach or Mozart and I started with the violin a year ago. When I compare how I sound on the piano and on the violin... what a difference! But when I compare how I sounded on the violin a year ago and how I sound now... I just get happy. Now I can play some little works and I can enjoy them. Music just makes life better. What a horrible world would we have if music didn't exist. I wish you a good recovery of your depression, which can be horrible. I'm lucky, as I have never suffered it, but I know some people who do. I am a migraine sufferer. Mind can be really complicated...

January 9, 2017 at 03:38 AM · "I have been keeping a practice journal, however rather than making notes to my practicing, they turn into 'rants' about how much I suck"

Achuth, much of what you've written, apart from the parts about clinical depression, sounds pretty normal to me. By that I don't mean to belittle your problems, but to convey the perspective that some of what you're experiencing is not specific to a medical condition, and is commonly experienced. You may be led to thinking that emotion or something else is the problem that's interfering with your playing or your enjoyment of playing, and that if you were able to address that, your playing would improve. For most of us, much of the time, that's not true -- meaning that the problems we have in our playing are not external factors which we might think are obstacles, but are specific technical problems which we may not appreciate, recognize, understand or be able to surmount at the time.

If we do a mental experiment and imagine that the depression or whatever else may be affecting us disappears, our playing wouldn't necessarily also immediately improve. For that, we need to observe and understand the problems, and perhaps have the help of someone who can help us do that. We can't just ask ourselves why we suck -- and thereby presume and reinforce the idea that we suck, but ask ourselves more specific technical questions. For example are there any physical discomforts which are experienced when trying to play something we're not succeeding in, or how exactly is the sound not what we wish for and how can we change to make it better? Or if we're playing wrong notes -- have we not observed and understood the notes well enough? Have we misunderstood the patterns? Do we know the pitch?

Please excuse me if I don't understand enough about your specific challenges -- I'm sure I don't. I do however have quite a lot of experience in not playing well, and some experience in working to solve playing problems. Some teachers here and elsewhere are also very good at that, but they're not universal, and the student, unfortunately cannot rely entirely on the teacher, as they don't have the same body and experience, and must communicate with limited means.

January 10, 2017 at 08:02 PM · When I find myself ranting about how much I suck, I reflect on the fact that even virtuosos find fault with their performances. This has led me to a musical philosophy: We all suck, just at different levels. However, when I once said this at a workshop, the instructor looked at me and said, "You're one of those glass-half-empty people, aren't you?" This made me rethink things, and I decided to be a bit easier on myself.

One thing I would recommend is getting into informal jams with small groups of people who aren't overly serious. If you can find people who are at about your skill level, it can be a lot of fun. In addition to classical music, I also play bluegrass fiddle in jams - and late at night, when everyone gets into the groove, those endorphins start flowing and I feel much better about myself.

January 11, 2017 at 02:13 AM · Achuth - I'm advised that it is good for we who have clinical depression to talk about it with those that we trust. I believe that many members here are trustworthy but we are not able to completely understand each other, especially when it comes to something as complicated and individual as depression. Lots of great musician advice here. Maybe something resonates positively. Keep talking, please.

January 11, 2017 at 09:00 AM · Go to

February 15, 2017 at 05:42 AM · Hi Achuth,

I have had 2 good friends and a few aquaintences commit suicide after suffering from depression and it is such a horrible thing to come to terms with. I know others who have depression and I myself have extended episodes of depression at time (though I wouldn't say I am clinically depressed) so I've been doing a lot of reading on it. I also happen to be reading a lot about nutrition and I've found a bunch of research linking lifestyle to depression.

Doing exercise daily (though I know it can be really hard to motivate yourself sometimes) has been proven to be as effective as taking antidepressant drugs and the group that they did the test on improved so much that many were no longer considered depressed.

In terms of diet, there was a lot of Information I looked at. Poultry and eggs (other meat as well but not as much) have a high amount of arichidonic acid, which can cause inflammation in the brain and has been associated with higher risks of depression. Also, increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables has also shown great improvement to people with depression. Watch out for foods or drinks that contain the artificial sweetener "aspartame", which is in most "diet" soft drinks and has shown to cause even people who have no history of mental illness to experience depression and decreased brain function.

I really hope that this information can be of use to people.

In terms of practice and practice journals, I'm now a teacher and I've found most students will fill up their journal with an "I suck" sort of mentality and it will be filled with negativity. What I get my students to do (and I do it myself as well) is include a section for reflection at the end and have 2 questions:

1: what did I do well today? ----force yourself to keep all negativity out of this. No "I did this well but..." type comments. A lot of my students end up doing this and need to be called up on it.

2: what can I improve on? ---again, not negative, just fact.

The way I set up most my students journals is set 3 specific goals for yourself to do in that session (do this after warming up where you might notice things that need work or remember something from the previous practice). Then you have your notes section. Again, no negative speech. Constructive criticism only and things you notice that you hadn't noticed before and any questions that you need answered by google or your teacher.

Maybe have someone read some of your journal to take note if you've used negative speech instead of constructive criticism and ask for ideas on how you could word it in a more neutral way.

Again, we are all different so I can really only share with you my findings and research done on other people in hopes that you will find some piece of useful information. Best of luck.

February 15, 2017 at 07:03 AM · Are you playing the pieces that you feel comfortable in and enjoy or are they pieces that your teacher wants you to play? are you playing to get your emotions out or are you playing to improve your technique?

I had depression issues when young and I really could only master well those pieces that where the style I wanted to play (modern and atonal) and when I was forced to study the usual technical stuff I got too frustrated. Now, if I had then the strentgh that I have now I would have asked for more what I wanted to study and therefore would have enjoyed the playing more at the advanced stage, would have not had the frustrations that I had. Unfortunately modern atonal music is very challenging for the teacher too, so no wonder I was not allowed to play it more.

Anyway my point is, maybe playing with emotions is more important to you now than anything else right now. And I would ditch any practise journal right now I just dont see what good can come out of keeping a diary of ones mistakes as the progress is slow always.

But then again, you have to find a root of your depression and change that with therapy and medications, but this youare allready doing :) And as the writer above I would also recommend thinking about your diet, maybe not to that extreme, but sugar, aspartame and wheet are no good whereas barley, fish, avogados, nuts, bananas and vegetables are. There is new research on bacteria of the gut and to put it short eating unhealthy makes wrong bacteria grow in your gut and the bacteria produces substances that affect your brain and thinking. No medicine can counteract a really bad diet with lots of sugar, soft drinks and white bred. And excersize is also important, again dont have to go to extremes, 15 minutes is just fine per day. Good luck and a hug :)

February 15, 2017 at 07:00 PM · Maybe skip the practice journal. Or turn it into a entry log; just the names of the pieces, nothing else. Music is supposed to be fun.

I have had the benefit of playing in both the classical and commercial music worlds and I can testify that the cultures are different. The classical world is a pressure-cooker with poisenous perfectionism that leads to procrastination and paralysis. (lots of P-words there). Maybe try a genre that is completely different, and you might make more money. For me the most stressful experience is the competitive audition in front of a committee of three. Playing solo electric violin at an arena in front of thousands - no problem. jq --(just a mariachi fiddler)

February 15, 2017 at 08:51 PM · Hi Achuth,

I'm new here, I'm not a violin teacher (although I am a teacher, and I am in the "alternative health" field). I have started playing my violin again after a long break and I have suffered from depression. Knowing what music I used to be able to play rather effortlessly vs where I am now has been humbling, and ridiculously frustrating at times. While no one can know what it is that you are experiencing, I can identify with what you say about focusing on all that needs to improve! It's an insidious problem, that I believe is made worse with depression. Based on what others have said, depression or not, you are not alone with the desire for regular and constant improvement and the desire for perfection (which does not exist, much as we'd like it to).

All this said, the best thing I ever did (both in terms of my depression and rediscovered passion for playing) was to consciously ignore these negative inner comments and keep moving ahead anyway. This is not the same as ignoring your depression, which is not healthy - I'm saying to have no relationship to what your mind is telling you: that you "suck". See it for what it is: your mind making stuff up because it doesn't know any better. Like a 2 year old that is throwing a temper tantrum, the best way to deal with instances such as those are to act like you cannot hear it - the mind will get louder for a time then move on to something else when it does not get what it wants. If you can get through those storms of negativity, the beauty that shines upon you is worth it. Eventually, the storms will have less of an impact on you, and you'll be like a fish in the waters of music: rain or shine, you're in the water and wet and it doesn't bother you one bit. (If you do try this method, I would suggest you run it by your therapist to see if they think it is okay.)

End your playing session with something you love to play, and that you can play well with little effort. If you make a mistake, chalk it up to your fingers and brain being tired from all the work you've done before, and keep playing. No one is listening anyway, and there's great freedom in that. This way, you feel good ending your session and can go with the flow of the music instead of working on tedious exercises bound to create frustration and ire.

I agree with the comments about the practice journal - write what you did or plan to do, then check it off as it is nothing more than a grocery item. Set goals that are easily manageable and do-able, such as X amount of time practicing Y exercise without setting expectations for results. The act of doing it without judgment at this stage is the most important.

February 15, 2017 at 10:45 PM · We all have our own ideas of what is considered "extreme". I have a friend who I've shared this research with who has decided to try everything because to him it was a small sacrifice to make for something that might actually work. Like I've said, we are all different.

If you would like I can share some resources.

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