Monday, May 21, 2012

OCD and the piano recital

Early guilt and early perfectionism. Early signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder?
When I was about 5 years old, I started picking out tunes on our piano.
I remember sitting at our black Kurtzmann upright piano in the living room and sounding out “Jesus Loves Me.”
But my mother didn’t want me to play the piano by ear. She wanted me to wait and learn the notes. She played mostly by ear and saw that as inferior to playing by note.
So she told me not to play any more. I did anyway. I’d wait until she went outside to do something like hang up clothes to dry, and then I’d run to the piano and play.
Years later, my mother told me she could hear me playing but just didn’t say anything.
She talked with a local piano teacher, who agreed to try lessons with me. I started lessons and thrived on it.
The following spring, Mrs. Carwile decided to include me in her yearly piano recital. Her piano students at a local elementary school gave a yearly recital. For this recital, I would be a “special guest” and play.
She picked out a song for me, “Voice of the Heart,” Opus 51, by Henri van Gael. She modified which parts I would play to fit my abilities.
Then she broke the big news. She wanted me to memorize the song and play with no music.
I don’t remember being afraid at that point, but my mother was worried. Mrs. Carwile reassured her that I could do it.
I remember practicing and practicing, getting ready for the recital, which was taking place exactly one week before my sixth birthday.
My mother made me a long white dress with a white satin ribbon to wear for the occasion. I wore white sandals, and, much to my embarrassment, white socks with the sandals.

Standing on our front porch before we left for the piano recital.
I was excited about playing, but I also was very shy. It was difficult for me to be around so many other children backstage at the school. I remember that someone pinned a carnation to my dress.
All the other students sat on the stage, but I sat with my family in the audience. About halfway through the program, Mrs. Carwile called me up on the stage.
She asked me what my name was and then she asked me how old I was.
“Five,” I said.
But I felt guilty saying five. I was just a week from being six. Shouldn’t I say I was almost six?
Even at that age, I understood that Mrs. Carwile wanted me to be five for the audience. She wanted to impress upon them my young age before I sat down and played a song without the sheet music in front of me.
But I felt guilty.
Then I walked over to the piano and sat down. I was afraid, but I didn’t think I had any choice. That was what I was supposed to do.
I started to play and my fingers moved automatically through the song. I had practiced so much that I played without thinking.
I made one mistake. I hit one wrong note.
No one noticed, my mother said. I don’t think she noticed. But I did. I knew I had not played the song perfectly.
From the outside, my first piano recital was a good experience. I took piano lessons for another six years and took one year of organ lessons. I made it through other performances.
Today, I still love playing the piano, though I play on a keyboard now. I play by note and by ear, a combination.
But looking back on my first recital, I wonder if my OCD was showing itself in subtle ways: worrying about whether or not I was being totally truthful about my age, and being focused on the one mistake I made and not the rest of the performance.

If you have OCD, do you remember the first signs of it? Even if you don’t have OCD, do you remember a childhood moment when you felt great anxiety such as performance-based anxiety?


  1. Tina,
    You know hindsight is 20/20 but as child I remember tracing things with my eyes; the outline of picture frames, the cracks in the walls, the furniture and I still do it today-I do it for comfort and sometimes just don't feel I can stop depending upon my anxiety...interesting that I've never really thought of it it those terms.
    I love the photo of you...I just look at that little girl and want to protect her.

    1. Thanks, Tracy! I started counting as a child. I would count letters on signs, in pictures, etc., trying to make it come out in three's, even if I had to use the periods, commas and other marks. I also counted objects, doing the same thing. I didn't realize until I was an adult that I was doing it for comfort. I still find myself counting when I'm stressed.

  2. You have just brought up a whole slew of memories of my own piano recitals and lessons! Oh my, I remember having to play for a room of people and messing up and being so anxious that I'd forget my next notes. It was awful! Today, I love to play the piano when I can (my sister has our childhood one). No pressure... just music.

    I love that picture of you!

    1. Elizabeth, Thank you! I love to play, too. In fact, I really started to enjoy playing when I stopped lessons. You're right--no pressure, just music.

  3. Oh, look at you, you were so cute! I think the socks and sandals are adorable. ha ha

    I remember feeling guilt about stuff like that too as a kid. I would tattle on myself every time I did (or thought I did) something wrong. Of course, that was encouraged by the adults, but I realize now it was just a compulsion for me. Ugh. Sometimes I think about how guilt ridden I was as a child and I literally feel sick to my stomach, like I do right now. I'm sorry you felt that way too as a little one. It honestly breaks my heart.

    1. Thank you for your kindness, Sunny. I "confessed" a lot as a child too, whether I actually did anything or not. It hurts to think of kids going through that and feeling guilty and afraid.

  4. I can relate to your post, doing what you were "supposed to do," and not feeling like you had any choice. I felt that way for most of my childhood. I also specifically remember feeling like I should clarify when asked my age: "I'm seven, but I'll be eight in nine days." Just so it wouldn't seem like I was trying to deceive anyone. That kind of stuff. And I don't have OCD.......I guess we are all on the same continuum; I just never progressed to where these thoughts and behaviors became real problems.

    1. Janet, Isn't that odd, that we both worried about being clear about our ages, concerned that we would be deceiving. I agree with the continuum idea--I just kept going on it into full-blown OCD.

      I've spent a lot of my life doing what I thought I was supposed to do. Interestingly, I think some of that actually helped me be what one psychiatrist called "high functioning." I didn't think I had a choice not to do what I needed to do, like stay in school, even when I was very depressed and completely under the control of OCD. But overall, now I try to do what I believe is best to do, not what someone else thinks I'm supposed to do.

  5. I used to get sick before I had to do something scary. I sang in the chorus and was selected to sing with a smaller group in a contest, but I got a strep throat the week before the contest. I would get genuinely ill, but it always began with severe anxiety.

    The "one wrong note" part of this post hit me hard. Even now, after years of therapy, it's hard to see what I do right or well. This week the local paper is doing an article on me -- should be good news, right? And yet I am terrified. If more people read my books, more people will find mistakes in them. Part of me still wants to be invisible, and that part of me works against the other part that wants readers.

    1. Nadine, I still have that problem, too. I focus on the mistakes instead of the good. What's ironic is that many people don't even see the mistakes, like apparently I was the only one (besides possibly my piano teacher) that heard the wrong note.

      I understand your mixed feelings about the newspaper article, but I also think it's great! Jeff Goins talks about the importance of "shipping" our work after we've completed it--putting it out there even when it's hard, because that's the only way to share it and have your voice heard. (I think he got the "shipping" idea from something Steve Jobs said.) Your voice needs to be heard, so it this is a way to get it out there even more, then it's a good thing! :-)

  6. That is a very interesting account. I think we all have those feelings at recitals, though maybe not for the reasons you name here. (anxiety, etc.) Do you still play?

    1. Rebecca, I agree--recitals are just made for anxiety! Yes, I still play when I take time to do so. But it's just for me, my husband and kitties now. :-)

  7. Cute picture! I would've never noticed the wrong note I'm sure.

    I remember some anxious moments as a kid - one in particular over the bathroom at school (which I refused to use until one day I couldn't make it and came home wet - my mom took me back to school and made me see the bathroom so I'd stop being afraid). Funny the things you remember.

    1. Lisa, Apparently I had the same problem with the bathroom at school, though I don't remember that. My mother told me I thought it was dark and was afraid of it. That was a good thing your mom did--to show you there was nothing to be afraid of.

  8. Tina,

    Your post was really interesting. Now that I'm more educated about OCD, I can look back and realize that I, indeed, had OC tendencies as a child. They weren't serious, but they definitely fit the pattern of the disorder.

    For instance, I kept this candle on my bathroom counter that I would have to straighten in the evenings until it felt "right." One night my mom came upstairs to find me straightening it to face a certain way, but I was stuck, I couldn't get it to feel right. She had to physically take me away from the sink and put me to bed.

    I was also just like rules - making mistakes or breaking rules made me feel just terrible! I don't think I've ever handed in a paper late in my entire educational career (and I've been in school for 23 years now!).


    1. Sarah, Good to hear from you! I know what you mean by needing the candle to be in a position that felt right. That's a hard feeling to walk away from.

      I don't think I handed in a paper late either. It just didn't seem like an option for me. Conscientiousness is a good thing, until it goes awry, of course.

  9. I have always had a very severe anxiety, since my youngest years. I was never able to even read a text in front of the class. I got much better, but until now, my voice shakes if i need to do anything in front of others

    1. Nikky, I get nervous when I'm speaking in front of others too. It was really hard for me when I was a teacher.


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