The Raw Wisdom of Anger

Several weeks ago, as many freelance musicians must do from time to time, I chose to play a gig that really frustrated me. It paid decently, wasn’t that far away, the orchestra sounded great, and the music was wonderful. The problem was the conductor: though he meant well, he had a maddening habit of stopping the orchestra every few seconds to make a correction or insist that the players weren’t following him. He sought to control every detail of the music, forcing the players to render his idiosyncratic interpretation of the piece or risk being called out as incompetent or inattentive.

Not wanting to appear rude or unprofessional, the musicians did the best they could to tamp down their frustration. They laughed it off, tried to stay positive, drifted into their own thoughts, or stopped caring about playing well. I tried to take it in stride at first, but eventually I found myself veering from mere annoyance to fury. In an attempt to buoy my spirits, I ate a whole box of chocolate chip cookies on the way home, but it didn’t help very much!

The worst part was that the conductor genuinely wanted the music to sound good and couldn’t understand how his lack of trust demeaned the musicians and squandered their talent and their sincere desire to make beautiful music together. As grateful as I was for the paycheck, after the second rehearsal I vowed never to play the gig again.

One morning midway through the week I sat down to meditate, feeling irritated at the prospect of enduring yet another rehearsal obeying this conductor’s abrasive commands.

I decided to try a guided meditation on anger. When I began, what I noticed most was a feeling of burning tightness around my throat. As I sat with it as instructed, I slowly felt the sensation move into my upper abdomen, and it started to feel less like anger and more like despair. And that’s when I understood what was fueling the intensity of my anger toward the conductor: I had such a wealth of things to express through the music, but I didn’t feel I had any space to express them. It made me remember lessons where I was so frustrated by my inability to play exquisitely that every critical comment from the teacher just shut me down.

The Root of Anger

Anger is a tricky emotion, and it shows up in many forms for artists: frustration with colleagues, or the way our career is going, or where we are with our playing. When handled badly, anger can be extremely destructive, like an out-of-control fire. But while we are often told not to take out our aggression on others directly, many of us haven’t been taught what to do next. And if we feel we must contain our anger or else risk alienating others, we often turn that aggression on ourselves by becoming perfectionists, or developing addictions or depression. Or, we unwittingly take it out on other people through being critical or controlling. Although we may realize that these patterns take a toll, it can be hard to manage them when we don’t acknowledge their source.

However, when anger is handled skillfully, it is energy that can be put to good use: it is less like a blazing forest fire and more like a searing beam of light. Anger can illuminate the places in our lives that feel out of balance. Recognizing those places can lead to wise action, such as declining to work in conditions where we are being demeaned, or speaking up for ourselves or others in a way that promotes greater sanity and justice, or taking better care of ourselves. At the most basic level, we are angry and frustrated because we care deeply about music and have an intense need to express our truth. Figuring out how to manage this profound need is one of the great challenges of being an artist.

Embracing the Unacceptable

As aggravating as the situation was, my anger toward the controlling conductor was only part of the story. The frustration I felt, when transmuted through my meditation into a longing to communicate, led me to a deeper question: While I felt so stifled by this tyrannical conductor, was I really allowing myself to express everything fully when I did have the chance? In other situations where I had greater creative latitude, did I explode with freedom and expressive power?

While I felt I’d made tremendous progress in this regard, I saw that, strangely, the performing opportunities that offered me the greatest freedom also aroused the greatest apprehension. My fear was that in trying to let truth fly free I would do or say something through my playing that was unacceptable. And there are so many ways to feel unacceptable that are conditioned through our musical training, our upbringing, and our broader culture, that avoiding all of them while trying to be artistically free was impossible. No wonder I felt so frustrated and stuck.

Then I remembered a quote from Tara Brach, one of my favorite meditation teachers: “The limit to what we can accept is the limit of our freedom.”

And I finally saw something I’d been missing: that, far from being a way to prove to everyone how acceptable I was, music was my chance to say and be everything, including, and especially, what I felt was unacceptable.

Plenty of artists feel that their art is truly the only avenue for expressing what they fear is unacceptable; it is the only place they feel free to be fully themselves. But for me, this is such a radical shift that I am still letting myself absorb it. I ask myself, what is it that I most want and fear to say, and is there room for that in my playing? If you’re curious, I invite you to do the same. We owe ourselves, and each other, this measure of freedom.

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