Think Out Loud

Third Angle’s ‘Self Portrait’ puts spotlight on musicians’ mental health

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Jan. 24, 2023 11:40 p.m. Updated: Feb. 1, 2023 1:38 a.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Jan. 25

A woman looks at her reflection in a mirror.

Third Angle New Music's program "Self Portrait" will run from Thursday, Jan. 26 to Friday, Jan. 27. The show focuses on the mental health experiences of musicians and other creative professionals, especially during the pandemic. (Photo provided.)

Clamber / Courtesy Third Angle New Music

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The pandemic relegated many people’s professional lives to the internet — water-cooler conversations and lunches with coworkers became meetings over Zoom and group chats on Microsoft Teams. And for creative professionals like musicians and artists, that isolation was even more pronounced.

Third Angle New Music’s upcoming performance “Self Portrait” deals with those themes. The show will feature solo performances and testimonials from local musicians and composers about their experiences navigating mental health struggles during the pandemic. The organization is also offering an accompanying series of free mental health workshops for music educators.

Sarah Tiedemann is the artistic director for Third Angle and a flutist performing in “Self Portrait.” She joins to tell us more about the show ahead of its opening on Jan. 26.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The pandemic relegated a lot of professional office life to the internet. Water cooler conversations and lunches with co-workers became meetings over Zoom or group chats on Slack. But for many performers, like musicians or actors, the isolation was even more pronounced, and in some cases a lot more challenging. Now that people are gathering again, a new show tackles these themes head on. Third Angle New Music’s upcoming performance “Self Portrait” will feature solo performances and testimonials from local musicians and composers. They’ll share their experiences navigating mental health struggles during the pandemic. It’s tomorrow and Friday night at New Expressive Works in Southeast Portland. Sarah Tiedemann is the artistic director of Third Angle and a flutist will be performing in “Self Portrait,” and she joins me now. It’s good to have you on the show.

Sarah Tiedemann: Thanks for having me.

Miller: What was your inspiration for this show?

Tiedemann: Well, I personally have bipolar II disorder and ADHD. I actually don’t like the “disorder” part of those labels, but I’ve been pretty open about it. And a lot of people come to me after they hear me disclose that and will want to disclose their own struggles in private. So I kind of have this background view of my musical community, and I’m hyper aware of what everyone is going through. And I want them to have a chance to be more open about some of their struggles, and also our audience to get a more real view of who they’re watching on stage.

Miller: When you started talking openly about your own life and your own mental health, did you know at that time that you’d become a kind of magnet for other people, that you were opening a door that other people would walk through?

Tiedemann: Not to this extent, that’s for sure. I didn’t say anything about it as a big gesture, I’m just always pretty open about things in my own life. So it was a little bit of a surprise the first time I posted on Facebook and mentioned it, and immediately got a bunch of messages from people who I did know, and people who didn’t know that well.

We talk about normalizing things. I don’t know about that word. I think more importantly, it’s important for people to have someone to connect to about it. It’s not normal or abnormal, that whole contextualizing feels funny to me. It feels like these diagnoses, these disorders are more a corner of the mental spectrum that we inhabit, and it’s just good to speak with your neighbors in that corner.

Miller: Even before the pandemic, what were some of the ways that the rigors or stresses of being a professional performer have been affecting musicians’ mental health? And then we can get to the pandemic, but there were issues before.

Tiedemann: Absolutely. When I started in fifth grade and was picturing life as a musician, I thought, “okay, the stressful part is going to be: you get on stage, you have to be perfect.” That’s driven into us, especially in the classical training world. You have to put all of your life experiences aside and you’re just going to get up and play, and it’s kind of a role that you inhabit, just like in the theater world. I did not see social media coming. And that has really changed the landscape for us as performers. We have our authentic selves, and then we have this other persona that we carry on stage, that we used to be able to leave at the venue after we performed and then talked to some audience members and we go home. Now, we go home and we have to hop on social media, post photos of the concerts, talk about what’s coming up.

Miller: When you say “have to,” because it’s part of making a viable professional life as a performer, these are just things you literally have to do to get your name out there and to keep the money coming in?

Tiedemann: Yeah, absolutely. So much of the advertising of arts events has moved to social media. People aren’t necessarily picking up publications and looking at the upcoming calendar, they’re hearing about events online and through word of mouth. So getting people to shows happens more within that context.

But also, the world has moved to that platform so much that if you’re not staying visible, you’re less likely to be remembered and asked to do other performances. And as a freelancer, that’s a big deal.

Miller: You mentioned that going back to fifth grade, as you envisioned your musical career, that this was maybe going to be even worse because this was classical music. What do you mean?

Tiedemann: Well, we spend a lot of time alone in practice rooms, and we’re taught from very early on to look for mistakes to fix. We’re really focused on mistakes that we have to fix. And then as I advanced through school, particularly at music conservatories later on, we were told “if you don’t play perfectly, you won’t win any auditions. People are just sitting there with too many candidates listening for you to screw up to help them figure out who to exclude.” Which is not entirely accurate to start with. But this level of perfectionism in the classical world is honestly really unhealthy. And I don’t know how much of that comes from us, and how much is audience expectations. But I suspect more of it is from our internal world.

Miller: So all of that has been the case for a long time, not the social media, that’s a new wrinkle. But then came the pandemic. What was your own experience as a musician of the pandemic early on?

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Tiedemann: Well, we lost the communal aspect of what we were doing. We were at home, performing to this cold eye of the iPad instead of the shining eyes of our audience members. In my case, and I think in a lot of people’s cases, it became not a job as a musician, performing, so much as a job as a recording engineer, as someone making and editing videos, as a broadcaster. I was doing concerts with someone talking in my ear about technical difficulties and having to vamp stories. I didn’t go to school for that.

And then most of us teach, so we’ve also been trying to interact with students having these mental health problems with no therapy training. So it’s just been a barrage of jobs needing to be done at a fairly high level and no training to speak of. It’s depressing, honestly.

Miller: I want to turn to the performances that are happening tomorrow night and Friday night. You’re gonna be playing a flute solo by the composer Eve Beglarian. The piece is called “I Will Not Be Sad In This World.” Can you describe it?

Tiedemann: I actually got the piece during the pandemic, because it’s beautiful and I needed that inspiration of working on it. I haven’t gotten to perform it until now, so I’m really excited about that. Normally, it’s for alto flute and a backing track that includes Eve’s voice herself. She also made a practice recording to kind of hear where you should play and her voice takes the place of the flute. But I was enjoying so much playing with her voice, and it was such a respite to think of how it was in the pandemic, playing with no one, and here’s this voice, this beautiful voice of a friend coming from across the ether, that I asked her if I can actually perform it along with her voice. So we’re doing that. She’s pretty excited, it hasn’t been done this way before.

Miller: Let’s have a listen. We’re going to hear now the vocal background that you will be playing the flute alongside, live.

[A recording of Eve Baglarian’s harmonic chanting plays]

Miller: What’s it like to play with this in the background?

Tiedemann: Haunting, I would say. Comforting, calming.

Miller: Why make this show a series of solos?

Tiedemann: I wanted to kind of juxtapose what the experience was like in the pandemic when we were just playing alone with these artists’ testimonials that are happening to talk about our experience. And then we’re also having a more communal aspect of the concert. At the end we’ll be having an art project that’s inspired by Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist whose mental health condition has made her see the world in bubbles and polka dots. And so we’ll have that on the wall, and the audience and the artists will all get to work together to decorate the polka dots.

Miller: What do you want audiences to take away from this concert?

Tiedemann: I hope the audience members who are used to interacting with us and with our second selves, we’ll get to see a more real version of us.

Miller: What does that mean?

Tiedemann: I think we’re taught, whatever happens outside the concert hall in the world, it has to go away. You can’t miss a note, you can’t have any life that anyone can see, which is really complex to deal with when, on social media, people want increasing contact with individuals.

Miller: You’re expected to be even more human or put more of yourself out there online, but in person your assumption of what audiences want is a kind of perfect automaton making perfect music?

Tiedemann: Yeah, exactly. And that self that we’re putting out via social media and such, that’s not real either. So there’s these fake iterations of us. And music is such an authentic spiritual practice that it’s really weird that it’s so divorced from the actual self in the environment in which we’re creating it currently.

Miller: Finally, there’s also going to be a series of free Zoom workshops for music educators done by Galen Cohen, a mental health professional and a cellist himself. What’s the idea behind those workshops?

Tiedemann: I teach K-12 students one on one as a private instructor, and I also teach at Lewis & Clark College, and my students have been in mental health crises. And as I mentioned, teachers, we have no idea what we’re doing, but often we’re the only non parental adults they’re seeing one on one. So we wanted to create an environment where we could coach instructors on how to deal with these situations, because the number of artists who have told me they teach and then go cry in their cars because they’re taking on everybody else’s stuff too has been very high. So we’ve had a lot of interest so far.

Miller: Sarah Tiedemann, thanks very much.

Tiedemann: Thank you.

Miller: Sarah Tiedemann is the director of Third Angle New Music and she’s also a flutist. She put together, and she’ll be performing in, “Self Portrait” [January 26] and [January 27] at New Expressive Works in Southeast Portland.

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