Profiles

Beating Anxiety With Drumsticks

For Patti Niemi, becoming a professional symphony percussionist meant first coming to terms with her anxiety.

When percussionist Patti Niemi plays, you hear it. Down in the pit, among the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s other musicians, there is no hiding the sound of her hitting the snare drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, marimbas, bells, or chimes… let alone the calculated crash of her favorite instrument, the cymbals.

She’s loud, a fact she revels in. “There’s just nothing like playing with 75 other instrumentalists, a whole host of singers, and still being the loudest one in the group,” says Niemi. But it has its drawbacks.  “One of the hard things about being the loudest, however, is that once I play a crash there are a couple of seconds when I can’t hear much of anything else. So if I have to play a number of loud crashes in a row, the sound gets pretty overwhelming.”

Patricia Niemi’s anxiety almost cost her a career as a symphony percussionist.

Loud crashing noises make most people anxious, but not Niemi. Banging stuff is more than her passion: it’s her life. But for a person who suffered crippling anxiety all her life, the auditioning process to become a professional percussionist almost ended her career before it started. It was only by accepting her condition that she was able to finally achieve her dreams.

Petite and dressed in beige slacks and a basic black top, Niemi strikes a much subtle note when she’s not performing. On first impression, it’d be easy to mistake her for a librarian or some type of research scientist. But for decades, Niemi has commanded audiences’ attention by engaging in “sanctioned banging.” The notes she plays range from thunderous to the faintest tremble, and they always require the sort of precision that would make most mortals drip with sweat.

The cover of Sticking It Out.

In her 2016 memoir Sticking it Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit, Niemi describes one particularly tricky xylophone solo as “five minutes of running my arms up and down the xylophone as fast as I could and hitting little wooden bars that were only an inch and a half wide. It was a high-wire act that demanded to be executed perfectly … any wrong note would linger like a fart in church.”

This does not seem like an obvious fit for someone who was so anxious as a child that she lined up all the kitty statues in her pink bedroom at right angles, folded her garbage before setting it in the trash, and, in third grade, feigned illness three Mondays in a row to avoid playing a simple alphabet game in music class.

“Mr. Vaglio would go around the circle and if your letter was A, you’d have to say ‘accordion’ or anything music related,” Niemi tells me in a café near the War Memorial Opera House, where she regularly performs. “I was like, no way. I’m going to fail at this. I didn’t go in but he waited until I got back. He knew I loved music. I lost on the first round and I was just devastated.” (She failed to think of a word for “g,” glockenspiel not yet a part of her daily vocabulary.)

Despite this early case of stage fright, by age 10, Niemi was determined to play drums. Initially drawn to them as a surefire way to stand out, she later discovered that she intuited the instrument that best suited her natural skills. A music aptitude test that year placed her in the top one percent for rhythm and the lowest percentile for melody.

From then on music and anxiety were constants in her life. But, as Niemi writes, “at that point, music didn’t cause me any more anxiety than simply waking up in the morning and being a person. I was always anxious.” These two threads would continue to run through her life, sometimes parallel, and at more painful points, fully entangled.

Throughout elementary school and on into high school, she loved practicing and the challenge of making her brain think in a completely different way. To her, the hours spent playing never felt like a sacrifice: it felt like an addition. Music was her passion and soon the pursuit of her end goal–joining a professional orchestra–became as much of the fun as the music itself.

Niemi plays with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

“For years, the first thing on my mind when I woke up was, ‘how can I move closer to my goal of winning an audition?’” says Niemi. “It was gratifying to know that I had all the pieces of the puzzle, and I just had to figure out how to put them together.”

One of the puzzle pieces was getting into a music conservatory. After high school, Niemi entered Julliard, one of the world’s most prestigious programs. It was during her second year there that she experienced her first full-blown bout of performance anxiety. She had gotten a gig with a local freelance orchestra to gain experience. At her first rehearsal, she begged to play a famously difficult snare drum part in Capriccio Espagnol, an orchestral suite based on Spanish folk melodies, composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1887.

In the piece, the other instruments fall silent as the snare drum goes from a loud roll to a very, very soft one. A teacher had described this moment to her as feeling like “you’re standing there with your pants down.” At that totally exposed spot, her hands betrayed her. “They shook so wildly, jerked so unpredictably, that I had to lift my sticks above the drumhead to keep them from making random swipes at it,” writes Niemi in her memoir. Everyone, including the string players who twisted completely around in their chairs, turned and stared at her, wondering why she wasn’t playing. The conductor snarled, “Play, Play.”

It was mortifying. I was so embarrassed,” Niemi tells me, hugging her knees to her chest. “The worst part for me was I didn’t get a warning. All the way through high school and my first year at Julliard, I didn’t have nerves. I mean, I had anxiety my whole life, but as far as performing, performing was fun. I don’t know how that switched so badly.”

The next day, she went to the doctor and got a prescription for Inderal, a beta-blocker that curbs the physical signs of performance anxiety. Now she could swallow two 20-milligram tablets and her hands wouldn’t shake and her heart wouldn’t pound. Far from turning her into a Zen master, Niemi writes “the effect was to pull me off the ceiling and prop me onstage with a heightened yet tolerable awareness of the performance I was about to play.”

Known today as a common prescription for musicians and other performers, Niemi took the drug in secret, ashamed to rely on any medication. At the time, she felt like taking a pill was cheating on a level akin to professional baseball players taking steroids. The outward attitude among her fellow students was that musicians should muscle through any performance anxiety, that learning to slay those fears was part of the job. “You’re supposed to be brave and be able to say, ‘Sure, I can do this,’” says Niemi. “But I couldn’t.”

You’re supposed to be brave and be able to say, ‘Sure, I can do this.’ But I couldn’t.

She had found a way to steady her hands but her mind still rattled and hummed with worry. As she saw it, her situation came down to a stressful math equation: the number of orchestras divided by the number of percussionists. There are around 50 orchestras in the U.S. that pay a living wage, three or four percussionists per orchestra, and around 75 competitors per audition for one opening. “There’s just no guarantee,” says Niemi. “If you work really hard in medical school, you’re going to become a doctor; you’re going to get a job. If you work that hard to win an audition, you still might not.”

In the weeks leading up to an audition, Niemi would sit alone in a room and practice eight to 10 hours a day. This was one of the gifts of anxiety, she says. Where others may have struggled to maintain that level of self-discipline, her worries propelled her to practice all the time. At Julliard, after hours of practicing and very little sleep, she once hallucinated flies hovering and landing on her drum pad. When she realized that they weren’t real, she was thrilled. She took the hallucination to be clear evidence of her diligence.

Niemi banging away some anxiety, xylophonically.

Her anxiety reached its apex in 1996, four years after landing her spot in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. That year, Niemi had a chance to audition for the more prestigious Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In the weeks leading up to the audition she felt like her body was constantly vibrating. She wanted to cry all the time. She couldn’t sleep or eat. In the end, she didn’t take the audition.

“I would have liked to keep taking auditions and seen how far I could get,” says Niemi. “But auditions are the worst of it, so I just stopped. I didn’t take anymore. … It was really hard at first, because all I had ever wanted to do was be a musician. To get to the point where I said I can’t go further because of my nerves… that was painful.”

Niemi started taking Prozac during that period and continues to take it today. She says the drug was “a real lifesaver,” but she still struggles with anxiety. “I’d love to not be an anxious person, but it teaches you compassion for other people… We don’t always behave well, but there’s usually a reason — a lot of it is anxiety. But maybe that’s just my lens,” she laughs.

I’d love to not be an anxious person, but it teaches you compassion for other people.

Niemi hopes that talking about her experiences will help others feel less alone and spare younger musicians some of the guilt and embarrassment that she felt. “I think it’s a gift to younger students for me to say this is what I had to do. That would be great if you don’t have to go down that path, but don’t feel bad about it.”

After devoting more than four decades to perfecting the art of banging on things, Niemi’s performance anxiety has not diminished much. And yet, as a professional musician, she puts herself in the position to be judged over and over again: something that triggers the flight response in most of us. Even with all that stress, Niemi considers it a great privilege to be part of such a beautiful collaborative effort.

“The sound that a full symphony orchestra makes is the most thrilling sound I’ve ever heard,” she says. “Standing in the middle of all those musicians and adding to that sound is truly a joy.”