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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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FEAR OF FAILING AND ASPIE PERFECTIONISM

Self-Reflections on Hobbling

Copyright 2001, 2005 ©  Roger N. Meyer®

 

 

     [This article is a slightly edited version of a response I made to a discussion thread on the ASPIRES listserv focusing on Aspie perfectionism, catastrophic thinking, and self-limiting behavior.]

 

     The recent thread on perfectionism, whether with guitar lessons or anything else, and its connection with the fear of "failing" really struck a chord.

 

     I love music, and have a great "ear."  Unfortunately, my hands don't always play what my ear has heard.  When I was in early grade school my folks put me through three piano teachers, each of whom did things the old way.  I had to do the Czerny routines, scales, etc., when I was already playing by ear (on the black keys, please.....for little hands), and I could "hear the whole thing."  Not being able to play the whole thing the first time my small hands hit those keys drove me to distraction, and my teachers screaming from the house. (Remember, those were the days when piano teachers, like doctors, made house calls.)

 

     I never did learn how to read music.  I can follow a score, knowing the sounds when notes go up and down.  I can determine whether a musician "blows it" not so much by comparing what I read but from from comparing what I hear against what I've heard in the past.  My aural memory is awesome.  Hear it once, and although I can't play it, I sure do become a "critic" for those who play it differently.

 

     Not a bad thing, incidentally, because my psycho-acoustic memory allows me to compare very subtle differences in playing, something that lends itself immensely to my enjoyment of listening to the same piece by different artists and performance groups.  But you wouldn't want to sit next to me at a live concert.  I'll want to give you the history of my entire listening experience comparing what I hear against all of my re-summoned memories of the piece played differently at other times.

 

     Point:  I was so in fear of "having it come out differently" that I never got beyond my fear of knowing that what I could produce with my hands wasn't the sound of a Horowitz or a Bobby Short.  My family loved music.  My mom played a great piano and was largely self-taught.  She loved Chopin and Rogers and Hart.  My dad had a small band as a young man, playing his way through speakeasies in the Midwest while building his career as a life insurance salesman.  He was a union musician, and he never let us forget the fact.  He was a pro.  He played piano, sax, guitar, mandolin, clarinet, horn.....just about everything that went with those pick-up ensembles of the time.  He was the one who taught me my love for classical music through listening to his enormous collection of 78 albums.  He was the one to first buy the stand alone Columbia 33RPM record player in 1948.  He was the one to take my mom and myself to chamber music concerts.  My twin and my younger sister, both of them, took lessons, and we had family "sings" where mom or dad would play the piano (and dad, in my earlier years, still brought out the National steel guitar and strummed along).

 

     But I never got over my "fear of flying" on the piano.  I would play for hours, self-taught, in one key, working to come up the with same harmonies and progressions I heard by others, but never making "acceptable progress."  This continued on through my stint in the Army, where I could play on the pianos at the service clubs.  I even went out with a pick-up bluegrass band plunking on the string bass while awaiting permanent assignment to Fort Knox, Kentucky as an enlisted class instructor.

 

     But then my piano playing days were over.  Once I got out of the Army, it was rental housing and no pianos.  I started to collect more records and they became my substitute for playing for myself.  Like many Aspies, I became an "expert" in what others did very much as a substitute for providing myself with the solace of playing for my own pleasure.  Had I wanted to learn to read badly enough, had I wanted to return to the piano, I could have.  Many times.

 

     But that was not to be.  Even when I owned my first three homes large enough to have room for a piano, I didn't buy or rent one.  I could have, but at that time I was into one of my other long-lived preservations:  tool collecting for the career as a cabinetmaker.  It was interesting for the fact that while I collected the tools, I never used most of them more than once or twice.  Had I been a true "hobbyist" collecting wouldn't have been as important as doing, so even there, my fear of having my own work product turn out less than perfectly, made in an environment over which I was in complete control in my home workshops, kept me from "noodling."

 

     My excuse at the time was an acceptable one:  a very typical one for craftsmen, actually, and a perfect foil for this "something else."  Other cabinetmakers didn't have the time to make things for themselves, although many of my coworkers made wonderful furniture for their children who were getting married.  However, they never seemed to get around to doing much work on their own homes.  After all, we were working like dogs for our employers, and the last thing many of us wanted to do when we had our own time was to "do more of the same."

 

     Of course that applied to only some of us.  Those who really had a profound love for their craft, something beyond the mere making of money, always found time and resources to not only have great home shops, but also to run business on the side by making things for themselves and other people.  Some made a good deal of money that way, actually, and these side jobs were the source of real survival and added family income during recessions and allowed their wives, in those old days, to stay home with the kids.

 

     I know.  It was a different time.  But if the male provider does the work for others and then also does the work at home to supplement what is paid by others, it was easy for these guys (mostly Central Europeans) to justify suppressing their wivess' own desires to go out and have independent lives made possible by their own employment.  Many of their wives, raised "in that way" didn't want to go out to work anyway.  In addition to incurring the wrath of their very traditional-role oriented husbands, they would have encountered the raised eyebrows of their sisters at church and in the blue collar family community.

 

     A different era, yes?

 

     To close my point.  In addition to the piano, I had a life-long love affair with the violincello.  The range of the instrument, the fact that it could be nestled between one's legs and hugged like a growing child against one's chest, with the neck in contact with one's upper body and embraced like a lover really added more to the attraction of the instrument than its mere sound alone.  And then there were my childhood heroes, introduced to me by my Aspie father:  Casals, Gendron, Feuermann, Frank Miller (Toscannani's cellist, and later the principal of the Chicago symphony under many conductors), Starker, and others, and of course the run of modern unique voices, like Yo Yo Ma, and in a smaller light, Lynn Harrel.  You get the point.  Men all (except for Jaqueline DuPrey), mysteries, performance figures larger than life whose sound and voice could be heard over all others in ensemble even while in a perfect blend (my Aspie thinking allowed me to hear their "voice" over all others)...these were my heroes.

 

     So, in high school when I had time after school and could hang around by myself in the classrooms, I got a hold of a cello and the LP copies of Casals' Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and noodled along with the master.  Of course I was self-taught, and still couldn't read music, and as long as no one was there, and no one was listening, I could dare to mess it up and not be too harsh on myself.  But that was when I was young, and less risk-aversive, less self-conscious about making mistakes that others could spot.  After all, I was a student, and hearing other students of my age make mistakes in language class (I with my ears have an excellent ear for inflection and regional accents even in foreign languages) and in their playing in the school music classes, I was tolerant as an equal.  Never accepting of imperfections.  (That hasn't changed.)  But tolerant.

 

     Piano-less, as I made my way through my blue collar craft life, I collected my music and became a high-fidelity equipment nut.  I Still am, but have no money, so that's ended my active participation with the high-end crowd.  Nevertheless, there were many missed opportunities to rent a piano, and, over the past fifteen years or so, opportunities to rent or buy something much smaller--my secret passionate stringed friend, the cello.

 

     In my book, I have a small passage that describes how perfectionism has sabotaged my one private area of quietude that could give me immense private emotional pleasure, this time with my own hands.  Here's the quote from the book, written nearly three years ago:

 

            "One day I summoned the courage to go down to a violinmaker's shop and try out            a cello.  I had already contacted two teachers, each of whom was interesting in    taking me on as a student.  I told them that when I was in high school, I had sat in        an empty schoolroom with a school orchestra cello and noodled along with Pablo   Casals performing the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello.  I arrived breathless   at the store, climbed the seven floors to the violinmaker's shop, selected an    instrument, and the owner showed me a large, glassed-in studio.  He had tuned   the instrument.  I sat in the chair with this instrument between my knees and the    bow in my hand.  I could not touch bow to strings.  I was petrified with fear and           anxiety about what would come out.  I wouldn't be Schiff or Maisky or             Rostropovich or Yo-Yo Ma.  It would be the scratchy sound of a fool with a             carved box between his legs and a stick with horsehair in his hand.  After five        minutes of exquisite agony I started to weep.  It wouldn't happen then, I said to             myself.  I "collected my emotions", returned to the counter and thanked the owner.         I mumbled something about not being reading.  He understood.  I really didn't.

 

            I do now.  I have a sense that things are about to change."

 

     Well.  Lots of things have changed.  As I've written earlier to this list, when I'm asked how old I am, I say "four," because that number of years plus a few months is how long ago I received my diagnosis of AS.  So, I'm really a little kid, but this time, it's a different kind of candy store, and I have the real money to pay for lessons and buy goods accumulated from the experience of having lived an undiagnosed life so long that I can as well help others find the value of their true currency.  I've always done that in the past, and was even proud of it.

 

     But it was a pride expressed in a perverse way, because as I did some of those same things as I do now I did so thinking of myself as a split rather than an integrated personality. I was different than my work mates, and passed up no opportunity to elevate my difference in a smug, self-isolating way.  As I described those interests to others in my life who had absolutely no understanding of why I was attracted to them while at the same time earning my living among fellow-workers whose intellectual interests were arrested--if they had any adult ones at all, I set myself "above others" even as I rubbed shoulders and sweated with them daily earning my keep.

 

     No need to sweat now.  Not only is my new multiple-careers work harder because of the enormous variety of challenges I've taken on, but it's also easier in the sense that, undeterred by the need to put up the false front to others in making a living the way I did in the past, I have no need to "put up" the very front that is now my true front.  The learning isn't easy, but it certainly is "natural."  I've found my niche.  The frontispiece to my building is truly no longer a decorative detail, a facade behind which one can expect to find mediocrity of performance and dissatisfaction with my life.

 

     The difference is that I live in the place, and everything you now see is, quite literally, what you get.  And I like living here.

 

     The dream of one day taking up a musical instrument is still there, but I am not driven with anxiety about not learning to play and not taking the steps to learn in the same way I had been prior to discovering my autism ( to borrow the phrase from Edgar Schneider's book title).

 

     What I have done is learn to play an instrument that has been with me a lot longer, one that, despite all of its quirks and unusual sounds and behaviors, is "my instrument."  Rather than distancing myself from "me," I've been able to truly play out this instrument.

 

     With its own voice and in my own inimitable way, I'd rather play and develop this one first and leave the others, with their mixed memories, for another time....Not abandoning them perhaps, but in having put them in their proper place, maybe I'll get to the point of settling upon priorities in my life that include them as readily as I do the need to eat -- way too much --  or engage all too often in my other Rogerisms.

 

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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