Sometimes, a dream is just a dream. There’s often comfort in that fact. But it’s undeniably fun and tempting to read into them. Occasionally, dreams really can grant insight into what’s troubling us, what’s important to us, and what’s going on in our lives.
Personally, my favorite and most meaningful dreams have been one-offs. But recurring, stressful dreams say a lot about our inner (and outer) experience. I am especially fascinated by recurring dreams that people share.
As a sub-species, musicians share oddly specific kinds of dreams. Enjoy this little peek into our shared neuroses, as manifested by our recurring dreams.
I am at the Hollywood Bowl as a spectator. Somehow, I’m made aware that the evening’s soloist is me. The concert begins in 30 minutes. I don’t have concert clothes with me. Not only that, I have to play an original composition — on the piano or cello. I frantically start brainstorming, experimenting, and gathering what advice I can backstage. Miraculously, the performance turns out ok, and I wake up disappointed that I can’t remember the piece I invented.
My violin is mysteriously missing. Or, I can tell from picking up the case that it's not my violin that's inside at all. I am too afraid to open it and check.
It turns out that I never completed math in high school. Therefore, all of my degrees are moot, and my whole life is a sham.
My teeth are loose. At the same time, I have enormous wads of chewing gum that constantly regenerate after I pull them out of my mouth. Inevitably, this Sisyphean process always takes a few teeth with it.
My recurring dream from early childhood until about 6 years ago was of being aware of a danger that no one else saw, and trying desperately to make the danger known to others.
I have the ability to fly, but am not able to control it very well. It starts out amazing, gets terrifying, then becomes a combination of both.
I’m on stage about to perform, but the context suddenly changes. I’m supposed to play an instrument I’m not familiar with, and perform original compositions. I’m trying to figure out a way to quickly “download” a huge source of knowledge, but I realize it’s not possible. But somehow, it actually ends up being possible. I present a complete performance of pretty decent music, which I never remember.
I’m on a pirate-y ship in the middle of the ocean. There are lots of people on board screaming because the boat is swaying from bow to stern precariously. I look over the side of the ship and see that the ship is balanced on a needle wrapped in a thick blanket.
I CONSTANTLY have that “about to perform a concerto I’ve never learned” dream. Same goes for its variant: I have to play an instrument I’ve never studied.
I often have late-to-work dreams in which my car won’t drive properly, or dreams in which I wake up and see that I overslept and work starts in 5 minutes.
I also have “back in college about to take a test in a class that I barely showed up to” dreams. It’s always such a relief to wake up from these and realize that they’re not real!
I have that “teeth falling out” dream all the time.
I walk into a recital hall, greeting my friends along the way. I am in a fairly happy mood, and am looking forward to attending the concert. I make myself comfortable in my chair when I hear the people in the row in front of me whisper: “so who's playing tonight?” I wonder the same thing. Suddenly, I feel the chills and break into a cold sweat as I realize I am the one who’s supposed to be giving the recital.
I dash out of the hall straight into the backstage area, only to realize I don't have my concert clothes with me. I ask around if anyone has any formal attire I can borrow, but everybody completely ignores me for some reason. They are all busy running around — like, Broadway production-level busy.
I then also realize that I hadn't printed the programs yet. I ask my friend Nick (who happens to be standing by) if he could pop over to FedEx to print them out for me. He gives me this 'I don't really wanna do it' look. I glance over to the clock; it’s 7:20 pm. The recital begins at 7:30 pm.
The dream ended there but it was one of the most stressful dreams of my life. I woke up drenched in sweat. In retrospect, it’s funny that I didn't think about needing an instrument to play on!
Mine are all pretty standard Imposter Syndrome fare:
I’m in the cello section of the LA Phil and I don’t know my part. (The conductor is always either Gustavo Dudamel or Esa-Pekka Salonen.)
I’m conducting an orchestra (even though I don’t know how) and an actual conductor (usually Claudio Abbado) is in the double-bass section. The orchestra keeps asking if we could “just see how it sounds” if Claudio conducts.
I’m scheduled to give a speech at the U.N. and I can’t remember what the subject is.
My teeth fall out.
I also frequently get murdered in my dreams.
I’ve only had this dream once, but I’m convinced it means something: newly-elected President of Germany Sir Simon Rattle and his orange kitten invite me and a bunch of friends over to his house in Malibu to show us how to properly coil and store our Christmas lights.
Musicians: “We have the score, Derrick, but the parts are missing.”
Me: “Which ones?”
Musicians: “ALL of them.”
I quickly search the computer. They don’t exist.
I hear something outside. I run out. The parts are all floating away in the wind.
Something is on fire. I'm saying to the people around me: "Hey, this thing is on fire! We need to do something about it!" But everyone else is refusing to acknowledge that it's a problem.
Most of my stress dreams involve people not seeing the potential dangers that I can see. I am then forced to work against them to avert the danger.
There’s an epic rainstorm. I’m wading through a church parking lot that is flooded up to my neck. Suddenly, I see my sister dangling my flute above the water, She repeatedly dunks it into the water while cackling hysterically. I try to rescue and resuscitate the flute to no avail.
I’m getting ready to play an orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall when suddenly I realize that a) I’m supposed to be playing a concerto, b) I don’t know the music, and c) I have no idea how to play the flute anymore.
I’m giving a high profile university lecture about Verdi’s Requiem...in Russian. In the dream, I’m very impressed with my own ideas and my miraculous fluency in Russian (most of which I forgot long ago), but as soon as I wake up, I can’t remember any of these earth shattering revelations.
Probably the most stressful stress dream I’ve had in recent memory: a colleague asks me to watch her bassoon for a minute. I somehow manage to set it down wrong, crumpling it beyond repair. The stuff of nightmares!
I find out that I am scheduled to give a full 60-minute recital that begins in half an hour. I try to put together the repertoire, which I kind of have in my hands, during these precious 30 minutes. Time goes way too fast, though, and my hands are sweating from nervousness due to lack of preparation. It’s concert time. I walk onstage and sit on the piano bench. I see the keyboard in front of me, knowing I have to start this recital one way or another — but I cannot remember the first note of the piece...
A major recital is coming up in a week or so. I know myself it’s not fully ready yet. This dream comes up when I am feeling this way in reality. In my dream, I clear my schedule, making tons of time for practice. Practicing goes so well! I can play everything by heart, whether it’s chamber music, contemporary music, etc! As soon as I feel like I am totally ready to go and feel confident, my consciousness is back in reality... in which I still have to work on it, and nothing has been done yet.
Same here with the teeth falling out.
The armchair psychologist in me notices the following similarities:
All of the performers — me, Kevin, Meredith, Yoshi, HyeJin, and Ben — all share a dream about profound under-preparedness. To be a classical musician is to be constantly chasing a carrot dangling in front of one’s nose. That carrot: the knowledge that our work is never done. Since we were small children, this has been drilled into our heads countless times and ways. Our playing could always be more thoughtful, more precise, more spontaneous, more… beautiful. It’s no wonder this truth of our craft mutates, in dreams, into a scenario in which preparedness and mastery are comically impossible.
It’s likely not a coincidence that Kevin and I share the theme of having to compose the piece we are to play. We are performers who’ve undertaken not only presenting concerts, but also building an organization. Since the beginning, building Salastina has felt a lot like “winging it” and “making things up as we go along.” Although we are keenly aware of our limitations, we are also fairly confident in our ability to pull things off. (If we weren’t, Salastina wouldn’t exist!)
Derrick’s dream is like the composer’s version of the performer’s nightmare. Humiliation, helplessness, and the urgency to “deliver” are central. His work has been done, but it doesn’t matter. All his effort has been futile.
As many of you know, Brian is an accomplished amateur cellist. And as some of you likely know, he constantly downplays his skill. To be sure, cello performance is no longer a major part of his life. But running in circles with the world’s musical elite most certainly is. He is constantly interviewing musical luminaries, and speaking with authority about the art itself. If I were him, I’d be having Imposter Syndrome-themed dreams, too.
Reena shares the “no one else understands grave danger” dream with me. Knowing her as well as I do, I can say that we share a sense of, perhaps, heavy personal responsibility for what happens around us. We want very badly to communicate what we find meaningful with others, and put great effort into that in our waking lives. And as my husband pointed out, we both have flaming-hot “justice buttons.” It’s no wonder we have experienced this same recurring dream!
I don’t really know what to make of the fact that Brian, Mer, HyeJin, and I share the dream about our teeth falling out. I’ve heard it has to do with worrying about how one comes across to others. I’d say that’s a pretty obvious common thread connecting all of us subconsciously!
Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. And yes: in many ways, musicians are “living the dream.” But sometimes, our dreams live out the similarities of our experiences and personalities in curious ways.