LOS ANGELES — Music is a source of joy for pianist Cindy Lam, but throughout her life, dealing with traumatic events, depression and PTSD have often cut her off from her creative practice, both as a performer and a music teacher. And then came the pandemic, during which her father died of a rare and devastating disease.
“It got to the point where I think I didn’t even feel joy when I was playing some of my favorite pieces,” Lam recalled.
She explained it was difficult to talk about mental health in her family, where asking for help meant you were “weak,” and she recalled that in her first weeks at college a devastating car accident seriously injured her arm threatening her ability to play, leaving her overwhelmed. Things got so bad she eventually called a suicide hotline.
“I was so ashamed,” said Lam. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m such a loser for doing this and what kind of person can’t even bounce back from just a car accident.’”
Over the years, with the help of therapy and medication, Lam learned to prioritize her mental health and to give herself the space needed to heal without feeling shame.
She also has learned not to pressure herself to practice piano when she is not feeling the inner joy of music.
This approach to music practice is something Lam now pays forward to her students by meeting them where they are emotionally.
“You’re teaching them how to look at their own struggle and their own journey without so much judgment,” Lam explained.
Lam’s 7-year-old piano student Violet Cole explained that Lam’s lesson reward system relies on the student’s own sense of personal accomplishment rather than merely looking to the teacher for approval.
“If you feel like you did a really a really good job doing the piano, then you get to go over into the prize box and pick one prize,” Violet said.
Violet’s sister Hana, 10, said learning with Lam is always a positive experience.
“She always tries to help, and she’s really patient, even if I mess up a lot,” Hana said.
Part of Lam’s healing process also includes sharing her journey with others, which she has done online with her friend composer Julia Adolphe, who started a podcast called “LooseLeaf NoteBook” to help those in the creative community discuss issues around mental health.
Over the past few months coming out of the pandemic, Lam has been reconnecting with her creative self.
“Music’s always given me this purpose to get my life together every time it’s blown up or was falling apart.”
For Lam, the healing process is ongoing, but taking those first steps to prioritize her mental health is allowing her to reconnect with the joys of music.