Sergei Rachmaninoff: Overcoming depression to make beautiful music

Sergei Rachmaninoff is one of the greatest pianists the world has ever seen. Music composed by him is spellbinding and at the same time – some of the hardest to play. Even by other virtuosos. And that’s because Rachmaninoff had huge humongous hands! His reach was larger than any other pianist in the world. His fingers – little finger to thumb – spanned 13 piano keys – while most pianists can reach just 10.

The tone and melody in Rachmaninoff’s compositions are off the charts! But what is even more awe inspiring is the polyphony: you really feel like multiple pianos are being played together! It’s not surprising that most people try to play a Rachmaninoff composition in piano competitions!

One of the most sublime of Rachmaninoff compositions: The Piano Concerto No.2 is dedicated to Nikolai Dahl – a psychiatrist. And that’s because, if it weren’t for Dahl, our world would have never got to experience the magic of Sergei Rachmaninoff!

The Rachmaninoff story

Sergei Rachmaninoff had his first bout of depression when he was merely 20 years old – when he heard that his mentor Tchaikovsky had died. But he had managed to rise out of it quickly and put his heart and soul into making music.

In 1897, 24 year old Rachmaninoff released his first Symphony. Alexander Glazunov conducted the symphony. And it was panned by everyone in the audience! Rachmaninoff himself could not bear to listen to it fully. Some speculated that Glazunov was completely drunk.

But it didn’t matter. This poor performance and reception crushed Rachmaninoff and he blamed himself. He became depressed again. And this time, he could not come out of his depression. He doubted his ability. He felt sad and empty and completely hopeless! 

Rachmaninoff’s self esteem was completely crushed! And he lost all his confidence! He got writers block and just could not compose new music anymore! To make money, he started teaching piano. But it seemed like all his talent to create original music had evaporated!

His friends and relatives would tell him not to waste his immense potential, which further made him feel like a failure. His depression lasted a whole 3 years! And it would have lasted longer if it weren’t for Nikolai Dahl!

Nikolai Dahl and hypnotherapy!

Dahl was a Russian therapist who started treating Rachmaninoff for depression. And got him out of his deep funk in 3 months! Rachmaninoff started composing music again – and this time, his concerto no.2 – which was dedicated to Dahl – was a smashing hit and revived his career!

But how did Dahl get Rachmaninoff out of his depression? How did he help Rachmaninoff feel self confident about his abilities again? By shifting Rachmaninoff’s focus from self esteem to self compassion.

Self esteem vs self compassion

Self esteem is flaky. It becomes low when you need it the most: after a bout of failure. And low self esteem leads to low self confidence. You’ve got to get out of that trap.

And the way to do that is by learning self compassion. By being kind to yourself. By forgiving your faults and mistakes. By treating yourself like you would treat a good friend when he is down: with warmth and understanding.

Psychologist Kristin Neff tells us this weird thing about PTSD. Would you be surprised to know that the brutalities and the difficulties at the war front do not correlate with if a war veteran will struggle with PTSD? No. What correlates is whether the war veteran has self compassion. He can be in the most hellish of battles, but if he has higher levels of self compassion, he won’t develop PTSD.

So how did Dahl make Rachmaninoff have more self compassion?

1. The first thing Dahl did is work on the basics. Dahl worked on making sure that Rachmaninoff slept well and was well rested everyday. He made sure his appetite grew. He asked all his friends and relatives to act supportively.

2. The second thing he did is use hypnotherapy to reawaken his belief in himself.

Everyday for 3 months, Dahl would put Rachmaninoff under a hypnotic trance. And give him suggestions. Suggestions that made him believe that he can start composing again.

And it worked. But how? How did hypnosis make Rachmaninoff functional and confident again?

Can hypnosis make you confident?

You’ve got to understand what hypnosis is. Hypnosis does not take over your mind and make you into something you are not. It just puts you in a relaxed state where you are more prone to listening to suggestions. 

Rachmaninoff was in a funk and had low confidence and self esteem because he was only focusing on his failure. In hypnosis, when he is relaxed, Dahl helped him recall his strengths. 

Dahl used the power of repetition to help reawaken Rachmaninoff’s belief in himself. Belief made him confident. And confidence led to him composing again. 

But doesn’t this all sound wishy-washy?

What can you do to improve your confidence besides going to a hypnotherapist?

The American Navy has a Navy SEAL program. Only the best of the best – on passing extremely hard exercises – can become a Navy SEAL. The Navy increased the number of people who passed the exercise by 50% – by teaching one technique to them: self talk. Speak positively with yourself.

Just by speaking positively with themselves, more candidates could pass rigorous exercises! Self compassion works in bringing the best out of you.

Kristin Neff recommends a similar exercise too: visualize that you are in your safe space. And then create an ideal image of a compassionate figure. Have a conversation with them.

This training has resulted in significant reduction in depression and feelings of inferiority.

Rachmaninoff’s failed symphony relives!

After Rachmaninoff’s death, in 1944, composer Aleksandr Gauk discovered the musical notes of the failed Symphony No.1 in the Leningrad library. He performed the full score for only the second time ever – in Moscow. And this time, it was a huge hit! The audiences loved it. 

Since then, it’s been played by many pianists all over the world! The tunes were so catchy when they were played correctly! For a time, the symphony’s 4th movement was used by the BBC as title music for their news program!

Rachmaninoff faced depression a lot of times in his life – especially during world war 1. But he had the tools to come out of it. And he never completely gave up on creating music again! And the world is richer for it!

Action Summary:

  • Build self compassion. Talk to yourself kindly. It sounds silly but it will increase your confidence, and hence performance.