Music & Anxiety Recovery: The Journey of Pianist Jonathan Biss - OC87 Recovery Diaries


Music & Anxiety Recovery: The Journey of Pianist Jonathan Biss


Music was a kind of salvation to me from early in life.  Just like so many people who gravitate towards the arts, I didn’t easily fit in, in many ways. Music was a place that I felt home. It was a place where I felt like myself. It was a place where I could access feelings and just parts of myself that otherwise had no voice.

Music has been a huge part of Jonathan Biss’ life. He has played the piano since he was six years old and has built a career as a successful concert pianist who now performs with orchestras around the world, sharing his love for music with thousands of people.

Unfortunately, Jonathan also lived with anxiety around performing that became so extreme that it made performing extremely challenging, affected his performance, and caused him to “almost forget the core of who I was.”

I was ashamed of it . . . to admit that I had this problem felt, very, very much for years, like admitting to failure. For a really long time, my priority was on keeping it hidden.”

I felt often that 95% of my energy was spent just trying to keep the anxiety at arms length from myself, trying to breathe, even though I sort of felt like I couldn’t remember how that worked, trying to remember what my body felt like when I wasn’t nervous, trying to remember how music sounded to me when I wasn’t nervous, because your ears shut off also with anxiety. When you’re using 95% of your energy for that, you only have 5% of it left, and that’s not enough to play great music. It just isn’t enough.

Ultimately, an extreme panic attack in the middle of a concert forced Jonathan to face his fears and examine his anxiety head on. That awareness, combined with a pandemic that stopped him from playing in concert halls, created an opportunity for self-examination and growth.

That began the very, very slow process of re-imagining my relationship with myself where, to play a piece of music, I didn’t have to be more or less than I was.

Jonathan credits therapy and mindfulness for helping him develop a “nonjudgmental awareness” of his anxiety. In essence, letting it be there, but not allowing it to interfere with his playing.

Jonathan examines the interplay between his lifelong passion for the music of Beethoven and his own personal struggles with anxiety in an audio book for Audible’s Words + Music series that he wrote and narrates titled Unquiet: My Life with Beethoven.

In this special OC87 Recovery Diaries film, Jonathan recounts his journey with anxiety and performs three exquisite works that have great meaning for him. The film is a small peek into his creative soul and reveals how both strength and vulnerability are needed for an artist to survive and thrive.

Jonathan Biss

EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Glenn Holsten | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman

See Related Recovery Stories: Anxiety, Mental Health Short Films

Glenn is an award-winning director who loves to create compelling documentary story experiences of all lengths for screens of all sizes. He is an avid reader, studied literature in college, and his passion for stories with strong characters and interesting narratives stems from those years. His career as a visual storyteller began at WHYY (the public television station in Philadelphia) where he worked for 15 years before becoming an independent filmmaker. In addition to his PBS documentaries about arts and culture, he has directed films about justice and human rights, and now, mental health. He was emboldened to undertake his current documentary project, Hollywood Beauty Salon, a colorful feature-length documentary about surviving mental illness and finding the courage for recovery, after his transformative experience directing OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie, along with Bud Clayman and Scott Johnston.