“Breaking the Cycle of FEAR and Anxiety” – A personal journey of healing through music

storm clouds, cdphillips

storm clouds, cdphillips

“Flight or Fright?” -The “sensitive child: As a small child, with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, I was afraid all the time. I was literally frightened of everything, especially the adults’ authority in my life and peers and siblings who were assertive and strong-willed. They all scared me to death. I literally shook all the time in fear.

Before I began public school, my parents left me in the care of my grandparents. My parents both worked and could not afford child care, so the grandparents seemed the logical choice. They lived on a working farm in the middle of the Ouachita National Forest.

My grandmother’s family had homesteaded the place in the 1800s, and the national forest was established around them. Needless to say, they were deep in the forest..a human dwelling built near a stream with a well house dug into the folded rocks of the Ouachita Mountains, gardens filled with crops, a barn for milking the cows, and chicken coops for the chickens who laid the eggs.
Using the Outhouse: In this rustic setting, using the bathroom became a monumental task, as there were no flushing toilets. We had one spigot of running water, which was pumped from a nearby spring into the cabin kitchen where we all stayed. We all shared a communal “dipper,” and dishes were washed with water boiled on the woodstove. Instead of a flushing toilet, we had an outhouse a couple of hundred feet from the house and uphill and away from the well and stream.


I hated the outhouse. It was stinky, and it was dark inside…only the light from the cracks around the door allowed me to see the multitude of spiders, mostly granddaddy long legs, which were crawling all over the walls. How on earth was I supposed to put my tiny little naked behind over a deep, dark hole with things crawling around in it and spiders crawling all over? I couldn’t!


I held everything for as long as possible and frequently soiled myself, which got me punished and humiliated. My grandmother gave me a huge, wide-mouthed jar with a lid that I could use for urination after it became dark outside. The challenge of going to the outhouse in the dark, even with a flashlight, was just horrifying.
Undiagnosed Anxiety Disorder: Fifty years ago, little was known of anxiety disorders, especially in children. I was so scared all the time that I could barely speak. If I spoke, I stuttered…”cluttered.” I later learned, as an adult, that “cluttering” can be a result of emotional trauma, especially during critical years of emotional development. When I had difficulty speaking, adults responded angrily, mockingly, or punitively to my inability to get words out of my mouth. “I, I, I, I……I, I, I, I…” “Shut up or spit it out!!!!” “Are you some kind of a retard or something?! I” “When you can talk to me and make sense, then I will listen, otherwise get away from me.!”

I later learned that I suffered from intense social anxiety and was fearful of rejection, afraid of being made fun of…. scared all the time. If someone said my name, my heart would jump, and I would want to run away.

crashing waves, pacific grove, ca cdphillips

crashing waves, pacific grove, ca cdphillips

Panic and Shame: I remember my 2nd-grade teacher saying the word “diameter” while discussing planets in the solar system and feeling like I was going to faint because “diameter” began like my name, “Dianne.” My heart jumped in my chest, and I had trouble breathing. I could hear my heart beating in my ears, and I felt tingly all over. A few times, the teacher would realize something was wrong and have me breathe into a paper bag.

When my parents were told about the episodes, I remember my mother saying, “Well, Dianna! What on earth is wrong with you? You need to toughen up, or this world is going to eat you alive.” “You are weak.” “You need to grow a spine.” “You have a jelly backbone.” I know she was only trying to help, but I felt like I wasn’t ok…that I should be ashamed of my being frightened all the time. It really didn’t help. 🙂 I later learned that I suffered from panic attacks, and there are strategies for helping yourself deal with the physiological effects of feeling that frightened.
Music heals the wounded soul: As a young teen, I once fainted during a trumpet audition. When I came to, men were standing over me, and one of them said, “Little lady, we are not going to hurt you.” The man speaking would eventually put me on the road to overcoming my intense anxiety. Mr. Robert Bright, I later learned, asked my band director if I needed a private instructor. He took a personal interest in me, this frightened, anxious child, who showed so much promise as a musician. He became my private trumpet instructor. I, of course, was terrified of him. Afraid of failing, of disapproval…I was so scared of everything.



During our lessons, he would play and then ask me to play next. He would say, “Interesting.” “That is amazing.” He marveled at my ability to parrot each and everything he played…mistakes and all. I did exactly what he did….mimicked him in tone, speed, and all. He encouraged me to attend band camp and told my band director to encourage me to attend as many competitions as possible to socialize me to the stress of auditioning and performing. Mr. Bright helped me to reach my potential as a musician and to develop the musical instincts necessary for a lifetime of musical performance. God bless him.
High School Band and Healing: Band was where I began to find my voice. I didn’t stutter or clutter when I played the trumpet. I soared. Band was where I blossomed socially and musically. I had finally found something that I could do, frightened and all. I found other “nerdy” misfit kids who also had issues with self-esteem and self-image. We were accepted, and we were family in our sections and our band. It was as if our directors were all aware of the challenges; perhaps they too had been nerdy little misfits?

My directors seemed to be aware of my disability, and they helped me find a balance between self-discipline and fear of rejection. I learned that practice and performance were their own reward. I was the only one who could control that outcome for me. They taught me how to have a good time even if I didn’t win. I found joy in performance of band music. I grew into a more confident and capable person because of the tough love of Mr. Robert Bright. Musical performance and, in particular, band performance were single-handedly responsible for my rise in self-esteem and confidence. I was still afraid of everything, but I knew I was good at playing the trumpet.
The Beauty Pageant: Meanwhile, my mother did her very best to help me get over my “fraidy cat” episodes. She believed that if I were to compete in a beauty pageant, it would boost my self-esteem and give me confidence. God bless her, she even sewed my dresses and even hand embroidered one for me….the dresses she made were simply beautiful. A neighbor, who was a retired “model,” was hired to help me learn how to walk on a runway and to be poised and beautiful. I went to her house for several weeks and learned how to be beautiful. I was embarrassed, but the friend was very kind, patient, and encouraging. Another friend of the family who played music with me often also agreed to play guitar for me so that I wouldn’t have the stress of playing my guitar and singing at the same time. My mother picked out the song, and I worked very hard on this event, so my mother would feel proud of me.

The night of the pageant came. My talent segment went very well as I had my dear friend Lindel there playing guitar for me, and I felt secure and relaxed with him at my side. There was a bright light in my eyes, so I also could not see the crowd of people in the auditorium. I scored very high on the talent portion, and then it was time for the “evening gown” competition.
The Runway and Trying to Smile: I had practiced walking on the runway in my dress and shoes many times, so I felt that I could walk down the long walkway without falling off or fainting. My mother, the retired model, my father, and Lindel were all there rooting for me as I walked out on the stage with the other girls.

When my name was called, I almost fainted but bravely walked forward toward the runway and the bright lights. I remembered my instructions, “Smile Dianne…be radiant…you are beautiful…show everyone your beautiful smile.” So, I smiled, or at least I tried to smile. As I began to smile, it was as if my mouth did not belong to my body at all. It was somehow detached from my control. One side of my face was twitching violently…nightmarishly jerking…totally out of control.


I consciously tried to force that side of my mouth to stop moving, and the other side began to do the same thing. My mouth was quivering in all directions…back and forth, back and forth from the left side to the right side…like the hips of a belly dancer. My mind had me smiling really big and showing my teeth, but my mouth was trying to run away from the entire experience. Oh, MY LORD!!!

I made it to the turn and came back to the stage filled with girls in their evening gowns. I turned to face the bright light again, and my face was still out of control. It was the single worst, most horrifying experience of my life. After this experience, I was picked on by other kids…they made fun of me. For a teen with an anxiety disorder, this was devastating. I kept my head down and began wearing my long floor-length hair in my face. I honestly looked like “cousin IT” from the Adam’s family. I wanted to die, but as it turns out, I did survive.
College and continuing to grow out of the fear: I went on to play music in college, where I met Mr. Eldon Janzen, Director of Bands, at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR. He was a tall, imposing man who stood at the top of a high ladder, making him seem even bigger than he truly was. He scared me to death too. One day, he said my last name out loud over the loudspeaker, and I almost collapsed to my knees in fright. “Wages, hurry up, or I’ll have to put a bag of oats around your neck.” I could have died of embarrassment.

1978 Razorback Band

1978 Razorback Band

The Challenge: After two years of performing at the college level, Mr. Janzen asked the trumpets, 50 of us in all, to each play the trumpet line for a featured jazz piece, which was to be played in unison by the entire section. I wanted to die..as each trumpet player played and it became my turn to play in front of everyone, by myself, on that huge field, I raised my horn, and for the first time in my life, I played the section flawlessly. To my surprise, I was one of 16 trumpets asked to play this part of the show. I was one of two girl trumpet players invited to play that part too. Wow! What a day? What a boost to my self-esteem and confidence.

Performing on that huge green stage, with one of the finest bands ever assembled, with one of the best teams of directors that ever directed a college band, was and is one of the highlights of my life. Deep down inside, I loved playing the band arrangements and hearing the corp sound reverberating in the stadium. I still remember the performance at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where we played a patriotic show for the Iran hostages, “Glory, Glory Halleluia,” with the marching horn countermelody soaring behind the trumpets. One of the single most beautiful arrangements I’ve ever heard. I loved band so much. I could probably still march the pre-game show to this day. I spent four wonderful years in the Marching Razorback Band, where I made many life-long friendships and acquaintances.
Validation: The day finally came when I had to say goodbye to both Mr. Bright and Mr. Janzen. I had gotten married and had a child, and my husband’s work was taking us to a new city, a new college, a new life. I will never forget that day when Mr. Bright said to me, “Dianne, I am proud of the progress you’ve made over the years. Go out there and make me proud.” Mr. Janzen shook my hand and said, “I will miss you.” It was perhaps one of the happiest days of my life. Mr. Bright and I had spent eight years together. Him pushing me harder and harder and never giving up on me and me working very hard to please him by practicing every single day. Mr. Janzen and I had four years together. He was like a father to me. Truly.

Mr. Bright was proud of me. Mr. Janzen was going to miss me. sigh… I could probably do anything now. Indeed I did. I walked in off the street in Houston, TX, and auditioned for a music scholarship. I was awarded a full scholarship in music performance.

Even with the years of experience in performance, I still suffered from anxiety. When it was time each semester to perform for my “jury,” I would shake all over….one instructor wrote, “your vibrato was very nice.” I was anxious because as I had to stand while I played, one of my knees would begin shaking uncontrollably, much like my mouth in the pageant. Knowing that the panel of instructors could see my knee-shaking, I would then shift my weight to the other knee to compensate….hoping that the shaking would stop, but it would only begin in the other knee…then both knees. It was uncontrollable and very annoying. Somehow I managed to play well enough to pass my juries, though.

As a performance major, I audition once a week for my spot in the “Cougar Brass.” It was very unnerving, but I eventually was able to audition and not shake uncontrollably. I was one of 15 brass players selected to travel with the basketball team and was paid handsomely for my performances with the Brass “pep band” and as a brass player for the Marching Owl Band on the weekends when our football team was traveling.

I joined the local musician’s union and had the great honor of playing in the orchestra pit during one of Ule Brenner’s final performances of “the King and I.” I was a successful, professional musician. I remember the day that I realized that I realized my dream. I thought of Mr. Bright and wondered if I would ever get to see him again. I was certain he would be proud.
Success and a sense of accomplishment: I went on to get advanced degrees in Physics and Geology and am a professor at a two-year college where I teach students who remind me of my own educational and life journey. Music is still an integral part of my life, as I am the music director of one of the largest Catholic Churches in the region. I do not shake all over when I sing solos. I stand in front of musicians and vocalists and direct the music. I teach others how to read music and how to interpret musical phrases. I have shared my gift of music for over 30 years now and praise God for every day that I am able to serve God in this manner.

In addition to my church music ministry, I also play guitar, pennywhistle, sing professionally in Celtic music groups, and play trumpet and cornet in community concerts and brass bands.



I eventually overcame my intense fear of everything. I got married, had children of my own, and learned to accept myself just the way I was and accept others as they are. I still have anxiety attacks from time to time but have overcome my intense fear of everything. Music still brings me peace, satisfaction, and a sense of control.

The public school and College Band programs enriched my life and were undoubtedly instrumental in the healing journey of one frightened little girl. Because of their dedication and devotion to helping me overcome my fears as I grew into a mature musician, I am a successful and capable person who makes a difference too in the lives of others.

My prayer is that those I help will then go on and help others…continuing the cycle of validation and empowerment.
Music as a ministry – God is calling you, “Do Not Fear:” I also want to thank Father John Marconi and Mary Adams, who discovered that I could sing and play the guitar simultaneously. After having been involved in the church ministries since the early ’80s in Houston, I continued to play guitar and to sing at home and occasionally in the background as needed at church.

When I arrived at St. Thomas in Fayetteville, AR, I joined the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program. I began helping Mary Adams and Father John Marconi with the meetings. As we began and ended most meetings with music, I was called on from time to time to “assist” with the leading of the singing. Mary told me that she thought I had a beautiful voice and should sing with the choir at St. Thomas. I was quick to respond, “Oh, I am a trumpet player. I don’t sing.” ha. Ha. Unknown to me, Mary was confident that the Holy Spirit was calling me to the music ministry. How could I hide my talent under a bushel basket in such a way? That answer was easy. I was convinced that if I couldn’t sing like Barbara Streisand, I didn’t have much of a voice. Having an anxiety disorder didn’t help. “Wait a minute? You want me to sing in front of people when I am not a singer?” Not happening. 🙂

Mary couldn’t persuade me, so she enlisted the help of Father John Marconi. Father John was a “baby priest” at the time. He was also charming and very, very passionate. He was just drenched in the presence of Christ, and to say NO to him was not unlike saying NO to Jesus himself. One evening, Mary was gone, and Father Marconi asked me to help him sing the song, “Holy Ground.” I loved that song. At any rate, he deliberately didn’t sing very loud and wanted me to carry the tune for him. After the song, he turned to me and said, “Dianne! You have a beautiful voice. To which I replied, blushing…embarrassed to death…I was going to have a panic attack…” but Father, I am just a trumpet player.” He then said very sternly and with great authority, “Dianne! God gave you that talent; you must give it back!” …then forcefully…looking me square in the eye as he held my hand…” It is a SIN to have that gift and not use it for the glory of God.”
“Digo Si Senor:” It felt like God himself had just chastised me for being selfish. I was allowing my fear of not being good enough to get in the way of glorifying God. “Oh, Damn it!” It was far worse than singing badly; I was sinning. I felt so GUILTY.!

With Mary’s forceful prompting, I had no choice. I had to say “Yes, to the Lord.” I joined the choir. I played with a folk group at another church on Saturday evenings, but there, my role was to play classical guitar in the background. Now, I was full out singing, playing guitar, learning alternate chords (Mary used cheater chords because her hands were small and she played a 12 string). I grew in this ministry. When Mary left, I had to move from the back row to the front row, put the classical guitar to one side, and begin playing the 12 string and leading instead of timidly following. Slowly but surely, I grew into the ministry of the music of the Catholic Church. St. Thomas eventually sent me to Creighton to learn about the liturgy, so I could then be a leader of others in the ministry. I spent 18 years ministering to four different churches…folk, traditional choral, etc. Father Mark Wood said once of me, “Dianne, you are without a doubt the most popular musician in the diocese.” If anyone asked me to lead the music, I said yes. No was never in my vocabulary because God himself asked me to minister to others.

Music Director Bilingual Coro

Music Director Bilingual Coro

Almost 28 years later, my service to the Lord has grown to include teaching, directing, and ministering alongside my Spanish, English, and bilingual-speaking choir brothers and sisters. I cannot speak Spanish well enough to have a conversation, but the Lord blesses me, and I can sing his praises, worthily, in Spanish, English, Latin…in multiple settings.
A Final Reflection – “A Directive From God.” At one point, I was feeling overwhelmed with my new ministry as the music director of the largest Catholic Church in the diocese of Little Rock. I sat in the Adoration Chapel and prayed. I asked God if I was the right person for the ministry, which was to bring two communities of choirs together as “one body in Christ/Unidos en Cristo.” I felt as though someone had made a mistake and that I was not supposed to be there. It was just too difficult. Too many personalities. Too many angry or hurt people. But then an inaudible voice spoke to my soul,.. to my heart, “Why are you complaining? I’ve given you everything that you need. Other good people are also called to do my will.” “Stop complaining and just DO WHAT I HAVE ASKED OF YOU.” It was a directive—tough love from the Lord.

He wanted me to trust in Him and faithfully follow and do His will. I was called to do this ministry. I said, “Digo, Si Senor.” I said, “Yes.” It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about those who were unhappy. It was about the ministry He had called me to and the hard work He wanted me to do. He was in charge, not me. My job was to trust in Him and to know that He would finish the good work He began in me and others He had also called to this ministry.

“Go and do MY Will.” Glorify God with your Gift and with your Life.


C. Dianne Phillips, October 2013.

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