Chicago Public Schools student overcomes social anxiety by playing guitar

Chicago Public Schools student overcomes social anxiety by playing guitar
Leonel De Paz playing at a Chicago Public Schools talent show after he learned guitar (Photo courtesy of De Paz)

by Carlos Raygoza-Perez, a student at Hancock College Prep

Just hours away from the Hancock College Prep talent show in 2017, Leonel De Paz’s fingers bled. Covered in blisters and tender to the touch, Leo’s hands were ready to give out; however, he wasn’t. Fueled by his passionate love for music, he wasn’t ready to call it quits just yet. He’d spent the past couple months building up to tomorrow’s high-school talent show, and he wanted to prove to people that he was worth giving a damn about. Second thoughts were rushing into his head: Was he ready? Was he really prepared to give the performance of a lifetime?

Before Leo, a self-taught guitarist, even picked up an instrument, he fell in love with classic rock. His musical catalogue consisted of bands such as Black Sabbath, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and, most importantly, Nirvana. Mesmerized by sheer talent of these musicians, Leo thought to himself, “If I really enjoy this music, I don’t see what’s stopping me from trying to learn it.” And that’s exactly what he did. In his own words, “The one [guitar] that you play shows your traits and who you are in some type of way.” 

Freedom in self-expression and creativity made him certain this was his instrument of choice. Shortly thereafter, Leo begged and pleaded with his mother to buy him his very own guitar. Coming from a household struggling to make ends meet, his family simply couldn’t afford such luxuries–that seemed far from a possibility. Months went by before Leo broke ice and although reluctant at first, she gave in and took him to Guitar Center where she purchased his first guitar.  

Practice, practice, and more practice–this was all that was ever in Leo’s mind after getting his hands on a guitar. He quickly realized that he couldn’t just “play for a single day and expect to be the best and greatest within a month. It takes time.” Day in and day out, he focused all of his efforts into his new-found hobby. Hobby is an understatement: it became his life. Just when he thought he couldn’t get any better, he learned a harder song than before. “There’s no such thing as learning enough,”  Leo said. 

This journey wasn’t without adversity, however. One of the biggest factors pulling him back from reaching his goals is when he compared himself to other musicians. Comparing himself to other guitarists, Leo thinks “how I’m not that great of a musician,” but at the same time, he believes that this only fuels his passion of wanting to be best by stating: “It’s just nothing but motivation.”

After months of practice, he wanted a real challenge: his school’s talent show. Struggling with public anxiety, Leo wasn’t sure if he’d even be able to stand in front of that large a crowd. It wasn’t a matter of confidence in his skills but rather in his ability to face the public. In class, he always struggled to talk, but with guitar he found that it helped him “break out of that character.” The guitar gave him a voice to confidently express himself. 

When the day of the talent show finally came, Leo gave it his all, but even that wasn’t enough: he messed up. Not once but many times in a single song. When asked about how the show went, Leo responded with, “I messed up quite a few times and honestly, people still encourage you. Even though they can hear mistakes, it’s comforting knowing that people still enjoyed your effort.” So for Leo, this performance was a full success. 

Since then, Leo has participated in many more school performances. However, no show since reached the magnitude and has been more efficacious to Leo than his very first. Pushing himself to extremes, Leo grew as an individual. He described playing guitar as a lifestyle and he’s learned that with hope and “determination, you can always make things happen.” 

Leo continues to keep this optimistic view when approaching any task at hand in life. For most people, 2020’s pandemic has been a great burden; however, Leo decided to take advantage of the situation and turn it into an opportunity. Admittedly, he wasn’t always this optimistic about the situation, but he believes that “negativity is a choice and I chose not to be.” 

With time now made available in the pandemic, Leo put in thousands of hours into improving on guitar. Playing music is Leo’s greatest joy in life–so great, in fact, that he says it has “kept me sane.” And when asked about his experience staying at home, Leo says that being in quarantine “doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, this past year has been amazing.”  

All in all, he believes people engrossed in music “should always start playing just because they want to and not because they want to impress others.” And most importantly, Leo wants people to know that being a musician is “just about having fun and being proud of what you’re working on.” 

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