I struggle with being a mediocre cellist in a world of prodigies

It’s hard to explain the feelings of musical worthlessness I experience frequently. My family think I am being dramatic. They have seen the intensity of my musical education and what it meant for me to get to Chetham’s School and the Royal College of Music. I practiced hours and hours every day for years with the hope of becoming the greatest cellist I was possible of becoming. I am coming to terms with the fact that my dream to be like Yo Yo Ma was entirely futile. The obvious reason being that I am not Yo Yo Ma, but perhaps more painful for me to accept is that I’m never going to be considered a ‘great cellist’ within my industry.

My negative thoughts can be degrading sometimes. Why would I train for so many years and put so much of myself into something that couldn’t even guarantee me a place in an orchestra? Why have I spent so much time and money constantly auditioning for orchestras, projects, programmes and scholarships only to face innumerable rejections, reserved places and more anxious waiting around for my life to start? I am waiting to be this great cellist with a perfect ‘Haydn D major first movement’ to walk in and blow the panel away at an audiiton. To be one of those people that eminent professors ask to join their studios. I’ve heard that such people exist and I am even friends with some of them. I like their posts on social media and congratulate them with earnest and mean it! Still, can I pretend it doesn’t really get to me sometimes? I feel frequently ground down by the amount I, and many of my talented colleagues, have faced rejection because of the volume of wonderful players out there and lack of opportunity. I can’t expect a solo career to take off, nor am I likely to gain entry into a good orchestra any time soon. If I’m not to be top competition, all this leaves me questioning where my space within music really is, and that is sad.

It can sound outrageously petty and privileged to complain in this way. I imagine what my siblings would say in all of this. They have always been three of the most grounded people throughout my whole life who- to put it mildly- ‘see through people’s shit’. This strikes me as a situation where a certain amount of shit transparency would be good. I can’t see through it like they can, because I have been saturated with feeling not good enough for so long now. It’s like second nature to feel supremely average and forget the baseline musical skill that I have been blessed with- a lot of that negativity is my own doing.

There is nothing wrong with being an ‘average’ musician, forging a unique and wonderful path, playing to your strengths and feeling fulfilled and uplifted in what you create, and I want to get there. Besides, the idea of ‘average’ in the conservatoires of London is vastly different to the idea of average within the general public. My audience is the general public (the older, whiter half but change, I see you) and so why do I still care that I feel mediocre? Why do I still have a part of me craving accolades? I suppose I want to feel part of the ‘special musician community’. I have felt very much on the sidelines, pushing like anything to get closer into the centre. It is clear that the centre lies in the IMS Prussia Cove masterclasses, Royal Overseas League Competition, Kathleen Ferrier Award, Tchaikovsky Competition, LSO String experience, Verbier Festival Orchestra and other coveted prizes and opportunities that the general public couldn’t care less about. I panic that I can’t prove myself to live up to these stratospheric standards of playing, I am panicking right now that I’m not ‘up to scratch’ and even listening to classical music fills me with guilt. I hear an amazing cellist and I feel guilty that I haven’t been able to produce that yet myself, I see pictures of people making incredible recordings with their free time when I can barely motivate myself to make a cheese sandwich.

There is nothing wrong with being at the top and making the most of opportunities when they come your way. Success can be so exciting and it is important to enjoy it and feel the outcome of hard work. I have myself seen success and, in the past, it has felt much more important than it does now, but still it is something wonderful to celebrate. Some people find themselves blessed with opportunities that they previously thought themselves unworthy of and use them to find new creativity, motivation and confidence. Great musicians are not only wonderful inspirations, but are also themselves not entirely devoid of insecurity. Insecurity is there, regardless of ability and the goal post will only move further away the more you succeed. I don’t want to bash the amazing and talented players that succeed and work so hard, only that there are others of us left who can struggle to step away from intense and degrading comparison in the wake of amazing soloists.

Despite being or feeling average, I know those feelings of awe and transcendence that come from great music. I know the immense and beautiful connections that can occur between musicians, all striving towards translating and transmuting sound to our friends, the audience. I know my place with the large wooden box in the world exists and I grieve that I am not the cellist I hoped I would be by now. I will never be practicing enough, successful enough and will probably always feel the panic of never quite proving myself or feeling comfortable enough to sleep peacefully at the end of the day. I struggle with labelling myself as a musician unless my experience is painful and exhausting. The thoughts continue; ‘I can’t be a cellist until I perform certain repertoire in certain venues under certain circumstances’. I have to question, how many people is that small view going to reach?

I value my peace of mind above the empty and degrading aspirations to success these days, and I’m sorry if that’s controversial. I am happy being a mildly controversial and pretty mediocre cellist who likes chunks of time off and thinks competition ruins lives.

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