Chipping Campden Festival and finding life again

I only see now how the past few years have sapped away a lot of my musical creativity and inspiration. I was angry- the anger I harboured not entirely justified, but much of it stemming from four years at music college battling my mental illness, the stigma and competitiveness I threw on myself. I didn’t quite believe I had a place in music anymore, not necessarily because I ceased to enjoy music or playing, but because I needed time away. Time to see what life was like without the cello. Emerging from it, I can say some things have been remarkable and other things have been remarkably bleak.

The story begins on hearing the First Night of the BBC Proms and watching orchestral musicians perform with so much life and energy. I really grieved what I had stepped away from. I wondered if I’d ever have the opportunity to play in an orchestra again, feeling distinctively sad that I had rejected (partly pandemic induced) something before really going for it and allowing myself to try.

Two days later and I get a text from my friend Wallis asking whether I could step in for her at the Chipping Campden Academy Festival Orchestra in the Cotswolds at the start of September. I immediately said yes because I wanted to do anything to get out of my waitressing job. The weeks leading up and learning the music, I didn’t really want to go very much. It’s hard to say exactly why. It was all too many unknowns and memories from previous experiences in orchestra as an unwell college student. I wasn’t convinced of my worth in taking up space in the festival and was so terrified of the change. It was almost as though I could sense something was looming- my life had become comfortably depressing with no real sign of excitement or change and I quite liked that in a way.

I arrived and the first few rehearsals were hard. But I was playing again. It was so weird- I felt really stiff and awkward but feeling and sound came back as I was surrounded by so many others facing similar unknowns, but similar excitements for being in an orchestra again. I just didn’t think it would happen. It felt like getting pregnant after many years of trying. I’d found love again, surrounded by people who were so similar to me. Despite the break, I felt at home with these musicians and was truly accepted as myself without the need to justify where I was at. People were interested in me and willing to share, thinking back it was simply emotional and beautiful.

Thomas Hull, the artistic director lead the project from such a place of humility. I sensed his unwavering respect for the professionals and young artists as a collaborative effort formed each piece. We learned it through each other. I listened to people ask direct questions about timing, tuning, bowing etc with the pure intention of making the music as alive as it could be. It was unlike anything I had imagined being able to witness. The concerts were emotional. I can’t really describe them in any other way. I cried silently a lot, went through a lot but also found myself ‘not thinking’. It was right because it was, and not because I forced it to be, expected it to be or even wanted it to be.

In speaking about the classical professions’ shortcomings, making that criticism and journalism a large part of my life, I realise how negative I had also become towards musicians with deep and personal connections with music. I probably felt jealous that I didn’t felt I fitted anymore and took it out on being angry a lot of the time. Much of that anger remains and I remain more determined than ever to show up as a musician with a mental illness, living the full spectrum of messiness. Still, I also understand my unbecoming judgment and apologise for it, because I experienced the true beauty in performing, working hard with integrity and giving to people who come to listen.

I will forever remember Chipping Campden as the place I re-found myself as a musician and am grateful to be inspired to journey on as a cellist, not limiting myself and allowing myself to be changed by people and places. It can feel important to seek out opportunities most inline with how you might see yourself, but I learn through this that sometimes opportunities can seek you out and remind you that there is more to your life and your future than the smallness of your mind.

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