Nothing New Here

I’m starting writing this not entirely knowing where it will end. To say it has been or is being a bizarre and perplexing time is to assume some people aren’t aware or aren’t affected, which is simply not the case.

It is this knowledge of our combined vulnerability that makes it hard to put myself ‘out there’ at present. I suppose there’s a fear of being too relevant and maybe even patronising? As if my tales of woe are in any way different or new- It’s a tricky place to start from.

I suppose I just miss sharing my voice online, though I miss it in the context of my real life offline! It’s hard to reflect and share when there is nothing concrete to bounce off like there has been in the past. I am in mourning, perhaps, like the rest of us musicians who leave a life of community, performance and vibrancy aside for a while. Though in saying this part of me knew that having a break in this way wouldn’t puzzle or upset me, and it hasn’t.

You only need to read my previous blog to discover that it’s been a difficult year of musical self discovery. I’ve felt like I haven’t fitted in the musical world and have been wanting it to pause for a while. I already wanted a break from London at the start of March and planned myself a half-term holiday to visit my parents where they live on the north coast of Scotland. Needless to say I haven’t returned, so I suppose I got what I wanted in a way.

I am conscious, again, that I’m erring on the side of ‘sanguine musings on how our lives are all the better despite the utter terror of a pandemic’. I apologise and can assure I have not come away lightly with regards to how it has impacted my mental health and fear instilled in my family for those with ongoing health issues. I can only express my personal gratitude for having more time with the cello alone. I love making music alone and dedicating time to practice and exploring music without the noise of rehearsals and travel. I’m coming to realise that sharing music constantly can have something of a detrimental affect on our creativity and vision of ourselves.

Still I don’t want to talk any more about my own experiences, and I’ve been isolated for barely two weeks so I might be a bigger fool than I look! What I know for sure is that our big world of whatever is is, or was, is now askew. Our mortality is being brought right in front of us and the subsequent parts of our professions or vocations are somewhat sidelined, forced to live each day as it comes along with the rest of the world.

Of course music will pull us through. Along with all the creative arts it seeks to define the beautiful and uplift us in this time. It is a prayer without words that I do believe will be answered. I trust this hiatus from the mad world I left and try to look in gratitude to those who’s greatest concern is the health of others, be it physical or mental, at this time.

I send love to you all.

My Popper Challenge 2019/20- why it’s good that I failed 40 studies in 40 weeks

The first of January 2019 was a difficult day for me and I remember it well. I was feeling very mentally ‘off’ and confused about my life, relationships, self and abilities. It was one of those times where you look to any distraction, something to focus on to distract from the realities of the moment. Paradoxically, I felt hopeful and empowered and wanted to channel this small amount of energy into my cello playing.

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Pretty close to the start of my cello playing journey I fell in love with David Popper’s 40 Etudes. These studies are infamous among cellists, used for technical exams and the odd competition/audition and seldom much else! It’s, therefore, hard to justify my love for them. I suppose on a rudimentary level I used to love working on a study every week to play to (and attempt to impress) my teacher. Each study is between 2-5 minutes long and is a sort of musical equivalent to a maths equation. I always found the technical challenges exciting and thought they sounded so impressive. I can’t go much further without saying how much the great cellist Joshua Roman inspired me from the start with his Popper Challenge on YouTube, so I suppose these things combined with a ‘need’ for focus and determination, the Popper Challenge was born.

It was to be 40 studies in 40 weeks from the start of the year, learned from memory and uploaded to both instagram and YouTube. The first few weeks were so exciting. I loved this new motivation and looked forward to practicing every day- I had to dedicate time to etudes and scales, something I would so often neglect previously. In fact, fast forward 23 weeks and I was still on track, not now learning each study from memory, but still managing to learn each one and dedicate sufficient time to it.

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Now we hit week 24. It was around this time that I completed my end of year recital at college and hit a huge musical crisis/burn out and couldn’t really play cello because looking at it made me feel so angry and tired and sad. Because I didn’t want to play any more I was scared at this new doubt and animosity towards what felt previously like my identity and life.

It was hard, but not in any way similar to previous mental health crises- it felt like something that was incredibly important to listen to. Listen to it I did and I barely touched the cello for two months of the summer, meaning the Popper Challenge was sparse and neglected.

Looking back on it now, the reason I stuck to the challenge so diligently in the beginning actually says more about my suffering and binary mentality at the time. I had a huge sense of needing to prove myself through the challenge, usually quite dissatisfied with whatever I created. It did force me to push through this feeling and upload the study, no matter how unprepared it felt to me, which was, if draining, an important lesson to learn in itself.

I managed to pick myself up again properly in October time and did my best to keep the challenge going, but this time much more whimsically and without much in the way of rigid expectation. December arrived and it was clear that, with 7 studies to go, I wasn’t going to complete them by the end of the year and this was a hard fact to know. Writing this now feels ridiculous because, rationally, no one really cared (who can blame them!) and nothing was lost. I spent an evening in mid-december looking back over the weeks I’d completed at the start of the year and realised how much ‘Popper-dysmorphia’ I had suffered from in the former weeks! I looked back with pride at what I achieved and tried to accept the summer’s artistic crisis and see it as a positive thing. I hadn’t ‘wasted’ time because I emerged from the cello hiatus with a deeper sense of peace and trust surrounding my playing and general life. I only finished the studies just this week with the final four, 37, 38, 39 and 40, taking well over two months to complete!

The first weeks show the person I used to be. Obsessive and often quite cruel to myself about my achievements. Perhaps there was even a part of me at the start that wanted to look impressive to others, set myself apart and show how dedicated I was. In the past, challenges were never really a ‘challenge’ to me- I could enter into the rigidity and structure and wrap myself in it tightly until I burst with tiredness and stress, whether this be a musical challenge, a diet, 360 lifestyle change or a deadline. The person that’s emerged out the other side is one that appreciates the journey with its ups, downs and I hope I am learning to be kinder to myself.

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However, in terms of cello playing, I must admit that the challenge was really amazing at giving me confidence at learning things quickly. Challenging yourself to learn something this complicated in just a week translates to everything else feeling relatively easy-breezy. It gave me a ‘fuck it- go for it’ attitude about performing and learning new repertoire. I recently learned and performed the Brahms F Major Sonata in just over 2 weeks which was the most exhilarating experienced. I would now urge everyone to push themselves to perform out of the comfort zone. Everything is heightened this way with the bad lessons being much worse, the rehearsals feeling intense and you are forced to enter the piece fully. In order to achieve this I’ve learned that you can’t get this intensity tangled with your self worth. Music is at the centre, the bad lessons only leading to a greater result for the music. Working this way is such a great skill to have and I’m most grateful to the challenge for showing me that possibilities are endless when you have faith in your learning ability.

I might give ol’ Popper a rest for a bit now- I’m currently having a few days to chill and gather my thoughts before I start planning for auditions in Germany and exciting new projects I have with my trio and my own solo repertoire. I’m proud that the challenge forced me to embrace relative failure with such acceptance and glad I saw it through to the bitter end. What I thought would be an impressive stunt has morphed into an appreciation for all the changes, both musical and personal, we go through in a year. Shit happens and we have to deal with it, even if it means we take twice as long to learn 40 studies- imagine that!

 

 

It’s not called ‘working’ a musical instrument

Fear of others’ opinions tends to be the number one motivator towards me becoming a workaholic. I believe I have to live and breathe the music I am playing, the essay I am writing, the relationship I am forming in order for it to be worthwhile. I fear not only failure, but more sinister is the fear of unfulfilment. The knowledge that I could have done more/better/differently. Rarely is the sole motivation for the music itself and the joys of musical expression.

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The harsh reality is that this ‘living’ malarkey requires equanimity and a foundation of unconditional positive regard. I, however, work aside to play, never letting the two meet. I work, always believing I am in a deficit of time, dreading the long hours I force upon myself. Nothing will be quite good enough, but that keeps me pushing myself and I kind of like it that way.

I want to challenge this pressure. How organic are its origins and how sustainable is the mindset?

I have found myself often wishing for a different, less demanding profession, one with days off and freedom to breathe. I didn’t realise that the reality of my situation is that it is entirely possible to live and breathe alongside work. The living aids the working and vice-versa.

Trust in this capacity is certainly a muscle that needs strengthening. It can be difficult to let go of obsession and control, something that I looked at when in therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it is essential to be aware of it to allow yourself to live a full life. The anxiety of the initial withdrawal from musical compulsion is great as you delve into the unknown, but it soon becomes clear that the world hasn’t stopped, your value still stands and you are motivated to ‘just go for it’.

It might be that my playing deteriorates through relinquishing control, but if I can’t perform, practice and work alongside adventure and expression then I don’t want to do it any more. I owe it to myself to breathe first and then see what happens to my playing.

Can We Really Make Music?

Can we really make music?

It doesn’t pull me to try

Pushing one word from aches

Five sounds from melodies I

Remember to attain their brilliance

 

Stay close, don’t pass my gifts so freely

The birds might not cry for a tune of mine-

Lift soft breathing from the sleeping

Air and lie within it now

 

I remind myself, hard, hold on

At the mercy of all this beauty

Can’t I see, pass it on must

I live by its side, stroke its

Hair, watch it leave my sight?

 

Again I sit, perhaps 100 times

More luck from lifting the world

Beyond her pains- thrill me

To speak change through words-

The letters of a leaking sky

 

Take away any strong feeling, tell

Any folk singer to stay still-

Wild roughness of rainstorms my

Fears react to change, my hopes,

My songs remain unscathed

 

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Practicing to improve vs practicing for ego

I had a few days last week of very intense practicing. I finally had some time dedicated solely to practice without the various justifyable distractions of travelling, rehearsing and decorating the Christmas tree. The time spent was often exciting and motivating, but it was interesting to notice the ways in which my ego still loves to get in the way.

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If we were to imagine going out onto the street and asking a random person, ‘why do musicians practice?’, their answer would likely be along the lines of, ‘to get better’, or ‘to prepare for a performance or concert’. It would be very unlikely for them to remark ‘in order to increase their self worth’, and yet here I am, feeling very frequently that the amount I practice dictates how I feel about myself.

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The Butterworth Quartet

 

I don’t believe this mentality is enitrely self taught, though a perfectionistic mindset can exacerbate the issue. I was told that there is a ‘4 hours per day minimum’ for practicing. I was told this on summer courses, music school and by various tutors, all who relayed this wisdom in our best interest. The reality is that time is not indicative of how committed you are to music, nor does it determine how passionate you might be about it. Regular practice time can be a good place to start, but fulfilling a quota based on hours really diminishes our creativity.

How much would you practice (or draw, dance, work, exercise) if you knew that no one else would ever see or know about the process? Imagine removing opinion and comparison from what you create and how you get there. What if you didn’t know how much others practiced.

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I think music might be served for its own purpose. We get out of the way and let the real work begin. The work that transcends anything that the ‘industry’ sells you. You create beauty directly for the cause of music, you perform to share and you perform regularly, acknowledging the inevitable imperfections. You take your playing from right now and complete the work necessary in the time it takes to reach a sense of excitement and technical fluidity. This may be 3 hours, 9 hours, half an hour. The real work you might have to do could be pulling yourself away from identification and scarcity and into the superlative experience of living alongside working. The paradox is that this freedom is the ultimate source of motivation and success on all levels. This is the real work that gives life and lets you live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sound Goes Further

I have struggled recently to have a clear vision of where I want my future as a musician to lead. Thinking about it in too much detail or analysing why it means something to me appears to be a frustrating and hopeless endeavour. I don’t play music with my mind and therefore find it futile to use my mind to figure things out. Putting this into words is proving harder than I thought! I suppose in simple terms, I am discovering that music and sound goes beyond the instrument I play, though realising this makes practical musician life difficult.

I recently read an interview of the cellist Rostropovich in which he explained his relationship with the cello,

‘My mind, even at that age, was geared towards Romantic symphonic music, not cello music. My interest has always been in the large scale repertoire and that’s the sound I’ve always had in my head, not the cello sound. My “big sound” concept on the cello therefore came from my desire for a more orchestral scale projection. I don’t hear a cello sound when I play, I hear an orchestra. I never tried to copy another cellist’s sound.’

Reading this, I felt Rostropovich close to me and my struggles. I have never really seen myself as a cellist either, nor making a ‘cello’ sound. I’ve always been fundamentally confused when people have remarked, “you’re so lucky to play the cello” or “the cello is a beautiful instrument”. Objectively, yes, I agree with both statements, but neither explain much about I feel towards the cello. I know that I don’t want a ‘cello sound’ or to be seen as a ‘cellist’. This still leaves me unsure about how to progress from here, I know little about creating the sounds I want, but do know I want them to be different.

Maybe my ultimate goal as a musician is to take people beyond my instrument, to live beyond it’s constraints and refrain from identifying with it. We often forget that the box we use to communicate is a miracle. We create emotion, change and vast curvatures of sound out of something so physically rigid. Understandable, perhaps, that we can struggle to create what we desire from it. Alongside this come the practicalities of living in this ‘industry’ and feeling under pressure to perform ‘on your instrument’. Change, growth and freedom are difficult to stick by when opportunities that arise often force you, time and time again, to stick with what you know and play something to the highest technical standard in order to impress, maybe, or to succeed.

I think being aware of the miracle of turning something rigid into something flowing can change the way we look at music performance. Be in awe of anything you create because it holds so much miraculous power. Just as when you might see a aeroplane on the ground, approach it and be astounded that it floats in the air. Something so heavy and rambunctious as an aeroplane can actually leave the earth and fly just as something rigid, bulky and solid as a cello, piano, violin, flute, etc can take us to a land of absolute antonyms.

I know I don’t consider this phenomenon enough.

mary oliver

 

Music is beautiful when you get out of the way and let it speak

Surrendering and accepting that I am more than a musician, more than an artist and more than any success or failure i might incur is a lifelong journey. I have spent so much of my life clinging onto this desire to prove how committed I am to others. I was almost ashamed of who I really was, set on giving an image of myself with my profession at the forefront. I was proud of who I was only with the cello in front of me.

The past few months I have struggled with playing the cello. I have struggled with motivating myself to practice, listening to classical music, attending concerts and the musician life I had previously subscribed to. This space I am in is a space I have feared my whole life, and yet it has done nothing but free me.

I have felt pulled to live a full life aside from music. Music is not number one at the moment. I have been running, writing, walking alongside shopping, travelling and cooking- basically just living! I have still had musical commitments and performances, but the performances I have given have felt so much more natural and faithful to who I am. In this space of living I am no longer trying to prove and I no longer have an expectation of perfection. I will be careful with how I phrase it, but recently I honestly haven’t ‘cared’ nearly as much about it.

This release from a tight grip on purpose and identification with music is the greatest feeling in the world. I can perform without the burden of self expectation and practice without the fear that I am worthless without it.

Who knew that caring less would give a deeper sense of love for what I do? I am out of the way of the music I make now. I know there is more to me than the label of ‘musician’ and I know that I don’t mind so much how successful I become. This is the most motivating space and I have never been more surprised, but grateful to be here.

The Divine Mirror of Performing

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I speak little on my blog about my ‘identity’ as a Christian. It is a deeply rooted part of my DNA and a method of expression that I have grown up with, though something I find difficult to speak out about due to people’s assumptions about what it might mean to be a Christian in the world today. I am a Christian just as much as I am a musician and understand that people have a variety of ways in which they feel spiritually nourished or sustained. I am grateful for the Christian authors that can express this universality of faith and connection- a worthiness and belonging present in all beings and not earned through membership to a religious organisation or subscription to dogma.

 

I have just today finished reading ‘The Universal Christ’ by Richard Rohr and have found it such a wonderful and humbling experience. It has certainly been a challenge for me in the past to translate the physical actions and presence of Jesus into the ‘now’ of Christians, non-Christians and all people in search of a deeper sense of connection. I was so grateful to respond to the image of ‘Christ’ portrayed by Rohr as ‘being’ itself- the life, love and divine presence that we all experience, regardless of belief or ethnicity.

 

The book concludes with a meditation written by Rohr entitled ‘The Divine Mirror’. The meditation resonated so deeply with the way in which I’d love to see musical performance. Rohr writes ‘A mirror receives and reflects back what it sees. It does not judge, adjust, or write commentary. We are the ones who do that. A mirror simply reveals. And invites responsibility… One day, the mirror will reflect in both directions, And we will see over there what was allowed in here’

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Performance provides us with the opportunity to witness this divine mirror. We are offering a gift to our audience, holding up a mirror to them and asking them to share the space with us. Often we are reflected back such varied and wonderful responses from people, people that are willing to reflect back the ways in which we have affected them. Our audience sees us and have the grace to hold up to us what they have seen in our playing. From a different angle, perhaps in a performance where few people were present or criticism was received, this vision of a mirror is still such an important image. Rohr explains how a mirror ‘simply reveals’– we might have the opportunity to learn so much through opening ourselves, but often we shut this down when we write a commentary about the reasons why our ego hasn’t been satisfied. Why haven’t we received such praise, such a mark as we were hoping, a subsequent opportunity.

 

We try to control the reflection instead of letting this mirror show us who we are authentically through music in the moment. This authenticity means acknowledging that our performances are a collection of experiences. We learn that we experience the deepest sense of reflection and connection when neither we, nor the audience holds an expectation on the other. We give, they receive and each share their authentic experience. This could explain why some of my favourite performing experiences have occurred when I’ve least expected them. In a small venue with a modest amount of people, often non-musicians, who are grateful to receive what you have prepared to share with them with no expectations of you, and you none of them.

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What a wonderful opportunity we have as musicians to share presence and beauty with others. The experience may be comfortable, exciting, uncomfortable or traumatic, but surrendering to the mirror shows us how all these outcomes are equal in their importance. They are reflecting back to us the wholeness of our being in all its success and failings and help our creativity to grow through it. To disregard the mirror is to keep the creative and spiritual life to such a small degree that we cannot grow. The reflections of nature, animals, music, books, pictures, relationships etc. create us and save us, let’s open ourselves to them and not shut ourselves down. Thank you Richard Rohr for your wonderful light and perspective and allowing me to live imperfectly!

The Living Elgar Legacy

Returning from the Elgar Festival I am reflecting, more than anything, on the uniqueness of Elgar’s legacy in Worcester and the three counties in general. I’ve often been asked, and wondered myself, the origins of my Elgarian interest and I feel this weekend brought many things about it to light.

The community of Worcester Cathedral is still a strongly musical one, entrenched in a vibrant 20th century English tradition. They are all proud and committed to their composer and what he means to them. Many of them have grown up singing his music, some original members of the Elgar Chorale and friends of Herbert Sumsion, organist of Worcester in the latter years of Elgar’s life. One certain factor to their devotion that arose was the encouragement from the late Dr Donald Hunt. The founder of the Elgar Chorale, Donald kept Elgar alive all around Worcester and had an ability to transmute the beauty of Elgar from music into community and into Worcester’s heart and soul.

It was such a lovely experience to talk with like-minded people at the festival about the ways in which Elgar’s music grows. The transformation of the Sea Pictures in an arrangement for choir and orchestra by Donald Fraser last night was one example of this. My wonderful professor Raphael Wallfisch’s performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto moved such a vast amount of people, many of whom found themselves moved to tears and compelled to stand to applaud at the end. This is a piece so many of us know, but it’s ability still to transform is fascinating.

Elgar appears to have fused himself into the very soul of Worcester Cathedral and the Worcestershire countryside. What it is about Elgar I still can’t quite express, but I know the deeply spiritual, soulful and yet spirited nuance of his music is enough to sustain me for a long while to come.

Talking about failure, success, auditions, concerts, marks and everything that I wish didn’t define me

I don’t keep it much of a secret that I’ve suffered with performance anxiety for the whole of my life as a musician, just as most of us do. It comes in peaks and troughs as I feel my mind drifts between a space of acceptance and joy to a place of dread, judgment and fear. I want to look closer into why I feel so defined by playing well and why success, for me, is usually a personal affair.

 

There aren’t so many times in my life that I have found myself crying uncontrollably. This extreme physical reaction to sadness has really only occurred when I feel I have failed myself in a performance situation. Humiliation, perhaps a mark far below what I was hoping or feeling as though I have failed to impress others. It may be the shame of the suffering my anxiety has caused me, perhaps through memory lapses, tense body and a less than desirable sound. The absolute agony that is experienced when I feel I have not delivered for myself. My steadfastness towards a goal alongside the expectations of success have failed me. I have failed myself, my art, and music entirely is better off without me. I wish I hadn’t bothered trying.

 

Writing this is fascinating for me. It all looks very dramatic on paper, but in my head these are thoughts that I have truly believed about myself in the past. My successes cultivate great levels of self worth; my failures thrashing any sense of worth that was there. The reality remains that I absolutely will fail. I must fail to succeed. This truism is often thrown around but I think it’s important that I start to think about what it means to me. It is likely to be one the most important question that we ask ourselves. Who am I without my success? Without the self expectation? Without being prisoner to others’ expectations? Who would I be then?

 

First it the inevitable, I must fail. If I’m not failing, not risking failure it is likely that my success is also narrow minded. I don’t dare to go beyond my capabilities and so my capabilities remain limited. We limit ourselves through our fear and through our absolute repulsion to the emotions of failure, but what does the knowledge of how failure can change us for the better do for our performances? It says goodbye to the fear. Perhaps not the fear in the moment, fear of the unknown, but it takes away our fear of the fear. Our fear of who we are when we are vulnerable, when we feel we have let ourselves and everyone down. Knowing what failure can do for us should make us perversely excited to fail. It should make every performance and every outcome an adventure. How amazing that we do what we do and how amazing that we get to witness the ups and downs of our existence, just like everyone else.

 

We can take each performance just as it comes, living out whatever happens in the moment it happens. We need to look within to find a trust, a loving for the who we are aside from success and aside from failure and, even, aside from our art. It may surround a lot of our lives, but success and failure are tiny in comparison to everything else we are in the world. We are here to see and be seen, to experience the whole spectrum of emotion. I’m sure composers had and have an expectation for us to put ourselves on the line, just as they did. We will face criticism just as they did, but we are all connected by this same suffering and experience and not divided by it.

 

Remember your core values and then try and tell yourself that failure is a bad thing. If you have been courageous, open and expressive, any failure you experience is only going to enhance the way you experience success.