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 paining- thrill me

To speak change through words-

The letters of a leaking sky

 

Take away any strong feeling, tell

Any folk singer, stay still,

Wild roughness of a rainstorm 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.

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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.

Starting to share poetry again…

It’s been almost two years since I shared some of my poetry on my blog, which is undeniably sad as it’s still a big part of my spiritual identity, life and general free time! I sadly found myself in a place of huge self doubt and vulnerability about the quality of what I share.

I don’t want to limit myself in this anymore- poetry is love and life for me and I am beginning to enjoy sharing it for the sake of it, not for expectations of praise or fear of criticism. Poetry just is and what it is has the right to be shared!

I hope you enjoy ‘Awaken’

 

I have woken up to your presence

Arms wide hillside

Writing the many sights everyone sees

In coarse familiar language.

 

I may not fly through originality’s

Ring cycle by genius to arrival-

 

But I see and hear and have everything

I need without question

The music I actually like…

I think we can all appreciate the genius of the great composers. We understand the amazing subtlety’s and structure that the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms have engendered through their music. What if, though, the music that truly touches your heart strays from that of the traditional greats.

I have felt enormous pressure in music college to stay close to the big names when talking about and performing the greatest music. The ‘favourite composer’ question is one I always dread because it feels far more complicated than a simple one word answer. I’ve often felt pressure to say Bach or Beethoven in this situation, but what if a more obscure composer is on my mind?

I have usually answered the above question by mentioning Edward Elgar. This response is often received with confused looks- perhaps it isn’t such a traditional answer! Elgar’s music has touched me in a totally different way to any other. In an attempt to describe, it is almost that I am sat right alongside him, I feel his music flows through me so freely. There is so much mystery, freedom and spirit that I sense so strongly.

I want to celebrate this experience and encourage others to find music that makes them come alive. This doesn’t need a name or a genre or a box. It just needs an open heart and a willingness to receive and be changed.

Don’t get me wrong, I can entirely appreciate that wonder that is J.S.Bach and the transcendental craft of Beethoven’s symphonies, but I will hold onto my love of Elgar and English music and am grateful that I can speak of my wonderful experiences, both listening to and performing it.