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.

Elgar’s Christmas Greeting

Elgar is not associated with Christmas in the same way that other English composers are. Through settings of carols by Vaughn Williams, Arthur Sullivan and the wonderful festive contributions by Benjamin Britten we have much to feast on. It appears Elgar is lost for us at Christmas, though in saying this his three choral pieces Ave Verum, Ave Maria and Ave Maris Stella written in January 1887 often form a significant part of my advent listening.

I feel it high time to speak about a beautiful unknown contribution of Elgar’s to Christmas music, A Christmas Greeting. Composed in 1907 in Rome and words by Elgar’s wife, Caroline Alice, there are very few recordings of this piece, and only one online by the choir of Hereford Cathedral in 1978 (above). The piece was originally written On 8 December 1907, while they were in Rome.  They sent it home to Hereford for Dr G R Sinclair and his cathedral choristers who gave the first performance on New Year’s Day 1908.

The setting is fascinating, written for two violins, piano and two voice parts. The start of the piece is almost as strictly Elgarian as possible with an introduction from piano and violins that could almost be a direct quotation from the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, his Violin Concerto or even an Elgar symphony. The subsequent theme is one of deep poise and lyricism, the violins often in 3rds and providing such a festive shimmer to the piece. The entry of the voices is accompanied by a childlike, excitable melody in the piano. Another section is introduced by a direct and beautiful quotation from the movement entitled ‘Pifa’ or ‘pastoral symphony’ from Handel’s Messiah. The voices talk about the ‘pifferari’ or ‘wandering musicians’ and the shepherds, Elgar’s Messiah reference staying close to Handels original vision of his ‘Pifa’ depicting the shepherds abiding in the fields.The violins provide this lyrical ‘Pifa’ quotation in 3rds, suggesting that the scoring of this piece to include two violin parts was to satisfy Elgar’s desire for an affective and pastoral mood.

Upon hearing the piece I was overwhelmed by its simplicity and beauty as well as such sensitive scoring. It is so surprising to me that only 5000 people have viewed the one recording that is available on YouTube, I hope this piece someday makes its way into the core Christmas repertoire. Although Caroline Alice’s Libretti have come under some scrutiny to say the least, this contribution is affective and reflective at the very least and Elgar’s interpretation of her words shows us so much about his reactions to pastoral imagery and life.

A Christmas Greeting

Bowered on sloping hillsides rise
In sunny glow, the purpling vine;
Beneath the greyer English skies,
In fair array, the red-gold apples shine.
   To those in snow,
   To those in sun,
   Love is but one;
   Hearts beat and glow,
   By oak and palm.
Friends, in storm or calm.

On and on old Tiber speeds,
Dark with the weight of ancient crime;
Far north, thr' green and quiet meads,
Flows on the Wye in mist and silv'ring rime.
   To those in snow,
   To those in sun,
   Love is but one;
   Hearts beat and glow,
   By oak and palm.
Friends, in storm or calm.

The pifferari wander far,
They seek the shrines, and hymn the peace
Which herald angels, 'neath the star,
Foretold to shepherds, bidding strife to cease.

Our England sleeps in shroud of snow,
Bells, sadly sweet, knell life's swift flight,
And tears, unbid, are wont to flow,
As "Noel! Noel!" sounds across the night.
   To those in snow,
   To those in sun,
   Love is but one!
   Hearts beat and glow,
   By oak and palm.
Friends, in storm or calm.

Commitment to sound 6- less is more?

The ‘less is more’ mentality is well documented in our stressed out society, although perhaps not well enough! Just as many religious people talk of there needing to be a balance between action and contemplation, musicians also require a similar balance. Every musician has experienced the seemingly paradoxical rewards from doing less and trying less hard, yet we still struggle with it constantly.

We discover so much about sound though sitting with it and letting it happen; staying free and relaxed around our instruments and practice time. The number of times I have been urged by teachers to ‘care less’ and ‘let it happen’ are innumerable, yet always I have the urge to return to the try-hard mentality. Perhaps this urge is to do with self worth. I tend to rely on work to give me a sense of achievement and worth, and seldom see sound beauty as the ultimate goal.

This sound series is starting to become just a set of reminders! I know the freedom of sound I am capable of, I need to give myself permission to breathe and trust. Work and practice balanced with breathing and living. I want to strive to create a peace around playing my instrument, not enter constantly into the microcosm of stress and tension.

We deserve to appreciate both the active and contemplative sides to our music making. One cannot come without the other. Giving ourselves the permission to be free and live openly can only do wonders for the way our music speaks.

A Delayed Beginning- what starting an instrument at the age of 12 was like

466712_367875383274742_1061255093_oI often think about the time I started learning the cello. I had received a few lessons when I was 8 but quickly decided it wasn’t for me and went back to my imaginary 8 year old world of few anxieties. It was shortly before I turned 12 that a student at my secondary school offered to teach me the cello. It was normal to start learning an instrument at this time in my school, but I very quickly became determined that cello was to be my life. I had barely passed grade 4 when I decided it was the only thing I wanted to do and that felt very depressing. In the context of my small school, it felt a reasonable assumption but as soon as I branched out, auditioned to music schools and faced numbers of rejections, I realised just how far behind I really was.

It was shortly after I had taken my grade 5 exam that I auditioned for Chethams for the first time. I was 14 and adamant that this school was the only place I wanted to be. They told me to return and reaudition in two years time for the sixth form. Already I had faced so much rejection and self-doubt consumed me. Being at the age of 14 with so many insecurities and struggles already, I felt I couldn’t get hold of what I loved, however hard I worked. It took many hours of practice a day and a lot of motivation from my teacher at Birmingham Junior Conservatoire for me to feel there was any chance. Sure enough two years passed, I had a grade 8 distinction and a place at Chetham’s for sixth form. A further four years and I am in my third year at the Royal College of Music and still have periods of intense doubt that I will ever be good enough.

All this time I’ve been so convinced that if only I had continued with the cello at a younger age, the struggles I faced would have greatly diminished. Beginning a musical instrument at a young age certainly allows you to get a lot of the difficulties out of the way, especially if you become a professional musician. Motivation is largely down to the parents and how they manage practice time, we are much less self-conscious and self-belief is on an all time high. Such a large part of my struggle was with performing and the anxieties it created for me. Younger beginners are much more used to performance situations and learn to deal with it from early on and they don’t have such an extreme sense of how others may perceive them. Sharing my music made me so terrified because I felt I wasn’t worthy of performing. I wasn’t yet worthy to express how I felt because I wasn’t good enough and it didn’t justify how I wanted it to sound. I was hugely aware of how I compared to others my age and this often crushed me.

Starting later than others has meant that everything has happened very quickly for me. The awareness of being behind forced me to work harder than others that started much earlier. This forced me to create a strong work ethic from the beginning. I always kept a long list of goals and, although I often felt very down about my standard, I never truly doubted that my goal was possible. My parents were also clear with me that music was my own journey and, although they were supportive, they didn’t want to manage me. It all had to come from me.Throughout all these extra components to the music world, I knew that what I wanted was possible because of how much I loved music and loved playing the cello.

If we love what we do and have a drive to get closer to it, I don’t believe that there is any correct time to start. It may be that I would’ve faced fewer barriers if I had started sooner, but I often try to remind myself of how important it was for me to find music by myself and how authentic this feels.

Commitment to Sound 5- Is it the instrument?

This short post is just a reminder really to myself, and maybe others, that it is easy to become very comfortable playing your own instrument all the time. We become accustomed to the nuances of sound it can create, it’s certain strengths and how to play to them. We so often forget to spend some time trying others of our instrument and listening to what it can teach us about sound.

It is the most liberating feeling to be trying out different cellos and I find that you notice what issues are essentially ‘you’ and which are to do with your instrument. If a certain sound is suffering on all instruments I try, I must know it is something for me to work on more technically. Similarly with bow weight and string crossings, some instruments will feel very natural to play and others ask you to work much harder. A great part of playing lots of different instruments is that we suddenly listen better because we are reacting to a sound that is unfamiliar. With different instruments to try, we are able to experiment with sounds to such a greater degree and have more scope for improvement as we are forced to listen deeper. Pianists often see changing instruments as a curse, but I think it must teach them to adapt, listen and to play to a higher standard for the instance of an instrument that isn’t quite up to standard. Something we certainly can learn from.

A side note, but this thought about instruments comes about after I took my bow for a rehair last week and discovered it had incurred a crack among many other issues. Upon playing the bow I had been leant for a few days, I was astonished to hear the vast change in sound of my instrument. I felt so much more confident on a bow that was working well. It just goes to show how often negligence of our tools can make our sound suffer.

Trying different instruments gives us a bigger picture of sound worlds. We can learn so much about how sound is created and how we react to it by frequently going out of our instrumental comfort zone.