Friday, October 12, 2007



Humble, humbling, humility, humiliation...

I'm at a point in my life where I shouldn't really have to do anything I don't want to. At least I no longer have to get up and drive all those miles to a job I detest. I really don't have to answer to anyone (except the tax man, of course), anymore.

After a lifetime of subservience in one fashion or another - to bosses, corporations, creditors, advertisers, "the man", and so on - I don't think I've been able to fully let go of that sense of obligation (or maybe it's guilt). I still get up every morning at 5:30 to slog away on the treadmill before getting Z off to school. In fact I wore out my old treadmill and had to buy a new one last week. I still have to try to control what I eat (not too successful with this one).

But my real subservience is to that cello. Why do I subject myself to this daily humiliation of trying to do something so impossibly difficult, and doing it so badly that it sometimes even hurts to listen?

I suppose I'm getting better, of course, but this process of improving involves listening daily to that screech on those upbow Es and Fs, or that howl when I get close to that wolf, or those flubbed shifts, or those fingers that refuse to go where I tell them to or to land in their proper sequence - even after weeks of slow repetitive practice.

I came off the concert last weekend feeling somewhat adequate, if not completely pleased with my performance. More than once since that night though, I've wondered what made me think I was ready to sit down in front of 275 of our most avid local musical aficionados - and show them just how poorly I play the cello. In reality we didn't do that badly for a trio that included two novices, but I *know* where I messed up...

I've still got more than 8,500 hours of practice to go before I reach that magical 10,000 hour goal, another 12 years. I suppose that somewhere along the way, I'll cross some threshold and at least begin to appreciate my own sound.

What's puzzling is that I've never really done anything before where I felt so inadequate - incompetent, really.

In school, I knew I was fully capable of making A's, and if/when I didn't it was due to laziness, not incompetence. Same thing with work. All those years, I always felt more than competent - quite confident actually - to do whatever I was doing. Of course there were scary moments, such as when I had to give a presentation to a crowd of more than 100 experts in my field and persuade them to support my cause (whatever it was at the time). But even that was nothing compared to this...

Oh, yeah, there was also that first day I walked into the offices of that Argentine oil company to start my new assignment as one of their local managers, when I didn't know a word of their language. Obviously, I had to learn Spanish pretty darn quickly. But even then, I was confident that I could pull it off. (Just as I did begin to succeed in that challenge, the price of oil dropped so low that our joint-venture project was canceled, and I had to come home.)

Back to the present, though...

It's just another temporary low point - I know - as before. Earlier this week, I was feeling pretty good about my cello's sound. I was playing through my pieces pretty smoothly. I was isolating and practicing the tough parts and making progress.

Then this morning our first snow fell; only an inch, but.... I detest winter, so this was not a good day.

When I sat down to play, all that satisfaction from earlier this week was gone. **cringing, even now, remembering the power of that elusive wolf** Nevertheless, I slogged away, playing slowly and trying to focus on the issues, trying to overlook the quality of the sound. I did have some success working on the Scherzo...

Afterwards, I took off the Jargar A and replaced it with the Larsen A that I had used briefly this summer. It's not supposed to be as bright as the Jargar, and I'm hoping it will be play a little easier tomorrow.

Despite the negativity today, I do know how fine that cello can sound. I also know that there are days (not enough) when I can make it sing and I know that all the masochism and humiliation are worth it. Someday these good days will outnumber the bad ones.

Earlier this week you helped me so much by advising me to "get back on that horse" and "enjoy the ride"! Now I have to remind you to do the same! Come on, we can do it! I really appreciate your descriptions of occasional despair because it drums home the fact that we are all the same. Persistence and passion for the instrument spells eventual success, however modest.
One of the hard parts about being a musician is being dissatisfied most of the time. Which is actually good because if we are mostly happy with our playing, we won't put in the work to improve. And no matter how good we get, there's always room to get better. The standard is perfection, after all. So we live for those brief moments where we feel that sense of accomplishment. Then it's back to work...

You might be surprised just how many really talented musicians I know that have no self-esteem. It seems silly to a lot of people since I've reached a relatively high level after 14 years, the last 4 of which I've done nothing but cello, but I still feel incompetent. Every lesson leaves humbled, especially since my current teacher was principal in a major orchestra when he was 23. So you aren't alone. :)
I know how you feel. I joked with members of my quartet today about how my lesson yesterday was a 'therapy session' with my teacher. I told him that something was wrong with my cello...then I, it's the cellist behind it. I have been down in the dumps the past few weeks in the same way you have described in this post.

I have never worked so hard at something and still feel so inadequate. It's humbling but I've come to think that maybe the things I've tried in life weren't that hard. I had expectations when I started...and generally, they were met if I tried to live up to them.

With the cello - no. I am a slave this thing!

Here are some things my teacher have said that has helped:

1) Keep expectations in check. As you improve, so will your ear so even though you have made great strides, you may not hear it because you expecting so much more.
2) This stuff takes HOURS. When we hear musicians, we rarely hear about the number of hours they have devoted to creating the music.
3) This stuff is not about daily improvements. You will make strides in months, sometimes years.

We are behind the cello because we have a love for the instrument and the sound. Keep that in mind!!

Sorry for the long comment but I have just started to seeing some light after feeling weeks of frustration with my practice as well....hope this helps you a bit.

PS - You know where you messed up in your performance but I bet you the audience did not. You gave them good music! End of story :)
I wish I could teach you for a while! Not because I am so wise, but because I know how you feel so well. This is the time where you truly forge a relationship with the cello. It's just you, and it, and there seems to be a real possibility that no meteoric progress will happen, even if you look ahead a year or two. (of course, that is the perception of the kind of students who progress like gangbusters after moments like the one you're in, but never mind that for now) What you have to do is give yourself permission to quit. You heard me. I do it every day. I wake up, and ask myself, "Should I play the cello today?" Don't think that just because I'm a professional I don't suffer from doldrums and massive, scary questions each time I sit down to the cello. I do. Perhaps more than you! You're only a few steps down the primrose path....I'm being paid to do this, and still, I am very much a student of the instrument, ears WIDE open to all of the imperfections and horrors that escape the F holes. But every morning, the answer is, "One more day, at least." We are always obsequious to something in our lives. Better the benevolent cello, from which we learn and test our mettle, than the petty wares peddled by our current pop culture or cruelty or perhaps the vast array of addictions that tempt us. Yours is the good fight, and besides, if the process was short, it would not be as rewarding to just once (once!) pass through those troublesome measures with a sound befitting the depth of our devotion to the good, good, cello.
Thanks for the post and the comments are terrific. If I may add my 2 cents, I would like to quote a frequent contributor to the Internet Cello Society Forum who goes by the user name, Chiddler, "We don't have to be so serious. This isn't about world hunger or crime or war or natural disaster, it's about a hobby. A hobby for very well-off people, by the world's standards." When I came across this quote 6 months ago, I printed it out and placed it on my music stand where it has resided ever since. As corny as this might sound, it has help me to keep in mind, through all the challenges that come with learning to play the cello, how very privileged I am to be able to do this. It is actually one of two quotes that have a prominent place on my music stand. The other came from Gottagopractice. "The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your whole life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is - it must be something you cannot possibly do!", Henry Moore. I read both of these during my finger yoga session that precedes my warm-up and haven’t had a bad practice session yet.
I like the idea of the 10,000 hour goal.
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