The Performance Rollercoaster

Wanna know what a performance rollercoaster is really like? Read this new blog with writing contributions from JAMES.

For most of my life, I’ve been a “fringe performer.” What I mean by that is that I think fear has kept me from ever really believing I was any good at the cello, so I’ve never pursued it. I’ve constantly shied away from the competitive side of music:

• I’ve been reluctant to enter a competitive music festival otherwise known as: “eisteddfods”

• I went into music education rather than performance

• I never auditioned for an orchestral position

• I’m reluctant to listen to performances of other cellists

In fact, I get a physical jolt of adrenaline and fear when I encounter people who are better than me – listen to a recording, or someone tells me about another performer they’ve seen or heard about. It’s like I’m trying to protect my self-esteem by not opening it up to the vulnerability of being shot down or being reminded of my weaknesses. Why is it that some performances can feel amazing – you feel like everything is coming together, both technique and musicianship, and you feel confident and take risks that pay off but the audience responds with lukewarm enthusiasm, while other times everything seems to go wrong: you play wrong notes or out of tune or with poor tone, and you freeze up and don’t take risks and, yet, the audience will go crazy? Branden and I often remark that audiences will give us standing ovations for performances which we feel were mediocre, while other times we give everything and get not as much back.

 

Performance, for me at least, is like walking a tightrope between being focused on technical aspects so that I give an accurate performance, but also playing with enough abandon that I give an entertaining and convincing performance.

I have never been the most technically proficient cellist and I am well aware of my weaknesses and limitations as a player. I distinctly remember attending a Suzuki workshop as a young cellist, where I was able to have a private lesson with a visiting instructor from Japan. He told me I would never be a good cellist because my fingers are all double-jointed and this brings significant challenges for my left hand (which is the hand that presses the strings to create the correct pitch.) What that instructor said to me, wasn’t enough to deter me from my pursuit of being the best cellist I can be, but it did stick with me and I am acutely aware of how I constantly have to work around the limitations of my joints and fingers to do what might come more easily for others. My intonation is inconsistent. My vibrato is tight. My bowing is often upside down. From having played in Santa Fe for many months, where it’s so dry, I’ve had to have my cello bridge raised to keep the strings off the finger board and this makes it harder to play in higher positions and has exacerbated my intonation problems in higher registers. On top of these technical issues is the fact that Branden and I perform in a style where I am required to improvise a lot and despite having taken a jazz improvisation class as part of my recent Masters, I constantly feel like I am out of my depth…  forced into situations that are beyond my knowledge or capability and I feel stupid and embarrassed when I cannot produce the level of music that I desire.

Coupled with all this is my stubbornness and reluctance to practice consistently and effectively. While some things about my technique are unlikely to ever improve, there are definitely things I could practice that would help improve my consistency as a performer. But why am I so reluctant to practice? I’ve never really enjoyed practice. It’s always felt like a chore. I often wonder if, what separates me from brilliant musicians, is fear? Is it fear that I’m never going to be good enough, accurate enough, relaxed enough, in tune enough, that prevents me from passionately pursuing excellence on my instrument? I feel like performers at the top level of performing – think Yo Yo Ma, or the 2CELLOS, have lived and breathed the cello. They can’t wait to get on their cello and perfect and refine and play. For me… I always get my cello out begrudgingly because I know I’m going to be frustrated with the results… again. Branden loves to remind me of the Charlie Parker quote “Master your instrument, master the music and then forget all that and just play.” While I have a Masters degree, I definitely don’t feel like I’ve mastered my instrument or the music. The first part of this quote is about being as prepared as possible: mastering your instrument and the music, to the best of your ability. After more than 20 years of playing the cello I still fight with myself daily about practice. Why is it such a challenge for me? There is psychological battle that ensues every time I think about practicing. Where does it come from? Why do I procrastinate? You can bet the laundry will be done and the house clean and tidy before I sit down to practice. What is driving that mentality? What am I so afraid of? I love music. Why don’t I get enjoyment from perfecting it? Sure – some of that is because practicing is grueling and frustrating and lonely at times. But, if I want to be good, why don’t I use everything within my power, to be the best I can be?

 

So the question, as a fairly new full-time performer, with which I have been grappling, is: What do I have to offer the world, as a musician? When there are people who are better at performance than me in every aspect of musical performance, what do I have to give to audiences? While I’m still unsure of the answer (maybe I’ll be asking it for the rest of my career?) I think that, mostly, the answer is: me. I am the only person on Earth with my unique set of skills;  imperfect though they are. Only I can be the best me. For many many months after graduating with my Masters I felt like a I had nothing to offer. I felt as though I was tagging along on Branden’s coat tails, going on a nice ride I did nothing to deserve, because Branden has an amazing voice that puts him in another category of performing – a category I will never be in. One day, as I was struggling with this and we were discussing it, Branden pointed out the difference I had made in his career once we started performing together. The unique combination of the tenor voice and the cello is something that people seem to love. But more than this, I think it is the completely unique combination of Branden’s voice and my cello playing that is appealing to our audiences.