From the Heart (1977 Hours)

 

The Recital

During my first year of learning the cello, I read some sage advice that a new musician should start their performing career with music that is at least a couple degrees easier than the most challenging piece they are currently learning.  I cannot attest to the truth of this suggestion because during the 2.5 years that I have been playing the cello, every single performance has been with music that is beyond the edge of my current abilities.  As a result, all of my performance preparations have been imparted with a heightened degree of urgency and significance.  This last recital was no exception in which I played my heart out to the tune of the Sarabande of the first suite, a movement that is written in the style of a slow, sensual, and spiritual Spanish dance.

The Sarabandes are some of my absolute favorites from the Bach Cello Suites because they are all so deeply moving and span a wide range of intense and meditative emotions.   The mood of each can also seem to change dramatically depending on how they are played.   To my ears, the Sarabande from the 1st suite feels like waves of passion, a sublime sense of nurtured longing that is as rooted and ephemeral as a well tended garden, like a summer love that lasts for decades growing stronger with each year, constantly renewed with a quiet sustaining energy – like the sensuous rousing of a lover waking from a deep and restful sleep.  As is always the case with music, words fail, but these are the images in my head that I am attempting to convey when I am in the practice room.

The technical aspects of the piece include a multitude of shifts, asymmetric bowing, sostenuto bowing over challenging string crossings and double stops, harmonics, 8th and 16th note vibrato, legato bowing during shifts over string crossings, and many harmonious and dissonant doubles stops and chords – including one fairly tricky dominant 7 chord.  In addition to these items, there is also the intangible challenge of performing such an iconic piece with whatever musicality and expression that my novice skill can muster.

Perhaps everyone who plays from the Bach Suites feels some hesitation at presenting these masterpieces through the narrow lens of their current ability.  But by that same logic, having played for only a couple years, I realize that no single performance can be seen as final verdict.   For this particular performance, the dominant thought on my mind was simply a desire not to utterly disappoint my teacher.  It has felt like she is taking something of a chance by teaching me these Suite movements (which are so important to every cellist), and also by allowing me to actually perform them with so little experience.  Perhaps it was my near-addiction to practice that convinced her to leap forward with this material.

In any case, I am happy to say that for my current level of skill, the performance could hardly have gone better than it did, and I hope it was sufficient to justify my teacher’s hopes for my potential and eventual growth.  While I was under the powerful narcotic of stage anxiety/excitement and very likely unable to fully hear what I was doing, my teacher reported that my performance was the best she had ever heard me play it.   Another more advanced student noted that my double stops sounded “perfect” which was a huge relief to hear objectively.  To my own untrustworthy ears, it sounded at least as technically accurate as my best practice session, and my only regret was that it lacked whatever emotional dimension I can arouse when I am alone with my thoughts.  This was probably because all of my emotional energy was being spent trying to keep some semblance of composure and focus.

A significant part of the reason for this success story was based on some timely and wonderful insight from a wise musician on the cello forums that implanted the encouraging idea that a performance could actually exceed anything achieved in a practice room due to the heightened focus and energy being on stage affords.  All things considered, this turned out to be the case for me last Sunday as the room was filled with kind and encouraging eyes and it also didn’t hurt that I truly wanted to share what I had learned about a piece that feels very personal to me.

As always, I was quite nervous and keyed up despite my reportedly calm outward appearance, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also a little sad when the piece was finished and felt a certain sense of loss when it was time to leave the stage.  This was quite a difference from prior performances where I practically leapt out of my chair and ran off stage in cathartic relief.   Now, I find that I am actually looking forward to the next performance not just as a stressful trial by fire, but also as another opportunity to share what I have learned, and perhaps also to share something more personal about myself through the language of music.

Right now I am just a babbling baby cellist who is playing with words of which I barely comprehend their full meaning.  In next year, one of my goals will be to learn to speak clearly and with purpose, and perhaps also to begin to grasp the narrative structure of music so that one day I can begin to tell musical stories that might actually hold the attention of a skeptical and unfamiliar audience.   Ambitious goals much?   Well for now, I’ll stick to forming complete musical sentences…

 

Other Interesting Developments

As I mentioned before, the Sarabande is a piece with many dissonant and harmonious double stops as well as chords.  The range of notes extends well into the lower registers of the Cello.  After four months and roughly 120 hours of practicing this single piece, the wood on my Cello has opened up significantly, particularly in the bass.   Perhaps this is from the energetic bowing on the C and G strings, and perhaps some part of it comes from the complex interplay of competing overtone frequencies resonating throughout the wood.  In any case, the C2 and D3 fundamental tones on the open strings are now much stronger, whereas prior to this time period, they were almost completely undetectable on my spectroscopic tuner.  I hope this trend continues since my student cello began its life with an emphasis on the brighter overtones and often sounded almost like a violin or viola.   Now it sounds distinctively more cello-like, though it still pales in comparison to anything above a student quality instrument.

 

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Searching for the Source (967 Hours)

Have you ever seen a musician in the throws of passion?  I had always assumed that they were caught up in the ecstasy of excellence, basking in the pinnacles of perfection, deeply aware of themselves, their instrument, and the vital essence of music itself.  But where does this passion come from?  Does it come from the thrill of flying so close to the sun like Icarus? Or does the passionate brush with perfection result from something deeper?  Some  primal space that existed before the skill that would free it had ever fully taken shape?  At moments it seems as if a musical performer’s pleasure comes from some kind of deep and urgent expectation being fulfilled.  As if all the thousands of hours spent in a practice room were culminating in a single outpouring of emotion.  But no that can’t be right.  Thousands of hours being traded for mere moments in a spot light?  That just doesn’t seem like a rational trade off. Something else must have carried them through decades of preparation, something much deeper than lust for fame or recognition.

First a little historical perspective: I have previously (over the last ~25 years) tried and failed at numerous instruments partly because those instruments didn’t fit my personality and partly because I was focused on the wrong things in the practice room (judgments from others, negative self talk, low personal expectations, trying to please family & friends, playing popular music, looking for the shortcuts, and always an eye on the next greener pasture). Rather than propelling me forward, the emotional basis for my efforts (essentially “fear”) was really more like a strong headwind complete with eye-stinging sand. I had to work very hard to make myself practice and no effort could be sustained for longer than a few months. I actually felt accomplished when I could make myself practice for a 30 minutes a week! Needless to say, the music that resulted was uninspired, dull, and passionless. Without heart, an ear for music was not really possible, without an ear, the hands were a fumbling mess.

Any monumental undertaking like the cello is bound to be a journey of self discovery. In this vein, an honest assessment of the fundamental motivations for being a musician seems at least as important as having good form when playing the instrument. While self improvement is a positive ideal for all of us, for any real growth to happen our motivations must be rooted in our deepest and most basic desires. Ideals that are divorced from our fundamental urges (or ones that are based on fear) can lead us to impersonate the motivations we think we ought to have. And if we focus on these external motivations, the result will be an internal tension similar to physical tension caused by contorting your body in a precise & unnatural shape at the cello simply because that is the “traditional” way as espoused by a master – regardless of the glaring differences in anatomy. However if we focus our energies on discovering what really makes us tick (ie what compels us to act on the most basic level), and create a list of principles and goals based on this, then we can stride forward from a place of strength centered on a foundation that goes all the way to the depths of our core.

My own decision to take up the cello began with a love of its sound and the marvelous extent of it’s haunting repertoire.   It wasn’t solidified into a long term commitment until I realized how well it lined up with my basic desires & qualities, namely:  that I have a borderline obsessive personality, I find seemingly impossible puzzles to be irresistible, I savor difficulty especially in regards to mastery of any kind, I have a high tolerance for the nuances of seemingly mundane tasks, and I get bored quickly when any task is too easy or the result is too obvious. Until I learned how to harness these qualities, I viewed these personality quirks as being highly “negative” because I allowed them to be wasted on pointless activities or to keep me from doing basic and necessary tasks. Once I owned them, I realized they could be strengths if I used them to fuel my aspirations rather than as a distraction. As a result, getting to the practice room is now like the inevitable pull of gravity. I have to fight hard not to go there, and force myself to leave. Even though my practice space is in a dim & creepy office building with depressing halogen lights, only available after work hours when all the good and decent folk are tucking into warm meals and warmer beds, when I pull out my cello to practice this dreary place is transformed into a magical realm of sound and introspection.