“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.”
-Bernice Johnson Reagon
It’s taken me a couple of days to process the concert experience: there was just so much to grok from the whole thing and by the time I left the hall Saturday night I was just two damned exhausted to do more than stagger into bed and pass out, grinning ear to ear. Sunday I took a cello day off – filling my day with all the things I’d neglected in the last two weeks run up to the concert. It was nice, for a couple of hours to not have the impending performance bearing down on my frontal lobe. In the last few days before the concert, I started to feel guilty if I wasn’t doing something cello related (including eat, sleep and go to work) – and it was nice to just savor the concert memory without the weight of anticipation.
And believe me, if you had asked me after dress rehearsal Friday how much savoring I would be doing on Sunday I would have given you stink eye. Dress rehearsal was a disaster. And by disaster, I mean: unmitigated, shaking, dry mouthed, oh-my-god-get-me-off-this-stage-and-out-from-under-these-lights. I choked. And by choked I mean: I kept getting thrown off time by the SOUND of my own heartbeat’s frantic tattoo on the cello while my bow hand shook so hard everything sounded tremulously vibrato. More than once the conductor leaned over to remind me that I could do it and that I knew the notes all I had to do was play, and then finally, slightly bewildered at the cellist melting into a puddle at her feet she said, “just skip it then and play the second cello part.”
Consider: Four weeks ago the largest performance I’d ever been too was gathering in my teacher’s living room with her other students for our recital/master class. Three days ago I found out our super awesome more experienced cellist wasn’t going to make the concert and, in a brash moment of bravado in our violist’s living room, I volunteered to pick up the first cello line of the Satie, learned to play tremalo and ran it through a couple of times with the rest of the strings. (“It can’t be that hard” will be etched on my tombstone, mark my words)
Friday evening we walked on stage, under the lights, and the rest of the band filed into the audience seats on their break to watch us and had one of those total out of body experiences where it became crystal clear exactly how deep a whole I’d dug myself as an overachieving baby cellist.
And I choked. I’ve spoken in front of crowds – both presentations and impromptu – I’ve been in plays with bigger houses. I am not one who is known for stage fright in any sense of the word. Yet there I was, cello shaking and on the verge of tears. It was humiliating. I slunk home on my belly, tail between my legs, dragging my cello case behind me, looking for the biggest rock to hide myself under.
I went to bed that night thinking, “I don’t have to do this. I could just not show up. Nobody would even care. I don’t owe anybody anything.” I woke up at 7:30 (on a SATURDAY MORNING) with my heart beating allergro moderato against my ribcage and my fingers struggling to keep up on the first line of Satie. I swallowed tears and thought about marching downstairs and throwing my cello out into the street for the next passing Land Rover to crush underwheel. Then came my mantra for when things get ugly: Butt. In. Chair.
I decided two things A) I was going to play that night and B) it was time to re-frame my attitude about what was happening on that stage in terms of gratitude as opposed to terror.
Instead of thinking of it as the grown up equivalent of some awful teenage anxiety dream (you know the kind where you walk on stage on stage; naked to a jeering crowd, sit down and realize you’ve forgotten music…and your bow) it was time to start thinking about how grateful I was for the opportunity to do something I loved with a group of people I’ve come to admire. I thought about how much trouble there was in the world (famines, earthquakes, tsunamis, war), and how lucky I was to be right here and now, with my biggest worry in the world being getting up the guts to get on stage and share the thing I that fills my life with so much joy and challenge. I thought about how less than 200 years ago I might have never had a chance to touch this instrument, never mind learn to play. I took the gratitude push THAT deep.
It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and start being happy. I gave thanks for the privilege and the opportunity and then I sat my ass down in that chair to make some fucking music.
First, I dropped the high notes an octave, to where I could reach them without crazy shifts and I played them over and over, without looking at the music, for half an hour. I found a midi online and played with the midi, so there would be no question about where I belonged (the hard part for me was that it’s a cello solo, so I didn’t have anyone to listen to or follow and coming in late was not an option), I did endless F # tone checks, then did the same thing for the second movement.
I took a break to go to a yoga class at ten and another piece of the puzzle came together. My yoga teacher often prompts us to individually set an intention at the beginning of class – just a word that can be a goal for our practice. The intention can also be a dedication, sort of like a petition in church when i was a kid, giving the effort and energy of my focus to someone else in the world. I like making dedications; holding the image of someone or a group of people in my mind when my practice gets tough and thinking about sending them the strength to get through whatever challenge they are facing. Oddly, it’s easier to keep myself going if I focus on doing it for someone other than myself.
On the way home I started wondering why I couldn’t do that with the concert. Why not make it less about me and my fear of getting on stage and instead make it an offering – this music – to someone or something that I knew needed some courage or support or joy in their lives at this moment. I practiced a bit more – working on the rest of the pieces, suddenly Brandenburg seemed like a walk in the park after the “ho hum Satie” – and the afternoon galloped by. Then it was time to pack up, grab my garment bags and head for the hall.
I won’t lie to you: I was still shaking. When we sat to do the pre-show music I thought about my dedication, and how far I’d come in four weeks(!), and how much I loved my cello. And I played in spite of the tremors. I missed notes, I pulled a face or two, but I kept playing, and when I stopped worrying about me I could hear us all playing together. And we sounded amazing. By the time we had run through the first round of music and decided on repeating Ferdy and Miranda and Rondeau, I felt ok. The hour was over so quickly: We took our bow, exited the stage and the rest of the band came on.
After intermission we took places for the second half. The house lights were down now and it was so hot under the stage lights I felt sweat begin to blossom on my collar bones as I sat down. Leaning Cecelia against my chest I was awed by the fact that I could feel my own heartbeat pulsing up through the wood and into my fingers. It felt like she had her own heartbeat, and I was holding a friend for a long embrace. How silly of me to think I was up here alone.
I started breathing again (yeah, at some point I stopped between walking on stage and rising for our conductor I stopped entirely) and I repeated my dedication. When Satie began I kept my eyes on the conductor for the beat and when she queued me, I was ready. Yeah it wasn’t perfect – I was just a tiny bit slow getting to the fourth position A the second time, and the dreaded “woggle” (my pet name for the Tremalo) trembled a little more than I would have liked, but it was there. I just kept breathing – all the time feeling my own heartbeat coming back to me through the wood. My vibrato could have been much better a couple of times, but I managed to fix two big tone flubs, play the entire first cello part and I nailed most of those hundred billion (feels like it when they’re off, at least) blasted F #s to the wall. And mostly remembered that the F’s are natural in the second movement. *cough, cough*
It was over so fast, and then we were taking our bow and clearing off and trying to not to gallop squeeling down the halls with glee in our hurry to tuck our instruments away and get back into the house for the band’s last act. The night could not have been any better.
Savor, is exactly the right word.
(and to reward you for reading thus far, here are some – somewhat blurry- iPhone pictures of the setup and performance)
TBF came backstage with me after to help get packed up. I thanked him, a hundred times, for getting me started down the road to being a cellist. He told me how impressed he was by how far I’d come in such a short amount of time, and how I’d kept launching myself into new (and sometimes uncomfortable) territory.
“I feel like a musician,” I said. “Up there, playing with everybody, I felt like more than just a cellist.”
I love being a cellist and the idea of playing interesting challenging cello pieces, but even more, I love being part of a group of musicians. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but I think there’s an important distinction for me. I don’t need to be a great soloist. I love playing with others, relying on and being relied upon. I like the community aspect of playing together. I like being “part of the band.”
TBF showed me photos he’d taken during the pre-show and awed me by saying, “You looked like you were having so much fun.” I studied the photos carefully, looking for some hint that he was exaggerating. Sure enough, he was right. I did look like I was having fun. Because I was.
Sunday morning I made breakfast, contemplating the day without cello. TBF broke the moratorium reminding me that he’d only gotten Cecelia as a starter instrument. “I just wanted to see if you really liked it.”
It’s true. I’d spent so long dreaming about playing cello, that’s a lot of anticipation. Sometimes that kind of anticipation only leads to a let down. Maybe I would have tried it for a month and decided it wasn’t for me. He’s always remained a neutral observer – never pressuring me to keep playing. A couple of times when I’ve been overwhelmed by trying to finish the novel, work and cello and life he’s reminded me that there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing my writing and taking a cello break. Writing is my first passion, cello has always been a release and a way to challenge my brain in a different way; I have no illusions about being the next virtuoso. And I’ve had moments of feeling less in love with cello than others, but cello has carved out a special spot in my life and is here to stay. Here we are, almost two years later, and I’m already dreaming about the next time the orchestra plays.
“You know,” he said. “I think it’s time to start looking for an upgrade. It doesn’t look like you’re about to give this up anytime soon.”
He’s right. I’m not.
Let the shopping begin.