Here’s a riddle for you:
Q: What do you call a musician at the height of their career (whatever that means…) who decides to stop performing?
A: I don’t know. Nobody does that.
A few weeks ago I stood on the stage of an international performing arts festival, feeling that high of just having nailed the timing of the final cello/piano gliss at the end of Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango, and took a bow for the last time in my career.
40 years after my first one.
I’m not so old that it was time to stop playing, so it wasn’t a matter of “bowing out graciously”
And I’m not finished working–I have plenty of exciting projects going, so I wasn’t “retiring”
And I’m not angry or disenchanted with music or cello, or anything like that, so I didn’t “quit”. That word is so full of defeat and anger. Neither was involved.
The truth is, our industry doesn’t really have a word for it, because it’s not something that people do. Once you’ve become a professional musician, you remain a professional musician until you die or are forced to retire under unpleasant circumstances.
We’re not supposed to admit that it’s possible we could simply choose to spend our time doing something else now.
For me, the decision has been brewing for quite some time. Back in 2018 I spoke to a few trusted friends and colleagues about my thoughts, and I was told over and over that I “couldn’t quit” it was like I had said the most absurd thing in the universe to them. They simply couldn’t fathom that I would even entertain the idea of not being a cellist. After all, it had been my entire identity since I was 5 years old.
They all suggested that I double down. Play better concerts in better venues and get paid higher fees, THEN I’ll be happy.
When the Pandemic canceled a 2-week West-Coast recital tour in early April 2020, the disappointment lasted about a minute and a half and was quickly replaced with an overwhelming feeling of relief.
I realized in that instant how burnt out I was, and I decided to call this pandemic-induced “year-of-no-concerts” a sabbatical. For 6 months, I wouldn’t even think about practicing or performing.
By the end of March, however, I had created the Virtual Summer Cello Festival, and by August, the Bridge Online Cello Studio was born, and somewhere in there, I started taking on coaching clients. October 2020 saw the very first cohort of Profit Pivot. There have now been 4.
The sense of fulfillment, pride, and satisfaction that I got from creating something brand new out of thin air and seeing the impact it had on these students was so far beyond how I had ever felt after my best, most successful performances.
Watching a client have a major a-ha moment, create their own legacy projects, and see their dreams come to fruition lights me up more than anything.
And to be honest, I suddenly felt like for me, performing was perhaps more about my own ego than anything else. Yes, I’m sharing music. Yes, I’m communicating stories and emotions. Yes, I hope the people in the audience are touched and moved, and feel a wonderful sense of human connection. But I also just wanted to play really well, and have them like me and the way I played. I certainly didn’t feel like I was making any kind of impact on the world.
But in the work I am doing as a coach, a mentor, and as a writer, I DO feel like I’m making a difference.
When a client messages me out of the blue and says that they have just realized that every dream they had when they started working with me has now come true and that they are happier than they ever could have imagined because of the work we have done together?
I’ll spill the tea about what is next for me in a future post, but after sitting in this “post-cellist” life for a little while now, here are a few interesting observations.
1. People get VERY invested in other people’s identities, and they might need time to grieve their loss too.
2. That doesn’t mean you owe it to anyone to remain steadfast in their view of you. Just because they have always known you as “Joe the pianist” doesn’t mean you always have to BE Joe, the pianist.
3. People in industries other than music seem to understand that this was a big, momentous decision, but are mostly excited to hear about what’s next for me.
4. Most people want to reassure me that I can always change my mind at any time, and that it wouldn’t take me more than a couple of weeks to get back my chops back. (Great! But I’m all set, thanks.)
5. An alarming number of people have looked at me and said “yeah, but, like, you’d play a concert with/for me if I needed you, right?” (Correct Answer: nope! Not even for you. But I still love you.)
6. People in the music industry have either unfriended/unfollowed me (because without a cello, I’m useless to them?) or reached out to tell me that they also want to stop playing and do something else, but feel like they aren’t “allowed” to.
7. The biggest and most surprising bit of inner turmoil I faced was anxiety over whether people only liked or loved me as a cellist. I mean, my husband met a cellist, fell in love with a cellist, and married a cellist. Would he still want to be with me if I stopped being that cellist? (Correct Answer: So far, Yes! (phew.))
I’m still not sure what to call it. “I’ve quit being a cellist” doesn’t sit well when I’m on zoom giving a lesson on the Barber Cello Concerto, and “I’ve retired” doesn’t sit well when I’m working with a client on strategizing their next project launch, and “bowing out graciously” just makes me sound old and decrepit. Despite how my knees felt after this morning’s run, I’m not QUITE there yet!
So I’ll offer this, to anyone who finds comfort in labels or definitions: I’m moving on from performing in order to focus on other, more fulfilling facets of my career. And it feels amazing.
I’m so grateful for my training, my teachers, the sacrifices my family made in order to pay for lessons, instruments, festivals, etc., (apologies to my poor brother who never got to go on nice vacations growing up “because cello lessons are expensive”) and for the incredible opportunities that came my way because of my cello playing; but those experiences are mine forever. The friendships I formed through music? I treasure them deeply, and those get to remain intact too.
I just don’t have to practice octaves anymore 😉
P.S. If you’re looking for some guidance regarding the next steps in your career, whether that means getting strategies in place to scale things up, or figuring out how to streamline and delegate in order to create more time in your life for the things that are most important to you, let’s talk.
I offer free 30-minute consult calls where we talk about your goals, and what might be most helpful to you right now. I work with both musicians and non-musicians alike, and you can book that call right here.