My Dear Students,
You might be curious as to why I have decided to step away from playing the cello–after so many years of focusing my life around it.
After all, this thing that you are striving towards–this ability to play well enough to get chosen for festivals, conservatories, competition winners, and performances–is so difficult to achieve, why would anyone just give it up?
One of you boldly asked if the shutdowns of the pandemic caused me to feel undervalued or disenchanted with society’s view of the professional musician. I thought that was a very good question.
Stepping away has far more to do with my own personal circumstances and choices that I have made.
Some are small, detailed choices (like choosing to NOT work most evenings and weekends) But mostly, it was the choice to spend my time doing other things.
People talk about having a calling in life. For a while, I figured mine was to perform–because that’s what I had always done. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, had (have) a ton of great friends from it, got to travel all over the world because of it, and wouldn’t trade my cello playing years for anything. But it was something that just sort of happened. It was never a deliberate decision on my part.
I started at 5, practiced, had lessons and great teachers, got into festivals, got into NEC, then New World, then summers at Spoleto, Tanglewood, then Boom! I was a professional musician. It’s easy to get onto a path and get carried along without having to make many decisions.
And please know this, dear student: I had my share of rejections and low moments just like everyone does (and possibly more!) but the good moments were so great, and when saying yes means seeing and hanging out with your friends, and saying no means staying at home alone like a loser, you go (obviously).
What the pandemic did, was force me to get creative and think out of the box. Ideas came to me that called me to “step up” as a decision-maker, to do things differently than they had ever been done before, and in doing that kind of work, my soul lit up.
But here you are, sacrificing time with family and friends in order to practice. Giving up lazy summers at the beach to attend an intense summer festival. Perhaps giving up the idea of being a “normal college student” in order to attend a conservatory.
And you might be wondering if it’s all worth it–if the people who come out the other side on top, want to walk away.
That commitment that means you get picked up from a sleepover before your friends are even awake in order to get to chamber music rehearsal week after week is the same commitment that gets you and your team across the finish line of a big work deadline later in life. The dedication that had you running to summer festivals to hone your craft further is the same dedication that you’ll need to finish your Ph.D. when your buddies are taking off to Greece for a month. And the discipline you showed by practicing most days of your life (even when you didn’t feel like it) will get you out for a run (even though it’s raining) when you’re training for your first marathon.
From a young age, we are taught that if we push ourselves to go past the point of simply learning a new piece, and really “perfecting” it, it becomes a completely different experience. Building our technique in order to execute a musical line with beauty and intention rather than being happy that it’s somewhat recognizable is what sets us apart in the workforce later in life. I remember my NYC musician friends who took temp jobs to earn some extra cash. The companies kept trying to hire them full-time because as musicians, they didn’t know HOW to do anything half-assed. It starts in the practice room but quickly leeches out into everything we do. We set a high bar, and we go after it. giving 100% to everything we do.
Your music will take you all over the world, and you will come across people with whom you don’t share a spoken language, and still, you’ll be able to sit down and play music together. Without words, you’ll listen, feel, and understand each other’s intentions. You’ll see that no matter where people are from, you likely have more in common than not. That’s a powerful feeling, and knowledge that will serve you well in life.
Life is 50/50. There will be as many bad days as good. As many moments of bliss as there are of heartache. Knowing the power music has to either express and lean into your emotions or to lift yourself out of them is hugely beneficial. If you don’t believe me, try opening a soirée with Mozart’s ebullient Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and then follow it immediately with Puccini’s funereal Cristentemi. Trust me, your audience won’t know what hit them, or why they’re suddenly weeping into their champagne.
We learn who Beethoven is in chamber music. We learn about Germany from a book we read. We learn about Napolean and France in history class. Then we play Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in youth orchestra, and it all comes together. We see how the various puzzle pieces fit, and we see how ideas, people, politics, scientific progress, literature, fashion, and art are all connected.
And, truly, I think that’s what people mean when they talk about creativity. I don’t think it’s a characteristic that people are born with. I think Creativity is simply the ability to see connections where others haven’t seen them before (along with a willingness and a curiosity to try things out.) Every time we play a new piece, every time we do some background reading on a composer, we’re fine-tuning that skill.
Dear Student, you might be wondering if you should go into music professionally or not. I can’t give you that answer. It’s something you have to want to do. But know this:
P.S. Are you 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.
What a beautiful piece of writing, Kate. The nurturing counsel, along with the balanced and wonderfully “sane” affirmations remind me of what a positive presence you were at NEC and New World. Be well, wise teacher, in your Bermudian paradise.