Next week, me and Mr A Cello will be performing some solo cello music at 93 Feet East in Shoreditch (trendsville.) (If you would like to attend, buy tickets HERE.) Whenever I have to perform solo, I start practising like it’s going out of fashion, out of fear, mainly. Practise is not only my insurance policy against fucking things up in front of loads of people, it keeps my technique semi decent and as a classical musician, it’s just what I have to do. Athletes train, musicians practise. Them’s the breaks. (I have never once said “Them’s the breaks”. I heard it in Saxondale recently and it has clearly stuck.)
Unfortunately, I hate practising. I mean, really, really hate it. I know from talking to other musos that I’m not the only one, but really, when it comes down to it, I’d rather have a smear test than sit down for a couple of hours concentrating on my technique.
When I know it needs to be done, I can’t procrastinate, because the thought of it being on my “to do” list makes me feel scratchy with dread. So often I practice before I eat, dress, or clean my teeth, just so I’ve done it. If it weren’t for the neighbours I’d do it in the middle of the night.
My head, on a bad day, is filled with crazy thoughts. Not butterfly net crazy, but “you are the worst cellist in the history of the world” crazy. Or “you will never amount to anything” crazy. I combat this negativity by doing lots of positive things. Working is a good distraction, as is blogging, washing my sheets, ringing a friend up and asking how they are, that kind of thing. Luckily, I feel like this less and less often as time goes by. Alas though, those mad thoughts are never louder than when I’m in a room alone with my cello, practising. If I’m practising for an audition, they clamour even more intensely than usual. A thought will pop in and say something pitying like, “That’s right love, scrape away all you like. Just know that in the audition, you’re going to make a tit out of yourself, right? Oh, you know already? Good, I was just making sure. On you go.” I try and push on unphased, but honestly, some days are a real battle.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid, I worked extremely hard at playing the cello.
This picture is an 8 year old me, having a scrape, rocking some frighteningly well coordinated hair accessories. As I have mentioned, my parents are professional musos and I had the massive advantage of their expertise when it came to my development as a musician. As soon as I started talking about getting into the National Youth Orchestra and going to music college like they did, they knew I wasn’t messing about. So my mum ferried me all over town to lessons, to the local youth orchestra, then to classes on a Saturday as a Junior at the local conservatoire, where I later on ended up getting my degree (by the skin of my teeth, but that’s another story.) I loved all this stuff, and became quite obsessive about it, quite young. (This wasn’t my parents’ fault. I was obsessive anyway.)
By the time I was 12 or 13, I’d done my Grade 8 (musicy exam. Grade 8 is the final one), and I was getting up at 5.45am to practise before I went to school for an hour. Then I’d get on the school bus with my cello and practise some more before school in this big storeroom where they kept all the music stands. People walked in and out endlessly, which pissed me off, but on I ploughed, missing registration and getting into trouble. By the time I was 16 I was studying with a big wig at a big college, and skipping academic lessons to practise in my big store cupboard. I would sometimes go to the said conservatoire in my school uniform after school and attend Mr bigwig’s class with his older college students. Sometimes he would make me play in front of them, which simultaneously scared the shit out of me and spurred me on. I wanted to be as good as all of them. (Below is where I attended lessons in cello Bigwiggery)
I didn’t hate practising so much when I was younger. I was so driven, I wanted so badly to be shit hot at the cello, I was physically frightened of underachieving, not in other subjects (ask my maths teacher. No fear of failure in that class, no siree) but as far as being a cellist was concerned, it was my (wanky French phrase alert) raison d’etre. Also, I had lots to practise for. At the time it seemed like l had to perform at least a couple of times a week, I had concerts, auditions, and recitals coming out the wazoo. And I was a sucker for praise, I still am. People used to say “wow, that was brilliant!” and I’ll be honest, it was like crack. The harder I worked, the more I got, the more I wanted…..I was a little lunatic.
Playing the cello kept me out of trouble at school….I was in trouble quite a lot towards the end, as I went off the rails a bit. All I had to do was wop out a concerto with the school orchestra and everyone thought I was marvellous again. Teachers would indulge me my bad behaviour because they thought I was talented, and me being a natural scaredy cat, not keen on the unknown, used to get through life’s uncertainties by thinking, “If I work hard enough and I’m good enough at the cello, everything will always be fine.” I’m not sure where this thought process came from and unfortunately, it turned out to be bollocks, but at least I was getting a technique in the meantime.
Then when I was 18, I went to college where I only practised for assessments (I did alright, considering) as I was busy doing other things (I’ll be honest, drinking and having inappropriate boyfriends.) Then came my inevitable sabbatical, when the cello didn’t come out of the box for over a year.
Now, a few years on, I practise and I have several problems that I don’t remember having when I was younger.
1. I am too hot. (I mean this in the traditional sense)
The second I sit down with my cello to practise, I start flushing like a menopausal nun. (I imagine they get hot and bothered in their habits. That’s how I feel.) I think practising technical stuff is quite strenuous and the frustration I feel at not being able to do it STRAIGHT AWAY RIGHT THIS SECOND makes me sweat. Just to give you an idea, I practise in shorts, and a sports crop top thing, in mid winter. No heating can be on anywhere in the flat, and a fan blasts away at my head blowing my hair about and not in an airbrushed J-Lo kind of way…more certifiable, like Ken Dodd, circa 1965.
The hum of the fan affects the tone of the notes in my ear. I hear overtones, the whole time. I am presented with a choice of a low grade, grumbling tinnitus, or a hot flush so severe that I fear I’ll combust, so I choose the fan, every time.
2. No person can be in the vicinity when I practise
I am lucky. I am soon to marry a handsome, tolerant, non musician, who unfortunately for him, occasionally comes home when I’m mid practise. He’ll ill advisedly pop his good looking head round the door, to say hello, or offer me something innocuous like a cup of coffee. He forgets each time, that mid practise, I am like a psychotic, premenstrual banshee. It is a monumental effort to keep my tone of voice even when I reply, “No thanks darling, I’ll be done in a minute”, and not smash my cello into smithereens on the sofa with irritation. I have no idea why this is. It is utterly irrational and inexcusable. I have come to the conclusion that I am so frustrated with myself for not being Yo Yo Ma (perfect cellist and all round perfect person, look here he is on Sesame Street) that my anger spills out of the sides and spits like lava at whichever poor misfortunate that interrupts me. I realise this is not a stunning portrayal of myself. Now I only practice when my fiance is out.
3. It sounds unbelievably bad
I work sometimes with a cellist called Chris Fish. (That’s his real name. He has a son called Herbie. True story.) He once said to me “All good practise sounds terrible”, which unbeknownst to him, I have thought of pretty much every time I’ve practised since. And it’s true. I mean, it’s pretty pointless to practise things that you can play beautifully. I practise things that I can’t play, the details of which I won’t bore you with. I cringe at my own sound. Sometimes the nature of what I’m doing technically causes me physical pain, so I swear and yelp. I worry about the upstairs neighbours and whether they think I’m lying when I say I’m a professional cellist. It must sound to them like I’m murdering one.
4. I lose all sense of worldly perspective
That does imply that I have worldly perspective to start with, which I realise is a bold statement. What I mean is, on a good day, I am aware that playing the cello is not the be all and end all. Being a cellist is no longer what defines me as a person, no one is really bothered if I mess something up, or do a bad audition, or if I have to work part time as a waitress when the diary looks quiet. Alas though, when I am practising, the panic can really set in. (In case you hadn’t noticed, I am one of life’s panickers.) I start questioning the whole music business and my place in it. I start regretting my past and my sabbatical and wish I’d worked harder. If I listen to the shitty committee, before I know it, I’m paralysed with negativity and Mr A Cello is back in his box, through no fault of his own.
However, if there is one thing my gep yah taught me, it is to carry on regardless, even whilst the mad thoughts and the sweating and the swearing is going on. It all passes eventually, and this sounds trite, but I’m a big believer in trying something and disregarding the end result as much as is humanly possible. I can only do this about 10% of the time, but when I do it, I am a happy, relatively normal person. When I obsess about not being Yo Yo Ma and whether or not my career is doomed, I am miserable, and not very useful, as a cellist, waitress, or otherwise.
So if any of you are there next week at 93 Feet East, watching me perform Bach, Britten and Beamish (I only play works by composers whose surnames begin with B), you will know from this possibly unwelcome window into my pysche, the ugly process that got me there. It will be an effort, but I’ll try to keep all my clothes on.