Growing up, I never really wanted to be a cellist. I liked to play the cello and I could hold my own, but I just didn’t have the passion to see it through past college. Instead, I became an elementary teacher and now a district administrator.
From that time, I played in several chamber and community symphonies; just cruising along with an incorrect mindset, a secret envy of my music major friends, and not really bettering my skills. I was busy with a teaching job, a young family, and cello was a bittersweet diversion…Time marched on.
Several years ago, I had an incident in my life that very abruptly indicated to me that I needed the cello in my life and that I needed to start improving my skills. For much of those years, I had two misgivings that plagued me: I was never a music major and I am too old to do this. Incidentally, at the time I was 35, but I felt that because my college years were past me, I wasn’t worth the effort for any high-level teachers who were moving students on to their own careers as musicians. I was embodying the nagging doubt and also the need to continue on as a cellist; two juxtaposed ideas.
I began looking for a teacher. I had been told by other fellow cellists that I didn’t need a teacher and that I was good enough to learn on my own. I knew that was not true as I would practice my heart out and only be marginally improving because I was missing something. Was I missing that magical talent that all the professional players seem to have? Finally, a friend and advocate referred me to my wonderful teacher and I began my journey (literally a journey as my cello teacher lived 272 miles away). Not having a music major background and my age was still causing me to question if I was worthy of my teacher’s time and how I fit in the music community, all the while his college students were performing in university-related events and venues. What was the point of me improving my playing if I wasn’t doing it professionally or had an outlet to play for others?
Then a miracle occured. I happened to be sitting in a National Title I Conference and our keynote speaker’s topic was mindset. I had never heard of this concept before as a behavioral science. I sat enraptured as every misgiving about myself and music was being addressed by this speaker! It was so exciting to hear him unravel every incorrect notion that had been in my head for the past 20 years and my concerns moving forward in the future. In a future blog, I would like to share the mindset “ah ha” moments that changed my musical life. In the meantime, an excellent book for motivation when we feel like we can’t accomplish our goals in life is titled Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericcson and Robert Poole. It is a book that I have my cello students read and is an important part of my curriculum.
To sum up my experience, mindset theory was able to help me define my musical purpose, establish lofty but realistic goals, feel unperturbed by those in the musical community that were not supportive of my efforts, and learn to practice effectively and intentionally. I saw immediate and drastic increases in my playing abilities which led to encounters with other professionals and colleagues; increasing my learning, opportunities, and chances for networking. I reached out and participated in opportunities for cello education such as summer music camps and masterclasses given at local colleges. I learned to advocate for myself and was recently able to perform a solo work with my local community orchestra because I put myself out there and took a chance.
What I want every cellist to know is that regardless of age or background, you can improve your skills contingent on time, drive, and quality of focus. Nothing is wrong with learning to play professional level materials and not be a music major or not having an opportunity to perform the work. If you want to play in public, learn to set up opportunities with your local orchestras, organize a recital for yourself, and look for opportunities to play-such as services, organized events, and perhaps some busking. If you feel that you are not advancing your skills at a pace that is satisfactory, find yourself a teacher that can help. Learn to enjoy your practicing; taking pleasure in seeing the progress obtained through intentional practice. Most importantly, realize that you have an important place in the musical community, you create that opportunity, and your purpose is waiting for you to discover it.