A new level of obsession.

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One of the most intriguing things about playing cello is how much is has changed me (and continues to change me) throughout this amazing journey. I never expected to be changed by it. When I started I thought I was just trying out something new or perhaps picking up a new hobby. I look back at who I was before cello and compare her to who I am now and am amazed at the difference. I feel so much more like myself, more like the person who I always wished I was but wasn’t. Instead of adding something new, playing cello has stripped away the bullshit. I feel more me than ever.

Twice before there have been what felt like fundamental shifts in who I am. The first time was when I actually started playing, when I went to the music store to rent the cello and when I found my teacher and waited for my first lesson. That happened over a few weeks and it was so slow, yet something very different had happened in my life and it was terrifying and it was the best thing I’d ever done. It was the first time I’d ever done something without any real expectation for it, the first time I’d really started doing something for its own sake. I also knew that I had no real musical talent (*cough* *cough*) and that I’d be terrible at it, but I didn’t really care. I wasn’t playing the cello to be good at it. I wanted something that would stimulate my brain and was like nothing I’d ever done before.

Before cello, I was the most cautious person alive. Really, taking up cello was the most risky thing I’d ever done. My mother tells me I was born cautious and that I spent most of my infancy fascinating her and puzzling her because she’d never seen a cautious baby before. Everything new I tried was because I thought I’d be good at it. Whatever new thing I did was related in some way to something else I was already good at. I liked being good at things (okay I still do) and it made me feel good about myself when I was the best at something (since cello, it no longer does.) I was terrified of being bad at something, of failing, because the only times I ever had failed, it was so major and so big that I thought I’d never recover (it took years, really.) Then here I was deciding to learn to play this instrument I was almost guaranteed to fail at, or at least to never been good at. It was so out of character I almost didn’t do it. I had to spend a month talking myself into it and my husband had to hold my hand throughout the entire process. Yet I did it, this thing so unlikely that I didn’t really believe it was happening until several months in.

The second this type of shift happened I have talked about before in my posts. It was when my teacher introduced me to dynamics and articulation and the obsession began. The addiction, the need to learn, the point when my husband not-so-jokingly told me that cello ranked between food and water on my priority list. It was the point where I stopped assuming I’d be a terrible cellist forever. It was the point that I realized I actually do have musical talent. It was the point where I decided I was going to put it all to use regardless of all the people who were still telling me I had no hope of ever reaching any level of proficiency. I was suddenly so addicted to playing cello that it stopped seeming relevant that all odds were against me. I knew I could never be great, but I didn’t feel the need to be. I just needed to play as much as my fingers would let me so I could feed the addiction. I knew I could learn far better and faster than anyone would have guessed. I was addicted to that learning. I’d puzzle over something, fighting my mind, for hours until I got it. It was the best high in the world. It would exhaust me, but then I’d do the same thing the next day.

The next time was when my stickers were removed and I had to start playing in 4th position and shifting all in the same day. I contemplated whinging and crying but instead worked with drones to develop my ear, put a blindfold on so I wouldn’t be temped to look at the fingerboard. I tortured myself until I could play in first and fourth positions and shift between them with my eyes closed. It was the single hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was two weeks of confusion and more resistance from my mind than I had ever experienced in my life. It would have been so easy at that point to just make excuses for bad intonation and not being able to do it. Instead I took the really hard route and am so glad I did. I thought it was impossible to develop the listening skills I needed. Truly impossible. I had absolutely no reference for this, there was nothing I’d ever learned like this before. I wonder greatly what was going on in my mind during all this, how my mind learned this. It seems impossible that someone who had previously been labeled tone deaf (seriously) could learn to accurately hear twelve different tones and play them and know if they were right or not. It really truly puzzles me that I learned this. There are certain tones that are harder for me to hear still, so I practice with drones and it helps greatly and takes less effort every time to get better results. I’m still in shock sometimes that I can quickly and accurately tune my cello with no reference pitch. Sometimes I disbelieve it so much that I actually can’t and it takes some convincing that I really can. What happened from this was an ability to think in such a new and different way. I hear things differently now. Not just pitch, but all aspects of sound sound different now.

That was back at the end of August/beginning of September. Yes, things (and I) have changed since then, but nothing terribly fundamental, just small things that add up over time. Well, actually, that whole bit about my teacher teaching me to act as my own teacher. There was that, which was also important, but didn’t feel like a change in who I am and how my mind works. Now, again, something feels like it’s changing. I’ve started waking up early (which if you know me, is weirder than me starting to play cello in the first place) so I can get more practicing in. A few extra hours of practicing in. I’ve been practicing so much that I actually got blisters underneath my calluses (which BTW doesn’t hurt as much as you might expect.) Two to three hours a day is suddenly not enough. Not even close. On tuesday I managed five hours of practicing, all of which yielded results. The only reason I stopped was because my finger tips were in so much pain that I couldn’t hold the strings down anymore. I could have kept on practicing. I had a whole list of things I wanted to work on that I hadn’t gotten to. My body just crapped out on me. Same thing yesterday. Suddenly there is no such thing as enough cello. Suddenly I’m getting up early because I HAVE to practice. What’s more important — sleep or cello? cello. Food or cello? cello. ____ or cello? cello.

And now it’s time for coffee and… Cello!

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8 responses »

    • You can… as long as you cut pretty much everything else out of your life, don’t socialize, don’t sleep, and can endure your wife complaining that you love the cello more than her. Or maybe that’s just how my life goes… Now off to practice E-flat major for an hour with a drone because an hour with B-flat major for an hour just wasn’t enough…

  1. I suspected that you were a compulsive practicer. Which is why I asked before about how much you practiced every day… Effort is a talent in itself. It’s the only way to maximize your talents.

    I played all day long this past Saturday and Sunday while my wife and kids were alway visiting with grandparents. Not sure what can be done about cramps due to sitting for so long. More exercise to get stronger? But day to day is usually 2-3 hours depending on work and family demands. I wish I could practice more too… Maybe in retirement, but that’s years and years away 😦

    Also, just curious about the order of instruction you received. You started shifting to 4th position? When did you ever get back to 2nd and 3rd positions? I know some instructors prefer to jump to 4th position since it opens up your repertoire.

    • It’s not a compulsion it’s an addiction! Yes, I filled in 2nd and 3rd after learning 4th. I can’t imagine having done it any other way. It wasn’t about repertoire it was about having more of a physical frame of reference.

  2. I sort of like sound of compulsion more than addiction. Not sure if one is healthier than the other… I think I’m more compulsive than addictive which is why I have my preference 🙂

    With all the practice, just be mindful of any overuse injuries… I haven’t had any myself, but you hear of them happening with increased practice time.

    • I do take lots of breaks and much of what I practice is doing thing in a relaxed way. So far no injuries. If anything is painful I stop and figure out why. Playing actually has helped me heal injuries by learning better mechanics and relaxing.

      I say addiction because I go through cello withdrawal after about 12 hours of not playing.

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