You’re young; You’re not important. Really, I promise, this post ends up relating to music.


When I was four years old I got into an argument with my mother about who was “boss.” I was a relentless and stubborn child and my mother was surprised when I stopped arguing. She thought she’d won the battle for the time being, but I had actually gotten quiet because I was secretly doing math inside my head. I was trying to figure out a sufficient number of years such that she’d be dead but I’d still be alive so that I could then be The Boss. Being satisfied with my calculations, I informed her that in 60 years she’d be dead and I’d only be 64 and then I would be The Boss. Fine, mom. Right now you’re The Boss, but one day you’ll be dead and then my ideas, my opinions, my every thought won’t be so damn unimportant. There will be a day when I’m taken seriously. She knew I’d won because I was a patient child — I was willing to wait 60 years and for my mother to be dead if it meant I got my way. I didn’t need to argue with her anymore, at least about being The Boss.

And then the waiting began. When people asked me the most annoying of all questions — What do you want to be when you grow up? — I had my answer: I wanted to be 64. I didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer or teacher or astronaut or rock star or Olympian or any of the other things kids are expected to want to be. I wanted to be old. I wanted to be old because I thought that then, finally, someone would take me seriously. Someone, even if it was just one person, wouldn’t think that what happened inside my head was the ridiculousness of a child. I spent my childhood observing the logical inconsistency of adults, their lack of what I thought were simple calculations, their lack of creative and original thoughts. Always, I would try to participate in their conversations and, always, I was ignored. My thoughts were so unimportant that they wouldn’t even tell me off for pointing out how wrong they were!

At the time I didn’t realize this, but my mother was always listening and always thought that what I had to say was very important. She told me later that much of what I was saying she plain and simple didn’t understand (I talked about math a lot) or her experience was very different (such as matters concerning spirituality) that she couldn’t always participate in useful conversations with me. She did everything she could to make sure I never stopped thinking because it was all she really felt she could do.

I ended up spending my childhood and teenage years trying to be someone that people respected, but still no one ever listened to me. They praised me, expected me to be happy with that, but no one ever gave a shit about a single thought passing through my head. Not even my friends. One girl I knew in high school summed up my interactions with the rest of the world very succinctly: “You’re weird, but people get used to you.” Such has been my life since the day I was born.

Now that I’m an actual (okay, pretend) adult, things have changed somewhat. But only if people know three things about me: my age, that I’m married, and that I have a degree already. Otherwise, people assume that I’m in high school and uneducated. People will talk down to me and treat me just how I was treated as a child, the you’re a kid; you’re not important attitude permeating the atmosphere the whole time. Then, as soon as people find out those three pieces of information, they start treating me like I’m a real person.

And now we get to relate this all to music:

Eric Edberg has been posting a lot recently about young people and the outdated establishment of the symphony orchestra. In his post today, he again talked about this divide between the establishment and young people. I talked about my experience with Sacramento’s own philharmonic, which I’ve also blogged about, although I did not talk about the Facebook experience I had with the phil such as I communicated in the comments section of Eric’s post. If you guys don’t follow his blog, you really should — he puts a lot of energy into thinking not just about why big professional orchestras are failing but also what is succeeding in the classical world. I don’t know about the rest of you fellow beginners, but I’m planning on this information to someday be relevant to my cello life.

The point of this is that young people (and in reference to audiences of big philharmonics, I mean everybody up through the baby boomer generation) don’t seem to matter to the establishment. We know this (or at least most of us do, I think.) But here’s the part that’s really irking me, the part that’s relevant to my cello life RIGHT NOW: This is the education that we’re all receiving, an education that is geared toward us being part of this rapidly dying establishment. So far I’ve really loved learning out of Feuillard — it’s been so much better of an experience than I ever could have had with Suzuki and I really have enjoyed playing most of the pieces in there — but all this is preparing me for is this outdated mode of musical existence. And, IT’S NOT WHAT I’D REALLY LIKE TO BE PLAYING ANYWAY! I mean, I love Baroque music. I’m happy to play it. But music from Classical and Romantic composers? BARF. Mozart? Schumann? Not for me. I can’t think of a single piece by either one that has moved me emotionally. I’m just being groomed to go off and study music performance at a university (assuming I get good enough, which I’m planning on no matter how much time it takes.)

I keep looking for some way that someone like me can get involved in playing other kinds of music before the completion of a formal education. So far everything has failed. It totally sucks, but I think at this point it would be foolish to venture off into the unknown unaided by a teacher. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t start playing cello because I like classical music; I started playing cello because I like the sound of the instrument better than any other. Part of me feels like I’m just a misfit in the cello world, just as I always have been in the whole rest of my life. Starting at 26 certainly goes a long way toward making me feel that way. But I can deal with that, especially with all you awesome cello bloggers out there. What I really can’t deal with is this constant feeling that I’m learning the wrong music, that what I’m learning isn’t relevant any longer. I feel like I’m at a wonderful, impressionable, formative time in the learning process and I wish that something could be done with it other than just shoving me into this bursting-at-the-seams classical box. Not only is it becoming increasingly irrelevant, it’s just not ME.

In the cello world I’m like a child still. I think there are very few people will take what I think about this seriously (I’ve been playing for only a year — what could I possibly know?) In fact, when most musicians talk to me after finding out I’ve been playing cello for so little time, they actually slow down their speech and raise their voices as if they were talking to a toddler. That’s how not-seriously people like to take an adult beginning instrumentalist. But I can’t help but feel from the discussions happening on Jon‘s blog and Eric‘s blog that I’m not wrong about this.

5 responses »

  1. wow – there’s a lot of different things going on here! It makes me a bit sad to hear the story of your childhood frustration and stubbornness…and send hopes that those kinds of encounters that seem to repeat the experience only dwindle as time goes by.

    Now, I have to admit, I am quite happy playing (or aspiring to play) canonical cello repertoire, but I can see that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It seems tricky to imagine there being another body of work from which to learn, as a beginner, though. I mean, regardless of what you play, to some degree the technique is surely always classical. And in order to go beyond classical music (I’m using the term loosely for all pre-20th C musics here) it seems like you have to have a handle on what’s come before. In the case of music this seems even more profound than, say, literature or painting, because it seems that music history “discovered” the possibilities of music — its building blocks and structures — in a more essential way than other arts (though I imagine that’s debated and debatable by those in the know). In terms of what musics we hold in our inner ear, maybe there could be a non-western way of approaching things, but how to access that systematically as a beginner seems nigh on impossible.

    But as I write this (with half an eye thinking about the other arts & humanities), it does make me think how maybe music is more vigorously canonized and institutionalized than other fields…I guess the word “conservatory” says it all. I should add, though, that as well as loving classical music itself, personally I do also love the sense of the connection to the history of its composers and players and the makers of its instruments… but I think that’s possible without being overly conservative or resistant to innovations and new potentials, and, of course, doesn’t stop you recognizing that it is just one story…

    Your hankerings for something else make me want to follow your long term cello story with all the more interest!

    I also think it’s great what a resource the blog can be — it was just fab to see all the responses to your query about The Sound, and it’s great that it’s opened dialogue between you and people like Jon and Eric who there might otherwise be no access to, as it were.

  2. Somehow this post got really crazy I think in part because I got up super early today and in part because my wrist was acting up and I couldn’t play cello. Usually it channels my tendency to overthink everything — probably should have worked on getting ahead on music theory instead.

    I wish I could be learning something non-western. I don’t mind a significant amount of western classical, but it gets old quickly. Maybe Feuillard would be better with some modern western classical in it. I just know that loving what I’m learning makes me learn a whole lot
    faster. I love baroque music and the pieces from that era always motivate me far more. Haydn and Schumann on the other hand inspire a whole lot of scale and open string practice.

    I agree it’s important to have a good grounding in all of this but the educational process doesn’t really do anything else. I bet there have been a lot of kids who quit playing because they don’t like the repertoire not because they don’t like the instrument. It seems that many of the people who make it the farthest are able to do so b/c they love the typical repertoire and then teach that and we just keep playing the same song for centuries. I’m just not happy with it.

    I’m someone who has never been into history for it’s own sake. Only what’s relevant to the here and now. So as far as music goes I’d like to play what I enjoy listening to. I’m not saying fuck western classical education. I just think it’s unbalanced.

    Also, yes, I think it’s totally awesome how blogging connects people who never could have met in real life. Certainly it has benefited ms greatly.

    • There is actually lots of different music out there for cello – just listen to Eric Friedlander or Zoe Keating… But you’re right, if you want a cello performance degree, you will need to perform lots of classical music.

      Playing devil’s advocate here…. Maybe you shouldn’t pursue a cello performance degree. There are actually lots of good instructors who will teach non-classical repertoire or will at least work with you on selecting pieces which would be interesting and challenging to you.

      I’m in Austin, TX and you’ll see some classically trained instructors note that they will also teach alternative styles. Your instructor is young. She should appreciate your dilemma.

      And I think you can go a long way in terms of learning to play the cello without actually going to college.

  3. This is one of the reasons I’ve been so interested in the slowly rising Alternative Strings programs in the US. While you didn’t feel these programs were “alternative enough”–I think it’s just the start of how music education is slowly changing. This happened at the k-12 level first, and now trickling into the University level. It’s only a matter of time before more universities start incorporating programs like this. Maybe by the time you’re ready, the infrastructure will be in place and ready for you! 😀

    • Jon- Considering the rate at which things are changing I sure hope it doesn’t take that long!!! I’m still happy about those programs you are talking about but I’m more focused on the lack of my current non-institutional opportunities. If I ever start feeling satisfied with only western classical training feel free to come to California and kick my butt and remind me why it’s far better to be dissatisfied in this way than to be happy with the music education status quo.

      Yew- Yes, I still want a formal education as much as I can get, even if it tortures me. Plus, I could always elect to specialize in baroque music — the only two universities near by have decent baroque ensembles. 🙂 For now I need to focus on learning what I can but I think it’s also important to remember what is in my heart. Assuming I ever get through a formal education I think it will serve me well.

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