The last couple days, since my wrist has been bothering me, I’ve had far, far, far, far, FAR too much time to think. Playing cello is both a wonderful distraction from and a great way to channel my mind. I can’t help but think to myself No wonder you were so depressed before you started playing cello! But, since I’m trying not to turn a minor injury into a permanent one, I haven’t played today other than at my lesson. It doesn’t hurt while playing — on the contrary playing soothes it — but I don’t want to risk it.
Today’s lesson was really interesting. One of the things that plagues me is how sometimes I will play something beautifully — really I mean nearly as beautifully as my teacher can play it — other times I can play it decently, and a lot of the time I just plain ol’ FAIL. I’ve largely attributed this to being a beginner, the inconsistency thing, but after today’s lesson I’m realizing that, at least for the particular issues we worked on today, I’ve just been making excuses for having a lack of awareness of what I’m doing. Take, for example, shifts that I find particularly hard. When I fail it’s not usually an intonation problem. It’s more like I get there but it’s sloppy and I somehow end up doing something weird with the bow like speeding it up or easing up on the pressure while shifting. That happens when I’m not actively thinking about the shift at all. When it sounds good but not beautiful I’m thinking about it while I’m doing it. It sounds even better when I think about it a note ahead of time. But when it sounds really and truly pretty is when I am able to think it through before I even start playing, when it’s not a bunch of separate notes, but this difficult shift is part of a whole and I integrate it all in my mind. I find this hard to do — it’s not just one shift I have to do this with since so much of playing is still so new to me, particularly with bowing. But when I can do it, it’s lovely.
We also worked on something that she saw demonstrated at the ASTA conference she went to earlier in the month. Some poor kid had to get up on stage with his teacher and play a scale while his teacher asked him increasingly difficult questions — “What’s your name?” “What’s your birthday?” “What’s that on the wall over there?” and so forth. He failed miserably but it was apparently funny to watch. I can’t remember what she said this point of this was. Something about the multitasking that we’re required to do as musicians. She was trying to relate it to something I was having trouble with. I was feeling very confused by something at the time, so my brain is a bit muddled thinking about this. But she decided to have me do the same thing this poor kid did, except she made it far more complex. She was asking me questions while we played a duet. While I was concentrating on listening to one aspect of her playing. Plus working on a new aspect of my playing. I did better than expected the first try — I managed to answer that my name is Elysia and I was born on September 21 (I failed at telling her my favorite color is purple) but my playing was abysmal in all ways possible. We tried again, this time I managed it and I stopped thinking so hard about all the other things I was trying to do. I was in time with her, was sort of able to listen to her dynamics, was able to work on my end of things this time (sort-of — at least I didn’t run out of bow this time) and I answered all her questions until the end of the phrase. Okay, so my playing was ugly, but I was able to have an irrelevant not-so-sophisticated conversation while we played together. Then it was time to play the whole song and have more of a real conversation. She asked me how my neighbor, her old student, was. When was the last I saw him, what did we talk about, how was his mom, what was she doing last I saw her, how was her garden, what was she growing, how I’m liking the nice spring weather, etc. And then the end of the song was there. Somehow in all that I added an extra quarter note, but instead of getting tripped up we got back on track without really thinking about it. Also of note was that each question was asked and answered on a downbeat. It was a really great lesson on how to NOT think too much about what I’m doing.
But back to thinking too much…
During my lifetime I have disappointed every single teacher I have had in every single subject, academic or not. I barely got out of college — the university would have begun the formal procedure of kicking me out had I not graduated the quarter that I did. I was on academic probation the entire time I was at UC Davis, which was particularly funny since I graduated with a 3.5 GPA and until I started working in my 3rd year had a 3.93 average. I was great at figuring out the system of late-drops, withdrawals, etc. This is what landed me on academic probation quarter after quarter — many of which I actually was on various Dean’s honor lists, but I was also on academic probation at the same time. I had a very special brand of failing, much to the bafflement of my professors, one of whom thought I was the most brilliant student to have walked through his door in the 30+ years he had been teaching. I would run into him frequently on campus and he always had the saddest, most disappointed look on his face. His favorite, most brilliant student he’d ever had was the biggest failure of a student he ever had. And this doesn’t include the failed year at UC San Diego or any other activities in which I was a student.
The reason I’m thinking about this is in fact related to cello — I want this to be the only thing I’ve ever done in my life where I don’t crash and burn (or at least the one thing where I just pick things up and keep on going if I do.) In many ways playing cello is different than anything else I’ve done in my entire life: I’ve worked far harder at it than anything else, I’ve encountered infinitely more places where I’ve gotten stuck, and I actually give a shit. While in school I never had to work at anything and I never got stuck. Well, I got stuck once or twice, but I didn’t give a shit, so I moved on to something else.
You see, I am one of those people who somehow got IQ tested as a kid. I was told I was a genius and that they couldn’t accurately measure my IQ because it was actually that high. I found out about this from a teacher who rather inappropriately passed this information on to me. I didn’t understand the implications of this and asked my mother about it. I was taught that it was good to be smart, but that we should never show it off. She kept me out of honor classes, advanced programs, etc. because she thought they produced bratty, stuck-up, entitled kids. To an extent she was right, but they outgrew this after high school and are far more successful now than any of my other peers. She had an hands-off approach with my education, figuring that since I did so well at everything she didn’t need to do much, I think. I was bored, but I would have been bored in advanced classes too. This boredom continued throughout college. I remember one econ class very distinctively. It was taught by a visiting professor who I thought was awful, so I decided not to go to class or do homework or read the book. I showed up for the midterms and the final, ready to derive whatever formulas were needed to answer the questions and happy to BS my way through free-response answers. I got a B+ in the class, but only because I didn’t do any homework. My whole educational experience was odd — I excelled at whatever intellectual task I was given but I was never really encouraged to do anything extra and was never especially interested in anything. In the end, by which I mean as of right now, I feel as if I’m the poster child for why being a genius doesn’t have a damn thing to do with success in life.
For some reason I’ve been oddly accepting of my own lack of success in anything. Yes, it has always bothered me, but I never gave a shit about anything enough to actually do anything differently. But then cello came along. This thing that I picked to learn because I thought it would be hard. It was the best decision I could have made. It turns out that something being hard makes me care about learning it. The mystery of it all, the uncertainty, is what makes it interesting. But because I care so much, I’m terrified that I will fail just as I have in everything else I’ve ever done. The other day in my theory class my professor asked the class a question. I didn’t answer of course, though I knew the solution to her problem. I learned in college it was better to never engage professors — it was the only way to guarantee I wouldn’t disappoint them. No one answered my professor. But then she looks at me and says “I know you know.” That tone I’ve heard so many times, the one with the smirk and the eyebrow raise, the one that turns to disappointment before they’re through with me. All I could think was Fuck. All I will do is disappoint you. That’s all I ever do, in the end. My teacher seems to have a similar impression of me as well. She has said several times that she doesn’t understand why I make such fast progress. She is more reserved about it, thankfully never makes a big deal, but I can’t help but fear that I will one day become a great disappointment to her too.
Now I have a task, an impossible task it seems, of not just not failing, but of succeeding at something that it is pretty much impossible for me to succeed at. I keep thinking about the whys of my failures in life, but that post would take days and days to write. I keep thinking about how I might avoid them, or figure out a way to work with them. But how the hell does one fix a lifetime of neuroses? And how in the world can I possibly succeed (in the ways I’d really like to) at playing cello having started so late in life?