Repetition creates reality

The article I mentioned in a previous post about the top three things undergraduates should do to maximize their time at university is now online at The print edition of the September 2013 issue featured this next to responses by some pretty big names–Atar Arad and Mimi Rabson–as well as a positively enormous photograph of yours truly. I blinked with amazement and had one of those “I’m a fraud!” moments that professional women are apparently so prone to. I had to give myself quite a stern talking-to about believing in oneself and aiming high.

Having recovered some composure, I read the other interviewees’ thought-provoking responses. I particularly liked Rabson’s instruction that students should take care of themselves physically. I’ll be the first to admit that classical musicians are seldom athletes, and it’s so easy to fall into the traps of over-caffeination, sleep deprivation, and poor planning that you can end up an utter wreck.

This got me thinking that perhaps one of my three instructions should have been something about taking emotional care of oneself too. (Right after my attack of impostor syndrome… Teacher, teach thyself!) In my early twenties, when I was living first in London and then in Texas, I had a string of professional disappointments, one after another. I couldn’t figure out why, even though I practised assiduously, I kept flubbing audition after audition. Every blow to my ego seemed to make it more difficult to pick myself up and keep trying. It was an unpleasant cycle of failure, and left me feeling very glum indeed.

It took until my late twenties to figure out that even though I had a certain measure of self-confidence that kept me from junking the entire thing and going into a more employable profession, I wasn’t exactly being kind to myself. My interior monologue was a never-ending barrage of self-criticism and reproach. I almost don’t like to admit that reading self-help books brought me out of this relentlessly negative frame of mind, but they really did. After one of those all-night conversations about self-esteem that you can only have in your twenties when no one has a job, a mortgage or a child, a friend handed me a well-thumbed copy of You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay. Since she’d started practising Hay’s meditations, she told me, she’d won every audition she went for. This sounded too good to be true, but I took the book home all the same. The psychedelically-coloured cover nearly put me off, but I’m so glad I looked inside. I think we should probably disregard the sections where Hay claims you can heal actual medical conditions with the power of affirmations, but there’s a great deal of wisdom in her central proposition that changing our default way of speaking to ourselves can greatly improve our lives.

An affirmation, after all, is just something you repeat many times until you’ve learned it by heart. You might even say that cello practice, with its multiple repetitions of troublesome passages, is a kind of affirmation. This being the case, it stands to reason that repeating an idea will eventuate in our learning that idea as our own “truth.” As Sissy Spacek’s character remarks in the iconic Civil Rights film The Long Walk Home, if someone tells you something enough times when you’re seven years old, you start to believe it. Whether that thing is offensive racist hate speech or ugly self-torment, repetition will create your reality.

Cheesy yellow cover and all, did You Can Heal Your Life help me? Well, I’m sitting here with a job and a few other things I coveted greatly when I was younger, so it may have. In any case, I find that life is far happier when you replace “I screwed up this…and this…and this! Why can’t I play anything accurately?” with “I did wonderfully. Now, let’s just tweak a few things…what would happen if I changed this bowing here and this fingering here, and started building my crescendo a bit later? Great, I think this way really has possibilities!”

I tend to give out a lot of copies of You Can Heal Your Life, but there are two other books that have had equally profound effects on my career and general feelings of well-being: Energy Medicine by Donna Eden and The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. The first was immensely helpful to me in getting into the right frame of mind for successful performances, and the second helped me break the addictive cycle of perfectionism and procrastination that so many of us suffer from. I recommend them to all musicians and…well, all human beings, really.


Reading cues

I recently heard a radio interview with a professional poker player who made the interesting observation that it’s more difficult for him to play with amateur players than with other professionals, because the amateurs made less predictable moves. I barely know the rules of poker, since my Calvinist/Women’s Temperance Union genes have endowed me with a lifelong distrust of gambling, but I was sufficiently intrigued to Google the differences between typical professional and amateur poker moves. I couldn’t really understand the intricacies of the jargon, but as far as I could tell, most agreed that the main difference was knowing when to fold. The player in the interview complained that he often lost to amateur players because he couldn’t predict what they were trying to do. They were, he explained, more reckless than professional players, probably because the stakes were lower.

I assume that he meant that it matters greatly to a professional whether he or she wins the tournament, because the money is his or her livelihood. Blowing $2,000 or so presumably means less to the amateur, who gets a paycheque from somewhere else.

It struck me that there must be many similarities between professional poker and professional music. Like most  professional musicians who play orchestral instruments, I do my share of ring-in gigs with semi-professional orchestras, where I’m called upon to lead a section of good amateurs. I’ve often felt, sheepishly, that I sometimes don’t play as well in these gigs as I know I can. This isn’t, I hasten to add, because I’m not prepared, or not trying. But I notice that I occasionally make mistakes that I normally never would, such as coming in slightly earlier or slightly later than the others, and even–to my mortification–playing out of tune. The interview with the poker player made me wonder whether this happened because I couldn’t predict how amateur players would cue me, how they’d respond to my cues, and how our sounds would blend. Nor could I predict how sharp the ensemble would go throughout the performance, or whether the other players would fight the rising of the pitch the way professional groups might.

In my observation, the top difference between professional and amateur orchestral musicians, besides the obvious fact that professionals rely on gig money to pay the rent and amateurs don’t, is their response to cues. Conductors of amateur ensembles know that the players’ response to their beat will be slower than that of professionals, because less experienced players want to “test” the note before committing to it for fear it’ll be an incorrect entry or out of tune. Professionals are expected to be more on the front side of the beat: “loud and proud, strong and wrong,” as the saying goes. (Not too wrong, one hopes.) They’re expected to give and respond to cues quickly, sensitively, and accurately. It’s a learned skill, acquired–like all musical skills–by many, many repetitions.

An analogy with sport might be the notion of keeping one’s eye on the ball. Every primary school PE teacher shouts this over and over, and yet, how many players actually do it? More specifically, how many of them think they’re doing it, but aren’t? Could this, too, be one of the top differences between professionals and amateurs?

This works both ways, of course. Amateur players often remark how energizing it is to have a professional ring-in, who usually plays with a bigger sound and a more “forward” concept of leading than they’re used to. It’s not only a professional vs. amateur thing, either. I’ve had the good fortune to play with some amazing musicians whose presence in the ensemble was like a shot of adrenaline to the chest. I’ll always treasure the memory of Christmas Day, 2007, when Geri Walther, violist of the Takacs Quartet, asked my quartet to read through some Mozart string quintets with her at my landlady’s party. What was most striking about the experience was how easy it was to play in tune and together. It was as if she infected us all with her unbelievably beautiful sound and phrasing and drew us out of ourselves into something greater than the sum of our parts.

Maybe there are analogous differences between professionals and amateurs in any art, sport, or game. As long as something looks like fun, there will be a lot of people who want to do it; their motivations will differ just as much as their moves.

Where poetry begins

When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer, not a musician. The problem was that I had nothing much to write about, so I went into music instead.

Aside from a few awful adolescent attempts, I’ve never written poetry, but I’m a passionate reader of other people’s. When I’m sitting down at my computer to attempt an article, usually wondering what on earth I’m going to say, I find myself thinking of Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet No. 34 from Astrophel and Stella:

Come, let me write. And to what end? To ease
A burthened heart. How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily vexing care?

Poetry provokes ideas in me when I’m learning music, too. It’s hard, in the practice room, to inspire oneself with the energy of the concert hall–the quickness of response, the flash of fire in the blood, the feeling that time has slowed down and every tiny movement is crucially important. That’s where the powerfully suggestive magic of poetry comes in.

Among the stacks of scores in my binder of music to learn for the coming year are Bloch’s Cello Suites Nos. 1, 2, and 3. Some days ago I was having trouble finding the right mood for the third movement of the third; the compound time signature and terraced dynamics seemed to suggest a sort of neo-Baroque gigue, but my attempts at jaunty phrasing didn’t work. Frustrated, I took myself for a walk around the garden. Out of nowhere I thought of some lines from Dylan Thomas:

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

I had a sudden vision of the dying Bloch, exiled to the wild Oregon coast, his frail body ravaged with cancer. Was he resigned, or furious with his fate? I rushed back to the cello and played the forte sections with as much “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” as I could manage. The contrasting piano sections I thought of as going “gentle into that good night,” only to be interrupted savagely by the “rage.” (I even scrawled “Rage, rage!” above the staff.) Would this flight of wild imagining stand up in a court of law, much less a court of musicology? Probably not, but it made me play better.

On another occasion, I found myself making pretty heavy weather of the last few bars of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata. It’s hard to find something new to say about a piece that some feel has degenerated, through generations of sentimental performances, into hackneyed schmaltz. A work of Rachmaninoff’s late twenties, he wrote it after recovering from a serious depressive episode during which he felt that he couldn’t compose. The third movement should be a thing of beauty and nobility–a sort of Russian Heiliger Dankgesang, not a piece of light music to accompany distracted tea-parties.


It wasn’t until I read Milton’s Lycidas that I really figured out what I wanted to say in Rachmaninoff. A line,

Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth

seemed to jump out of the book at me, as such lines usually do. (“Ruth,” a word that doesn’t exist in modern English, originally meant the opposite of “ruthless.”) These days, whenever I play the end of this movement, I try to make my sound “melt.” Sometimes I even sing the last four notes in my head: “…now, melt…with ru-u-u-u-uth.”

I’m pretty sure Beethoven would look askance at the lines from The Waste Land that I wrote above the last line of his Piano Trio op. 1 no. 1 (“I sat upon the shore/Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”), but they help me to convey the way the cello line simply trails off, after a long and turbulent movement, into silence. And what an intriguingly ambiguous way to do it, with the violin on the dominant and the cello on the mediant of the chord, rather than on the tonic, which conveys more of a sense of finality. Who on earth would end a piece like this in the polite aristocratic drawing rooms of 1795? What, Herr Beethoven, no perfect authentic cadence? No crash to let us know it’s finished? (You might even say it ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.)