Cellists at WMU have a unique experience. Our studio-life blends together with orchestra since we are unified by having just one orchestra and our studio professor, Bruce Uchimura, serves as its maestro.
I’m not sure what other sections in USO see when they look at us in rehearsal. Maybe… an eclectic mix under the watchful eye of our Hawaiian overlord. We have no shortage of personality, strong personalities at that. We hail from every corner of the state of Michigan (St. Joseph, Detroit, Flint, and Manistee to name a few), national locations (D.C and Hawaii), and even international homelands (Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and even Northern Iraq). Each member brings a unique set of talents to the table. Yet what really binds us is our constant support of each other. I am so grateful of that. Even with our petty conflicts, comedic antics, or competitive spirit, it is the love of making music and seeing each other succeed that drives us forward. As section leader and as a section member, in studioclass or in private lessons, I always thought that it was my duty to serve and help you as a graduate assistant. But I now realize that is all of you who have taught me the most invaluable lessons of my graduate degree. Thank you for your patience, your tolerance, and most of all, your support.
Today is my last USO concert, and perhaps, my last university orchestra concert of my academic career. The program includes Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the Frank Martin Ballade for Flute featuring Maria Vizcarra, William Kraft’s Timpani Concerto featuring Amber Feltrin, and the John Williams Tuba Concerto featuring Chance Huiet. The highlight for me, and I think the rest of the section, is the Rossini’s William Tell Overture with its famous five-part cello section solo. The fun begins at 3:00 in the Miller Auditorium!
Do you ever think about milestones in your life and wonder, “how did I even do that?” When I reminisce about repertoire I played in middle school, high school, or even undergrad, the only answer to that question is that “I was too stupid to know what I was doing.” This feeling extends even to this last academic year. I am dumbfounded when I look back on the program of my fall recital, the Six Preludes of the Bach Cello Suites and Bright Sheng’s Seven Tunes Heard in China. Was that really me? How did I even do that? I tell myself, yes, that was me and I did it by working my tail off: six months of preparation, four public performances, and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
I am asking myself the same question the day before this second recital. Two and a half months of preparation, no public performances, and a whole lot of rehearsing with three brilliant pianists: Debussy Sonata with Sarah Amos, Shostakovich Sonata with Tina Gorter, and three new compositions by and with Gene Knific. It has been a challenge for me since the rules that applied to the former program do not apply to this one.
When I set these two programs side by side, I realize how much yang and yin they have. The fall recital was all about digging deep, pushing forward, and finding the guts to play a solo program all alone on the recital hall stage. I had to find the strength to carry it myself. This spring program is a completely different beast. Digging deep doesn’t work since I’m only playing a fraction of the notes. I have to go beyond myself by exploring the score and the musical ideas presented by your duo partner. Pushing forward isn’t a effective strategy because I am in stride with another artist. Collaboration and compromise means finding a pace at which we can both run. And guts? The truly terrifying experience of this program has not been finding the strength to hang on but seeking the ability to let go.
When I say “let go” I mean the act of surrendering to the realm of possibility, that in performance, anything can happen. Trouble spots I’ve practiced ten-thousand times all of a sudden feel insecure while sections I’ve worried about for months go off without a hitch. As is always the case with chamber music, we have to dance in step together so that means fitting what you are doing with another independent agent. And that final question, "will the adrenaline hurt me or help me?" Yes, this is the true terror of performance. Change, unpredictable and uncontrollable change. The fear of the unknown is so strong that I have even found myself answering the questions about my program preparation with “I don’t think its going to be good…” I would rather it be negative than not know what it will be. I would rather set myself up for failure than consider that I have no real control over what will happen.
Over the course of the last few months I have had to discover another way of being, partly through the discipline of cello, but also from practicing yoga. The other day, as I was sitting on my mat, I said to myself calmly, “what am I feeling?” I answered back “Actually… I feel terrible… horribly anxious and I know I shouldn’t, I should be more prepared than this, I should be acing this I should… ” The blockage wasn’t the anxiety itself, it was the expectation that I should be sailing through this with ease. I came to the conclusion that “yup, that’s a silly expectation to put on yourself, so just be okay being worried about it.” It was at that point that everything became okay.
Just kidding. That’s a complete lie. Everything was not okay nor will it be but the important point is that I accepted that it wasn’t so I could move forward. Being open, and therefore vulnerable, to what will or will not happen, is the way of decisive action. When mental space is created, one can rationally and expressively react outwards rather than emotionally and instinctively retract inwards. As Mr. Starker always said with a slight smirk, “don’t get excited, create excitement.”
So, if you want to experience some excitement, come to my final recital program at WMU at 6:00 tomorrow night in the Lecture Hall at the Dalton Center. It is a collaborative concert featuring Sarah Amos, Tina Gorter, and Gene Knific on piano.
This Wednesday (April 15th) at 8:06 PM, you can turn your dial to 102.1 FM and listen to the WMU Cello Quartet Cellicatessen on WMUK’s Let’s Hear It.
WMUK is my default station as I commute around the greater Kalamazoo area. So I was very excited when our host, Cara Lieurance, invited Adriana Fernandez Vizcaino, Allyson Perez Monsanto, Jordan Hamilton, and me into the Yoshimi Takeda Performance Studio to play some of our repertoire and talk about our lives as cellists. On the program, you can expect to hear music by Astor Piazzolla, Johann Strauss Jr., Julius Klengel, an original composition by our own Allyson Monsanto, and even a couple arrangements by yours truly. Topics of discussion in our interview session range from some colorful biographical information to our views on what makes being a cellist great. If you are interested to know more about WMUK's Let's Here It, you can find past programs here http://wmuk.org/term/lets-hear-it or follow WMUK on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/wmuk102. A special thanks to Cara Lieurance for producing our session, Martin Klemm our sound engineer, and the staff at WMUK.
I don’t want to give away too much since I want you to tune in, either on the radio or online at http://wmuk.org/, but here is a recording of the one of the songs that was arranged specially for this program:
My recent hiatus from writing was a result of some soul-searching. That phrase soul-searching has always interested me since it suggests that there is some kind of cavernous space inside a person that merits exploring, and what you find, is something of value. After two competitions, one at the University of Oklahoma and the other at Western Michigan University, I learned that I had reached multiple limits. I had done everything I could, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to organize and prepare myself. Yet, even with my efforts, I could not shake my frustration over the outcomes. It was not the burn of “losing” but the bitter resentment that I did my best and my best was still not enough. This frustration didn’t wash away but lingered in my practicing. With another recital and a string of concerts approaching, I was feeling the pressure building.
What ultimately released this pressure was a series of fortunate events which perhaps are best explained by an examination of a movie. If you haven’t seen the film, Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer, Andrew, and his brutal instructor, Fletcher, whose methods can best be described as “the means justifies the ends”. Physical assault, verbal abuse, and emotional manipulation are just Fletcher’s tools of the trade as he “[pushes] people beyond what’s expected of them”. Fletcher justifies his cruelty, malice, and sadistic nature claiming that it will produce the next “great”, the next legend of jazz. Andrew, as a driven and impressionable young man, eats it up. Like a zealot kneeling before the altar of wrathful god, he punishes himself with practice until, literally, he bleeds on his drumset. This continues until Andrew convinces himself that yes, the path to greatness requires sacrifice and what he must throw upon the pyre is his humanity.
Andrew makes two claims in this scene.
(1) He has no need for friends.
(2) The hallmark of success is being “great” both in ability level and notoriety.
Thus, he has bound his self-worth and sense of identity to how well he can play and how well people know how well he can play all while disregarding personal relationships. So too Fletcher, as the mentor who has no qualms about throwing chairs at his students heads, couldn’t care less about the well-being of the person as long as they are the perfect musician. This is why, in my opinion, Whiplash is a fantastic drama of the silver screen but a strangely misguided celebration of the life’s most toxic and intoxicating drug: the ego.
I think that the ego, while happy to feed on petty victories like external validation or short-term gains such as pleasure, is a glutton for negative thoughts. And with a limitless feast of that comes from being in an intensive program such as the fiction “Shaffer Music Conservatory”, the cruel tutelage of a teacher, the inherent pressures of a competitive industry, or simply the stress of trying to perform at your best, the very fragile and sensitive ego is sent into a dangerous tailspin.
For me, there was no Fletcher throwing chairs at my head but there was an equally cruel and unforgiving force in my mind. My ego had built offensive and defensive mechanisms to protect itself from present, past, and future threats. Every moment I was on guard. “Don’t miss that shift… Don’t play out of tune. What would such-and-such teacher / student say about how that sounded?” If I wasn’t constantly distracting myself with backseat-driver directions I would revisit past failures or worry about future disasters. The worst part about it was that for every painful experience, either real or imagined, it would spawn another series of overreactions which would lead to more pain, etc. The vicious circle had consumed me.
One of the main factors that broke the cycle was a mock-interview with Julie Nemire, Director of Academic Advising for the College of Fine Arts and Brad Wong, School of Music Director. After being gently grilled with questions that would likely be asked in an application process, Mr. Wong and I discussed my career options. I know I put people in a difficult position when I ask them, “what do you think I should do when I grow up”, but Mr. Wong gave me sage words of advice which I will summarize:
While a developed resume, prolific performing career, or pedagogical prowess are all important factors, the question is not “what can I do” but should be “what can I contribute”.
Like the crash of the cymbal, my mind hit surprising clarity. I realized why I had identified with Andrew’s character, I realized why I had “reached my limit”, and I realized what was really important to me. My personal self-worth, like Andrew, had depended on how well I could play my instrument, how well I could teach, or how intelligent I could be. Moreover, respect and admiration from my students, teachers, and peers could only be earned by being “legit”. This incredible amount of pressure I put upon myself was fueled by the negative cycles of my mind. Yet when I re-framed the entire situation to “contribute”, it all made sense. The blood, sweat, and tears spent in the practice is not for my own personal glory, it is so that I may tell the narrative of the composer to an audience or be at a level to collaborate with a colleague. Perfection was not a virtue or even an ideal that was worth any value because it lacked meaning. Thus, the pressure to achieve unrealistic standards, fed by my ego, was no longer a worthy purpose.
This is not to say that it is not my goal to achieve a high level. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. I am happy to announce that in the fall I will begin my DMA in Cello Performance at the University of Oklahoma studying with Professor Jonathan Ruck while serving as graduate assistant to the musicology department. A journey on my cellistic odyssey is about to set sail I look forward to exploring what the future may hold.