Burning Out

I have to admit to burning out. Not on my workouts; in spite of ALL of my setbacks, I’m raring to go. Running has been going ok; virtually no pain as I slowly make my way through my amazing physical therapist’s recovery program.

I’m burned out on cello. I’ve had little or no pleasure the last year in playing, and teaching varies from being fun to real torture. Once a student asked me what I did to fight lack of motivation, and  I told her to schedule a recital, sign up for a music camp, or find a fun ensemble to join. Then I started thinking about whether I had ever burned out, and why.

It’s really not that different from exercise. If you have a race goal, or a long-term goal like a half-marathon or a sprint triathlon, all the training falls into place and eventually becomes fun as you feel yourself get stronger and see progress. If you just plug away with no end in sight, exercise and music both can become drudgery. It just stops being fun.

No goals, however, is basically a downward spiral. I did schedule a recital last year, and I’m really glad I did, but it was kind of a wake-up call to how far away from where I used to be, and, more importantly, where I could be with my cello.

When I was between 20 and 30 years old I lived in Marseille, France, where I subbed with the Marseille Opera orchestra. I used to watch the permanent members put their cello into lockers at night and think, “I’ll never do that. I’d bring my cello home and keep practicing.”

Years later, I’m the same age as some of those folks that were benching their cellos for the night. I only practice a minimum to be prepared for teaching or the local symphonies I play with. I have no recital goal this year, partially because I’ve taken on a heavier teaching load including a music theory class, and also because in the spring I will be learning and performing some extremely difficult music for a contemporary music ensemble, Peripherie (http://www.ensembleperipherie.com/), that will be on tour in March and then playing Carnegie Hall in the fall.

This weekend I participated in a local cello event at the University of Iowa. In addition to a huge cello orchestra, Marc Moskovitz (http://marcmoskovitz.com/Contact.html) gave an interesting lecture/recital about an obscure cello sonata by a Jewish Viennese composer from Wagner’s time named Zemlinsky. There was also a master class and scale class conducted by a wonderful British cellist named Colin Carr (http://www.barrettvantage.com/artist.php?id=ccarr), whom I had heard perform back in 2002 at the same event. In his presentation on warm-ups, Mr. Carr stressed that routine sometimes can equal boredom, that we have to trick ourselves into enjoying scales and warm-ups by making every note count and every note sound gorgeous.

One of the reasons I like training for triathlons is that between biking, swimming and running, I never get bored. Throw in some sit-ups and weight training and it’s a party.There’s really no difference in music; you can accept a plateau or you can keep trying to climb up to the next level. I thought hard this weekend about where I’ve gotten with my cello. I’ve decided that I have a choice; to move forward, or stay complacent.

But there’s no complacency in Phelps. I’m moving forward. Colin Carr’s inspiring class fell at a wonderful time because I had just launched a Scale Challenge for my students. They will log their time doing scales and warm-ups for the the month of October, and I’ve reserved an Itunes gift card for the Most Scales Practiced (1-2 or 3-4 octave categories), a local sheet music store (https://www.eble.com/store/) certificate for the Most Improved, and I just decided to add a Beat the Teacher category. Every week they can compete to surpass my time, and win a piece of Halloween candy. They’ve all created funny pseudonyms so that I can post a leader board every Sunday without shaming any of them. I’m proud to say that a great number of my 20-something private students have signed up!

Today I was about to go out the door to the gym and thought, “Wait, I need to do some scales first!” I sat down and played for about 20 minutes, but mostly focused on making abeautiful tone, having fun, and not sticking to a particular order or routine. I let my fingers race from one exercise to another, dwelling on one aspect that I found interesting or challenging and then moving on. Tomorrow it will be different. Perhaps longer, or more focused, but the important thing is that I’m back at it.

No more burning out. I’m on fire! Bring it on.

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