As a professional cellist, there is always a moment when I’m talking to someone when they say, “That is SO amazing that you can make a living as a musician.”They mean well.
Inevitably this comes at a time when I am having ends meet, or feel completely worked to the bone. I used to mutter something to that effect under my breath, but I’ve learned in middle age to be more gracious and respond, “You’re right. I’ve very lucky.”
Sometimes it is very easy to lose track of why we are putting a lot of effort into something that isn’t easy. Often it’s not fun to spend hours at my instrument trying to learn a difficult passage, or sitting in a rehearsal with a conductor who is stopping us every two notes to tweak something until we get it exactly the way they want it. My back hurts, my wrist hurts and even my fingers hurt sometimes after 5 hours of orchestra rehearsals in one day.
There is always a point in the year that many musicians feel “burnout.” Right now, for instance, the Brewmaster and I have no free weekends looming on our calendar for two months. There are three folders of music in my cello case that I need to learn for the next sets, and I feel like I have no time to practice. My students don’t seem to be at all ready for their end of semester juries and are not actually implementing the changes we discuss every lesson.
When I was in college, I went to one of the top music schools, Oberlin Conservatory. It took lots of practicing and time with my cello away from other social activities in high school to get in to Oberlin. I didn’t mind too much at the time as I found a lot of things like school dances, sporting events and going to the mall mundane and boring. But when I got to Oberlin, it felt like I had already made a career choice. Although I was double-majoring because my father and I to some degree had doubts about whether I could make a decent living in just music alone, my heart was in music.
But all of a sudden I found myself among lots of other really fine musicians. The self-doubts became stronger, especially when I realized that I couldn’t physically put the same amount of time in that they were because of my double-major. So I switched my college major from pre-med to French, which came easily.
In spite of French being kind of fun (especially when I finally got to travel to France during a semester abroad in London), I couldn’t imagine making a career around teaching or translating. It was less work, but soon I realized that I had no satisfaction from doing something that wasn’t rewarding in any way.
And that is simply because art changes us. You can walk into a concert in one mood and walk out completely transformed because you were moved by one musical passage. I can’t say that about many other professions outside of music, art and dance. Perhaps literature and poetry; other professions that make people shake their heads and say, “Wow, that is really cool that you can make a living as a writer.”
Ballet Boy is facing some serious challenges as a dancer and justifiably questioning why he is getting up every day and beating up his body from 9-4 or later. It’s hard to see the carrot when you are in a daily grind, and mom-bias aside, he is a bright young man who could do anything he wants in life. When he entered Houston Ballet Academy’s pre-professional program last fall, he had to leave any sense of normalcy for a teen ager and start work, at a very young age.
And work is not fun. Recently I accepted to do some temporary work at a scheduling job I did ten years ago. There is nothing fun about sitting in front of a computer entering data, or feeling like the messenger who is being shot when you follow protocol. There is really nothing meaningful about being a secretary for me, and I thank the people who can do it graciously.
I don’t think the POTUS gets up every morning, looks at his agenda, and says, “Let’s see how I can make this more fun.” But I do know that he probably cherishes those family trips to Hawaii or shooting hoops with his Secret Service men. We all need an outlet for stress.
At one point, I found exercise as an outlet. In middle age, running remains very hard work and not a lot of fun for me. But the satisfaction that I get from feeling stronger and better mentally after running makes it worth it. We all need to find balance in life, which is even harder for athletes because they can’t just go out and exercise more to relieve their stress. This is where finding something else, like cooking, gardening, singing, walking a dog or volunteering at a shelter brings balance.
The little things in life that bring us peace like laughing with friends, doing yoga or meditation, having a great meal with loved ones are not work, but they lighten the load so that I can face my workload again.
Last night I was fortunate to play Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It is a very long and complex work that puts musicians through their paces technically and endurance-wise, as it lasts almost two hours with no break. After 5 rehearsals and a concert in 3 days, I’m wondering if I have the energy to go play with as much passion as I did last night at today’s matinee. But I know that not only the collective desire of my colleagues to do well will carry me today, it’s the knowledge that I’m truly blessed to be able to share this music with a live audience. Many people listening today will be moved by Mahler’s incredibly haunting melodies for the first time, and I know that everyone in the hall will leave transformed in some way.
So this morning I will sit in the sun a while, look at my beautiful hyacinths and daffodils which are bursting into bloom, and be thankful that today work is art.