Three months have passed since the move.
In my previous post, I wrote about events which enveloped me in ‘fruit radiance’: the Ricciotti Ensemble Tour, a starburst of inspiration, positive energy and love. This music project was one of the biggest gifts life had ever given me. I’d never played music in this way before, where the focus and ethos was purely on sharing joy with each other and caring for the public.
Yes! my inner voice said, This is what music is all about!
I was ready to dedicate my entire life to music again. I had graduated and was free to experiment, fuelled by those 4 extra years of perspective from the degree and the powerful stories of the Ricciotti musicians; it’s never too late to change your path and follow your dreams, however old you are. It is a gift to focus on your talent and strengths and have a career based solely on those aspects.
Being musician is often described as a journey of personal development. This intangible fairy dust called music, entwines itself around you, like vines do on trees, as you grow day by day. Since starting piano aged 5, violin aged 6, my body, intuition and consciousness have been constantly shaped and influenced by this invisible magic. I’ve learned so many techniques, performed beautiful repertoire, worked with challenging conductors, travelled the world. I developed strong ears and flexible hands; self-awareness, communication skills and an ability to focus, which today, in this highly distracted world, are rare qualities to be found.
When my undergraduate degree ended, I looked back on how far I’d come with my playing. I was proud and impressed; even though I didn’t study music full time, I had worked hard enough to keep playing at a high level, share my talent with others by coaching and teaching, perform with renowned ensembles. My talent seemed to bloom even more once I had left music school. ‘Woah, do you really study law? I thought you studied music.’
The itch never left me to follow this dreamworld of perpetual fruit radiance. I decided to give music one final chance and threw myself onto this path once I finished my law degree. It’s now or never, I thought. If it goes wrong, at least I tried one last time for myself. I came to this decision entirely on my own. I was fortunate to have enough savings to move to a new, more affordable city where I could have a fresh start, take time off to focus on practising and perfecting my playing, strengthening my muscles, look for teachers and apply for schools.
I knew doing this was quite crazy, but at the same time it made so much sense to go and test if it was right for me. Who cares what people think, you’re doing it for yourself. I had the support of my friends. Of course you’re able to do it; the only person stopping you is your own self-doubt. I knew it was going to be really hard work, but I thought, man it’s worth it for all the dazzling, emotional experiences you get from playing and performing. I was determined to persist and fight for it. For, in this ambitious world, you only live once to craft your identity. As Milan Kundera writes:
“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)
Those who have followed my blog from the beginning will be familiar with my bumpy relationship with music. When I was 17, I wrote about saying goodbye to my old life in music school. (How little I have changed; I’m still in no man’s land!) I continued playing for fun during my whole university life; then in my 3rd year, after Sistema, Strasbourg and the BBC Prom, I believed that I had every possibility to pursue it. I thought I knew people, the industry. I had played everywhere, in the Carribean and in China.
It was down to me to make a decision and commit to it. I tried to prepare for auditions in my final year at university, planning with great detail what repertoire to learn, visiting schools in Holland. But once again I burned out and became miserable, unsatisfied by the little reward I gained from practising 3-4 hours a day. How could such beautiful experiences in music turn sour? Because expectation and pressure were reintroduced into process.
Still hopeful and optimistic, I thought maybe the academic demands of law school prevented me from properly concentrating on it. Hence, I gave myself one more chance after university. Surely in this new city I could find enough silence and refuge from distraction, out of which music could flourish. How can you hear music in your head when there is so much other information passing through?
But now, three months into full immersion in this new artistic lifestyle, I am exhausted, disillusioned, hurt. The journey of classical violin is extremely narrow and arduous. While I knew I didn’t want to just play classical, I thought that studying it would give me the best training and enable me to play in whatever style I liked. But living for music became a chore and I wasn’t happy with how I was playing.
In hindsight, by focussing on auditions I was actually damaging myself, forcing my talent into a box, placing a burden on myself to get better every day; meanwhile never feeling like I made any beautiful sounds. I thought that these expectations and pressures were from other people (teachers, friends, family) but in truth they were wholly self-inflicted. Playing became an uglier experience because of my attachment to music and the expectations to which I held it accountable.
A wonderful violinist, Gordan Nikolic, once said that ‘Everything in music is about relationships.’ This aphorism burns in me like the very life force coming out of my heart. Music and I are like two people in a relationship who found each other by chance and know they belong to each other, whilst diverging and disagreeing on certain issues. I loved music so much, treasured it as a gift of life. I devoted hours and energy to our co-existence; for to get the rewards you have to set high standards for yourself. Fighting and persisting, I hoped that one day fulfilment and happiness would come. I expected music to give me joy and meaning in return every step of the way. But this was unrealistic and left me feeling even more hollow.
I had been looking through rose-tinted contact lenses at the memories of musical experiences. One fact I’ve recently discovered, after these 17 years, is the reason why I love ensemble-playing so much and hated solo performance. For me playing with other people became one of the key sources of comfort from a life of loneliness. From birth I’d grown up without an extended family, and then went to boarding school, aged 12. Music brought me into a family where I felt I belonged, mattered and had an identity. I never wanted to leave a world where people cared for each other and loved what they did. Moreover, I was delighted to play in a way which was not ego-driven, but community-driven. I didn’t have to focus on perfection, but rather on harmonising my energy with those around me.
But even these moments in orchestras are temporary, and furthermore, I was chasing an image of happiness that is born primarily from youth orchestras. The build-up and nerves are monumental, the performance happens! and then you’re alone again, numb, twiddling your thumbs wondering what to do next. It takes a lot of will-power to continue your work in the practice room. You think, okay, it will be worth it soon in the long run, I’m going to get there, wherever ‘there’ is. But you never do.
And if we zoom out, the fun and joy of touring around weakens as we get older. The professional world is not always about love and respect of music; the sparkles are blown away over time. (I felt this on a professional tour last Christmas. Everyone was bored and unhappy 2 concerts into a 6 show-tour.) It is draining to build a life and salary by relying on pleasures which come and go unpredictably, and which cost a person so much time and energy every single day. More frustrating is knowing that chasing after such pleasures actually crushes one’s talent and stifles others which you want to enjoy, like writing, reading, cooking. Forcing talent means also suffocating the natural life of music. For if the person is suffocated, how is music allowed to breath through them?
Being a full-time musician requires certain physical and mental demands. While they can be nurtured by individual attention and work, there is also a natural pace at which your body and brain grow. By using my mind and concentrating on getting better at music, I end up stifling that growth; forcing rather than letting creativity run its natural course. You can’t force music to work for you, just like you can’t force a lover to obey your expectations, when she has her own life and freedom to be however she pleases.
Such demands also seem counter-intuitive: we put in so much emotion and energy into practice, yet must remain ego-less, detached and cool-headed in performance. We are so ego-driven and fired to achieve our potential, fixed on the idea of realising our talent, yet must forget all desire and fear when we perform to other people in order for music to breathe.
Here in Rotterdam, I’ve learned my lesson and felt a lot of pain in facing the truth; but I do not regret the transition at all. I know deep down that I must step back and let go, and not be afraid to release my grip. It is not giving music up, nor is it a sign of failure or weakness; it is meant to be. Music will always be there, but I don’t need to do anything with it. In accepting this, I enrich my life and let every facet of my being develop naturally.
Only by letting go can music truly play on.
I conclude this post with a chapter from The Prophet by Kahil Gibran:
…And what of Marriage master?
You were born together, and together you shall be for ever-more.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.