Monthly Archives: March 2010

A Poet’s Skin and an Elephant’s Heart

The March sun woke me this Sunday morning early, sparkling off of the snow lined branches. But what got me out of bed was this unwritten blog post. As I sip my fragrant white tea, I muse at the irony of the inner debate that has been going on in my head for almost two weeks. Yes, illness, too much work and fund raising has eaten up my time, but the main reason this post has remained unwritten is that one part of me wants to share this story while another feels maybe I make myself too vulnerable. As you read the content of this post, you will see the irony in this recent debate.

As a classical musician entering ever more fully into my field, I find that incredible strength is required to navigate a market saturated with talent and few customers. But to really be an affective performer I must also have an open heart, so that I can communicate with my audience and express the passion and love that I have for my music. It takes an enormous amount of strength and courage to make myself vulnerable in front of a large crowd. To have the perseverance to self promote and put myself out there, and then share the deepest reaches of my soul through the music in my next moment is quite a balancing act. The challenge then becomes in finding a source of authentic strength that does not harden me, and serves me in both situations.

About 10 years ago, in response to my less hearty sense of self, a teacher told me that to be a musician we have to have “a poets heart with the skin of an elephant”. This concept appealed to me at the time, as I wanted nothing more than to build a beautiful fortress of cello technique around my fragile heart. Like many of my colleagues, my elephant skin translated as technical strength, and a desire to have physical control in order to avoid judgment or criticism of my playing. Our teachers encouraged technical obsession, picking on small imperfections in our playing, sending us through rigorous technical training and multiple hours of practice. They knew the competition outside of the conservatory and wanted to graduate technically strong players that could hold their own.

As I fulfilled the demands of my teachers and gained physical mastery of my instrument, my confidence grew, as did my strength. But underneath all of that prowess, I was becoming increasingly disconnected from my own musical voice.

A very special teacher entered my life at this time. A gentle and loving soul who asked the simple question, “but what do you think?”. When I failed to answer this I was forced to look at all the inner weakness that my outer strength hid. My “poets heart” was not courageous and the “elephant skin” of technique couldn’t protect me from the voices of inadequacy in my head. Like many of my fellow conservatory students, I was like an anorexic when it came to my playing; I could never be beautiful enough and when I looked into the mirror all I saw was ugliness. The prospect of making a mistake was terrifying. One small crack and the whole illusion might shatter and people would see me for the incompetent I really was. I gripped onto perfectionism with an iron hand, it was my only source of strength. But the harder I gripped, the more everything fell apart.

Dvorak concerto was what finally broke me. I practiced that concerto four or more hours per day. I thought that if I could master that piece, I would at last gain that sense of inner confidence that I had been lacking. But instead I injured myself. Hurting now inside and out, I had no choice but to change my way of approaching cello and my life. All my bottled up fear, pain, broken heartedness ruptured into an explosion of self honesty and vulnerability. My goals turned inside out. I aimed for a strong and courageous heart, an “elephant heart”, with a soft and vulnerable technique “a poets skin”. I knew that if I developed an authentic strength that came from the inside, I would be less vulnerable to outside influences, and more durable.

Skip ahead to today, I have gained tremendous strength. Technically I feel that I am the strongest player I ever have been and continue to improve. I enjoy the search for excellence in my practicing, learning to ever more intricately express the colorful array of human emotion through sound. Most days I enjoy many hours alone with my instrument, in a conversation with the composers, pushing my limitations, and training my mind to focus. I find satisfaction in my results and joy in the work.

My confidence is stronger now too. But like my physical skill, this inner strength requires regular maintenance. Every now and then I am struck by a combination of external circumstances that bring my most profound fears to the surface, and require a show of the courage to face them. As well, goals or new challenge in an arena of inexperience, such as my upcoming debut recording project, can be both an opportunity and a challenge. I have had traumas and experiences in my life that have given rise to very nasty and persistent demons. Giving into my them can absolutely devastate me.

Sometimes when the inner strength fails, I am grateful to lean on the years of physical training and technique, until I can rally my courage. My technical excellence can protect me from some very real outside foes in the musical world who might seek to undermine my success out of competition or feeling threatened. Probably even more powerful in such moments of inner doubt, though, is the love and support of those who have believed in me over the years and continue to believe in me. They remind me of my skill and strength, as well as letting me know that even without these things, they will treasure my soul.

But facing down the internal foes is ultimately what gives me the ability to experience great joy and have a sense of strength that holds up under the pressure in performance, and in life. When I am able to surrender to the experience of something greater than myself, and trust the hard work and training of my body, I rest in a sacred and beautiful zone when on stage.

Over the years, as I have allowed my true and vulnerable self to flow through my playing, the response from the audience and my own sense of joy has exponentially increased. I feel blessed to have a career path whose success rests in my ability to navigate this human challenge of learning to choose love over fear. And I get to wear fancy gowns too!