The 95F heat bears down on me. I am perched on the edge of a half broken dusty stool, moving my fingers over my cello, waiting for my stage cue, which may or may not come. I am trying not to get dirt on my beautiful ruffled skirt and sequined top while squeezed in the cluttered hallway. I can barely move my bow without hitting a piece of broken furniture. An hour earlier the orchestra crashed through my concerto in our only brief 15-minute rehearsal. The third movement is cut and I only hope that the oboe player remembers his accidentals in his solo. I rub my fingers on my forehead for lubrication, to combat the humidity that causes my fingers to stick to my cello, not so good for fast passages. When I get on stage, nothing matters. The music consumes me and my soul expands. I fought hard for this experience. I spent hundreds of hours practicing and fundraising for this moment. Not in a million years would I choose anything else. It was magic.
Despite the magic, there have been painful moments were I have really doubted the feasibility of a performing career. Recognition and nice venues, good reviews, standing ovations-these are nice things, they feel good. Having money for small luxuries is wonderful. But without these things I am quickly cured of tying my sense of worth or value in how the world responds whether positively or negatively to my music. Yes, becoming too attached to the positive stuff is also dangerous, because ultimately it sets up expectations and traps for the future that can be limiting. In the bad times when I put myself out there constantly, deal with rejection or criticism, practice hour after hour and then sometimes not even be able to pay my bills, allowing this to reflect on my worth as a musician is very treacherous. I would have quit by now if took these things too much to heart. Instead, I buy a silken sparkly top at the thrift store for my next concert to cheer me up.
It helps me also to realize that I have a set of particularly challenging external circumstances: I have to deal with a general population that thinks classical music is boring and stuffy, and I find myself needing to win over new recruits to the genre constantly (which I do manage). Without the status of a major competition award or some super famous teacher or parent musician, it will take time for me to convince the high brow classical music listeners that I am top pedigree enough to be worth their money, despite a Doctorate in Music, years of performing experience and chops to prove it. And I may never convince them. But when I can’t make external progress I focus on further refining my craft. I find joy in constantly improving my musicianship and I have come to love practicing as a form of meditation and stilling the mind. Finally, I remind myself that it is the small things in life, the people you love, the integrity of your work, the day to day that matters.
My husband says I am one of the most proud people he knows. It is true, I will admit that there have been times in this wild ride toward my dreams that I have had a Cinderella fantasy of being discovered as the princess cellist that I am, and be whisked away to perform in luxurious venues, receiving honorable treatment and large pay. So much of my sense of self in the past has been tied into my success as a musician and academic, and all of my present challenges are hard on the ego. At the same time, I am learning to connect to a deeper sense of self, beyond the roller coaster ride of the ego. And now, most of the time, I recognize that my worth and ability to be loved has nothing whatsoever to do with anything career related.
Yesterday my audience was a group of slumped over and half conscious elderly. My pianist had an upright, and I played the first piece on the program on a table with books, until a stand was located. A week before I played in front of a shelf of groceries beside a groaning freezer. But I didn’t care. I was in heaven. Both performances were pure magic. Wonderful. I was lost in the beauty of it all. And the audience was moved; they felt it too.
I find a depth of gratitude in recognizing that the gift of this adversity is that it is a catalyst that reveals the true nature of my music. The untouchable part of my soul shines brighter with each performance, as I become more practiced at letting go of the results. Finding the freedom and strength to shine and to connect to my audience under any circumstance, is deeply meaningful. In fact, this is the only thing that truly matters.
I don’t know if I will ever make it to Carnegie Hall. But I imagine if I do, I will have the fortitude by then to care less about the results than being alive and free in the experience; to shine on like a crazy diamond, exquisitely beautiful and virtually indestructible.