As I am reflecting on another year coming to an end, and looking ahead to 2016, I’ve been thinking about one of my beloved cello teachers Leslie Parnas and how he used to warn me about chasing rainbows. He never said this within a context, so I didn’t completely know what he meant and I was too shy to ask him. Like any unanswered question from a mentor, this phrase has circled around in my head over the years. Did he think my dreams of being a professional musician were unrealistic? Or were these the regrets of an old man facing his death and coming to peace with his own choices? It seems to me, as a soloist with an international career, he must have chased enough of his own rainbows. In those rare moments when he spoke about his life, he always asked me if I’d heard of such and such a musician. His colleagues, it seems, were better than any pot of gold to him. His words return to me as I wonder: What does it mean to dream big, without losing ones footing with reality? It’s worse, I think, to not dream at all, for fear of failure. What really matters most in ones career? The people we connect with? The quality of the gigs? The music we play? The recognition we receive? Being compensated enough to pay our bills? The ability to keep growing?
Leslie Parnas had large, thick hands and rarely played in lessons. He challenged me to make choices about the way I played each note. The precision and detail of his listening was intimidating, but his words were wise and calming; there’s a certain peace in getting right down to the honest truth. I could feel the depth of his caring in each musical passage he untangled with me. He really left a lot of room for creative freedom with his students and challenged me to find my own voice. It was with him that I first learned and performed the Debussy Sonata. After my recital he came back stage and told me that I played it in a way he had never heard before. I could tell he meant this as a very high compliment. At the time I wished for some other compliment-that I had great skill, or my bowing was excellent. But he was right, I was a gifted performer, who needed to improve her practicing and technique.
Two weeks ago I did a video shoot with the same Debussy sonata at the WGBH Fraser Studio in Boston. A beautiful space and a great team with Antonio Oliart as engineer, Christopher DeSanty on video and my virtuosic polish pianist, Barbara Lysakowski. As we listened back in the control rooms, I approached it with that crystal clear honesty Parnas had taught me. The performance wasn’t perfect. But still, it was beautiful. Very Beautiful. It has come a long way since that first performance. Last week, practicing Bach 5th suite, I had the realization that I am currently the best cellist that I have ever been, both expressively and technically. I practice with much more patience and clarity than in my college years. I have more passion to share from life experience. And I know I haven’t peaked yet. How did this happen?
Among my successes, I also spent the last few years making numerous mistakes. I took the wrong kind of gigs, putting myself in positions that weren’t good for me. I overbooked, I underbooked. I worked with too many colleagues, or too few, or ones with clashing personalities and mismatched goals. I performed in underpaying concerts with too much driving. I aimed too high, I aimed too low. I chased a lot of rainbows that led me nowhere career wise, or even had me falling on my face a few times. And then this year I just said “enough!”. I spent several months musically alone. Three months without performing, without colleagues or audiences. Just me and my cello in the woods. I focused on practicing for the pure sake of being present with music. And I took a careful look at what I really wanted with my career. I began planning forward with this vision.
As a result, 2016 promises to be a year of deeply fulfilling and challenging performances, with incredible colleagues and nice venues. I created my schedule with care. And as more opportunities arise to fill 2016, I know I’ve finally learned the discernment needed to make good choices. But I don’t fear the bad choices either. Maybe they didn’t lead me to Carnegie Hall, yet, but they did bring me to where I stand today- the best cellist yet, with a clear vision for my future, and good gigs coming my way.
So my dear Parnas, while I do intend to move forward in a more thoughtful manner, I can’t promise that I won’t be tempted occassionally into chasing rainbows. I can, however, promise that I will do my best to fill my practice room and concert halls with a myriad of colors and golden sounds I’ve gathered from the chase. Armed with that crystal clear listening you taught me, and my own courage to keep growing, I know at least these are rainbows I can call my own.