When I went to music college, I wasn’t really encouraged to rock the boat much. Although I learned from a teacher who taught me both traditional repertoire (all the Beethoven sonatas, for example), I was encouraged to play more wacky stuff. But he was one of the few who did this. I can remember learning a piece of music for singing cellist by the Australian composer, Martin Wesley-Smith. This was a really big turning point for me, as a cellist. I had heard the piece, and fell in love with it – but I had heard a man do it (in fact, my teacher at the time). I was encouraged to contact Martin (who I only knew by reputation), and then go to his house and work on it, to work through the piece with him, so it was suitable for female singer, rather than male. I had never done this sort of thing before, and I remember it was a huge thing for me. Learning to sing and play as well was a really hard thing – it took hours in the practise room. I still play this piece. I still love this piece. And Martin is still a friend of mine. And yet every other teacher at the particular institution I was at dismissed this piece as a ‘party trick’. They didn’t seem to care about the processes I had gone through, or the hurdles I had jumped. Just that it was something different, and they thought it was tacky. So much for breaking the mould there.
And then I went to England, and realised I didn’t know all the music I was meant to. The Beethoven quartets. The Brahms sonatas. All the standard repertoire. So I knuckled down and humbly learned as much of it as I could. This was the time in my life I did an awful lot of practise. I went to the U.K. as an average cellist. I came back a very good one. But I came back very much working within the classical cellist ‘norm’, as it were.
Little by little, I’ve tried to break away from this. I’ve talked to friends who aren’t Classical musicians about this, and they don’t really understand what my problem is. Who cares if I perform with an accordion player? Or if I wear wacky shoes? Or any shoes at all, for that matter? But there are so many traditions within the Classical music establishment. So many rules. So many things expected by a lot of audience members that come to concerts. You see, if you break too many rules, you become labelled as too different. No-one comes to your concerts. Or if they do, they are few. And if you break too few rules, you don’t say anything new. And then no-one comes to your concerts. See the problem here?
This year, I started the ‘Bach in the Dark’ concerts with a gamble. I had wanted to play two Bach suites back-to-back for a while. But I didn’t want to just walk on stage and play one after another. So I linked one with spoken word, and one with percussion. My inside voice said things to me like this…
You are going to expect people to concentrate for 33 minutes on an intimate performance that combines words and music? They aren’t going to want to do that. That’s hard work. They won’t like it. They won’t come. And you aren’t playing things the right way. You aren’t repeating when you should. You aren’t playing the minuets like they should be.
And then…. Drums? You are going to put drums to Bach? They aren’t going to like it. Its too hard for you to play these suites without any room to get around the instrument. You won’t be able to be heard. People will walk out.
I have done so much practise for these concerts. Not just so I can play as interestingly, and expressively, and rhythmically as I could, but also just to build up finger stamina. The first performance of this program was last night. It was hot. I was sweaty and uncomfortable. The last review I got in a major Classical publication was condescending. I had really hoped the ‘establishment’ would understand what it was I was trying to do, but they didn’t (and why am I really surprised?). It was a very long and lonely ten minutes backstage before I walked on to play. I was very nervous about how it would go down. I got hotter. And more uncomfortable.
And then I realised I needed to be brave. I tell people I am teaching this all the time. So, Rachel, do it. Be authentic. Be yourself. What’s the worst that can happen? The sun will rise tomorrow. The last instruction I gave myself was to breathe.
And the concert went. How did it go? Well, people loved it. They listened. They laughed. They clapped. Some people even cried. One woman came up to me at the end and said “It was so different. But I knew that if you had done it, it would be right. And I loved it! Thank you…”
Turns out I didn’t need to worry. It’s OK to rock the boat. But it takes an awful lot of strength and self-belief, you know.