I spend a lot of time sitting playing the cello. It feels different every day. Some days it feels physically very easy. My back is strong and straight. My arms feel long and lithe. Other days it feels not-so-good-physically. My arms are tired. My lower back grumbles. Unlike my physical body, my ears are less change-ful. After a number of years doing this (sitting and playing), my ears can just ‘switch on’, and I can hear glitches, mis-shifts, things I don’t quite like, things I feel like I could do better. And so the feedback loop opens, and the practising starts.

Most of the time, I feel like I am speaking when I play the cello. Well, kind of a combination of speaking and singing. It’s not really surprising I think this. If you feed a cello through an oscilloscope (that’s the science gadget that measures sound waves), the graph that is produced is the most like a human voice. And I think of my cello a lot like a person (I know. Weird.), so thinking of him talking and singing isn’t too much of a step in any direction.

I’m preparing for a concert with an actor. I’ve worked with this chap a number of times before – I really enjoy it. I love it for a number of reasons…. It’s a really intimate way of working – just words, and my playing (it’s also quite draining, I think for the same reason). He’s really open to different ways of fitting things together. Because he’s not a musician, he’s not aware of all the Classical musician ‘rules’ there are, so doesn’t mind breaking any of them.

But I think the thing I like most about this process is he shows me a different way of listening to things.

We’re preparing a Bach suite for a concert. I can talk to you about the phrases, or what volume I’d like it. I can easily understand harmonies, and where each phrase should go (in my opinion, anyway). But the other day I came home to find an email waiting for me from this actor. He’d listened to the same suite, and written down thought-grabs he’d had. He’d given me a story, a snapshot of feelings and gestures, a set of actions.

I sat down to play the suite the next day. And I turned off my thoughts, and read his ‘story’. And then I played. It was wonderful. Like drinking a new sort of drink – something kind-of familiar, but totally new. It was tremendously exciting!

We start rehearsing together this weekend. I’ll hear the poetry and prose he has chosen to go with each movement. And things will change again. We’ll talk and explore things – and it will excite and challenge me.

And I’ll love it.

I had a pretty crazy May. A trip ‘out west’ for three hectic days teaching. My usual days in Sydney schools. Rehearsals. Concerts. A big yoga workshop weekend. Lots of practise.

I’m not writing this to say how busy I am. I hate that people seem to want to compete about how much they do. I’m writing this to say thank you to everyone who helped me through it.

The person who drove me to a rehearsal I had after a big day teaching, and still had to keep going. The friend who checks in on me to see if there’s anything she can do over a week. The other friends who help me at concerts. The person who cooks for me (yes! It’s true!). The people who pour me a glass of wine when I go to their place, and just let me flop. The teachers who cook me muffins, or give me chocolate, or something to drink.

It’s all so incredibly appreciated.

I read stories of musicians who feel unsupported, or who burn out. I talk to people who are creatives who sink into really dark places, and who don’t feel they can get out of there.

And hearing these stories make me love the people who help me even more. There is no way I could do what I do without all the people who help me. Who support me.

I thank them a lot – but it’s never enough.

I get asked that question a lot. Well, the quick answer is, I actually don’t want to. They are wonderful, but they are tiring. I get totally worn out. And I need recovery time. Time to do not-much. Time to see friends. Time to walk a dog-that-doesn’t-belong-to-me, or practise yoga.

I thought I’d list what goes on before a St James concert. I’ve chosen this one because it’s where most of my concerts are.

  1. During the day, everything at home is put in a big pile. I’ve practised everything I need to do, and polished the cello. Bit antsy, but ok.
  2. Drive to the venue about 3 hours before the concert. Still antsy.
  3. Get everything into the venue – cello, stools, lights, wine, tablecloths – you name it, it’s loaded in.
  4. Move all the pews around and count the number of seats we have to put out.
  5. Sweep the floor.
  6. Set up the bar. Put the wine in the fridge. Check all the glasses are clean. Set out the tablecloths, snacks etc.
  7. Set up the CD table. Still antsy.
  8. Get the programs and list of people that are coming and set up the ‘check -in table’.
  9. Wash the chairs.
  10. Hang black-out curtains.
  11. Put up signs so that people don’t barge in before they open the doors (yes. It happens. I’ve had huge number of excuses….).
  12. Check all the right lights are turned on (or off) for the start of the gig.
  13. Get dressed. Start to get calmer.
  14. Check with all helpers that they are ok and know what to do. Realise most things are done now, and calm down even more.

Then I can get ready to play. Now, I have help that makes things easier – and I so appreciate it. But that all goes on before I can sit at a cello to warm up. On Saturday night, after the second one gig, the entire thing is reversed. So not only am I emotionally drained from whatever it is I’m playing (because I don’t seem to play unless my heart is on my sleeve!), I’m also physically worn-out too.

The Sunday after two St James concerts I lie pretty low. Try and dig in the garden. Noodle around the house and listen to records. Eat some good food.

And it’s enough for me. How long will I keep doing it? Not sure. At the moment, it’s fine. There’ll come a time where it’s not fine, and I’ll stop.

But not just yet.

Programming a concert is something I think about a lot, and do really carefully. There’s a number of things to take into account.

I try and have enough things that I’d like to listen to – not ‘crowd pleasers’, as such, but things that would make you want to come back to a concert. I try to have at least one thing that most people will know. I try to have one thing written by a living composer. I also search out a good mix of slow and fast.

Then I need to take into account the fact that most of the concerts I play are ‘Bach in the Dark’ concerts – so I need enough Bach. And then if I can get things that are inspired by Bach, or linked to Bach, that’s even better.

I need to work with each artist, and work out what we can program that can showcase what they do, as well. I’ve got a great improviser? How can I program something that will show this off? Someone who plays great klezmer? Same thing…

And then to fine-tune things even more (no pun intended), I try and work out the flow of the concert. I often try and link keys together, so that things are placed really well next to one another. Or I feel that one piece is the ‘heart’ of the concert, so to speak, so I work outwards from that one piece. I’ll also often find a piece that’s a good ‘opener’ for whatever reason.

And I might jot down six or seven different running orders, and fiddle with them for a week or so, moving things around. I”ll talk to the other artist. I’ll talk to my musical husband and get his opinion. I’ll also ask a few trusted friends. And then it falls into place.

So I am constantly amazed when someone, out-of-the-blue says to me something like “So, Rachel – for the next concert coming up, could I hear three movements from such-and-such? I like it, and it’s a great piece.” I wonder to myself…. Do they know the thought-processes that go on for each program? Are they thinking that they are helping? Or do they just see me as a jukebox?

I’ve been told to just smile and nod and say something like ‘Oh, I’ll think about it.” But, of course, I don’t do that. I engage, and try and say why I’ve done what I’ve done. And do you know, it never really works. Maybe I will mumble something non-committal next time. But it did make me wonder if anyone who isn’t a performer actually knows what goes on.

So now you do. Well, at least a bit. And how I work. It’s not how everyone does. But throwing in unasked for requests doesn’t really go down well.

And NEVER ask for the Pachelbel canon.

I practise a lot.

I try and sit at the cello every day. Days I’m teaching in a school, I’m up before sun-rise, and sit at the cello for a goodly while before I leave. (I’ll often then return after a day’s teaching, but my quality of practise isn’t so good….) On days I’m not teaching, I’ll sit and practise for hours – sometimes up to 5. Most days it’s a good time – exploring, trying new things. Learning new repertoire. Revisiting things I know, often looking at them in a new light.

I was practising a Bach suite (the fifth one. It’s totally fabulous. And huge – such a big play!) the other day, and realised that I’m still improving. I could do things that I couldn’t before when I last performed this two years ago. Some things felt easier. Some phrases spoke to me in a different way.

And so I got wondering – what has made me improve? I mean, you’d hope I did, after all the time I choose to sit at the instrument. I perform a lot, so I’m trying to always be the best I can. (No point in expecting people to come and hear you otherwise, is there?) I play with lots of different instruments, and adjust my sound accordingly – I can play really soft with a guitar, for instance. Very loud with a harp. Is it playing lots of Bach (It’s like eating your greens – it’s very good for you as a musician!)? Is it challenging myself physically in the yoga room, balancing and doing back-bends? Is it getting older? Doing recordings?

It’s possibly all of those things. But at the moment, the thing I’m thinking is making the most difference is that I play a lot of music that isn’t originally written for cello. It’s keyboard music, or violin music, or vocal lines. So I have to work out how to get things sounding the best I can on my cello. No-one cares that it’s awkward. Or difficult. They care that it’s played well. That it’s phrased and sounds beautiful.

So I keep searching and wondering. Can I play this better? Is this the best fingering? Can it sing more? Sometimes my obsessiveness (for want of a better word) serves me badly. I get frustrated with myself. I don’t take a day off. I forget that, after all, it’s OK to not be perfect.

But it’s also pushing me. Making me a better musician, a better player. And stopping and reflecting on that, it makes me smile.