I’m trying to figure out why I’ve been putting this off, and I think it’s because this is not such an easy thing to talk about. In my March video for 12 Months of Practicing, I mention feeling like I’ve worked really hard the whole month but still felt like it wasn’t enough. Now I will talk about this experience in a little more detail.
I had a lot of performances in March and I didn’t feel ready for any of them. I felt behind from the beginning. That doesn’t mean the performances didn’t go well, definitely some of them did. Maybe all of them. But sometimes I feel like I’m playing catch-up when it comes to cello* and it’s just too hard to get to where I want/need to be.
*Let me take a minute right now to describe what is happening as I am writing this. My inner voice is reacting to the statement I just made like, “Oh sure, person who started playing cello when she was 6 years old, came from a musical family, was forced to practice and had the best teachers. Yes, please keep telling me about how behind you feel.” While any other day when I’m preparing for something, my inner voice will tell me, “You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re behind because you didn’t practice enough ever in your entire life, you wasted your time with your amazing teachers, and you can’t do anything really well so why bother trying? Just admit that you’ll never be at the level you want to be at and therefore you’ll never be truly prepared for this performance.” To me this seems like clear evidence that my inner voice is not as logical as it pretends to be. All it is doing is using the situation to figure out my worst fear and tell it to me like it is an inarguable fact. My inner voice is manipulative and will say anything with the goal of making me feel bad. This contradiction I’ve just noticed is proving to me at this very moment that I don’t need to wonder if maybe my inner voice is right. It’s just trying to make me feel less than, and I don’t need to listen to that. Easier said than done, but I think this is a step in the right direction.
Anyway, I want to share a story about a specific pre-concert experience that I find particularly upsetting to recall. This was on the last day of March, on my way to a performance that I had tried my very best to prepare for but still felt like I wasn’t ready. This wasn’t the first time this month I had felt this way, but for various reasons this time felt the worst. These were pieces I had never played before, so there was no vague familiarity or barely-coming-to-the-surface muscle memory I could rely on. Also, I was playing with new people, who already knew each other but didn’t know me. I already know from past experiences that I have a hard time feeling comfortable in those situations and that’s my own issue. These musicians were nice and extremely professional, and yet it was hard for me not to feel like the third wheel. They were also both really good, so that’s intimidating. They had just come from a concert at Carnegie Hall, playing almost all the same repertoire but with a different cellist who I was essentially replacing for this concert. Often I find situations like that invigorating, because regardless of my inner voice I sincerely believe in my ability to prove myself. But in this case...something felt wrong. I had played too many concerts in a row that I didn’t feel totally prepared for even though I had worked hard for those performances. I was finding these new people hard to read, and therefore hard to tell if I was having any luck connecting with them, either musically or personally. So on the last day of March, the day of the performance, I drove to Reisterstown feeling pretty down and not knowing what to do about it.
I’m not typically an anxious person, but of course I have done my fair share of catastrophizing (an anxiety-related behavior which involves not being able to stop imagining worst-case scenarios for any given situation). I try to distract myself by putting on the local pop music station but I can’t help it. I’m unable to think about anything except the seemingly inevitable total humiliation I am driving to. It truly feels awful. And so I start thinking about driving my car into a tree. Not very seriously, but not NOT seriously. Obviously I don’t do this. But then I really started to realize how messed up this is. Where did these thoughts come from? Why do I even consider the possibility that it might be better to put my life at risk than to give a bad performance? People think I am lucky to get to do what I love for a living, and they are right. What they don’t realize is that it is not easy to be part of a profession that determines your value by how good you are at what you do. And if you’re not good enough, you lose your value. And if you have no value, you are nothing.
I want to reassure anyone reading this that the way I felt that day is extremely rare for me (unfortunately I don’t think that’s always the case for everyone). And also, the concert went fine. No total humiliation. Which goes to show that our assumptions about ourselves, our abilities, and the outcomes of high-pressure situations like concerts are clearly not objective. Just like my inner voice. For some reason, our brain uses our worst fears to frighten us, thinking it is protecting us from harm but instead often causes harm instead. It’s not always easy to remember that, especially not in the moment, but reminding myself of this helps me move forward and keep trying. Hopefully it might help you too.