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Being a Musician

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My journey through life as a musician has certainly been one of ups and downs. It’s been full of hard work, self-doubt, and discouragement, but it’s also been one of joy, encouragement, and meeting new influences on your life. To me, music is more than a creative outlet; it’s a lifestyle. As I’m preparing my audition repertoire for these next few months, I can’t help but think that none of this could have ever happened, all because of someone’s opinion of me.

I’m a cellist, and I have been since I was nine, meaning this is my eighth year playing. Music has always a powerful grip on me, ever since I was a child. During elementary school, fourth grade to be exact, I decided to pick up cello, taking lessons with Mrs. Puntieri. My growth as a musician was astounding. I was so dedicated to the instrument that I learned how to read music, and I was able to play about half of the solos in our music books within the first day. My growth paid off, and for the summer concert my teacher decided to give me the momentous task of playing the second Bach Minuet: The final solo in the book. This was a big deal, and it solidified my position as the best musician in the school. It was during that summer that I told myself that I wanted to be a professional cellist.
In order to do that, I met Ellen 6 years later.

Ellen was a music therapist, a cellist trained at IU by Janos Starker, and my first cello teacher. Two years ago, in the beginning of August, I walked in for a lesson from her. I had only prepared an incomplete performance of David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody during the summer. I took a step up to her beautiful lakeside house, with my bulky Styrofoam case at my side, and follow her into her house and into her music studio. Her studio, a small room with large windows that looked over a clear blue lake, a baby grand piano, two bookshelves packed with sheet music and law books and Bibles, and an instrument rack which held a guitar, was one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen. Behind the baby grand was her cello case. She opened her case and took out a breathtaking blood-red varnished Knopf cello, and told me to play. I played the Hungarian Rhapsody for her, until she stopped me right before the second cadenza. All the time we spent talking limited my time to play. After the lesson, she told my parents I could most definitely minor in music, but I’d have to work hard to be a music major, because I “lack fundamentals.” This was understandable, seeing as I’ve never had a cellist as a teacher before, however, those comments would not stop. Each lesson I worked through her comments about me lacking a basic foundation in cello playing, and her diminishing my accomplishments, over and over again, following the same routine of finding out I’m “not good enough for this” or that “this is might be too hard” every single lesson for 9 months. Regardless, I still played a level 6 NYSSMA solo for All-State auditions sophomore year.

I played Bréval’s second cello concerto.

I got a 93 out of 100. I played that piece freshman year as well, and I got a 97.

I was beyond upset at everything, and when I told Ellen, she gave me an “I told you so” spiel on how she was right about me never becoming a professional musician, and she kept reinforcing the idea with everything I said to her. She would tell me that “you shouldn’t be playing that” or “that’s too hard for you” when I needed a fingering for a part or something like that. The incessant discouragement threw me into a depressive episode for almost 5 months, and I legitimately considered quitting the cello. After all, why continue with it if I’m just going to be a failure? I let what she said to me affect me in a way that almost changed the course of my life.

Ellen ended up moving to California, and I found a new teacher for a while. We were set on having me play the Hungarian Rhapsody for All-State junior year. I walked into that audition room with crippling nerves, anxiety, and minor carpal tunnel pains, hoping the unhealthy amount of Ibuprofen I took before would allow we to play without pain. The Ibuprofen was moderately successful, and despite being slightly unprepared, I performed the Hungarian Rhapsody, played scales, and did sight reading.

I got a 95. I got a 95 playing one of the most difficult pieces in the NYSSMA manual, and it was almost entirely self taught. All that work I put into the Popper paid off tremendously. I called my old teacher (not Ellen) and told her what I got for NYSSMA, and she was beyond proud of me. Sometimes, I still wonder what Ellen would say to me if I tell her about what I got for NYSSMA. Would she realize she made a mistake, or would she adamantly stick to her (now proven to be) incorrect impression of me? Despite what she would say, never let negativity impact your passion, because you never know what you can do when you’ve freed yourself from the chains of doubt.

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