After a cello workshop the other day, one of the audience members asked me an important question:
“What do you do when you are losing motivation or inspiration?”
She was asking on behalf of her son, an aspiring cellist, who seemed to have no motivation to practice. I reassured her that this lack of motivation was not at all an unusual phenomenon, and that, particularly at his young age, there was no need to worry.
At various times over the years, I have caught myself in some kind of a slump. Unmotivated to practice. Apathetic. Bored. At first, I worried about this feeling. I was led to think about all those people who seem perfectly capable of practicing an endless number of hours every day of their lives, consistently maintaining the same kind of high intensity and focus. I thought about all those professionals who unfailingly hit the same high standard at every performance, never wavering in their reliability and resolute commitment to their craft. I even thought about Jiro, the world’s greatest sushi chef, who has been making sushi for over seventy years, yet still gets up at the same time every morning to prepare his materials and do whatever else he needs to do in order to maintain that golden standard of excellence that he has become known for around the world.
Was my lack of motivation a sign that I didn’t possess the same kind of inherent drive and commitment that these people did? Did they love their craft more than I did? Was I just lazy?
I soon realized that I was asking the wrong questions.
Whether or not I love music has never really been a legitimate question. I have always loved music more than anything. And sure I enjoy periods of laziness, netflix binges and abundant procrastination, but don’t we all?
It is only human to fall into a slump from time to time. Everyone experiences it. And if someone says they never have then they are lying! There is just no way that anyone can maintain the same kind of high intensity without burning out or at least needing a break after a while. Just because it seems like someone is working endlessly every day doesn’t mean they don’t have a life outside of that routine. Jascha Heifetz would take a month off from the violin every year to play tennis. I’m pretty sure Roger Federer takes breaks. I bet even Jiro takes breaks or at least ensures that he has some form of “down time” here and there. The thing is, you can be totally committed to your craft, but at the same time still live a balanced life that allows you to keep a fresh perspective on those things that are most important.
“Taking a break” for me often simply means living life. When I’m feeling unmotivated, I believe that it has something to do with the fact that I have nothing new to share. It is because I have no fresh insights or perspectives that I feel compelled to communicate to people. So the answer often involves living life away from the cello and drawing inspiration that way. Going to the movies, reading books, cooking, hiking, meeting people, and so on. After all, what is the point of performing if we don’t feel a strong, deep-rooted desire to express something to people? More importantly, how would we even have anything to express if we didn’t have any significant experiences or feelings to draw from? The Greeks, and later on, prominent theorists of the Baroque period, spoke about how music could arouse specific emotions in listeners - joy, sadness, despair, loss, anger, and so on. But how could we expect our music to arouse any of these kinds of emotions if we don’t feel them ourselves? Living life away from the cello, I think, is so important.
This is particularly crucial for younger people who are still in search of their own identity and their own passions. The woman who asked this question was speaking on behalf of her thirteen year-old son who didn’t have any motivation to practice. The funny thing was that I was just the same way when I was his age. I hated practicing. I loved listening to music and I loved performing, but I couldn’t stand practicing. I didn’t really begin to see its importance until later on. But in retrospect, I’m glad it turned out this way because I had a chance to live a healthy, balanced life, allowing for the true motivation to come from within. So often we hear about kids who are being forced to practice five hours a day from the age of seven, totally deprived of any kind of emotional or social experiences, only to burn out later on. I mean, what do the parents expect?! Balance, I think, is key.
Need I mention chamber music? When I am feeling uninspired, sometimes all it takes to reawaken my passions is getting together with some friends and playing some chamber music. There’s something so special about this form of music-making that reminds us why we do what we do. It reminds us what it is about music that we love most.
I just returned from a memorable few days in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I performed Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Western Michigan University Symphony conducted by Bruce Uchimura. This visit was particularly memorable because my sister, Lisa, was in town and was able to come along to Kalamazoo to sit in on the first rehearsal! I also had the pleasure of working with Grace Field’s wonderful suzuki studio, which is always a treat. Thank you to Margaret Hamilton, Grace Field, Liz Rohs and the Stulberg International String Competition for the wonderful hospitality, as always!! I can’t wait till next time!