Monday, November 14, 2016

Rediscovery: lessons on G string

I have always had a phobia of performing on stage as a soloist, or being the focal point in an ensemble. Post-school, I chose to hide behind thick heavy curtains as a stage hand and later, a stage manager where the dark nooks and dim safety lights cuccooned. I would stand backstage applauding the actors who've worked so hard to bring the scripts to life, but also at the same time yearn with envy at their ability to delight and inspire.

I was determined to stand in the light again, and with that, to learn a new instrument. 

1 month of cello lessons have helped me rediscover parts of myself I didn't want to contend with. It really hit home one day while I was watching a particular episode of the Crown, where Churchill was having a heated exchange with his portraitist.

My teacher have said many times, astutely, that I want to be correct more times than I want to play music. In practicising one passage, I gradually realised that, in all irony, the more I forced the correct, the more it came out sounding awful. That is not to say proper bow strokes or posture is unimportant. It's the approach and the preoccupations of wanting to be correct all the time that distracts me from the sound I was correcting for. At the end of the day, I had to remind myself that everything is a work of progress and I have to be patient for muscle memory to form, for my body to become accustomed.

I have always been afraid of performing solo - because the task of being correct in music,where no 2 notes are the same - become too daunting a task for any conscious mind.

Art and character
In the episode of the Crown where Churchill, a prolific painter himself, criticised and insinuated that his portraitist had lesser experience and aptitude than he (lesser works a year, his lack of knowledge of pencil and paper types for a sketch). His portraitist, went back to do research on Churchill's numerous works. He returned and pointedly told Churchill that his painting constantly returned to the subject of his pond. He asked why Churchill was so engrossed with the pond. Churchill sees art as battle, to win over the subject matter as conquer. The pond with is dancing lights, was difficult to capture completely. The artist made a passing statement that the way he framed and painted the water, revealed that Churchill wanted people to see something that he feel people didn't see. It was calling for the viewer to see beneath the muddy surface for something. Something might not be there. Churchill was visibly struck, it was a quiet scene, yet resonated loudly under my shell.

In the context of an aging Churchill with his illustrious career, it was tragic, the denial of one's age and limits. The forced perspective of wanting others to see the greatness without also acknowledging the weaknesses.

Why do they say art is reflection, food and sustenance for the soul?

Is this why Einstein plays?

Is this how Bach felt when he composed his preludes, fugues, and many other concertos?

After years of knowing these statements from artists, I am beginning to embody the experience and understand why.

Both experiences brought tears to my heart and eyes. First, with immense sadness because after a long time, I am finally at the cusp of realising a deeper part of myself. To remind ourselves that life is more than just right and wrongs, more than the petty politics and power struggles. Empathy is a resource fast running out in this distracting world. Every day I play simple notes and yet I am reminded that while as a beginner we need to get the simple things right, but it is all about being able to feel between the notes. We underestimate the touch of sound, the vibrations that rock us within a concert or dance, that also exists between the tense pauses on stage.

I took a breath and pulled my first bow, ah! That full tenor of the G on the cello. Beyond technique, beyond correctness, we all need to be reminded that life is about fullness. Sound never lies. What I play, is a reflection of what is inside me - a scratchy distorted conflicted sound. There is no way I can play without releasing tension in both my mind and my body. No way I can feel the notes if I constantly berate my ineptitude. In time...

Like Churchill's obsession with that pond, that forced perspective on his viewers to  my forced cello sound was born out of pride. Humility releases the soul in ways that is indescribable. Like theatre often theorises, when an audience laugh, it is because they feel uncomfortable, it is a visceral reflection and reminder of the shady parts of ourselves. When I played my cello, the sound is a direct manifestation of insecurity. Indeed the obsession with being correct, is a selfish endeavour. It emphasizes the player's self-absorption to be correct and the audience becomes alienated. It is masturbatory and fails engage nor does it serve to communicate. People become disenchanted when art is supposed to do just the opposite. 

If you are disengaged from any performance or art piece, when you also have all the lenses and grammar to read and interpret, it is fault of the artist.
I am afraid of performing because I am simultaneously afraid that people do not like me for who I am. I am scared shitless because we bare our souls, and run the risk that people do not like that part of us that was made public. I still have a long way to go, in accepting my own weaknesses as well as strengths. Like learning is a life-long skill, may this journey never end.

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