I think the most common question I get asked these days is, “What do you want to do?”

If blogging and writing and private lessons paid the bills, then I would happily do that and feel like I was putting enough good into the world via those channels. Unfortunately, they do not. Hence, the big move and the Masters and the endless combing through the world of music and education to try and find a position that seems right for me.

I’m learning that many places that have to do with crafting or influencing arts policy or curriculum are these giant machines. Neither nimble nor particularly effective, they resemble the same bureaucracies they allege to wrangle into varying forms of compliance and progress. If my goal is to do something positive for the warring factions in the education debate and positively impact students, I can’t expect to do that as a cog in a mechanism whose purpose is only to drive itself, can I?

So the hunt goes on, with the drumbeat of “What’s Next” keeping me from restful sleep and setting my stomach at nearly constant unease.

The cello continues to be a reprieve from all sources of grief. I went to the basement this afternoon to practice. I sounded good. It felt good. My vibrato was even and my bow bounced just as I asked it to. I finished a slow run through of a Popper study and felt a lump in my throat. What happens to Emily the cellist if I do this other stuff? Where does she go? Does she matter? The prior struggle of cello teacher versus performer seems like an indulgent bagatelle compared to this seismic shift in identity.

I stopped playing, and cried.

I carried my cello back up the stairs and began writing this post, without a humdinger to close, without an eye on snappy prose. It occurs to me that my life has been punctuated by three main things: luck, music, and a seeming inability to do a single thing by the book, no matter how closely I adhere to its wise admonitions. Why should any of that change now, when it’s still me? Adding to the list of hyphenates does not diminish my abilities: it broadens them. At the end of the day, it’s still the same question: Did I make the world better today? The next step I take must increase the number of days I can say “Yes” to that, with less worrying about what word or phrase most conveniently sums up who I am. How much good can I possibly do while wrapped up in self-doubt?

It would be as if I had learned nothing at all from writing this blog.

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9 Responses

  1. Wow. You're really going through a lot. Graduate school really pits you against your dreams in so many ways; there's the academic bureaucracy as you pointed out, which tends to put the chill on these change the world ambitions. It's very easy to get lost. There's also financial pressure, and living in a city is never cheap.

    If it helps, I can reflect back to you what I heard you outline to me during lunch. That plan sounded very cogent. You were interested in delving deeper into the process to understand what works and what does not in the acquisition of music skill. That is clearly more than a lifetime of work, so you have done well to choose something that will never bore you.

    I was sincere in my offer to talk about any statistical issues that may come up. Please feel free to take advantage of this offer.

  2. You can make the world better and particular people's worlds better in many ways. Whether from performing, teaching or changing arts education/administration. I just hope that you accomplish that in a way that also makes you happy. Is the new hyphenate something that you want to do, that doing so would make you happy, or is it something you feel you should do/needs to be done? If the answer is the latter then it's probably not enough. Fighting the bureaucracy in any scenario is pretty soul-crushing. If there are any doubts now then it's prob not promising. Cus it's not gonna get easier as you delve further. Quite the opposite. But on the other hand, if the satisfaction of taking down fools and stupidity is exhilirating and validating enough that it outweighs the frustration of dealing with the stupidity and fools, then yes, this might be a good idea. I wish you the best. Love, hugs and smooches!

  3. We all do stuff, and we mostly spend the time while doing it thinking about other stuff we want to be doing.

    What stuff do you do that short-circuits this? What are you doing when you aren't thinking about what else you could be doing?

    I mean, aside from going cross-eyed trying to parse that last sentence.

  4. Wendy: I don't have a choice. If I could make enough money for the ends to meet through teaching, surely having 38 students and weekly recording gigs in LA would have done it. But there are so many factors, including a shrinking economy and easier access to really great musicians that makes it unstable. You know me; I'm not going to do something that I hate, and I love doing what I'm good at. It's just a matter of working out the difference between what I think and what I'd like people to think.

    Janis: Absolutely. Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, right? I try to spend as little time ruminating and as much time doing as possible. But this one takes some planning. One of my themes is "you always go where you're pointed". I have a lot of choices, and so, according to the rules of good curriculum design, I should start from the kind of life I'd like to lead and design backwards from there. That's why I'm pondering, thinking, ruminating.

  5. I told a student's mother once that "your daughter won't do it the way you expect, but she will indeed do it. That's not a bad thing." Who says there is only one way to do… anything?? We all do what we hafta do the way we hafta do it and it does all fit together in the end. Hopefully to create something even more unique and useful.

    Take Frank Sinatra's advice and do it your way.

  6. Oh Emily, you're not alone in this stress. I'm feeling something similar with all the moving back to Canada, having quit my job to stay home with Elliot… I don't know what to do next, and feeling pretty bereft about getting back to cello playing, or writing, or anything that's not changing nappies. I think it's a fallacy that we get somewhere and that's it we're happy. I thought my job at the Southbank was everything I wanted, and after 3.5 years it was destroying me… I guess what I'm saying is keep trying to find what works for you, but don't kick yourself about not having found it yet. We will both get somewhere good eventually.

  7. "I guess what I'm saying is keep trying to find what works for you, but don't kick yourself about not having found it yet. We will both get somewhere good eventually."

    This reminds me of what Emily said about the cello in general — there is no end product. You get good at the effort. Life == same.

  8. I worried when my daughter came home with a master's degree in poetry, checked the classified ads and found no jobs for poets. She eventually landed a job editing children's book and started a blog on the side that uncovered her real talent for witty writing. The blog became a book, then another and another. Now she's marrying a guy she met at her first book signing.
    You never know where those detours will take you.

  9. Emily:
    I'm glad to have just found your blog.

    I'm just a beginner cello player, in my early 40's, but have been wanting to learn for over 20 years. As lead singer in my band, the ability to now add cello to our mix has been a huge salve for all the stresses, and self-doubts, and worries in my own head, about what to do with my music, dreams, education, and the day job that just barely pays the bills.

    It seems you are following your dreams, keeping music in your reality, and allowing it nurture you. Your writing is fun and touching, and your perspective is refreshing in a world of so much negativity.

    I'm learning from friends that have commented on my cello/music that, when we follow our dreams, pursue things that we are passionate about, try something new "just because", and maintain a mostly positive outlook, we end up touching so many different people, in so many different ways (more than we can possibly handle comprehending).

    Emily the cellist matters, because whatever else you do, your music is who you are, not only inside, but also how you end up being "outside" towards and amongst others.

    Thank you for your blog!

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