Sabbatical: Revelations and Reflections

I guess you want to know the revelations first? Well, in a nutshell, last summer I nearly gave up playing classical repertoire in favour of concentrating on the collaborations I do, and improvising – because of the effect nerves had on my playing. I only changed my mind because of four extraordinary sessions of hypnotherapy with the wonderful Jacqueline Hurst.

More of that later, but now, some reflections that will show how I got to this point.

Taking 3 months off is a wonderful way to get some serious head-space and do some thinking – not to mention lots of precious time with family and friends, movies, cooking and generally living what felt like a normal life.

Photo © Nick White


When I left the Moscow Conservatoire just before the Berlin wall came down, I didn’t know what to do with my life and returned to the UK to begin a very busy freelance career: I had a handful of nice solo gigs each year, guest-lead all the London orchestra cello sections, played loads of chamber music, contemporary music, did enough film sessions to know I never wanted to do them again, and also began to do some fantastic creative/education projects. Through my thirties I really developed this last element and began to be known as some kind of maverick/experimental cellist – mostly because, Jim Carrey-like, I just always said yes to things. I had a brilliant time, did some amazing projects, travelled the world and felt very happy and fortunate. However, I was dissatisfied that I had never really knuckled down to practice – a nagging feeling that I hadn’t actually realised a potential. I started to practice, and bit by bit solo concerts started appearing. All the while I continued to improvise and develop that creative side – arranging, collaborating with jazz and Indian musicians, working in education and so on. The prevailing wisdom in the classical world is that if you haven’t sorted your technique by a certain age (could be 15, 20, 25, or 9 if you’re my wife), that’s it. I was pretty sure this was wrong, and actually now I know for sure it is wrong.

I improved nearly every aspect of my playing hugely and was starting to tackle some core classical repertoire and often enjoying it – it was always an upward curve, and I had high standards, sometimes brutally so. But I was never really happy with my classical playing – and because I was not happy, I imagine it showed. But things got better and better until around five years ago, I was doing some concerts that I thought really had some good bits in them. What do I mean by this? What does this standard consist of? Well, for me it is having a technical fluency that is so comfortable that I can devote my attention to the music. It came and went, but the problem was that I was so tense on stage that I just couldn’t ever perform the way I knew I could play – specifically, my left arm was so tight that I could not play in tune, shift or even vibrate. I remember one concert where literally my arm froze as I tried to do vibrato on one particular note (it was a bottom D). I practiced more, I did 45’ of physical exercises a day, I meditated, I thought it all through from 1000 angles, and it did improve, but so slowly. It got to the point, in 2013, at the end of my huge Britten tour, that some recitals actually began to feel good – even I was happy. I was experiencing an ease on stage I had never felt and was starting to begin to be able to make music. Intoxicating! I’m sure this is largely because I played that program 70 times in one year – the nerves just disappeared.

2013 was a big year. I learned so much from this tour, how to prepare, how to be on stage, how to make music in a more satisfying way for myself. Then, last year, I had a few concerto experiences that made me realize that I was simply nowhere near that level of ease when I had an orchestra behind me – this was the most scary, and where I played my worst. I tried a few things to improve this and failed. This was where things began to get hard. Having tasted what it is like to play with freedom and lack of tension, I was no longer happy with less, and got to a point where I decided that I was going to give up on that classical side of my life, to put all my energies into collaborations and improvisation – I had had a great time, I had put 100% and more of myself into that road for so many years, no regrets, but time to change direction.

The only problem was that I still had a few concertos in my diary that I had to do – I figured I could cancel them all except the closest, an Elgar in Hong Kong which was too near to cancel – what to do? I began to get so scared, so fretful about how it would go that I was beside myself and realized I needed to do something to get out of this mess and was curious about hypnotherapy that had helped someone I knew the year before. Halfway through the first session I knew without doubt that something crucial had changed. I had always thought that my problems of nerves had come from years of studying with amazing cellists around me who seemed to be so much better, competitions that I was unsuccessful in, denting my confidences, but what I was told in the session was that this kind of therapy works on things that are lodged in the psyche between the ages of 0 and 6/7. That was a thought. Suddenly I remembered how, when I was 5, I had 6 piano lessons before my teacher called my parents and said they were wasting their money as I was totally unmusical! Not good enough to the core!!! It was quite a moment. We worked through this in 4 sessions and without doubt something major changed in my musical life. I have done a few concertos since, and they have been amongst the most satisfying concerts of my career: the Elgar with Hong Kong Sinfonietta, HK Gruber’s fiendish concerto with the BBC Phil (there is no way I could have had the guts to play this before – my arm would have fallen off), and lastly, just before the sabbatical began, the Protecting Veil in Mexico with the City of London Sinfonia – these were my favorite concerts of all. So it has been quite a journey, and a great moment of my life to take time to reflect.

I felt happy and fortunate before – now, ten times more so, and I am so excited about what feels like the second half of my working life ahead of me, where I shall do more than ever to mix these worlds that I love so much, of classical and non-classical music, improvised and written, and experimenting with presentation, electronics, education etc. I can’t wait to get back to work…although I’ll enjoy the rest of my sabbatical first – off to the Carpathian mountains tomorrow for a week.

Thanks for reading!

First published on August 25, 2015