Last night I was listening to some stuff on Itunes and a recording of the Prelude of the first Bach Suite started playing.  I really liked it, but couldn’t figure out who was playing (it was labeled only “Bach1”).  Was it a friend, a former student, something ripped from somewhere?  (People send me things.)

It was very different than how I (usually) play it: a faster tempo and many more, and longer, slurs than the historically-informed bowings than are my general preference.  I use all those qualifiers because I don’t always play the same way and sometimes experiment a great deal.

So at first I hoped that maybe it was me, but after a couple of measures I knew it had to be someone else;  it just didn’t sound like me, or my cello.  I know my own playing, after all. As my admiration for the performance grew (“I wouldn’t do it that way,” I said to myself, “but it sounds fantastic”) and the movement reached the final, triumphant g-major chord, I felt a mix of joy (in the wonderful playing), envy, and self-disappointment.

“I wish I could play that well.”

Let me tell you, it just sucks to go through life as a professional musician wishing you could play as well as the colleagues you really admire.  “I’m not good enough.  I’m not good enough. I’m not good enough.”  On and on and on.

Other people like my playing.  Why do I have such a problem with it?

Many classical musicians have what I, as a cellist, call “cellorexia,” an anorexic-like negative emotional reaction to whatever we play.  No trivialization of eating disorders is intended here;  in its severest form, finding fault with and hating everything you play (and quite often yourself, too) can take an enormous mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical toll. It drives some to drink, some to drugs, some to quit, and tragically, results in an occasional suicide.

In my twenties, my perfectionism and fault-finding were such that even a performance that resulted in a standing ovation, many genuine compliments, and sincere expressions of admiration from respected colleagues could trigger a depression that could last for weeks.  I can still find myself thrown into a period of  disappointment and frustration.  These days it’s usually a performance that was more, well, human than I would have preferred it to have been.  (In other words, I really did mess something up!)

An anorexic looks at her (or him) self in the mirror and doesn’t see the beauty, doesn’t see the emaciation, just sees imaginary fat.  A cellorexic (or violinrexic or pianorexic) remembers a performance, or listens to a concert recording, and hears only flaws.  This happens to some extent with every classical musician I know;  many of us just don’t listen to recordings of our concerts, or adopt (at least in theory) a one-year or five-year waiting period. (Me?  Can’t usually wait that long.)

Anyway, I’ve wandered through life always feeling my playing was pretty good but on some fundamental level inadequate.  I’ve learned how to mask it.  As a young man, with arrogance.  As a middle-aged man, with a smiling stage presence and a “never let them see you sweat” approach.  How human beings can be so emotionally complicated, I don’t know.  I’m at a point where I can perform and genuinely enjoy making music while at the same time part of me suffers.  “This isn’t good enough; it sucks.”  It’s been getting better;  I’m coming to accept my limitations and continue to work on improving, but with less sense of desperation.  I’ve given up on achieving a Starker or Harrell-like command of the fingerboard, or at least expecting myself to have it.  Helga Winold, who taught alongside Starker for many years at IU, once contrasted him with the rest of us “mere mortals.”  I’ve pretty much made peace with the fact that I am a mere mortal;  maybe I’ll be a cello “god” next lifetime, but not this one.

I guess we could say I’m a recovering cellorexic, slowly but surely healing.

Back to listening to that anonymous Bach, performed by that cellist whose playing I wished I could match.

On the last chord, he or she changed bows, ending with an up bow.  That’s odd, I thought, the only person I’ve heard do that is Yo-Yo (if I remember correctly).  There had been some audience noise, and as the chord finished the audience broke into applause.

Applause?  Wait a second, I thought.  A year ago I performed this suite with a dancer, played with a more romantic, slurred approach than usual, because it beter matched the fluidity of her movements, and, because of the dancer’s final gesture, changed bows on that last chord.  Could this performance I liked so much have been my own?  Could some of that audience noise have been the dancer on the stage?  It wasn’t my cello, but wait a second, I used the Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello for that concert because it was also hooked up with a pickup mic and pedals for some of the other pieces.

So I went into detective mode and found my Itunes playlist for that concert (which I had recorded but hurridly and sloppily labeled when I imported it into Itunes) and discovered, to my delight, that it was me.

That feeling of “I wish I could play that well” transformed into “I can play that well?”  To paraphrase Mr. Obama, “Yes I can.”

Unlike an anorexic, who always knows it’s him or herself in that mirror, a cellorexic can, every once in a while, experience the more-than-pleasant surprise of hearing his or her own recording without knowing who’s playing.  It’s happened to me just three times before.  Twice I put an unlabeled cassette in to play, loved the cello playing, started wondering who it was, and somehow realized it was me (in one case it was because of mistakes in the orchestra in the first movement of the Dvorak concerto).  The third time I arrived at an aunt’s house and a recrding of the Brahms E minor sonata was playing.  “Who is that,” I asked.  “That’s you,” she replied, surprised I hadn’t recognized my own playing.  It was a tape of a recital that I, or more likely my parents, had sent her.

Once I know it’s me, though, the spell is broken.  Or the curse is reawakened.  I start listening for perfection, catch tiny things, and feel disappointment.

But those occasional moments are sure nice while they last.

This story may seem more than a touch narcissistic.  “I listened to this great recording, couldn’t figure out who it was, and it was me.”  OK, I am a touch narcissistic;  I am a performer, after all. (Leonard Bernstein, I’ve read, once replied to a reporter who asked LB his response to charges that he was a nacrcissit by explaining, “Of course I am!  I’m a conductor.”)

The point of sharing my story (I hope) is that if you don’t like your playing, it may well be a lot better than you think.

[edited a couple of times for proofreading corrections]



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8 responses to “Cellorexia

  1. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever really liked my playing. *shrugs* Still don’t, for the most part.

  2. oh, and–I’ve always really loved your playing, btw. I’ve missed it over the years.

  3. Terry

    Although I’m not anywhere near the level you are, I’ve had reason to be thinking about my own cellorexia lately from my attendance at Mooney’s National Cello Institute a couple of weeks ago. I went through way too much angst before, during, and after my “solo” (actually, cello and piano) performance at evening recitals. Of 16 beginner or intermediate adults, I was the only one to perform in the evening recitals, but it was so stressful I’m not sure that it was worth it (A few advanced adult attendees also performed, but they were quite advanced). I’m not at all critical of the many kids and teens that played, why do I beat myself up so much? While my performance was not stellar, it was ok for my level and experience, and afterall, I do have a day job and family. Far and away the most negative thing about the performance was simply the attitude and mindset of the performer. If I fixed that, the comfort and enjoyment of the audience would be so much better. Was’a matter wi’ me, why can’t I get with the program and just enjoy?

    Although, judging from the lack of participation of the other intermediate adults, I am not alone in this.

    • Hey Terry–

      Thanks for sharing your experience. We are so hard on ourselves! So much of it is comparing ourselves to something external, and there’s something in our psyches making us want–need–to find fault with ourselves.

      I have to say that since writing this post I’ve been easing up on myself.

  4. Pam

    Eric, you must have posted a Brahms E minor performance online somewhere (one of yours, I mean). When I did a first pass at learning that sonata, I made a compilation CD of three versions to listen to while driving or doing computer work. I listened to your recital of it more often than I listened to either of the two cello, uh, “gods” whose commercial recordings I have copies of. So belatedly, thanks! And nice post, as well.

    • Thanks so much, Pam. I should repost that Brahms. I had a website meltdown a year or two ago and haven’t finished redoing things.

      Even I like that Brahms recording. And I now remember there was someone in the audience who was a rather important musician in the Milwaukee area (where the concert took place); I think he was a retired principal something or other from the MSO. Anyway, he told me it was the best performance he’d heard of it. Interesting how I blocked that out! I really appreciate your comment.

      And I’ll get some more audio posted.

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