A note from the editor: Ben and I met during the first year of our Bachelor of Music degree. He has written an insightful article for Fever Pitch Magazine on his experiences completely rethinking his approach to music performance. Ben is currently editing the manuscript of his first novel, ‘The Cellist’. If you enjoy Ben’s writing, you can keep up to date with his work through his website, Twitter, and Instagram. – Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
My name is Ben, and I dropped out of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music after less than a year. I started in 2013 and it didn’t take me long to realise I was in over my head.
Growing up, my Slavic parents pushed me to practice my cello every day. I had wanted to play in the beginning, but the novelty quickly wore off and by my teenage years I was totally over it. I would occasionally go through periods of intense motivation, usually after a stint in a youth orchestra, but mostly I spent my time mindlessly repeating pieces I already knew.
Around the age of 16, I suddenly decided that I would become a professional musician and no one could stop me. I can’t quite pinpoint what exactly set me off on this path, but it was probably a combination of Jaqueline Du Pre YouTube videos and a general reluctance to apply myself to anything else.
I worked hard to prepare myself for the audition — hours of practice each day, fending off naysayers who reminded me that there was no money in music, and finally, sweating through the audition. I never quite managed to convince my dad that I wouldn’t be out on the streets starving to death.
When I got my acceptance letter, I cried and thought all my dreams had come true. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I shouldn’t be so dramatic. My story is really about a naïve, over-ambitious 18 year-old who crumpled when the reality of a music education washed away his idyllic vision of being David Popper’s protégé.
I began studying, enjoying the first few weeks of theory and performance despite the intensity, but again, the novelty wore off. I had come from being the best cellist in my country-town school to the bottom of an exceptional class of first year cellists.
I very quickly realised that most of the other cellists were much better than me, and to say I felt inferior is an understatement. I struggled to come to terms with my newly discovered mediocrity and spent many hours agonising over the fact that I wasn’t good enough, when I should have spent those hours practicing.
My cello teacher questioned basic things like my left hand-position — something so utterly ingrained in a string player’s muscles that redeveloping it is like unlearning how to walk. I failed to get into the university orchestra the first semester and butchered eight-bar compositions in Music Language 1.
I was quickly losing hope in becoming a ‘successful musician’. I told myself I wasn’t a quitter, that becoming a soloist is tantamount to landing on the moon using only a pogo-stick, and that I should get used to hardship if I wanted to achieve my goal.
And I wasn’t wrong. Becoming a soloist is incredibly difficult, even for the best of us. There are plenty of virtuosic musicians out there who struggle to make a living out of nothing but solo performances. In reality, very few musicians do nothing but soloist work. The You-Tube videos we watch of Yo Yo Ma or Joshua Bell playing to sold out concert halls are small snippets of their otherwise (I’m assuming) well rounded careers. Chamber music, collaborations, and teaching are all part of the things they do.
At the time, forging a successful music career was my all-consuming goal. I was determined to become a soloist and didn’t consider any other pathway.
In hindsight, I can see that I was a perfectly capable cellist but had a completely destructive mindset. When I finally pulled the plug, I consoled myself by saying I didn’t want a musician’s lifestyle.
I transferred into a science degree and the $6,000 cello my parents had brought back from Europe gathered dust in the basement.
My fatal flaw was that I had no patience or respect for the long and slow process of development that is required to become a truly great musician. Soloists are formed after years of dedicated practice and a vast array of experience in the music industry. My assumption that I would be handed a soloist’s career on a silver platter when I finished my undergrad was pure, juvenile delusion.
Many of the world’s successful musician’s have never studied music formally because music is the type of discipline where you don’t need a qualification to take part in it. If I had really wanted to be a soloist, I would have been better served by the right cello teacher and enough stamina to practice eight hours a day.
The real value in a formal musical education is the context and breadth it covers. You learn about the history, theory and technique of music so that at the end of it you have a clearer idea of what specifically interests you about music, and where to point your attention from there.
You may simply enjoy having a deeper knowledge of the music you play, and decide to enter a career completely unrelated to music.
But what we shouldn’t do, and something that is all too common among young musicians (exhibit A = Benjamin Peska), is to entertain the idea that music school is all you need to be ‘successful’ musician. Music school is the beginning of a musical career, the bare minimum in a thoughtful approach to music. Even if you stumble to finish line, feeling like you’ve achieved nothing, the knowledge and experience you have acquired is invaluable. Since leaving the Conservatorium, I have uncovered my passion for ethnomusicology, which coincidentally is one of the Majors available at the Con. Had I started my music degree with a healthier mindset, and stuck through the inevitable hardships, I would have most likely discovered my love for ethnomusicology and turned my attentions in that direction. My delusions prevented me from extracting the true value from my musical education.
A few years on from abandoning my music school and I have (mostly) cured myself of my sickness. I rediscovered my love for music, after years of resenting it, and pinpointed exactly what it is about it that excites me: playing with other musicians. With this knowledge, I realise why it was so painful to lock myself in a room to practice for hours on end.
Today, I play more music than I ever have before. I play accordion in a folk band with some friends, teach cello and guitar to a handful of students, and help organise productions and performances at the Slovak Social Club. But one of my all-time favourite things to do is to play Slovak music with my brother at parties. This intimate setting, where people yell out their favourite songs and my brother and I try and catch the key that the tipsy singer has started in, is where I feel music most speaks to me.
I feel connected to my ancestors through the lyrics which hint at what they struggled and triumphed with, and playing without sheet music allows me to immerse myself more deeply in the music and the magic of improvising with another musician. All the while, I get to experience this while in the company of my closest friends and family.
My reasons for playing music have changed vastly over the past five years. Where it used to be a source of intense anxiety and stress, it is now one of my life’s serene pleasures. It took a lot of pain and a major mindset shift, but being clear about why I play music is undoubtedly the most important question I ever answered for myself.