Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reclaiming the Debussy Sonata

Today’s coffee: Tanzania

Last weekend was a concert weekend: Shino and I played two concerts in the Obihiro area. To follow up what I wrote last time, despite all my worrying, everything went fine. There have been several concerts recently that I was worried about for various reasons; each of them turned out to be far better than I had expected. The concerts themselves went well musically, a lot of people came, we enjoyed spending time with our colleagues, we ate some great food, and with beautiful sunny weather last Sunday, the mountains surrounding Obihiro were stunning. We went home with full hearts (and full stomachs).

First concert, in Otofuke
Hanging out after the concert
Second concert, in Nakasatsunai
Beyond the various blessings of the concert weekend itself, I achieved a small personal victory. I’ve written before about how being in Japan has made me a better musician; here’s another example.

Shino and I played the entire Debussy cello sonata for the first time this weekend. While practicing, I remembered a lot of unpleasant things about when I first learned this piece during my junior year of high school. That year I visited a number of highly regarded music schools and took lessons from a couple of famous teachers... one of whom told me that my Debussy sonata (and my technique in general) sucked, and I’d be better off giving up the cello.

Defiant, I kept at it, working through problem after problem and increasing my practice time. I made a lot of progress and passed the audition at my first choice university. Still, I was afraid of rejection; I developed a bad habit of crying when I was criticized.

I think I probably burned out in graduate school, so “being busy with theological studies” gave me an excuse to let my cello gather dust. Then, when we first came to Japan, I was delighted to discover that I was able to practice almost every day!

Although change of atmosphere may have helped, I think what made the biggest difference was the purpose of my practice. I was practicing to improve and to perform well, but I started praying while practicing Bach, and I started thinking that God enjoyed my cello playing—not so much my skill, but my heart. I play for other people, but I play for God most of all. Then I started enjoying practice sessions a lot more. (Not always… but it’s been a big improvement.)

Weekly rehearsals with Shino have provided motivation to practice. But more than that, I found myself remembering how much fun it is to play music with a friend, and how beautiful the Brahms sonata is. Then I realized about a month ago that the Debussy sonata is really, really fun. It’s full of character and spunk, and it’s such an interesting fusion of Western music with elements of Asian music that were popular among French composers of Debussy’s time.

I was able not only to take the Debussy sonata to a new level personally, but the challenging piano and cello interplay forced us to listen to each other even more carefully, which in turn helped us to make a huge improvement in the Brahms sonata and other pieces in our repertoire. Most importantly, I had fun. Shino had fun. I didn’t care anymore what a couple of music professors said about my playing in the distant past.

I’m thankful for Shino, and for chances to perform great music together. I’m thankful that God listens to my cello, even when I’m having a “bad cello day.” God’s love for me is not dependent on perfect performance.

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