It would have been so easy to say no.
A month earlier, Elaine Westwick asked if I would play my cello during her pilates and Qigong inspired movement class. She suggested ‘flowing music to play by the river.’ This was a new challenge. Aside from auditions and cello lessons, I hadn’t played a solo since high school. Even during high school, I only played solo pieces a scant handful of times.
I looked at the date she proposed: I’d have to miss the school awards assembly. I looked at the time: I wouldn’t be able to get back to my village before the school run and I’d have to arrange childcare for the kids. I thought about being the only musician instead of being buried in an ensemble of 80-100 players: People would be able to hear me and any of my mistakes, hesitations, sour notes. I could have said the time and date don’t work for me or I prefer to play in orchestra or honestly, that would be way too scary.
I said ‘Sure, I’d love to, thanks for asking.’ Then put it out of my mind for a few weeks.
But knowing I had made a promise, I started practicing and getting ready for the day. I chose the first of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Almost every cellist plays from these suites at some point. To play them is to join in a conversation with other cellists that stretches across time and distance. Although the first suite is technically more straightforward than the others, it isn’t trivial, and I never tire of this music. I always learn something from it each time I play. By practicing Bach, I could drown out my nerves about playing in public.
When I wasn’t practicing and my mind wandered to the upcoming day – only a week away, only a few days away, just under 24 hours to go – I wondered if there was a graceful way out.
Even up to the morning of that day, the universe teased me by handing me really good excuses to back down. Respectable, responsible reasons: My daughter wasn’t well, sent home from school the day before, and she was staying home for an extra day of rest. The heat would be too much for my instrument. I didn’t have a good folding chair that would be easy to carry over to the river.
But, like I said, I’d made a promise. And something I’ve learned over the past few years is that every time I make and keep a small promise to myself, I trust myself more that I can make and keep another small promise, take another small step. It is about taking risks, but also recognizing that small risks build muscle and courage for bigger risks, other adventures.
So, on a hot Friday afternoon in July, I was walking across the Great Shelford cricket pitch with no shade, heading toward the river, carrying my cello on my back, lugging a clumsy wooden chair in one hand, and holding my seven-year-old daughter’s hand with the other.
‘I’m scared,’ I told her. ‘I’m scared because I’m going to be playing my cello in front of all these people and I don’t know them and they don’t know me and they’ll hear me. And there will probably be someone who knows every note of the piece and who can play it better and will hear all my mistakes.’
She squinted at me through the sun’s glare and I noticed Elaine coming across the field to help us with the chair. ‘But I’m going to play anyway,’ I continued. ‘I’m going to play because I said I would and I know and love these songs. I’m just going to think about the music and enjoy the chance to play outside. I’m glad you’re here with me and I’ll play for you, because I know you’ll be listening.’
During the session, she settled on the grass just to my side, behind a big tree, sometimes sitting with her arms around her knees, sometimes lying down and looking up at the leaves. I could feel her eyes watching, her ears listening. I smoothed over my nerves and began to play Bach for her.
I love the feeling of keeping a promise. It feels so good to say I’ll do something, and then do it, however it turns out – maybe too rough, with mistakes, a bit out-of-tune here, a wobble there, a couple of missed notes. What matters more than a litany of faults is that I was there; I played my cello by the river, the breezes through the leaves provided an accompaniment. The people in Elaine’s class moved to imagery of trees, moons, suns, and the earth. I soon became absorbed in responding to their movement with the music. As their arms rose in a particular motion, I paced my notes to try to reach the peak of the line when their fingers were at the highest points. When they rested in the shade, I did, too. Then, when it seemed right, I played the Sarabande, a movement I have always found to be profoundly meditative. We were present, imperfect and intentional.
Afterwards my daughter told me, ‘I liked hearing you play outside.’ She asked if she could practice her violin outside that day. We did. We played in the back garden and she, too, had the experience of playing al fresco, to the neighbourhood cats and butterflies. This was the surprise icing on the cake of choosing to say yes.
There are always good reasons to say no to doing something that stretches you, that scares you. Moving outside our usual spheres of expertise isn’t always comfortable or easy. There’s always the chance of losing face or feeling a failure.
But there might be even better reasons to say yes. And the thing is, I often find that the most precious rewards of saying yes are never known beforehand when I’m weighing up the pros and cons of a decision. Instead, it’s the doing that delights me and the unexpected ripple-effects that make me glad I took the risk.