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December 1994 The Road That Never Ends, By Lynn Harrell

When I joined the Cleveland Orchestra at age eighteen, I thought I was a finished product. I had arrived, and all the hard work was behind me. At age ten we think we will never get beyond the first position, while at thirteen it seems impossible to cope with two hours of practicing after school. At sixteen you work 20 hours a day for the big competition, and at eighteen it was all over for me. I had a job.
   How little I knew that it was only the bare beginning. It is so easy in music to forget that we are doing something we love. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we love it as deeply as we do. When we are young it is so difficult to imagine ever playing well enough, but as we get older it is difficult to realize that this feeling will never go away.
   I am fifty now. The students I played with at summer string camp are fathers and grandfathers. I am still amazed when playing with distinguished colleagues of my own age to realize that despite however well they may cover it up, they shake with stage fright before walking out on stage. The doubts, the insecurities, and the anger at the space between the dream and the achievement never go away.
   There is never a moment in music when we can say, “This is it. Now I have arrived.” It is a journey with many stops. There are frustrating pauses, whirlwind acceleration and sometimes, just a sense of having gotten seriously lost.
   Only a year after coming to Cleveland expecting to sit back and enjoy things, I had the worst time of my career. My friends and colleagues, some of who were still in music school, thought I had it made with a regular salary and only myself to take care of. I had concerts all over the world with one ‘of the greatest orchestras of all time. Who could have guessed the desolation and emptiness that I felt? I played on the third stand, never heard and never noticed. I felt invisible, and this existence began to feel like a boring, terrible, slow death. How was I to endure 40 years of this?
   The problem of course, was that I lacked a true education. In those early days, I never listened to colleagues but just stared at the page and played along with everyone else. One day George Szell
 became frustrated beyond belief at my donkeylike sleepwalking and told me to stay during the intermission of a rehearsal. He grabbed my right arm and started to play as he thought I should play. Although the sound was terrible, the passion was there again. He barked at me, “You don’t contribute; you don’t do anything. You’re not prepared. You just float along down the stream. You never know how the music goes.” It was a tirade, and it amazed me. It had never entered my mind in my self-pitying state that this could be all my fault, or that if I became bored, the reason was that I wasn’t trying hard enough. Music isn’t boring; people are.
   Szell told me about studying the score, about practicing music as more than just technique but also about hearing the lines weave through the instruments. He dared me to again have pride in my playing. It wasn’t to be the old pride, narcissistically and aimlessly delighting in the trivia of instrumental playing, but to become immersed in the psyche and personality of each composer. Szell taught me to respect the creative force behind a great piece of music and have respect for my fellow musicians. Bullied and scorned by him, I started listening to the great musicians who surrounded me. I was awed by a horn sound that my wretched cello could never match, a clarinet legato that defined the word for me, and the silvery shimmer of beautiful flute playing. George Szell opened my ears to the musical inventiveness of fine oboe playing, and he taught me humility. Through these experiences he brought me joy.
   When I became principal cello of the Cleveland Orchestra, I was probably the same age as most of you. I still see and play with some of my old friends. My old Juilliard and Curtis classmates wrote me off as future solo material when I joined the orchestra. I was out of the running for a lifetime. They were the big talents, and I was no longer counted among them. I also would have put money on some of the other cellists to develop a solo career. I can still recall some of these individuals as being incandescent, tall, good looking, and with stunning self-confidence, but you have never heard of most of them. I had no idea at age 21 what a long journey life is.
   The key is simple: you have to keep going. Life isn’t a competition; it is only about yourself, one day after another, forcing yourself to understand that you never understand it all. The English use the term, “dintism.” In explaining how a colleague got a job the reply might be, “Oh, dintism” because the person succeeded by sheer dint of doing and working, day after day, year after year, without giving up.
   I am often asked whether I get bored with playing the Dvorak Concerto around the world. They must be joking. Although at age 20 I knew everything about the Dvorak Concerto, even now I am still discovering new things every time I play it. When I hear someone else play it, even a student, I may discover a phrase, a note, or an unfamiliar turn of musical gesture.
   1 will never forget my encounters with Marcel Moyse, the legendary French flutist at the Marlboro Festival while he was in his 80s, yet he had such passion of a piece of music that he kept tripping over his words to get them all out. With as much toil and work as music demands, it is our brush with immortality. When Pablo Casals was so old that his fingers and technique could hardly be recognized as good cello playing, the music I heard him play was moving and powerful.
   Perhaps you wonder what this has to do with graduates about to go into the world, but I am here as a scout to report back on what it looks like down the road ahead. My report is that the journey at the beginning and the journey to the end are no different. Music is one, continuous journey, and it never ends.
   Sometimes I meet musicians in their early 20s who are already bored and cynical. “It’s all politics,” they’ll say, but I remember students like that from 30 years ago: they were the talents who disappeared. Only the music has remained, and it is there for those who delight in it, who never fail to find refreshment in it, and who rejoice in receiving the gift of this music. For musicians who see music in this light, the way is lit by this special lantern of art.
   Most students graduate with the weight of student loans, and cars in need of new transmissions, while free-lance jobs seem hard to find, yet I came here to say, “Keep going.” Magical things have happened to many people I know, and we have all been surprised. Some of my older colleagues at the Royal Academy of Music in London feel the same bond that I do, for we are all in this amazing and magical circle together. Our delight in the music is the same, and each of us pursues a life in music in a different way.
   Franz Schubert is dead, but his music lives forever, and it almost breaks my heart that I never knew him; but what truly breaks my heart is to meet musicians along the path I walk and discover that although they are physically alive, things are somehow dead inside. My advice for you is to go out and join the living.   

   Lynn Harrell is a noted cello soloist and performs and conducts with many outstanding orchestras. He joined the Cleveland Orchestra at the age of 18, and became principal cellist two years later. His awards include the Piatigorsky Award, the Ford Foundation Concert Artists’ Award, and the first Avery Fisher Award. In 1993 Harrell became the principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London. This article is adapted from his 1994 commencement address at the Cleveland Institute of Music.