Out of the Mouths of Babes
There is not enough dedication in modern editorials exploring the artistry that exists outside of the limelight. This interview series aims to indulge in just such an arena in hopes of better understanding and coming to a more well-rounded vantage point on art and music in all of its forms.
In our first edition, we discuss the influence that a lifetime of dedicated classical cello academia has on an individual in their personal life and on their own tastes in music.
There are an incalculable number of uncomfortable persons currently flying over our very heads wedged on international flights between foreign objects cold, metal and shiny - hot, humid, and squishy, and any other textural combination imaginable that over the duration of a long and monotonous process, come to drive them mad. But amongst them is a young man seated comfortably next to a physically detached, but emotional resonant piece of himself - his cello. You see, Derek is headed to Europe with his instrument whose size and fragility require of it a seat of its own, and aside from the fact that sitting next to a familiar, inanimate friend is undoubtedly more comfortable and internally peaceful than the company of a spilling-over moist flap of humanity, such a notion and an act of love in our passionate indulgences is one that all of us should strive for in our daily lives.
But such love is one that is long-earned and long-fought, not merely granted in our pursuits of creativity and mastery.
RNGLDR: Let's just start with the obvious question: of all the instruments, how did you end up with one so inconveniently massive?
Derek: I started when I was 4 and ½, so my parents really did the choosing for me. My sister had been studying violin for a couple of years with an incredible woman named Javan, and her roommate and best friend, Jennifer, was a cellist and slowly convinced my parents to try sitting me down with a cello. When the time came, they choice was made. But I started on ¼ size, and moved up in size as I grew. (It’s funny to me when people think I have been playing on the same full-size instrument that would have literally been physically bigger than me for years.)
My parents were ultimately convinced at the kitsch notion of putting my sister and me up for duets, and thus Derek the cellist was born.
RNGLDR: What has it been like lugging it around your entire life, and at what point, if ever, did you come to peace with it?
Derek: Quite honestly, I wasn’t comfortable labelling myself as a cellist until the end of my senior year of high school. The amount of, or more so simple existence of my pride in lugging around the instrument changed precisely when I finally felt comfortable even considering myself a cellist, instead of just being a person who plays cello on the weekends.
Whenever I would have my cello with me and we would eat out after a performance or something like this, my dad would make me bring in my instrument and set it by the table to prevent it from the weather. I would throw a fit of embarrassment every single time, even though no one gave a shit, and were more often curious than judgmental of the huge thing – “Is that a guitar/violin?” – I was carrying in. Looking back, my attitude was ridiculous given the fragility of the $10k instrument my parents graciously invested in for me.
For high school graduation, I performed this modern piece called Julie-O by American composer Mark Summer. It’s a really cool tune that uses the cello in guitar-like ways, has a freeing improvisatory feel to it, and is truly thrilling to play. (One of few pieces I’ve worked on so much where I feel like the cello is playing me, as opposed to the other way around.) The ceremony would be the largest audience I’ll probably ever play in my life: 10,000 people including students, parents, teachers, faculty, etc. It went well, and it was around this time where I finally accepted that what I was doing with my cello was “cool”, because it was something that defined me as an individual among some 900 graduating seniors. I had started hanging out with people who validated my confidence involving cello and frequently invited me (and my instrument!!) to jam. I was hesitant at first, but it got easier after doing it a few times. It was around this time that the source of my pride shifted from insecurity to confidence, and that’s when I was happy to lug my cello around in public spaces. People who stared or inquired gave me strength to be an individual, as I realized they often admired or even envied my uncommon musical ability.
RNGLDR: You've said before that you have a tendency to lose things. Have you ever lost your cello?
Derek: I’ve never lost my cello, although my forgetful ass used to forget one thing or another when I started driving myself to my lessons growing up. On several occasions, I forgot my bow, brought my case without the cello, and drove off without putting my cello in the car. My teacher was practically a second mother so if I forgot my cello, we’d just drive to Starbucks and get frappucinos (with extra whipped cream). Forgetting music was essentially a given on a biweekly basis.
I think the size of the instrument has worked to my favor as it’s a bit harder to forget a possession that’s practically as big as I am. Since I’ve been in school, I don’t really have the chance to forget, anymore, since most of my musical activities are within a single building and my locker on the top floor serves as HQ for personal belongings.
RNGLDR: If you ever lost your cello for good, and it could never replaced - you could never play again - what kind of vacuum would that leave in your life?
Derek: I’ve actually been contemplating a version of this question a lot as I’m finishing the third year of my undergrad and debating plans for the future. Naturally, there’s no definitive answer. Nonetheless, at this point I’ve concretely identified and established music as a fundamental part of my life, identity, and aspirations. But what would this mean if that music didn’t involve cello?
My crash-landing into music school provides some insight into this. Straight out of high school, I attended my first year of college at Tulane in New Orleans and pursued Political Science and Math, minoring in Spanish and maybe Arabic. I wanted to have my brain spread into a little bit of everything because I witnessed each of these as means of cross-cultural connection, challenging myself to form otherwise inaccessible bonds with people across the world and cultures. But after spending a year focusing on these academics and letting my cello collect dust in the corner of my dorm room, I recognized a more enticing urge to form these connections via music. My dear friend Celeste from Tulane introduced me to the world of electronic music, and this stuck as the genre blasting from my speakers/headphones ever since. I never really listened to classical music unless I was playing the piece, but a force in the universe drew me to study cello intensively. For these past few years inundating myself with classical in the classroom and underground electronic otherwise has helped me to witness how much these genres coalesce in their power as non-verbal forms of emotional and energetic communication.
This all said, I still question the role of cello specifically in my life. I have found strengths and extreme joy as an event organizer in the past year, but can’t imagine my life devoid of the music-making process. But as an optimist considering this hypothetical loss, I’m sure I would find some means of creative expression that still satiates my intense craving for intimate connection through music.
RNGLDR: What would you take up in its place?
Derek: I’ve always wanted to explore electronic music production, so this and sharpening piano skills would probably be next on my list. I’m always drawn to things that are new and innovative, and learning digital music production softwares fits right into that curiosity.
RNGLDR: Obviously things always change and dedication comes in waves, but what kind of practice regiment is required to be the musician you are? And what kind of next step would be required to, for lack of a better phrase, take the next step?
Derek: Before I went to college, I maybe practiced 2 hours per week. Today, though, my professor frequently mentions 4 hours as a standard practice day. This means 4 hours per day, 7 days a week. Nonetheless, you are always encouraged to practice more; realistically, there comes a time when your brain absorbs as much as it’s able to for that day, and the sponge can’t take in any more water. Some days that over-soaked sponge feeling comes after 3 hours, others after 6. What becomes difficult to manage is finding time to satisfy that standard of 4 hours, while also attending orchestra and ensemble rehearsals. It quickly adds up, sometimes playing 8 hours in a day. In cases like these, focus is one issue and avoiding injury (tendinitis, etc.) becomes another. Maintaining passionate devotion can be a real struggle in this sense, but we all need a period where we almost start to hate our instrument. This is where it is relevant to reference Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Studying at the college/conservatory level is where people generally develop the tools to take any next steps in their professional musical life. I am lucky to have a teacher who instills a sense of independence in the practice room, encouraging us to form an idea of what “perfect” sounds like and then arming us with practice techniques, etc. to strive to get there. Something I’ve noticed, however, is that a lot of students become complacent in only growing within the confines of teacher feedback, rather than establishing a sense of creative independence.
Another difference between being a “student” vs. “professional” (though let’s be real, any real musician will always tell you that they are always a student and constantly learning and growing and bettering their style), is the time you have to prepare music. I recently played my junior recital, which included 2 pieces (1 full sonata, 1 concerto) totaling about 45-50 minutes of music, took me about 6 ½ months to prepare. But just last month, my professor ended up preparing a concerto he hadn’t played for 20ish years in over a week. Of course we’re always striving for the same level of perfection, but are inevitably given different amounts of time to get there.
RNGLDR: With the dedication necessary, how is it that you also balance school and work? Do you have a social life?
Derek: This really is not the case for everyone, but having a part-time job completely outside of my music school routine/life actually helps to keep me sane in school. I thrive when I’m on the verge of too-busy, as long as I keep an organized schedule. Jumping from one activity to another over the course of a day ironically helps me to be present in that single hour or however long I’m supposed to be engaged, because I know that I don’t have to labor on for hours on end. For me, busyness = variety = excitement = high energy.
As an extrovert, I’ve had to explore different ways to restore emotional/spiritual energy with a social life. Over the past few months actually, I will rarely just sit around and hang with people. Instead, I try to find activities to do with friends, whether a movie, concert, museum, bike ride, or whatever. Going back to my need for intimate social connections, this is how I restore energy levels after busy days/weeks/etc.
RNGLDR: With how much time you spend playing and studying orchestra and classical music, does that mean you listen to a lot of it in your free time?
Derek: I kind of mentioned this before, but I really only listen to classical music when I’m playing or otherwise studying the piece. Whether Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Stravinsky, or Gershwin, these compositions are so complex and intellectual in their own ways that it can be difficult to digest the music without proper context. This isn’t to say that I don’t want to find context in the music which I’m not studying, but rather I choose to prioritize other, often newer, music to enjoy aurally.
RNGLDR: When you do listen to it, what do you listen to? What are your favorite compositions? And who are your favorite composers?
Derek: Superlatives are always fucking impossible for me to definitively dictate, because everything is so subjectively beautiful. But since you’re holding a gun to my head, I can answer this within genres/instrumentation. I still don’t even know where to begin explaining each of these choices, so I’ll just give titles. My favorite solo music is either Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major or Benjamin Britten’s Solo Suite No. 1. Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 Op. 69 in A Major makes me cry when I’m high and listening with a quality sound system– the third movement is one of the most jubilant pieces of music I’ve ever heard. The first symphony I truly loved, and still holds to this day as my favorite, is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. It is a 45 minute massive and brutal and excruciating and epic journey through Soviet-state confined creativity. I could make this list 8 pages long though, so…I did my best.
RNGLDR: Aside from classical cello, do you also dabble in other stylings? Say jazz or folk?
Derek: I’m always a bit ashamed of myself that I have almost no experience exploring outside of classical music with my cello. But I’m quick to forgive myself since I choose to spend a lot of time listening to and learning about underground house and techno.
RNGLDR: As a classically-trained and educated musician, how do you think your ear and your taste for music differ from non-instrumentalists?
Derek: My training as a classical musician definitely leads me to believe I am a reputable critic of music. For years, I thought it also meant that pop music was worthless garbage because it would never compete with the melodic and harmonic complexities of the classical Gods like Beethoven. But in learning more about the different intentions of modern genres, I’ve grown to appreciate pop music, even if I don’t listen to it that often. Each genre deserves to be evaluated on a subjective basis, but that isn’t to say there aren’t common threads or trends. So in being an instrumentalist, it’s kind of the same idea as a culinary-trained chef comparing fast food to fine cuisine. There is still something delicious about McDonald’s fries, just as there is about a Michelin-star restaurant, regardless of who’s consuming it. The difference is just the level of refinement the consumer has experienced and they themselves are able to achieve.
For the sake of tangible examples within music, I’ll reference some female pop artists that are semi-related and that I ponder quite a bit: Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, and Beyonce. I try to consider each on an objective basis, as I find it relatively easy to see the positives within each artist’s intention. To me, Cardi B is an incredible example of the power of social media in pop music. She is an artist that was essentially made famous by being a meme and Vine star. Her shameless past as a stripper strengthens Cardi’s individual identity, and provides a wealth of material for her songwriters. This is a common thread between her and Beyonce – while people may give them shit for not creating every morsel themselves, they still put in the hard work and successfully cultivate an audience with an image that feels indelibly personal and captivating. Nicki is an artist who claims to write her own material, and profits from the same “ghetto/hyper-effeminate” sexuality as Cardi, but in a totally different manner. I could go on, but I feel like this elaboration demonstrates how I choose to wield my “enhanced” ability to critique music; this to say, I feel grateful to be able to dissect the complexities of any musical genre, regardless of societal notions of being “trashy” or “over-simplified” or whatever other purely NEGATIVE criticisms.
RNGLDR: What do you usually find yourself listening to in the non-classic spheres of music?
Derek: Techno. Techno. Techno. Techno. A lil’ bit of soul and disco. Occasionally house, but I shy away from a lot of the hyper-simple shit produced these days. There’s something so hypnotic and challenging and mesmerizing about tech. That said, so many people who aren’t already fans are frequently quick to dismiss the genre entirely. I love when people ask why I listen to it because it’s “the same thing happening for 3 hours”. On one hand, I laugh because it really is. 120ish bpm can appear monotonous. What I always look for in music, regardless of genre, is manipulation of tension and release. This is a fundamental component of any “quality” of music. In classical music, composers use harmony and rhythm to do this. With electronic music, a lot of it is rhythmic and timbral. This to say, weaving consonant and dissonant rhythms/sounds create or relieve tension. Basic EDM PLUR fans beg for the infamous “drop” – that moment when the bass finally kicks and you feel it reverberate all the way through to your bones. But with an experienced (techno) DJ behind the decks, 3 hours provides so much variety in providing anticipation for that single moment of energetic sensation. Techno is so fascinating to me because a majority of artists intentionally create super challenging moments in the set. (Of course this is drug-induced music, but once you get it once, you can understand it sober) and DJs show their artistry in being able to create moments with so much tension that you can’t even dance any more … there’s no strong pulse and just sonic chaos … you turn away from your conversation and aren’t sure why … and then out of nowhere, the bass comes back and blows you back into a feeling of ease. It’s hard to articulate in words, but there is something so addicting about that sensation that has held my attention for several years now.
I have slowly moved away from genres like tech house, etc. because those moments before the “drop” aren’t difficult enough. Tracks are too predictable. It’s too easy listening which isn’t underground electro, it’s just pop music that isn’t popular yet.
RNGLDR: Who is your favorite musician right now? Why?
Derek: Fucking superlatives!!! This is so hard. Pardon my lack of proper grammar in this response, but I have to list a few, since I love each of them for the same reason: they are artists that throw incredible parties and are also incredible people and actually send a message with their music. Black Madonna, (Miss) Honey Dijon, Peggy Gou, Yaeji, and Four Tet.
Ironically, my consistent favorite is actually just 1 artist, but I can’t only have love for a single artist, so I felt obligated to list those above. But ……… Simon Green aka Bonobo creates music that speaks so deeply to me, and is able to do so within one signature sound across every single one of his albums.
RNGLDR: What is your favorite song right now? Why?
Derek: It is not techno, but Pantalon by Kornél Kovács is the ultimate feel good tune. And since it’s summer, it matches my external environment very well, since it just makes you want to shake your ass and drink cocktails around the pool all day.
RNGLDR: Open whatever music app it is that you use, and tell us the last thing you were listening to? No shame.
Derek: I go back and forth between Spotify and Soundcloud, since it is just as important to listen to DJ sets as it is albums/Eps/singles. Most recent listen on Soundcloud is a Truancy Podcast set from Bicep, Spotify is Nicki Minaj’s Chun Li (immediately followed by Pantalón!!!!) (Notice that both tunes make you shake your ass, for very different reasons.
RNGLDR: Do you think the average music fan - one unaccustomed to listening to classical - or even one unaccustomed to listening to anything outside of the popular radio realm - would come to love it if given a chance?
Derek: Potentially. I think, if given the chance, the right approach could turn anyone on. I think starting with a softcore musicological approach to Romantic music could intrigue just about anyone. But I’ve found a lot of people don’t bother tolerating music without words these days, so that’s an initial obstacle that is entirely out of our control.
RNGLDR: What would be some unchallenging, introductory recommendations you have for an unpracticed ear?
Derek: Try understanding the artist before you try to understand the art. Providing that sort of context is absolutely key to appreciating the music. I can corroborate this because that is exactly what I (typically) have to do in order to truly enjoy a piece. We understand the context of most singles on iTunes/Billboard top 100, but we don’t often consciously recognize it because that part of the listening process is a given. Understanding that Beethoven went deaf and still produced dozens of groundbreaking works – often incorporating deep bass notes so that he could feel the resonance in the floor – adds an element of interest to a piece which otherwise might put you to sleep. But if you don’t at least appreciate a small bit of intellectual stimulation (which demands even the smallest bit of effort), there’s not much hope, unfortunately. However, this is why I am so motivated to wholly understand the works I’m playing, so that I can extrapolate and present details which do provoke some level of interest to a listening ear, experienced or not.
RNGLDR: What kind of role do you think music will play as your life continues to evolve and change direction?
Derek: For the first 18 years of my life, generally closeted not only sexually but also as a creative individual, I was constantly bullied by both other people and myself. I was miserable and felt beyond restricted. My life and success were dictated by how much money my parents had or that I earned. But after spending time exploring all manifestations of my Self, I found reasons to live. I worked tirelessly to uncover my own strengths and weaknesses, and discovered Music as an eternal interest. I understood Music as a means of bringing people together, whether that be inviting friends and family to my recital or gathering thousands of people to dance and mingle at a music festival. So while I hesitate to limit my future to one specific path, I instead hope to spend the rest of my waking moments finding ways to connect people and music in spaces outlined by inclusivity and (otherwise private) carnal curiosities. I glibly summate my goals up to “I want to throw parties professionally”, hoping that this vague linguistic translation of the essence personal goals pushes me to share myself and Music with people throughout time and space. Whether performing or organizing events, I will be a happy human as long as I am constantly inundated with Music.