XIV. Dr. Albert Ellis

One of the unfortunate side effects of my second Alice Tully Hall concert was a severe and debilitating case of tendonitis in my right arm. This condition plagued me for the next several years, and had it not been for the psychological help given to me by Albert Ellis, my career could have come to an end at age 31.

There was no tenure at the American Ballet Theatre, and I did not want anyone to know that I was experiencing numbness in both my bow arm and my left hand. I had many solos to play and the uncertainty of whether or not, or how, they were going to go was extremely troubling. At the suggestion of Laura Curtis, a great patron of the arts who hosted many play-through recitals for me in her home, I contacted Dr. Albert Ellis.

Dr. Ellis (1913-2007) was the chief psychologist for the state of New Jersey in 1950, but because he published many books on human sexuality, served as the American editor for the International Journal of Sexology, and was a known advocate for sexual freedom (he was the first prominent psychologist to advocate gay liberation), he was unable to find a teaching position in New York. He thereby had to make his whole income from private practice. He charged $25 for a half-hour session (far less than other New York psychotherapists of the time), and streamlined his approach so that those 30 minutes would really count for his clients.

He saw so many clients that he could make note of characteristics he saw in the basically “neurotic” but otherwise non-mentally-ill people who came to him for help. He observed that most unhappy people are handicapped by irrational and rigid thinking, and that most people are fully aware of it, but they hold onto their beliefs even if those beliefs continue to make them unhappy. He combined this observation with the teachings of Stoic philosophers (like Marcus Aurelius), and taught his clients that all neurotic emotions come from a person’s view of a particular situation and not from the situation itself. Dr. Ellis also delighted in being as iconoclastic as possible, and he used curse words as liberally as he could think them up.

Dr. Ellis explained, during our first meeting, that my number one problem was interpreting the events of my life as awful. Awful, he explained, hasn’t any limit. Bad, you can deal with.

The first item in my litany of woe was that my arm was driving me crazy. He responded by telling me, “No! You’re driving you crazy. Your arm just hurts. Now, what’s the problem?” I told him that I had an extensive solo to play that night at the ballet, and I wasn’t sure if my arm was going to crap out on me. He asked how long the solo lasted, to which I responded that it was about two minutes long. He asked me how much I had played so far today, and I told him that I had played about two hours, and he said, “It’s hardly likely that you couldn’t play for two minutes if you have already played for two hours, and even if you couldn’t, don’t you have an assistant who you could alert to cover for you? And even if you were to play badly, you imagine your colleagues will think that you’ve crashed and burned, when in reality they’ll just think that you’re having a bad day.”

That evening I played that solo and many other solos perfectly well, and I was surprised that my level of playing was actually better than it had been, mostly because of the increased amount of focus I brought to bear at the moment of truth.

Another session concerned my fears about playing the very difficult cello parts in Wagner’s Die Walkure and in Berg’s Wozzeck. I was afraid that with the large amount of rehearsal time we had the conductors might spend a lot of time taking things apart. I was worried that if they found me substandard they would do everything in their power to humiliate me. I also told him about my dyslexia, and how hard it was for me to read and figure out difficult music quickly.

He responded, “My dear, you are the principal cellist of this opera company. It’s your job to play those notes, and if you don’t, it’s their job to make you feel bad about it. Furthermore, is there any reason why between now and next week you couldn’t put in two hours a day figuring out this music? You might even find that after you start, a certain automaticity will set in, and the work will go a lot faster.”

This turned out to be exactly the case. I did the work, and made an excellent impression when I returned to the Lyric Opera. His advice effectively changed the way I thought about myself. Before seeing Dr. Ellis I felt like a victim, and I was afraid that conductors were dead-set on humiliating me and criticizing me. After considering Dr. Ellis’s explanation that conductors were just doing their job, the same way I was just doing my job, I felt much less afraid to go into a rehearsal. I knew that I had a choice to make: do my job, or accept the fact that if I didn’t, the conductor would have to do his job.

Among other things, Dr. Ellis insisted that I record all these sessions so, as he put it, “I don’t have to keep saying the same thing over and over again.” He gave me a “present” to take to Chicago. It goes like this:

  1. Something is bothering me. I wonder what it is.
  2. I know what it is, but is it true?
  3. If it is true, what’s the evidence to support it? If it isn’t true, what stake do I have in believing something which is untrue?

My friends all thought I was crazy when I told them that after being the principal cellist at the opera for five years I was still nervous about how to do the job. They thought that it was impossible not to be able to do a job that I had been doing successfully for five years. Dr. Ellis’s response was different. He told me that there were all kinds of things that he couldn’t do, and would never be able to do well. He gave the example of statistics, which is a necessary part of the study of psychology. He told me that he just had to deal with it, and that he did the best he could without that particular expertise. He told me that you can compensate for your liabilities to a degree, but you only need to compensate for them to the degree that gets you over the top of what you want to do, and that the rest of the time, you can play your strengths to the hilt.

Once I came in complaining that I had played something really badly. He asked me why I didn’t enjoy playing badly, and went on to say that if you have an instrument in your hands and music to play, and things aren’t going well, you can always listen to what other people are doing. He told me that I can do the best that I can do, and that I can enjoy the process of transforming something bad (i.e. my playing that day) into something good.

In response to my complaint about having to ingratiate myself to people I didn’t respect in order to safeguard myself (there was no tenure at the ballet), he asked me why I should feel bad about it. He told me that I didn’t make the rules, and suggested that if I was playing by the rules, the rules are the game. He told me that if I was playing the game to win, following them doesn’t say anything about me except that I can keep my job and make money.

Sometimes his advice was extremely practical. When I told him I had been engaged to do a summer festival between the ballet season and the next opera seasons, he told me to get a substitute for the summer festival because I needed to harbor my strength, time, and energy for the opera season, which is much more important.

These sessions helped to sustain me for the next three years when I had to play at a high level while being physically handicapped. Dr. Ellis taught me that I could deal with reality, but not with fantasies of disaster. He liked to say that it’s not what happens to you, but your opinion of what happens to you that will determine how you feel and how you act.

I even went with June to Dr. Ellis so that he could help us work out some “issues” we had when we first began to work together in the American Chamber Trio. June felt that I was being too rough on her, and I felt that it was my job to bring her up to snuff. Dr. Ellis told June that if she were to go out on a stage and be criticized by the people hearing her play, she should do as much as possible to sound good. He convinced me that I should make her sound as good as possible, but I should do it in a way that addressed musical and technical issues without getting personal about it. We spent two hours with Dr. Ellis, and it was the best $100.00 investment I ever made in my life.

Channing Robbins had an interesting psychological approach to teaching. He gave me technical tools, and I used them faithfully to work through the difficult repertoire I played. Once, when I called Channing at 7:00 a.m. before leaving for a concert in South Carolina, he helped me a great deal by telling me, “I know that you’re going to do it your way, but you’ll do it better because you learned to do it my way.” When faced with playing the Brahms Double Concerto and the Beethoven Triple Concerto, I asked him why my bow arm was falling apart. He told me to go home and play the slow movement of the “Arpeggione” Sonata in the lower half of the bow without any motion in the fingers, and come back to see him at 6:00. When I came back, the problem was solved. He said, “Celebrate. Now that you solved this problem, if it ever comes up again, you’ll know how to handle it.”

Perhaps the most valuable thing that Channing taught me concerned time and energy management while on tour. He taught me the mindset of practicing while I was playing on stage, which was very helpful because it saved a lot of energy and the relative detachment of practicing rather than performing put me in a calmer state of mind than I would have ordinarily been in. He told me that the audience wouldn’t know the difference. He also told me that it is useful to pay attention when things are going well so that you can replicate the feeling when things are going badly.

I played my program for my third Alice Tully Hall recital for Channing, and asked him whether I should begin the first piece on the program softly or loudly, he told me to play it loudly and “show them who’s boss right away.” When I played the “Arpeggione” Sonata for him, he told me that it sounded well played-in. With that statement he made one of the most difficult pieces in the cello repertoire feel like a comfortable old shoe.

I was never sure if Channing Robbins actually liked me or just put up with me, since I had a tendency to contradict him. After he died his sister sent me an autographed picture of Jascha Heifetz, dedicated to Channing Robbins. Both Channing and his sister were part of the children’s orchestra in the movie They Shall Have Music that featured Heifetz playing the last movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto. He gave every child in the orchestra an autographed picture as a gift, and the fact that Channing Robbins had given this very personal gift to me was a vindication that our work together had pleased him.