Mike Block: On Discovering Your Musical Identity, “Exploratory” Practice, and Taking Creative Risks

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

-Steve Jobs, 1997

I know this is from an advertising campaign, but I love it anyway. It’s on the lock screen of my phone, so I see it hundreds of times a day. Actually, it’s the only thing I’ve ever had on my lock screen, going back to 2011 when I got my first iPhone…

Because I think we all want to be creative. And I think we all have it in us to be creative. And we even say we want more creatives in our classrooms and in our workplaces – although the research suggests that our behavior indicates otherwise. Because despite sincerely and genuinely valuing the idea of creativity, we actually tend to prefer students and employees who are “pleasers,” and don’t demonstrate the kinds of rule-breaking, impulsive, non-conformist, risk-taking, behaviors that tend to be characteristic of creatives.

After all, the reality of creativity is that it’s messy. Risky. Uncomfortable.

At some point, it almost seems that we begin to hesitate and hold ourselves back, afraid to risk the possibility of being too creative. And we may even feel the need to be given permission to unleash our creativity.

Of course, eventually, we discover that nobody is actually going to give us permission, and that the permission to take risks, make a mess, and struggle through uncertainty has to come from within – if we hope to cultivate our own creative identity, whether it’s as a pianist, composer, conductor, writer, architect, photographer, or pet stylist.

But how do you give yourself permission, exactly?

It’s certainly easier said than done. And I don’t know that glancing at Jobs’ quote a bazillion times will quite do the trick (though maybe that explains why we have so many Apple devices in our house?!). But I do think that it helps to hear stories of how others found a way to navigate this path. To see the ups and downs and daily practices that keep them moving in the direction of their artistic “north star” as it were.

So whether your audition or recital repertoire is feeling a little stale, or you’re looking for new ways to spice up your practice, or have been feeling a kind of stuck-ness and an itch to explore something new, I hope you’ll find something in this episode that will help you give yourself permission to add a bit of that messy-but-gratifying sort of creativity to your week, month – or even year, for that matter!

Meet Mike Block

Mike Block is a multi-faceted cellist, singer, composer, and educator, who has been described by Yo-Yo Ma as the “ideal musician of the 21st Century,” has performed with artists ranging from Edgar Meyer to Will.i.am, and is on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music, and the New England Conservatory.

In this month’s episode, we’ll explore:

  • Mike’s admission that while he discovered within himself a desire to sing and play the cello – he also discovered that he was a “horrible singer,” and one of the ways in which he handled this. (4:04)
  • How he managed to begin exploring composition despite getting very little formal training in it outside of a little bit in music theory class. (5:28)
  • Mike’s experience of “craving a different musical identity” and how this led to a positive shift in his mindset on stage. (7:58)
  • One of Mike’s most challenging early-career “fails,” which came a week after one of the greatest professional achievements of his career to that point – and how this taught him that no matter how great he may be in some areas, it’s totally ok to struggle with new things that he’s interested in learning. (11:01)
  • I love this part where Mike says that instead of worrying about whether he was the right person for a gig or not, he just took every opportunity offered, assuming he would find a way to rise to the occasion. And that if he couldn’t manage to do so – it wasn’t so much his fault, but the bandleader’s for hiring him. (14:53)
  • Mike’s “exploratory” approach to practicing – and how this would boost the creativity with which he would approach classical music. (24:38)
  • How the technical aspect of his practice has changed over the years. For instance, the improvisational way in which he practices scales, which he describes in more detail. (25:44)
  • Where to begin, if you are itching to explore more creative outlets for your personal musical expression. (31:05)

Noa: Your name kept coming up in conversations with different musicians and friends. I think maybe the first thing that I stumbled across online was that video of you with "The Parking Lot Song." Then, that led to "Bach in the Bathroom" and then the cello strap and so forth. Needless to say, it's not the typical range of things that one usually discovers when you Google 'classical musicians' online and sort of thinking about unconventional paths, a lot of times, when we look back at 10 or 20 years of our paths, it makes sense. We can see the steps in the narrative, but in the moment, things are often a lot more uncertain and ambiguous.

Noa: At least for most folks, there's a lot of anxiety and doubt and second guessing thrown in. I'm curious as to whether that was a case for you as well, or did your journey actually, as you've crafted it, kind of makes sense for you as you're going through it?

Mike: Yeah. I mean, I graduated from Juilliard and have a focused classical background, but it was even during school that I was kind of feeling antsy and unsettled and really kind of searching for a way to feel different when I played music. I was starting to experiment with various non-classical styles and improvising and composing. I think there's just this kind of restlessness, artistically where I had such a clear idea of what made me unhappy that it really motivated me to search for other things and other experiences that maybe I hoped would help me feel more of the way that I imagined I could feel as a musician.

Mike: Everybody's different, but for me, it was I just was really searching for the feeling of creativity and freedom and really feeling like I could make strong creative decisions like all the composers that I had been kind of taught to kind of idolize over all these years.

Mike: I was always kind of I had this kind of deflated feeling of kind of idolizing all of these brilliant musicians and composers, but then not actually trying to do what they were doing and as far as actually creating music. I was very much full of self-doubt every step of the way. I think it's funny that you found "The Parking Lot Song" first because it's just a silly song.

Mike: I think one of the things that I latched on to creatively was singing and playing cello because I think it allowed me to have interacting musical voices that I could kind of choreograph to my own interest. It felt like that was something kind of complete that I could offer in performance all by myself. That's kind of what I was pursuing.

Mike: But the only problem was, is that I was a horrible singer. In those early stages, my compensation was to make songs that were funny because I knew I couldn't really sing in any sort of emotive or expressive way. That was kind of a big phase for me that kind of helped me get more comfortable with being creative, even singing even when I was not a confident singer. I think there's been other instances like that where every big breakthrough that one might experience often is kind of built on their willingness to make a fool out of yourself in public many, many times.

Noa: Do you remember what the first tiny little step in that direction was because I don't know what your experience at CIM (Cleveland Institute of Music) was in terms of what composition part of the curriculum or did you sort of seek it out or-

Mike: Yeah. I mean both of my degrees are in cello performance. I think I was always jealous of those who were pursuing composition degrees, but I wasn't getting any formal training outside of maybe a music theory class. But I can tell you actually the first glimpse of the creative process that I held onto was in a summer camp right before my senior year of high school. I was actually attending Interlochen, and I was auditioning for the Concerto Competition probably or something. I was preparing a Haydn D cello concerto.

Mike: The teacher I had that summer was great. I've gotten to know her now as an adult, Melissa Kraut. She's now on faculty at CIM coincidentally. But, somehow, I don't know what sparks she noticed, but she managed to encourage me to write my own cadenza. That was a really important experience for me. Not that it was a great cadenza, but just the fact that a teacher asked me to do it was all I needed. I just really enjoyed working on it.

Mike: Then, the second breakthrough is I had started improvising and composing a little bit just on my own through college and kind of on the side. Then, when I got to Juilliard, it's my first semester there, the cello faculty there, they all have strong connections to the new music world, and they had such a brilliant idea to create a marathon concert where every cellist in the school was asked to play a contemporary solo cello piece. This is really cool event that every studio was involved in.

Mike: Again, my teachers at the time were Joel Krosnick and Darrett Adkins. I think Darrett was aware that I was playing in rock bands and doing some other things in New York. He had the foresight to simply say ... I was telling him, "I don't know what to play for this concert." He again just casually said, "Well, why don't you just write something?" I was like, "Oh yeah, I'll write something." I ended up writing a four-movement suite that was, again, really a groundbreaking feeling for me to feel the creativity that I had been experiencing in rock bands and other stuff that I was essentially joining through Craigslist.

Mike: This was a way for me to connect it to cello and not feel like it was this separate thing, but my primary activity of cello. I'm studying at Juilliard, it could be connected to all of these other creative interests I had. I think that was very helpful for me.

Noa: I imagine that most students, when you're doing your master's at Juilliard, even if you have had some experience writing your own thing and performing it might be a little bit apprehensive about playing in front of peers and colleagues and so forth. Did that happen for you or did you just sort of already care so much about the opportunity to be creative that it didn't matter so much what others might think about what they heard?

Mike: Yeah, that's interesting. I mean I'm sensing a theme to your questions and the idea that there's social hurdles to overcome as far as revealing something like that I think. I think at the time, I was just really craving a different musical identity that actually I was more excited to play something of my own and feel like I could present that as my musical identity.

Mike: I probably would have been more nervous if I was just playing a piece that everybody else already knew and maybe being judged on a more linear aspect of like, "Am I playing it correctly or am I playing it well," or … I think what I appreciated about writing my own stuff and sharing it is that it felt like it didn't matter if there were mistakes in the same way because the focus was about sharing something and everybody was going to hear it for the first time.

Mike: I think just being aware of that kind of mental space of the audience actually helped me where it's not like they all know that there's a really hard shift in bar 32, and they wonder what fingering I'm going to use. That kind of level of insight or listening is more stressful to me than doing something that nobody's ever heard and feeling like I can focus on just creating a good audience experience.

Noa: Well, it's interesting because yeah, you kind of are onto me. One of my favorite quotes is E. E. Cummings' quote, and I'm going to get it slightly wrong, but essentially, it's something like, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you are." It sounds like in your case, if I'm sort of hearing it correctly, that a big part of that was just the frustration that you use a lot of interesting words like feeling antsy and wanting to have a different feeling or different experience when performing or this restlessness and wanting to be creative. It sounds like the frustration of not being able to do that things in the way that you would sort of been trained classically made it much more painful to try to continue to kind of put this round peg in a square hole or something like that. But instead kind of this new thing that just felt more like you.

Mike: Yeah, for sure.

Noa: Did that help with maybe insulating you a little bit from experiments that you took that didn't maybe pan out quite the way that you might've hoped because you'd alluded to lots of, I don't know, if you used the word failures or something like that, but things that just didn't work out along the way. I think, a lot of times, it's easy for us to not see ... It's sort of like Facebook. You see everybody's best kind of curated moments as opposed to all the awful forgettable things in between.

Mike: Yeah. I mean I've definitely done horrible things in performance and even things that maybe I was really excited about at the time, but then would cringe at thinking about it later. Actually, there was again, an early experience for me that I think was formative as far as failure goes because right after I graduated Juilliard, it's this double-edged sword, I think because I got early professional opportunities that I should never have gotten or would never have gotten if I had essentially done what my teachers told me to do.

Mike: Because I was trying to be creative, I did find myself getting to work with Silk Road Ensemble at an early age. I remember just about a month after I graduated at Juilliard, we were playing with Yo-Yo and Silk Road Ensemble at Millennium Park in Chicago.

Mike: It was this sold-out thing for probably 12,000 people. I just graduated. I'm having this amazing experience to sit next to Yo-Yo on this stage. Fresh after graduation. I'm like, "Oh, if this is what professional life is like, I am so on board. This is great." Of course, this is where I should be a month after graduating. It all made so much sense at the time.

Mike: But a week later to the day, like the concert in Millennium Park was a Thursday. The very next week, I had enrolled to be a student at a jazz camp. I was learning to play jazz. Essentially as a cellist, they give you the walking baseline boot camp because especially if you're around violinists, cellists are often playing an accompanimental role in that sense.

Mike: I was trying to walk baselines behind this violinist. He was just yelling at me on stage in front of the audience. He's like, "Don't drag. Don't drag. Now, you're rushing. Don't rush." I was just being berated on stage for not being able to do this. Of course, I had paid for that experience as a student, but it was, literally, a week later after I had the greatest professional events that I had experienced so far.

Mike: Essentially, it really hammered into me that everything I might be interested in deserves work and has its own path. If I'm good at one thing, it doesn't mean I have a blanket right to just play anything. Even though I was now a professional and outside of school, I just really felt how I wanted to keep working at things and keep getting better at things that were newer to me.

Mike: Essentially, I just haven't stopped at this point. I still feel like there's a list of things I wish I was better at, and I'm still working on. I think ultimately that process, if I'm willing to do something in public that's new to me, then I have to give myself license to not necessarily be at my best.

Noa: How do you draw that line actually because I think there's a tendency to want things to be perfect before putting it out in the world, but perfect never really happened. Then, you're just in your garage or your basement or your practice room doing something that may or may not resonate at the end of the day anyway. Do you have kind of a process for figuring out when do I put it out in the world or when do I hold back?

Mike: I think these days I'm actually maybe much more selective than I might've been in the past. I think I'm appreciating what's worth putting on stage and asking people to pay for versus maybe what I might just do for my own benefit and separating the two. I'm not going out on a big stage and maybe doing something that's not ready. But I think when I was younger, which is a painful sentence to utter out loud, I think that the mindset I had was I was going to take every opportunity to learn that I could.

Mike: If I was hired for a band that I wasn't ready for, then, that's a great opportunity to learn. If I'm the wrong person for the gig, then it's the band leader's fault for hiring me. I deflected. Basically, I never said 'no' to something because I didn't think I was ready. I was like, "Well, if they're asking me, I'm going to see how far I can rise to the occasion."

Mike: Again, maybe I'm a little more sensitive now to what the audience experiences and making sure that I'm putting that first. But I think as I was learning a lot, I was just embracing things as learning experiences for myself.

Noa: I wonder if that relates at all to, I'm going to read a quote back to you that's attributed to you. Hopefully, it's accurate, but you said something when you were a young artist, being busy was half the battle. But now, the battle for you is actually being less busy so that you have more time to do the creative work that you want. Do you remember saying something along those lines?

Mike: Sure. Yeah. Yeah.

Noa: I wonder if you could say more about that because that's now that I read it, I don't know that I've ever heard anyone articulate it that way. But that makes a lot of sense because when you're younger, you just want to be able to pay the electricity bill and not get kicked out of your apartment and just do more and more and more. But then at some point, it can probably feel like you're just on this treadmill and you're not sure how to get off and do the things that you really care about.

Mike: Yeah. I've definitely felt that feeling that you're talking about. I was living in New York for six years after graduation. The local freelancing is so active. I feel like all of the good freelancers have three gigs a day and you're just jumping around the city. Then, eventually, I started getting touring gigs versus local gigs. Then, you could line up tour after tour and never be home if you really wanted to.

Mike: But ultimately, as your career goes, hopefully, you can get paid more per gig and maybe not need to work every night in order to eat, that kind of idea. But I think it all goes back to the whole reason I started down the path was I didn't start playing multiple styles so that I can have more gigs. I did it because there's this deep need inside of me. Realizing that you can still be unhappy, maybe I personally was not cut out for an orchestra life, but it didn't mean like that any jazz gig was going to make me happy or any folk gig was going to make me happy.

Mike: I realized that there's nuances to everything and that I wanted to find the people I really enjoyed working with in the roles in a band that really satisfied me. Yeah. I think, for me, I've always wanted to feel every moment at work is the place I want to be. I never want to be working on music and wishing I was somewhere else. Finding the outlets where I can say that to myself that this is exactly where I want to be, I think that's always inside of me, which unfortunately means I'm unhappy in a lot of places.

Mike: I've left a lot of groups over the years even though there's people that I really care about and love being around. I've had various phases professionally where I've had to say goodbye to certain situations even though maybe they were all my friends.

Noa: It sounds like that must make sense on paper but be kind of a difficult emotional thing to do.

Mike: Yeah. I think, sometimes, there's various groups I've played in the past where they're still together. Then, I see them on Facebook as you say. I was like, "Oh, they're all still having a great time with each other, but I'm the only one not there or something like that." There's a lot of kind of sad things that I've had to give up. But then, again, it's like everything you give up leaves an open space for something new to happen. Of course, it's like that endless cycle of being open to a new experience is, for me, something that I really enjoy.

Noa: I have a friend who, I don't know if he came up with this or if he read it somewhere, but he operates and tries to get me to operate under the 'hell yes' principle, which is basically if an opportunity comes up or you're doing something and when you think about doing it internally, you feel like 'hell yes, let's do this'. Then, you do it. But if it's anything other than that, you don't do it. As a way of discerning between the things that you're really feeling pulled to vs the things that you feel maybe obligated to do, or you should do, but aren't really fully aligned with what interests you. It sounds a little bit like that's the-

Mike: Yeah. I like that a lot. Yeah. I mean, because of my background, there's any number of gigs that I'm qualified to do and that I could do. I could audition for workshops. I could play in a string quartet. I could do wedding gigs every day of my life if I wanted. But so realizing that what I'm able to do and what I want to do, might not be the same thing. Even more painfully, realizing that what I do want to do is not something that I can do yet. That's a big part of what I'm constantly thinking about.

Mike: I think something that I often tell students is that it's so much work to be a musician. We've sacrificed so much to do what we do since childhood. We're practicing. The instrument's expensive. The school is expensive. Especially a young artist, you're essentially a small business owner and you're doing email potentially more than you're even practicing.

Mike: Essentially, I realized that if I'm going to be working like lawyer hours but not making lawyer money, then, I better love it. Not getting caught up in the work for its own sake, but making sure that it's the satisfaction is worth the energy, is always at the forefront of my awareness.

Noa: I like that, the lawyer thing. That's a really good decision rule. Well, actually, that makes me wonder about practicing. I have a couple of questions about practicing in the sense that ... Maybe, this is just an assumption on my part, but I'd imagine that a normal day for practice for you now, it looks different than it would have if you were practicing or preparing for auditions, competitions, series, and so forth back in college, in high school?

Noa: One, I'm curious as to whether how you feel about practicing has changed over the years in the sense that, again, maybe you always loved practicing your total like a practice nerd from the time you were five or whenever you started, but then maybe not. I wondered if, did you enjoy practicing as a kid? Has that changed over the years? Mostly, I think I'm curious about how practicing looks now relative to how it might have when you were in a more conventional place with music.

Mike: I remember distinctly lying to my parents for most of my childhood about how much I was practicing. In a way, I wish I had practiced as much as I said I did because that probably would have been very helpful. Well, I don't think the fire was lit in me until junior year of high school. I actually got a new cello teacher and started contemplating what it meant to audition for college and what it would mean to pursue professionally.

Mike: It wasn't till the last year and a half of high school that I would start to practice in a serious way. I mean multiple hours like two to four hours a day. Then in college, I was more than happy to take on all of the infinite list of things to work on from my teacher, Richard Aaron. I remember freshman year of college practicing anywhere from four to seven hours a day.

Mike: I remember I think I set my record once was eight hours and 20 minutes. It was totally unsustainable. I wasn't happy, but I was going for it because that's like that was the atmosphere that we were in at the time and that school. But, essentially, I think what I've really appreciated about various non-classical styles in working on improvisation, specifically, but also just any creative pursuit is practicing is less about ... Sometimes, I think of the classical practice method as an actor who has a script.

Mike: They have to decide, "Well, what is my interpretation of this script?" Because there's so much technique involved in classical music, we're often using our practice to nail down our specific interpretation that we might repeat the same way every time. That mindset is valid in that setting. But I think what I really enjoy with improvisation or other creative styles is that the practicing becomes more exploratory. Instead of figuring out the one way I want to play something and work on repeating it precisely, practicing is more about, well, I want to figure out every way that I could possibly play over these chord changes or I want to figure out every possible feel for this groove or whatever.

Mike: The idea then is that when push comes to shove in performance, you can be spontaneous, and you can actually make a split decision and do something that actually you have already practiced but maybe not have decided that you were going to play. The exploratory approach to practicing, I really enjoy. I think it's changed the way I would play classical music even still.

Mike: I think, for me, the danger of the technical focus of my classical training was that I was becoming very self-conscious and that a lot of these creative styles helped me tap into more instincts and use your body and your musical instincts to rely on more in a way that as when I was playing just classical music, I would never have thought to rely on instincts because how can you make a decision ahead of time and practice that shift if you're looking for instinct or something.

Mike: That's maybe part of what we started talking about, which is this different feeling. I can have when playing different styles. Different styles bring out different parts of my personality I feel or they have more of an outlet. That's one of the reasons I enjoy staying in multiple styles so that I can explore these different ways of feeling.

Noa: Does technical practice look different now than it used to? I mean, do you still do scales or use different kinds of scales or different emphasis or-

Mike: Well, yeah. I mean I still enjoy long tones and playing slowly, I still find really centering, but specifically with scales, the scale routine that I'll give my students at New England Conservatory or Berklee is built on the same technical principles that I had in classical training, which is doing things with the metronome and a tuner and at different speeds and doing maybe whole notes, half notes, quarters, eighths, triplets, 16ths.

Mike: The difference is the classical scale routines that I was always taught is you go from the bottom of the scale to the top of the scale. Then, you come back down. Essentially, you practice the scale the same way every single time. That has a lot of benefits. You get used to moving up the fingerboard. You're working on shifting and obviously intonation and tone. But practicing this scale in the same order doesn't help prepare you for improvisation or other spontaneous things.

Mike: Essentially, now, my scale exercise is completely improvised. I'll still do whole notes in D major, but I'll improvise full notes instead of playing just first, second, third, fourth scale degree in the same order every time. Then as I go faster to half notes, quarters, eighths, triplets, 16th, suddenly, the end of my scale routine is I'm improvising 16th notes all in D major but totally free.

Mike: Just as an example, how does it look different? It's like I'm trying to take the technical principles that I appreciate from the classical pedagogy, but finding ways to combine it with still thinking creatively and spontaneously in a way that helps me outside of just classical music.

Noa: By improvising, you mean instead of playing the notes in order, D-E-F sharp and so forth, you play them out of order but in the same hand position?

Mike: I mean you can think of it in different boxes. Sometimes, I'll improvise 16th notes in D major all in third position for three minutes or sometimes, maybe, I'd improvise just on one string for a few minutes or, sometimes, it's just free and I'm just like, "Yeah. The box I'm in is the world of D major. I can play anything in D major". Internally, I might be thinking about my hand shape or I might be thinking about shifting or all sorts of things. But if you were to listen to me practice, it might just sound somewhat random.

Noa: Did you ever coach with Toby Appel actually when you were at Juilliard?

Mike: I don't think I ever did get a coaching with him. I liked him a lot when he led the lower strings class. Yeah.

Noa: Because he said something once that reminds me of what you're describing. He said once that he doesn't practice what he's going to do on stage so much as he practices all the things that he might do on stage.

Mike: Yeah. Well. It's exactly the same philosophy. Yeah.

Noa: Right. Which actually is a form of, what, in motor learning literature is called variable practice, which actually seems to lead to more flexibility, which then translates into more consistency on stage than just trying to do the same thing over and over you described which seems counterintuitive but makes sense when you think about it.

Mike: Yeah. I think you're hitting on something that has actually totally defined the way I approached practicing and what I try and pass on to students because you used that phrase variable practice? I don't know that terminology but, now, I feel like there's probably all sorts of dissertations on it that would validate it. But there's one story that I really love and maybe, it's from something that you're already more aware of, but it's the ball in the bucket test.

Mike: This, again, is the summation of everything we're saying where there was a study where they took 10 people and they were tested on how accurate they could throw a ball in a bucket four feet away. They were given three days to practice and they were just throwing the ball in the bucket four feet away. At the end of the three days, they were going to be tested by their percentage of how well they could throw the ball in the bucket four-feet away.

Mike: Well, then, they had a second group of 10 people who at the end of the three days were also going to be tested how well they could throw the ball in the bucket four feet away. But for the three days leading up to the test, they only threw balls in buckets that were three feet and five feet away. They actually never threw a ball into a four-foot bucket until the test. Then lo and behold, they actually did better because they were not practicing to throw a ball in a bucket four feet away. They were practicing to be intentional about how far they threw the ball. That's what helped them do better. That's how I think about practicing as well.

Noa: Well, I liked that word intentional because it sounds like if you're practicing in this way, it's much harder to just practice on autopilot and just put the repetitions in which might have defined practice more typically, I think, for most of us in our early years. We don't really know what we're doing. We just only know to do repetitions of the same thing without even really paying attention.

Noa: Do you have a sense of if someone's starting to feel like they want to explore more creative outlets, I mean do you have recommendations as to, Ooh, this is where you should start or is it not so concrete as far as where to start?

Mike: Yeah, it's both. I think what's great about the world we live in it and it's specifically for string players, is there are so many resources actually to learn things outside of your background. I think that was the other thing I appreciated about starting to go to fiddle camps and jazz camp and Scottish camp and Arabic music camp is like, I think coming from classical music, I had this idea that if I was going to learn anything I had to get a degree in it.

Mike: Then, I started to appreciate it like, oh, I could just go to a one-week camp and that might actually change my life or at the very least change my ear. I think looking for short-term educational opportunities that interest you is actually very easy.

Mike: There's a lot of options both specific and multi-style. I run a camp in Florida that's happening for the 10th year. I also run the global musician workshop for Silk Road Ensemble and essentially going to these week-long camps truly changed my life after graduation.

Mike: I definitely believe in the power of these experiences. But the nature of those camps is that they're often maybe style specific or whatnot. Figuring out what inspires you can take some time to explore. Sometimes, classical musicians often think that playing non-classical music, it means playing jazz or that if they want to learn to improvise, it means they have to learn jazz. For whatever reason, that's just an image that classical musicians often have. Obviously, that's not true. You can improvise in bluegrass. You can improvise in rock and roll. you can improvise in hip hop. There's all sorts of opportunities to find those outlets.

Mike: I think what I often tell people, if they want to start learning to play music by ear, one of the things that can be most helpful is I tell people like, "Whatever you already like to listen to, start there." If you love the Beatles, start learning the Beatles songs. If you love Ariana Grande's, start learning Ariana Grande's songs or whatever you listen to for leisure.

Mike: I think that was a big part of it for me as well. I would see it in school where what the music I was working on professionally, I occasionally felt that it was too removed from the music that I listened to just for leisure. I would work all day on Beethoven sonatas and then I'd go home to my dorm and blast Eminem. Of course, it's like, well … For whatever reason, it always felt like I wanted to connect with the music I listened to for leisure with the music I'm doing professionally.

Mike: I think that can be a good starting place where you can start to do things that you already love with your instrument. You don't necessarily have to like learn jazz. If you've never listened to jazz, why in the world would you want to learn it? Starting with something that you already love, I think, is probably the best place to start from.

Noa: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. I mean, why wouldn't we want to connect what we listened to for fun more with the things that we play professionally or study. That might be a great place to wrap up. But I do have one sort of random question. You've been doing this "Bach in the Bathroom" thing for some time. Do you have a bathroom bucket list maybe or does it sort of happen spontaneously or do you have a list of places where you really want to play in their bathrooms?

Mike: I feel like for your unintiated listener I need to give some context to this, but yeah. I play cello. I have this strap that I stand when I played cello. Essentially, when I was practicing at home in my apartment a number of years ago, I would end up just walking around my apartment as I was practicing and, inevitably, would repeatedly end up in the bathroom playing Bach because it sounded like a little church in there. Anyway, it inspired this series.

Mike: Whenever I'm in a nice concert hall, I'll find a bathroom and take a video of myself playing a movement of Bach in the bathroom. Yeah. If I had to choose some bucket list bathrooms, obviously Carnegie Hall. I haven't done a bathroom there yet. Yeah. I mean just the famous halls are fun.

Mike: The is that I'm recording all of the Bach cello suites in the bathrooms of the finest concert halls. That's the premise of this series. There's obviously any number of concert halls that I still haven't played since the series started. But, of course, there's probably some fun ... If I ever get invited to the white house, I'm going to play in the bathroom, like why not?

Mike: But yeah. It's a fun little thing just for me to like when I'm on tour, again, just finding some sort of outlet where I feel like I can do something for myself even when I'm on tour with somebody else's group. Yeah.

Noa: Does that mean you put a sign on the outside of the door to make sure you're not interrupted or have you ever had problems with people walking in or-

Mike: That's such a good question because I'm pretty sure the whole premise of the series is definitively illegal because I'm going into bathrooms with video cameras. That's not a good thing. But the vast majority of the bathrooms are like backstage, so dressing room, bathrooms. Obviously, you can usually lock or are by definition private. Occasionally, I've done lobby bathrooms, but it's usually during sound check on during a piece that I'm not in. The building is still locked, and it's not open to the public. But maybe once or twice, a staff person has actually come in and interrupted me. It's slightly awkward.

Mike: I apologize and leave immediately. But, yeah, I have to be careful about when and where I do it to make sure that I'm not setting myself up for jail time here.

Noa: All right. Mike, thank you again for taking the time to chat.


[1] Here's a video of Mike performing The Parking Lot Song (1:37)

[2] What’s the “Block Strap?” Watch Mike use it to play some Bach  in a parking lot, a dressing room, backstage hallway, elevator, and in the middle of the street, and demonstrate how to install it.  You can pick one up for your own cello here. (1:45)

[3] Mike references being a “horrible singer” when he first started trying to sing. Here’s a really nice interview with singer-songwriter-rapper Lizzo, who describes her own creative journey, insecurities, confidence, and self-talk, wanting to be a flutist, and how she was a bad singer and “delusional” when she started (specifically, at 8:32): CBS Sunday Morning – Extended conversation with Lizzo

[4] Melissa Kraut was Mike’s teacher at Interlochen one summer and encouraged him to write his own cadenza for Haydn D. She’s now now on the faculty at the Cleveland Institute, and shares a few quick tips for students who may be auditioning for college/grad school this coming spring: Top 5 Audition Tips – Melissa Kraut.  (6:07)

[5] Joel Krosnick was one of Mike’s teachers at Juilliard; here’s a video of The Violin Channel’s 20 Questions with Joel Krosnick . (7:03)

[6] Darrett Adkins (who also is on the faculty at Oberlin) was one of Mike’s other teachers at Juilliard; he describes a bit of his teaching philosophy and performance interests in this video: Darrett Adkins Faculty Profile  (7:03)

[7] Yep, I did indeed get the E.E. Cummings quote wrong (dagnabbit!). It should be “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

[8] I bring up “Bach in the Bathroom” a couple times. Check out the project videos here: Bach in the Bathroom (34:27)

* * *

Listen to Mike’s newest album

Mike has a new folk album – Walls of Time – coming out this Friday, November 8th. You can check out a few “behind-the-scenes” videos and pre-order the album here:

Mike Block – Walls of Time

* * *

Study with Mike

Mike Block String Camp

The annual Mike Block String Camp, in Vero Beach (FL), runs from July 6th – July 11th (2020). You can learn more about it, and enroll here:

Mike Block String Camp

Global Musician Workshop

Mike also leads the Global Musician Workshop, Silkroad’s flagship musician training program, which runs from June 8th – June 14th (2020) at the New England Conservatory. You can learn more about that workshop here:

Silkroad’s Global Musician Workshop

* * *

Hear Mike live

To find out when Mike will be performing near you, visit mikeblockmusic.com.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


One Response

  1. I just saw Mike last night at a house concert with his wife Hanneke and another musical friend. I was impressed by the freedom he had to move around with the Block Strap, and his ease in playing with the folk style of his wife. I think the scales practice really showed there. This article was very timely, thanks!
    Note: Mike’s Artistworks.com course is amazing too. Well worth It for cellists to check out.

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