In my conversation with pioneering cello player, singer, composer, and educator, Mike Block, we discuss how his creative frustrations within classical music led him to pursue non-classical styles; why expanding your comfort zone means you have to be willing to be uncomfortable; why it’s important to play music you enjoy, even if you’re not yet good at it; and the number one thing classical musicians can do to start exploring non-classical styles.
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3:37 – How Mike got started growing up in a family of classical musicians.
5:09 – Mike shares his experience of unhappiness in classical music and the creative limitations he felt in that genre.
7:34 – How Mike’s conflicted decision to pursue a graduate degree at Juilliard led him to play with bands in New York City.
9:10 – How Mike created the Mike Block String Camp, a place he wished had existed when he was younger. The importance of collaboration and community building.
9:52 – How Mike convinced and welcomed me to go to his camp and how painful and ultimately rewarding that experience was for me.
12:56 – What can musicians do to face their fears? And how reading music “silos” classical musicians.
14:05 – How the instinct to never sound bad limits our creativity. “To try something new, you have to be bad at it before you can get good at it.”
14:45 – Why Mike believes you have to do things badly in public in order to grow.
15:09 – How learning new musical styles is like learning a new language.
16:29 – Why it’s emotionally hard to branch out if you are accomplished in one thing.
16:50 – Mike shares how jealous he was of a 12-year-old musician when he went to his first fiddle camp.
18:09 – How Mike learned that a week-long camp could change his life and that you don’t need to get a degree to learn something new.
21:39 – Why you wouldn’t assume a hip hop dancer would be able to do ballet but why you might expect a ballet dancer to be able to hip hop: trained versus untrained performers.
24:33 – Why it’s important to fail in public.
27:00 – Why it’s important to NOT hide your learning from the public.
28:28 – The number one thing classical musicians can do to start playing in new musical styles. The importance of playing music that you enjoy, even if it’s not what you are good at.
31:20 -Why Mike doesn’t believe in perfect pitch and how playing by ear improves one’s ability to play in non-classical styles.
33:25 – How a classical music training was an “active liability” for Mike until his non-classical skills developed and his classical skills became useful again.
37:46 – How Mike cultivates his creative courage and continues to take risks.
41:16 – How Mike’s unhappiness led him to his creative evolution and why the feeling of discomfort was still better than dissatisfaction.
42:28 – Mike’s relationship with the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma.
48:22 – How Mike approaches his teaching at various institutions: Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory, The Juilliard School.
50:59 – Mike talks about his “The Block Strap” and the pros and cons of sitting and standing in performance.
54:28 – Singing and playing an instrument at the same time. “Utility” singing versus “expressive” singing.
55:56 – “You don’t have to sound good right away.”
1:00:57 – The importance of teaching.
1:02:10 – Why Mike would tell his younger self to “not wait; if you are interested in something, pursue it now.”