Interview: Tina Guo-Morabito

Tina Guo-Morabito is an internationally known cellist, a photographer, a philosopher of metaphysics, and a really nice person. She expresses all of these loves and skills daily and with a level of commitment that suggests she really enjoys what she's doing and respects her creative/intellectual pursuits enough to do them well. And she doesn't just do them well, she kicks their asses.

How would you describe you what is it that you do?

I play the cello and the electric cello.  Classical, Metal, and New Age are my favorite genres to dabble in. 

Have you always done this for a living or did you transition from something else? What triggered your decision to make a change?

Both of my parents are classical musicians and I guess I just grew up assuming I would also be a musician.  I went to USC to study classical cello, and that’s when I started performing and doing recording sessions professionally.

You have a distinctive image how did this develop? Is this a deliberate step away from the conservatism of classical music?

I always did have a desire to be different and stand out in a way, as I’m sure everyone does- but I don’t feel that my image was something deliberately created for any other reason than to just express what is inside me.  For as long as I can remember, I was always attracted to all things dark and goth.  Hence, all of my music and art has been a mixture of a very conservative and classical upbringing with my curiosity about the other side- I think my image manifested naturally from that.

What kind of music do you listen so for inspiration?

My favorite cellist is Jacqueline du Pre, but of course Yo-Yo Ma, Han Na Chang, Rostropovich- are all geniuses and amazing. I’m also a big fan of Metal and Industrial Metal, and love Rammstein-  Finally, Cinematic Music is, to me, the perfect blend of all genres of music and I love listening to different soundtracks and trailer music.

What is the most challenging thing about practicing your craft? How do you deal with that challenge?

For me, maintaining focus and creating a regimented schedule for myself is always a bit of a battle.  Sometimes I’ll have a good run where I wake up early, practice for hours, remain focused- and some days I feel super lazy and have to force myself to even practice for a few minutes!  For me, I practice predominantly on the classical cello, and if I don’t have an upcoming recital or concert to prepare for, it’s hard to force myself to practice.  For that reason, I try to always have at least one classical appearance every other month or so to help myself maintain focus.  It’s easy for me to get lost in my studio writing and recording music, and I love recording music for other composers and artists- but to maintain my actual technical skill requires dedication and focus, that would be my biggest challenge.

Do you still practice? If so, what do your practice sessions look like?

If I’m learning a new piece of music, my practice sessions are long and slow- upon embarking on a new concerto for example, I usually research first on youtube other cellists and how they interpret the piece.  Then I play through the entire thing to get a general feel, and begin the process of detail work- one note at a time, with careful repetitions of difficult passages, to build familiarity and muscle memory.  Once the technical aspects and memorization feels okay, I work on interpretation, try playing in different phrasing/bowings, etc.   

Where do you find inspiration?

Music is an expression of ourselves, and an expression of our deepest emotions-  I find inspiration in my experiences, my internal battles, and my hope.

Where are you when you have the most a-ha moments?

Usually when I’m driving or sitting on a plane… long periods of almost meditational nothingness.  My mind is usually too full of thoughts and ideas, but when I’m in a situation where I’m forced to be silent, musical ideas, as well as general a-ha moments about life in general pop up.  

What do you do to maintain a creative flow?

Listening to music, the radio, different genres of music, and keeping new ideas flowing in helps feed new ideas into the stream-  I’m usually pretty motivated myself though, to continue creating new art--- it’s all I’ve done since I started cello at age 7, so by now it’s like sleeping and eating to make music as much as I can and hope that others can find some kind of pleasure in it as well.

How much do you rely on feedback from other to help shape your ideas?

Compliments are always great and easy to handle, but I try to listen to honest criticism despite not wanting to.  Usually it starts with my defenses immediately rising, but after a few minutes of calming down, my mind always wanders back to whatever comment was made and I try my best to evaluate purely logically if what they said is right- and usually, there always is something I can learn from critique.  I think that as a human being as well as a musician, responding to feedback one way or the other, and constantly evolving and learning is an important thing to do.

What is the greatest obstacle to creativity?

Everything for me is emotional.  If there is something in my personal life that’s wrong, it’s still possible for me to force myself to practice and work, but I find it very hard to concentrate.  My creativity doesn’t function well when there’s unrest inside-  but often that eventually later becomes a source of inspiration and creativity.  I need some level of serenity and peace to be open to receiving inspiration and creative ideas.

When you complete a project, how often does it resemble your initial concept or conceived idea? How important is this for you?

I actually don’t think there is a right or wrong- if I started writing a piece of music that was supposed to be one way but ended up in a completely different genre altogether, it was meant to be that way.  Of course for larger concept projects, like the Metal EP I’m working on at the moment- everything is analyzed and mapped out carefully, so it will not very likely turn into a polka album.  I think it depends on the situation and project. 

How do you know when you’re done?

When I hear a piece or see a video and it feels right, I know it’s the right time.

How do you resolve creative differences with clients or creative partners?

That’s a tricky one!  I’ve found ways to work with different people- with clients, I’ve never had an issue performing or recording for anyone.  With creative partners, it becomes more of a personal thing, and sometimes it can be hard especially if you’re also in a personal relationship.  With my husband, we have a music production company together specializing in music for licensing and trailers, and have found a good way to work together where we are not limiting each other’s creativity and only add input that is invited and enhances each other’s original output.  I try to remind myself that having creative differences is the same thing as personal differences- no two people will feel the exact same way about music, pizza, religion- it’s best to find a way to coexist peacefully and connect at the areas at which you do agree.  

What keeps you motivated even if you don’t connect personally with the project?

I tell myself that I always have something new to learn from every person and every experience.

What do you do when you are stuck and have some sort of deadline or other pressure?

I drink coffee… eat chocolate… maybe cry or scream or both, and then write down exactly what I need to do with the most pressing matter on top and begin in a calm state to cross out each item on the list.  Clearing your mind and your energy, and stepping away from what you’re trying to do for a moment is the best way to move out of panic mode, although that is difficult to do!

How do you achieve your creative vision with a limited budget?

I’ve been lucky to work with so many talented and creative people.  For my own classical, new age, and cinematic music, I record most of it myself at my home studio.  For rock/metal, I do go into the studio to have everything recorded professionally.  In the past, I’ve put all of my personal savings into a music video or project because it was just something I felt like I needed to create and was willing to take the sacrifice.  On a more logistical level, I often trade musical recording services with friends: 1 hour of cello-ing for their project in exchange of 1 hour of their drum/guitar/bass recording for mine.  It’s a great way to collaborate, support each other, and help with the budget issue.

What are the top 3 tools in your creative tool kit? ie. software, pencil, paper, journal etc.

My instruments.  My Mac computers and programs on it- Logic, Lightroom, etc.  And also the Voice Memo app on my iPhone for song ideas I get while driving that I sing (badly) into my phone to be kept for future writing/recording sessions in the studio.  

What are the top 3 creative habits that have proven to be the most useful for you in your career?

1. Persistence - persistent practicing, persistent building of my musical skills because in the end, underneath the image and pictures and videos is the music.

2. Self Promotion via lots of creative output- I create new songs and music videos, tutorial videos, etc. as much as I can and share it online- I’ve had so many amazing opportunities through the internet and from not being shy about sharing my music.

3. Flexibility- learning to be flexible, to go with the flow and remain positive.  Always reminding myself that there is something to be learned from every situation, and to constantly try to grow as a musician.  Being able to improvise and learning to play in different styles has also helped my career as a recording musician very much as well.   

If you could offer a single piece of advice to a budding professional, what would it be?

Work hard and work smart- and be persistent and kind to everyone.