Cellist Sophia Bacelar on the Importance of Physical and Mental Health

Cuban-Chinese-American cellist Sophia Bacelar is quickly gaining recognition as one of classical music's young rising stars. Regularly performing in concert halls around the globe, she is an expert in navigating the professional music world.

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Hi Sophia! Tell us a little about yourself. When and why did you start playing the cello, what are some of your favorite moments of your career, etc?

I started playing the cello when I was two. My dad is a cellist (now he’s a violin maker and luthier) and so I grew up around instruments and musicians. I don’t actually remember a time when music wasn’t a part of my life, so it was almost an inevitable decision for me to play too. I’m really grateful that music has given me the opportunity to travel to so many interesting places and meet people from all over the world whom I likely never would have encountered otherwise. One of my favorite things about this career is getting to connect with people all over the world who are all so different from one another but connected by this shared love of music. I love interacting with my followers on Instagram and it always amazes me how diverse they are. One day I will be talking to a music student in Iran, or Mexico, or Germany and the next day someone who’s never listened to classical music but came across my videos and followed me will be messaging me telling me how they discovered and fell in love with the cello through me. That’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve felt throughout my career- this ability to share something with others that could potentially be meaningful to them. 

How do you handle the lifestyle of a busy musician?

One of the most important things I’ve learned to do, especially during very busy periods when I’m performing and traveling a lot, is to prioritize my time and energy. Every time I say yes to something, I know I’m saying no to something else. In particular, there is a culture amongst musicians of staying up late and partying a lot after performances which I absolutely can’t afford to do when I have to get up and practice, perform, or travel (or all three!) the following day. I often get a lot of shade from fellow musicians because I don’t drink or smoke anymore, but I just wouldn’t be able to survive my lifestyle if I still had these things in my life the way I used to. This summer I was at a chamber music festival and most people were clubbing or going to bars every night. I got made fun of for not joining in, but I knew I was in the middle of one of the busiest few weeks of my life and had to stay healthy and fit, so I chose to stay in my hotel to work out and practice in the evenings instead. 

Have you ever experienced playing-related pain or an injury? How did you recover?

I had a bout of tendinitis when I was younger and have dealt with muscle and ligament pain throughout the years. The two most impactful things I’ve done to help me physically at the cello have been strength training and yoga. Yoga gives you flexibility and mobility and weightlifting increases the strength you need to have stamina and power as a player. If you’re scared of weights (which, by the way, you shouldn’t be!), even simple bodyweight or plyometric exercises are really effective. 

Do you ever take days off from practicing and performing? 

More and more often nowadays! As I’ve gotten busier in the last few years with performing, I’ve really started to feel the effects of both the intense practice and preparation that happens beforehand and the constant traveling. Whenever I’ve finished a big project like a tour or festival or recording I always take at LEAST one day off- sometimes up to a week (or more!) to recover physically and, even more importantly, mentally. People underestimate the stress of the intense focus we experience as musicians when we practice, rehearse, and perform, and it’s important to take a break from that in order to not burn out. 

What's your favorite pre-performance snack/meal?

One of my favorite foods ever is oatmeal and I actually had a huge bowl of that before my last performance! Ideally I don’t like to eat right before playing since I don’t like to feel full onstage, but I make sure I get something with protein and healthy fats a few hours before so I’m not hungry either. I am gluten/lactose-intolerant and vegan and sometimes when I travel it can be hard to find something healthy I can eat, so I always keep nuts and protein bars on me in case I can’t get a real meal beforehand. 

How do you stay motivated to stay healthy?

Knowing how it feels to hit rock bottom health-wise and then experience the transformation a healthy lifestyle provides makes you never want to turn back. I nearly died when I was 18 as a result of some irresponsible health and lifestyle choices. That was my big wakeup call to turn my life around and since then I’ve never looked back. Sure, I have cheat meals and skip workouts nowadays, but I would never dream of going back to the lifestyle I used to have. I’m just so much happier, stronger, and healthier now- there’s no part of me that wants to feel the other way again! 

What advice would you give your younger self about the importance of physical and mental health?

There was a time in my life when I used to go out early every day, drink and smoke heavily, and generally be very unkind to my body. I was always tired, stressed, and very depressed and it affected both my work as a musician and my relationships with the people around me. I was very lonely, isolated, and shy and couldn’t imagine possibly ever feeling happy or energized about anything in life. Once I made the choice to prioritize my health and wellness (on both a physical and mental level- the two are intertwined and equally important), my relationships with both myself and the people around me changed drastically and I was able to achieve things on a professional and personal level I never previously could have imagined were possible. So my advice to my younger self would be to drop the unhealthy substances and behaviors- despite what you believe now, it IS possible to change yourself and you WILL be happier! 

The Lotus Chamber Music Festival provides a unique educational experience for accomplished young artists by combining a summer music festival with a holistic wellness retreat. Have you ever heard of anything like this? What do you think about the concept?

Everybody knows that music and health are two of the most important things to me in my life, so obviously I’m absolutely stoked that something like this exists! I’ve always believed that the music community could benefit so much from embracing holistic health and wellness (I certainly did!) and I really hope the festival is able to bring more awareness about this to more musicians.

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To learn more about Sophia Bacelar, visit sophiabacelar.com.

Chenoa Orme-Stone