March 10th, 2012

Making music: on playing the cello

[NOTE: This is a repeat of an older post. Thought you might enjoy it.]

I used to play the cello.

Well, perhaps “play” is too strong a word. I was chosen for the instrument (no, that’s not a typo; I was chosen for it, rather than the reverse) in fifth grade, at the public elementary school I attended in New York back when all such schools had numbers instead of names.

They tested us to see who had some musical aptitude, and for what instrument. Some of these tests were pretty simple. For example, one was as simple as “Are you a boy or are you a girl?” Stringed instruments went only to girls (Jascha Heifetz, eat your heart out), and cellos went only to tall girls.

I was a tall girl back then, although I’m not anymore (no, I haven’t shrunk; it’s the pictures that got small.) I reached my full height around fourth grade, and so in fifth I was still much taller than average, considered a good candidate for a big instrument like the cello.

And I could differentiate between on key and off, an absolute prerequisite for any stringed instrument. After all, on a cello, you create the notes; they’re not ready-made.

A few drawbacks to the cello: carrying it back and forth to school twice a week was an arduous task, especially when I had to carry hefty books as well (this was in that punishing interval before backpacks became standard but when bookbags after first grade were only for nerds.)

And, of course, as with all musical instruments, you had to practice.

I understood practicing in principle. I even liked the gorgeous rich mellow sound a cello makes, and wanted to emulate it. But the gap between that sound and the one I managed to create was too immense to be bridged, even in my imagination. In other words, I wasn’t motivated enough to put in the hours required.

Although I never really managed to make a truly pleasant sound, I did learn just enough to saw away at that cello in the junior high school orchestra, and even put in a couple of years with the high school group, where our repertoire leaned heavily towards Sousa marches that had no cello part (we were supposed to play from the trombone sheet music). I didn’t make much progress in all that time, and I quit in mid-high school, with no regrets. Listening to the cello was fine, but playing it held no special interest for me, and I haven’t really thought about it since.

Until the other evening, that is. I was at a meeting of my book group (great book, by the way: Cry the Beloved Country). A gleaming cello was leaning against the wall in the hostess’s dining room, and she told us she was just starting to take lessons, a lifelong dream. She gave a demonstration of what she’d learned so far—basic scales.

Afterwards, the cello was passed around so we all could have a go at it. And as it came close to me I felt a strange sensation, a certain feeling in my arms and hands of being about to start something familiar—and yet almost from a previous life, it seemed so long ago.

My friend who’d taken a couple of lessons had to prompt me even to remember the fingering for a simple scale. I took the cello from her, positioned my left hand on its neck and my right on the bow, placed the bow on the strings, pressed down, and began.

It didn’t sound like Yo Yo Ma, but it didn’t sound half bad. It sounded as though I’d actually played a cello before, once upon a time. My body memory had kicked in, and all these little habits sprang forth as though they’d only been hibernating all that time: how hard to press, how to move my right wrist back and forth in a wave motion, how to lean slightly on the inside edge of the bow with the downstroke and the outside with the upstroke, and even how to create a bit of tentative vibrato with the left hand.

Probably the sound was better than my old cello for the simple reason that this was a better cello: richer, fuller, more resonant. I’d forgotten what it was like to create music with my own hands, and to feel it vibrate in every cell of my body and every corner of the room. Writing is wonderfully creative, but there’s nothing physical about it except the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.

The creation of music is very physical. The most personal and direct form of that physicality, of course, is singing; there, one’s body is the instrument (dance, the art I know best, is even more so in that respect). In playing a stringed instrument the body is the medium that evokes and releases the music, but ultimately the creation of the sound depends on the interaction between the two.

I’d forgotten, but it was wonderful to remember.

—-Edgar Lee Masters

The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off to ‘Toor-a-Loor.’
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill–only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle–
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

29 Responses to “Making music: on playing the cello”

  1. George Pal Says:

    “it’s the pictures that got small”

    Clever… and funny.

  2. SteveH Says:

    Funny thing. Here’s something that until just recently i’d never heard done with a cello.

  3. Curtis Says:

    If you can say that you ended up without a single regret, you are an idiot or a man.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    I second that Lindsay Mac Youtube video.

  5. Jan of MN Says:

    Neo, are you tempted at all to take cello lessons again, possibly with an upgrade in the instrument?
    Someone I know took up piano in retirement, not having played since her youth, and decided after a while to do a recitals in her home. I’ve attended two of these, with printout programs, sometimes with “work in progress” noted after a selection. What a delightful experience, with wine and tidbits after. Would this be your cup of tea?

  6. waltj Says:

    Neo, if there’s one regret I have in my life, it’s not learning to play a musical instrument. Learning the trumpet would have given me, in theory, the ability to play some of my favorites from Handel and Haydn. The likelihood I’d have been another Wynton Marsalis or Maurice Andre is small, but at least I could have played for my own enjoyment.

  7. Susanamantha Says:

    I too was “chosen” for a stringed instrument; in my case it was the violin. I remember carrying it, the required music stand, along with school books, 2 miles to school and back, uphill both ways, of course. I did the best I could for two years with only the school’s band director for instruction. My parents were providing piano lessons for me so at least I could read music but I never mastered the touch, or the desire to develop it, and dropped it. I occasionally think about trying again, without the 2 mile walk, even downhill. Then I remember grumpy Mr. Griep and forget about it.

  8. Don Carlos Says:

    Marvellous intrument, the ‘cello. Properly, it is the violoncello, thus the ‘.

  9. effess Says:

    If I could play an instrument it would be the cello. Wonderful sound and great range. So long as we’re linking youtube videos, this is among my favorites. Janos Starker playing the third movement of Zoltan Kodaly’s fantastic cello sonata. (The first two movements are also available on you tube.) Enjoy!

  10. Kurt Says:

    Jan of MN–that’s an interesting story about your friend and the piano. I took piano lessons for many years from second grade through high school, but never got very good. About 10 years ago I bought a digital piano to try to learn it again, but I have found it a frustrating experience as I realize how much I never mastered and how many mistakes I make. Perhaps I should try lessons again and see how it goes.

  11. Parker Says:

    If I could play an instrument it would be Van Morrison’s voice singing

  12. Charles Says:

    I was shelving a new item at the bookstore I work at, and happened to open it to “Concert of Angels”, a panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. Beside the fact that the angelic string section celebrating Christ’s birth seems to include Satan, check out the fingerwork of the central angel cellist. Left me wondering if M. Gruenwald ever saw anyone playing a cello.

  13. goldby621 Says:

    So odd that you posted this today. Night owl that I am, I just caught part of tonight’s rerun of Huckabee on Foxnumber and he always ends the show with musical guest(s) with whom he almost always plays his bass guitar. Tonite he had a fabulous act — he didn’t play with them. Two guys called “The Two Cellos” (sp?) They were phenomenal! Just the two young men with no other accompaniment furiously playing. Apparently they are a YouTube sensation when they adapted a Michael Jackson hit. (Neo, how on earth could you have missed them w/ your YouTube addiction?) Apparently, now major acts like Elton John have asked them to tour. Here’s just one video — it has over 5.6 MILLION views! Of course, it doesn’t hurt one bit that the two musicians are young, hot, hip and drop dead gorgeous! That is, on top of being two incredible cello players exquisitely in sync with one another. They are as fascinating to watch as to hear.

  14. goldby621 Says:

    Dopey me! Forgot the link!

  15. goldby621 Says:

    It didn’t paste. I’ll try again:

  16. goldby621 Says:

    I’m doing something wrong. Just Google 2Cellos + “Smooth Criminal” on youtube if you want a treat…

  17. Jan of MN Says:

    Kurt — When you bought your piano I take it you didn’t take lessons? Why not find a good teacher who enjoys working with adults and give it a try again? My son, who never had had music lessons of any kind (other than 4th grade recorder), has been taking piano lessons for the past several year, purely for his own enjoyment. More and more music schools are reaching out to adults.

  18. SteveH Says:

    This will brighten anybody’s day.

  19. Don Carlos Says:

    Thanks for the Starker link. The non-cellists out there need to know the Kodaly requires absolute technical mastery of the instrument, which few are ever able to accomplish. Note the use of the entire fingerboard, including almost to the bow, and the interweaving of bowing and pizzicato. The Kodaly absolutely requires memorization.

    I rarely use youtube and have never before seen this played, though I’ve heard it many times. Wow. Gracias!

  20. Artfldgr Says:

    I played and still have by buffet clarinet… Avery Fischer hall.. cousin played Alice Tully hall as he went to Julliard as did his brother. the daughter of Maurice Seymour the photographer played violin, her sister piano and viola, Raul his grandson played cello, mom opera singer, dad photographer… arts family, as mine was arts/sciences… dad painted oils, i did drawings and instruments and went to Bronx science… etc etc.. but since that was moved to be destroyed, we never regained what we had in Europe before the wars…

  21. jms Says:

    I knew exactly where you were going from the first sentence!

    I had a similar experience. I was in violin in grade school and high school. I say “was in violin” rather than “took lessons”, because I was in the school orchestra, but never had any private classes or tutoring. For those who have never tried, that is NOT the way to learn a bowed instrument. You need individual attention and tutoring in order to master the instrument. So I was always a mediocre player, near the back of the second violin section. I could get through the score, but mostly felt the frustration of being unable to play well. Like you, I didn’t have the tools. I quit after high school.

    Then I didn’t pick up a violin for 20 years, until I discovered that our grade school had violin classes available starting in first grade. We signed our little girl up, and the teacher assured us that we parents were welcome to sit in on the classes, which were after school. So I started doing so, and working with our daughter every night, helping her practice and learn. I also started tutoring the two daughters of our friends and next door neighbors, who started at the same time, after I realized that without a tutor to help them daily, they were having the same frustrating experience of failure that I had so many years ago. So we all practiced every day together, three novice children and one adult keeping one lesson ahead of them.

    What a wonderful experience! Not only did it come back so fast, but with all that daily practice on very simple exercises, my skills quickly improved far beyond what I could do all those years ago. And theirs did as well!

    After a few years, we got to a point where they needed a better tutor, and by coincidence we had recently made a friend who was a graduate student in music, majoring in violin performance. She turned out to be an exceptional teacher, and has taken all three far beyond my teaching ability. Just last week our sixth grader was selected for first chair in our regional youth orchestra. One of the other two girls I tutored is second chair, and the other is a freshman at a magnet high school, and third chair viola out of 8 students.

    As for myself, besides the enormous satisfaction of seeing three girls spread their wings and fly musically, I reached the point where I can now fluently play all of the songs in the first Suzuki book. Since their daily practice was out of my hands, I never started learning the songs in the second book. I cannot play very well outside of first position, and I have no illusions that I will progress much further now that I’m cut off from formal study. I have a small repertoire, the ability to pick up and play melodies by ear, and wonderful memories of working with three children, and that gives me an amazing amount of satisfaction and joy.

    So by all means pick up that instrument, find a young person who needs help, and guide them through the early stages of learning. You will learn as well, and the boredom and frustration of working alone will melt away.

    Best wishes, John

  22. Kurt Says:

    Jan of MN–well, I bought the digital piano partly to play it again, but also partly to use when I practice my singing. I sang when I was young, as well, and have taken lessons a few times as an adult. The last time I took voice lessons, though, I didn’t care much for my voice teacher’s approach, nor did I care much for the material he suggested that I sing. I suppose I should look for a decent voice teacher first.

  23. neo-neocon Says:

    Unfortunately, my arm injury means that I can’t take up the cello again, even if I wanted to. For some reason (fortunately), keyboarding doesn’t seem to harm me, if I am very very careful about ergonomics.

  24. effess Says:

    Don Carlos,
    Glad you liked the Starker Kodaly. I’ve been listening to lots of music on youtube lately — with headphones the sound is pretty good. If you like Shostakovich, I strongly recommend these links to his Babi Yar Symphony, in a terrific performance led by Gergiev. The advantage of youtube here — at least for me — is that you see the translation of the Russian as its being sung — harder to follow via a cd. It’s a moving work. Recommend it to everyone else reading this.

    Notes on:

  25. FenelonSpoke Says:

    Thanks very much for this post. My son chose the cello in 5th grade. He is now in the 6th grade. He doesn’t practice as much as he should (and I’m not one of those parents who makes their kid get up at 5:00 a.m to practice and who has to practice 3 hours a day) and so he will never be the new Yo Yo Ma. But I love the cello and I still enjoy his playing and orchestra concerts. His principal has now taken up at the cello at age 55 or so and has come in to watch my son play at his school. There are only a few cello students in the middle school so he was the only one playing that day; I told the principal that I thought it was wonderful he was learning the cello at his age.

    And it is a pain to carry it and his books my son tells me, which is why I often take him and pick him up from school, which fortunately, my work schedule usually allows me to do.

  26. Gringo Says:

    I liked the stories about taking up instruments for both young and old. When I think of the cello, I think of Pablo Casals. I have a number of CDs of his performances.

    Which reminds me of another Pablo Casals encounter: Vaughn Meader: The First Family, Vol. 2, Part 2/5 #7. The Concert @ ~7:10, where JFK takes charge during a Pablo Casals concert.

  27. effess Says:

    There’s a story about George Bernard Shaw receiving a letter from a woman asking which musical instrument her young son should learn to play. (Shaw was also a music critic at the time.) Shaw wrote back recommending that her son learn to play the French Horn, adding “you won’t hear a sound for the first six-months.”

  28. Curtis Says:

    I found the above people to be pretty helpful.

  29. Dr Bob Says:

    I had my own musical rebirth several years ago, on guitar. After a serious left hand injury in 1977 — at which time I was moving into fusion jazz after 10 years of playing — I was forced to set aside the instrument for many years. I tried playing left-handed a few times to little avail and much frustration, but several years ago gave it one last try in earnest — and am so happy I did. No few challenges to overcome, but that’s part of the joy of The Phoenix Gift.

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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