I have had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the cello.
Let me explain.
Back when I was a little kid, I had a single, relentless endgame: I would grow up to be a rock star. Period. Everything I did was geared to further this goal. I did all the stuff you were supposed to do, like informing your teacher in kindergarten of your life choice (she said that she hoped I’d send her tickets to my show, which I took very seriously as a five-year-old), listening to a lot of songs on the radio and analyzing them, and cultivating a rebel aesthetic. I even took dance classes (first ballet, but then I quit and just did jazz because ballet did not work with the punk aesthetic) so I’d know how to tear it up on stage.
It was about when I was eight that I figured out it would be good to actually learn an instrument or something, because while ace rock star carriage and dancing were important, I surely couldn’t rocket to stardom on leather cuffs and an impressive knowledge of pop stations alone.
Also, I liked electric guitars, and at that point I still thought an electric guitar meant you were literally playing electricity. That sounded very rock star. Another thing I liked about electric guitars was that they were loud. When you played, people paid attention.
My parents thought it was great that I liked music, so one day after a classical concert they took me to something called an instrument zoo.
An instrument zoo sounds even less interactive and more dangerous than an actual zoo (“no, you can’t touch this because if you break it and it’ll cost thousands of dollars!”), but in reality it was the opposite. There were different stations you could visit, and musicians let you try out a tester instrument, show you how to get the sound.
At first blush, this perhaps seems counter-intuitive. I’d wanted to be a rock star, not an orchestra musician–had something gotten lost in translation? But no, as my parents explained, the plan was threefold: Stage 1) I’d get my footing, learn to read music and play a classical instrument, Stage 2) I’d transition over to acoustic guitar when I was ready, and from there, Stage 3) move onto electric. There would even be amps, they promised.
And so I had a great time trying out instruments. Deep in my heart, I inexplicably wanted to play the flute. I don’t know why this was, other than the flute looked hard. And it actually was hard, because as much as I tried, I couldn’t get any sound to come out. I blew on that thing for at least five minutes until the instrument zoo flute-keeper looked at the giant flute line behind me, patted my shoulder, and recommended the oboe instead.
As it turned out, I was able to coax sound out of the oboe, but no, if I couldn’t have the flute I wanted nothing to do with the entire woodwind family. Initially I was curious about the violin (because my other giant childhood life plan was to become the world’s greatest consulting detective and as we all know, all the great ones played violin) but my parents were already talking about getting my little brother violin lessons, and thus an intense sibling rivalry killed that option.
But there was another member of the string family and strings, thank god, were fairly easy to make music with. So, I selected the cello as my Stage 1 Rock Star Career Instrument. My dad told me that cellos were great for holding a baseline in songs, and kept flicking through radio stations on the way home until he found one with a cello.
“Do you hear that?” He’d asked. “Right there, that’s a cello.”
I just heard the melody die off and then something low and grumbly fight through the static before the brass drowned it out.
An unexpected consequence of cello was that it taught me a lot about loss.
My parents arranged lessons for me with the same person who taught my brother violin. It was perhaps not surprising to find that cello often played second fiddle to other instruments, but having to play back-up to my six-year-old sibling during seven variations of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” really drove it home.
Eventually I worked through enough of the Suzuki books that I was starting to hit the interesting stuff, minuets and etudes, things that were no longer beginner small fry but actually sounded half-impressive. Around that time, my teacher announced that he was leaving for a music conservatory, and as I still held ever relentless to my dreams of being a rock star, my parents found a new teacher.
(My brother, of course, quit violin and I think at this point took up drumming for about a year.)
Ms. Sheila was the first adult who’d asked that I call her by her given name. I was ten and this was unthinkable. I certainly did not call my teachers Patrica or Susan at school, and I did not see why instruction in cello should be different. Ms. Sheila insisted, though, so I found a compromise: her first name was Sheila and that was what she wanted to hear, I needed a honorary prefix, and the rest is history.
Fun fact: I still have trouble with this, even as an adult: it is actually one of my 2016 resolutions to get comfortable calling my PhD advisor Paul. (He has been my advisor for over a year now.)
Under Ms. Sheila’s tutelage, I worked through the higher Suzuki books and perfected my form. In cello, your bow is supposed draw down on the strings in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge. You’re supposed to imagine a little house (or a woman with a baby stroller) on the corner of the fingerboard and pedestrian traffic on the bridge. You are driving the bow, which is a car in this metaphor, and you must not run over the bridge pedestrians or the little house. (Usually people bow too close to the fingerboard; I did it too close to the bridge, and Ms. Sheila always wondered why I kept endangering more imaginary cello-people that way. I said it was because I placed more value on the individual than the group, but really my form was just bad and I was eleven and felt like being contrary.)
Two or three years after I started as her student, our lessons were cancelled more and more frequently as Ms. Sheila went through cancer treatment. Then there was one last ride up the steep Haverhill hills to her house, where all my lessons had been, this time without my cello, where my mother and I said goodbye and she gave us a list of recommendations for a new teacher.
I was not a stranger to death at that point– my father’s parents had died when I was about four, and I’d gone with him through their house and their things. My first dog died when I was eight. But Ms. Sheila was the first person where there had been a certain formality and dignity to the loss.
It was a different changeover than losing my first teacher had been– perhaps he thought he would hear about me again later as an accomplished cellist, perhaps he just figured me for another kid whose parents were already looking to beef up her college applications.
Of all my cello teachers, Elena is my favorite.
I started taking cello lessons with her in a room of an old church whose graveyard had this fantastic stone arch that looked like it could be a pathway to the underworld. In the fall, I would just stare at it: the bright New England leaves crimson and gold against slashes of granite and damp moss.
Elena certainly did not start as my favorite, though. I was twelve or thirteen when we began lessons and had more or less begun to realize that this cello thing was a sham. I flipped out at my parents when I saw them letting my little brother play their acoustic guitars: that was mine, that was my goal, that was what you promised me, he quit, and look at how hard I’ve been practicing!
Stay a little longer on cello, they said. You’re so good at it. We’ll think about guitar next year.
A lot of people say that high school is the worst time of your life. I disagree. I had a comparatively easy high school experience compared to middle school. The details aren’t relevant, but the point is my sixth through eighth grade were a living hell. I entered high school with a chip on my shoulder, impressive drawing skills from lunches and recesses spent alone in the library, and an unshakeable distrust of people who did yoga.
All this time I was also trying to learn cello. Elena met me at one of the two angriest times in my life, and I think our first lesson together I barely even spoke to or looked at her as I played. In retrospect, I don’t think I was handling Ms. Sheila’s death particularly well, and school had made me doubt the intentions of anyone who was as friendly as Elena was. To top it off, I dreaded cello lessons because it reminded me of my rock star failure.
Still, it is a fact universally acknowledged that it’s hard to learn music if you don’t talk to your teacher.
As I kept coming back to that church with its rad arch, I talked more. My mother would also sit in on my lessons, and she and Elena became fast friends. I think I started calling Elena by her first name because I was feeling ~*rebellious*~ enough to drop the prefix, and it stuck.
And things got better. I was stoked when I learned my first gavotte, not only because I had always wanted to play a gavotte, but also because Elena was the first teacher who took me off the Suzuki books. I began playing real music. I was placed later and later at recitals, until I was the last student playing.
If you are unfamiliar with recitals, it is often the established thing that you have your younger or newer students playing first (often little kids are pretty ansty and not great at waiting, so if you get their performance out of the way, they can either chill or their parents can jet with them if they melt down mid-someone else’s sonata) and then progress to the older, more experienced musicians. To play last, to be the one who ends the night, is an honor.
Because cello necessitated pants, on recital nights I always had to wear this red cummerbund that my grandmother had made me to dress up my slacks. My parents brought me roses and flowers, told me that they were proud of me, and on those nights, when I bowed at the end of my concertos, I finally felt like I was doing something right. Like here I could just excel and all the people in the audience knew it. Things were melting down elsewhere, but for fifteen minutes in a slowly emptying room I had total mastery, cummerbund and all.
And it may not have been rock and roll, but it was close.
In high school, my parents tried to sell me on the idea of electric cello. They’d seen an experimental performance at the pops, and they’d fallen in love. “Look,” they’d said, “you could do this!”
I did not buy it. This was before I was fortunate enough to hear Geographer, a kickass band that does indeed feature an electric cello. My idea of a rock star lifestyle was picks, microphones, and electric chords. Treble clef. Sure, yeah, you could hook a cello up to an amp. So what? I wanted to rock out standing up. That was not something a cello could promise.
So I just forgot about it. My mother and Elena were great friends, I kept on taking cello lessons and opening up more. Another good thing about cello is that you get less afraid of making friends in a new high school after you’ve played Vivaldi to a room full of people older than you. I was surprised when Elena told me at the end of a lesson that she was so happy with today because it had been the most I’d ever talked to her in one sitting.
Eventually, I figured, hey, whatever, I’m a teenager, and all the rock stars have already gotten their guitars. The cool kids had already been chosen, alae iacta est, and maybe there were just some people who would never be ready for Stage 2: Acoustic Guitar.
This is something I have learned about art: it is a one-or-zero endeavor. You either devote yourself to it, or you don’t, but once you make the choice you don’t get to complain anymore. This is a tough lesson to learn. For a while, I’d kind of wanted to be the victim, the girl whose parents hadn’t let her play the guitar, whose stadium dreams had been squashed by bass clef.
But the thing about wanting something is that when you want it badly enough, people telling you no are never absolute. It’s just not yet, wait a bit, try again later, another way, or convince me. If I had really wanted to learn electric guitar, then why hadn’t I asked my parents to practice on their acoustics like my brother had? Why didn’t I write it on a piece of paper or in the ridiculous amounts of diaries I wrote at the time?
Before I went off to college and my family moved from the northeast back midwest, I had my last lesson with Elena. We’d been working on Saint-Saens’ The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals, which remains one of my favorite pieces. It is gloriously sad, magical, and breathless. It’s also a pretty good approximation for how quitting an instrument feels: the triumph of skill to hit the harmonics, and the knowledge that this is your swan song, that it’s over.
In college, I met a lot of people with acoustic and electric guitars and amps. They had started garage bands for a time, found drummers and vocalists, made a flash-in-the-pan go of it. I said I’d played cello but did not bring up the rest of the dream.
Because by then it had become a question I did not like finding the answer to, but there it was: had I not wanted it enough?
Last night, I went to a chamber music open mic night at a Chinese tea house.
I had not thought I would be kind of person who would go to chamber music nights, let alone ones at my local tea house, but a friend in my department had invited me. A cello player pizzicato’d and hit the high harmonics and the group I was with thought he was the coolest. I hadn’t played cello in eight years, but I still smiled when his bow hit the sheet music on someone else’s music stand because man, have I been there.
It’s easier now for me to hear the cello in these pieces, both at tea houses and on the radio. It’s the baseline, the steady undertone that carries you through. It may not get the harmony, but maybe you don’t always want that. The cello can be the saddest or most resilient instrument of all the strings, depending on how you play it. You just have a deeper voice than the others.
During my time away from cello, I have become the kind of person who trawls through indie sites for new songs, who wears headphones at least a few hours a day, and who has to have music playing to write or drive long distances. On one of my trips home, I asked my parents if they were disappointed that I’d stopped playing. They said no.
“You just didn’t have time,” my dad said, which was and wasn’t true. My mom said: “Honey, we never expected you to play cello forever.”
Had I gone through those ten years for nothing?
“What we wanted,” she said, “was for you to always have music in your life.”
It is August 2015 and I am visiting my best friend in Miami. I have not met her husband before, but she’s still at work and so I’m chilling with him at their house for the hour before she comes back. It is a sink or swim situation and things have become truly dire, so I do the thing that anyone does when they seek to ingratiate themselves with their best friend’s new spouse: tell them about your wacky childhood dreams.
“And you never learned to play guitar?” He says, like this is the worst ending ever.
“Well, no. I’m very good at air guitar, though,” I say, wondering how to explain middle school and siblings and also death in a two-minutes-or-less, new-acquaintance-friendly kind of way. “There was just a lot of cello, and Stage 2–”
“We have two guitars right here. Hold on.” He leaps up from the couch and their two dogs trail after him. “We’ll start right now.”
He shows me how to do a basic chord progression and I mess up a lot, because my fingers want to curl around the instrument’s neck differently, like a cello’s, even though it’s been almost seven years since I last practiced. It’s embarrassing and the guitar feels too huge, but it’s not bad. My best friend has said her husband should be a high school guidance counselor because he makes people feel at ease about doing stuff like this, and I can see it.
“Do you have a teacher?” I ask him.
“What, for guitar? Nah. You just look chords up on the internet and teach yourself.” He swaps his guitar for a tiny ukulele and we jam until my friend gets home. “They sell acoustics on Craigslist and other places for cheap. You can practice between studying and stuff. If you feel like getting one.”
“You know,” I say, “I should.”