Saturday, February 17, 2007

Making music: on playing the cello

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.

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