Seized by some peculiar muse (clearly one with a sense of humor), I have undertaken to learn the cello in middle age. To the amazement of my teacher, my family and myself, I’ve made incredibly rapid progress. Displaying a fluidity and musicianship that cannot be taught, I burned through the early books and went straight to repertoire that is usually the province of advanced players.
Well, no actually, except for the part about trying to learn the cello. It’s been 18 months now, and I’m plugging away, attempting to force my hands, arms, body, but mostly my brain, to do things that don’t come naturally at all. Yo-Yo Ma’s job is safe.
I am aware that there are tiny children playing miniature cellos (they’re all over YouTube) who can breeze through the pieces I spend weeks attempting to master.
Most of the great musicians in history have shown precocious ability from the earliest ages. As a child, for example, Felix Mendelssohn memorized all nine of Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies and could play them straight through on the piano. Franz Liszt could sight read any music (even with the score upside down) without missing a note. As an adult, Liszt invited the young Edvard Grieg to visit him in Rome. Grieg presented Liszt with his new composition, a piano concerto. Liszt sat down at the keyboard and played the entire piece, solo and orchestral parts simultaneously, all while keeping up a running commentary. He liked it, to Grieg’s great delight.
Some of us are gifted only with a love of music. The above stories come from listening to Robert Greenberg’s courses from The Teaching Company, which I savor in the car. Translating love of music into the sound that emanates from the instrument in your hands is, however, fraught with pitfalls.
Did you ever wonder how cellists know where to put their fingers on that long fingerboard with no frets? I always did. At one of my first lessons, my teacher placed a small Velcro circle on the back to guide me about where my thumb should be in first position. That became a sort of security blanket. Darting up and down to other positions (there are so many!), you knew you were securely at home (and in tune) when your thumb landed on the familiar patch.
No longer. This month, for my birthday, my husband bought me a cello. It replaces the dull rental I’d been using, and it is a glorious, beautiful thing — walnut in color, velvety in tone. My teacher insists that I’ve reached the point where I should do without the thumb marker.
Among many humbling lessons I’ve learned in this process, I had to part with a silly vanity I maintained for years. In the seventh grade, my music teacher tested the class for pitch recognition. He played a series of notes on the piano and asked students to identify them blindfolded. I was then taking piano, and I aced the test. Ever since, I had flattered myself that I had a good ear.
No more. If your fingers miss their mark by even a fraction of a fraction of an inch on the cello, you will hit the wrong note. I confess that sometimes I can tell, and sometimes I can’t. Without a digital tuner on hand, I would sound like an old LP record being played at the wrong speed.
Still, there are compensations. If you do something with diligence, you will improve, natural talent or no. One of the reasons I started lessons (apart from wanting to play with my musical children) was to limber up a part of my brain that hasn’t been busy in, well, several decades. The theory is that by keeping your brain challenged and stretching, you ward off the uglier possibilities of age. We’ll see. But it is intriguing to be reminded of how the brain functions at any age.
Some days I will play for 30 minutes seemingly missing every note, mangling the bow directions (“hooked bows” are tricky), and sounding like a crow trying to sing Johann Bach. Yet the very next morning, having done nothing more than slept on it, I will play dramatically better. It’s almost as if I’m a different player.
The other great compensation is that playing an instrument opens a whole world of appreciation to the student. String quartets? I used to find them boring. Discovering them now is like finding buried treasure in your backyard. The Bach cello suites? A piece of heaven.
My own playing? Well, it’s better than it was yesterday.