More on Cellos

geelcello
I am dreamy over my new cello. It plays easily and richly; it has a deep tone and lovely balance. But the old cello is not forgotten; it will have its day again too. The old bow, on the other hand, I will never play again; it lost its tension long ago. For years I was trying to make it work, getting it repaired, etc. But it was ultimately irreparable.

The old cello–the first good cello I ever had, and my only cello from then until now–went through a series of misfortunes. First of all, I now suspect that my parents bought it (from a violin and cello maker in the Black Forest in Germany, after our year in Moscow) when it was just a little too new. The varnish hadn’t hardened completely. But the bigger mistake was to bring it to the U.S. in a soft case. When we arrived and I opened it, I found that the cello’s fingerboard had come off. That was just the beginning of the troubles.

We then got a hard case, but the fuzz on the lining started to stick to the cello’s varnish (maybe because the varnish hadn’t hardened). So I had to wrap the cello in silk before putting it in the case. Then the strap that held the bow in place kept coming off, so the bow would knock around inside the case. Just why we didn’t get a new case immediately, I don’t know–but the expense probably had something to do with it. We were not rich; the cello itself was a big expense, and we didn’t realize how many accompanying costs there would be. I have since learned this about many purchases: consider not only the item itself, but also the upkeep.

Then there were other accidents, including ceiling leaks. Whenever a drop of water hit the cello–and this happened several times–it would take some of the varnish off. We took the cello to someone who restores instruments, but all she could do was patch up the varnish.

The little mishaps continued. I tend to bump into things; this meant that the cello bumped too. I was supposed to change the bridge twice a year–and to adjust the bridge every time it started to warp–but with my astigmatism I don’t have a good eye for that, so I had to take it into a shop. Over time I did this less frequently. I sometimes had to change the strings–and probably threw off the balance just a little each time.

Then, much later, when I was recording songs and playing in or with bands, I made the mistake of using a pickup microphone that attached with adhesive to the tailpiece. I have since removed it, but I would not again attach anything with adhesive. There are other ways to attach a microphone (and it is a wonderful thing sometimes).

But an instrument can be restored–and when looking up the person who made that particular cello, I came upon his grandson’s website. The grandson restores string instruments and has his workshop in Vienna, a short train ride from Budapest. So, when the time comes, I will bring the cello over from the U.S., make an appointment with him, and see what a restoration would involve. I may or may not decide to undertake it–but there could be no better person in the world to advise me on this than he.

Why did it take me so long to do any of this? For years I had a complex relationship with the cello. It seemed to carry so many expectations from others. They didn’t want me to become a professional cellist–that was too hard a life, and it would take extra effort for me to succeed, since I was behind technically–but they always associated the cello with me, wherever I went and whatever I did. They also associated it with classical music; I could see the sharp drop in approval when I started playing other kinds. This question of “approval” plagued me for years; I was showered with it as a teenager, then broke away from it, and then, over time, learned to accept it without letting it define or control me.

I don’t think I’m alone in this ambivalent relationship to the cello; I have met other cello players and professional cellists who went through something similar. Part of this has to do with the cello’s size. It’s an imposing instrument; it takes space and can be difficult to carry around (unless you have a lightweight hard case). It makes big sound, too–great in performance, if you play well, but not so great when you are playing scales and arpeggios or learning a new and difficult piece. People often say, “I love the cello,” but they understandably don’t love the sound of practicing. You start feeling like an imposition. A default apology, or preparation for apology, sets in. There are exceptions, though. When I was living in Brooklyn, I had a downstairs neighbor who, unbeknownst to me, was very ill. (He has since died.) One day I ran into him in the hallway. “I am very angry with you,” he said. Startled, I asked him why. “I haven’t heard you practicing the cello lately,” he replied. He told me that the sound lifted his spirits.

Often I was the one who didn’t like the sound of my playing. Choosing, somewhat by default, not to become a professional musician, I got stuck in an in-betweenness that I could not accept. I hate “sort of” playing; I want to play seriously or not at all. But playing seriously does not mean the same thing to me that it means to others; I like to play many styles of music and create my own too. I love and admire classical music–certain pieces are essential to me, and I continue to encounter and treasure more–but I do not consider it the only worthy music. I love good songs; I consider songwriting as worthy an art as composing a symphony. It may not be as complex musically, but it is full of subtlety. Nor is “classical” music absolutely definable; many compositions cross categories.

Nor do I think that you have to play incessantly to play well. I took pride, as a teenager, in practicing four hours a day, but I doubt that all of those hours were productive. They may have even hurt; I developed serious tension that interfered with the playing. I have since learned the importance of taking a few breaks and staying relaxed in posture. You can accomplish a lot in two hours if you go about it the right way.

Having my own cello, one I bought for myself, carries symbolic and practical meaning: I can now play it on my own terms, having learned from past mistakes and taken the matter (wood, strings, and all) into my hands. I look forward to the new sounds, even with their imperfections.

Image credit: Zhana Viel, Geel Cello.

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