“Ez lesz”: Playing Cello at the Eső Evening

About two weeks ago, Gyula Jenei invited me to take part in an event for the Eső literary magazine, of which he is the founder and editor in chief. Eső has been important to me since the fall of 2018, when I first became aware of it; I have many of the issues and have learned about many Hungarian writers by reading it and attending the events. He wanted me to play cello between the pieces, and a thought came to mind: what about playing a few Pilinszky miniatures—that is, Pilinszky poems set to cello? I hadn’t chosen the poems yet, or worked out the cello and singing parts, but I knew I could pull this together.

Gyula put me in touch with the event organizer, the kind and ebullient István Turczi, who had a grander plan: there should be five short Pilinszky pieces and a longer classical piece at the end. I had my work cut out for me for the next ten days or so.

I was going to play everything from memory, but for the classical piece, I needed to practice from sheet music at first, and that narrowed the choices considerably. I chose the first movement of Bach’s third cello suite, with some trepidation, because the piece is relentless and I don’t know that I have ever performed it. In addition, I had barely touched the cello all fall, because I have been working on two translation projects, one of which, the Jászberényi, is now done (a draft, that is).

So, on the days when I could, I practiced two to four hours. For the Pilinszky, I would hum and play rough drafts until something took hold. The five poems I chose were “A tengerpartra,” “Akár a föld,” “Amiként kezdtem,” “Metronóm,” and “Ez lesz.” The melodies and atmospheres did in fact take shape; once I had them in my mind, the real practicing began. Here’s a recording of one of them (it isn’t perfect, and I intend to make a better recording of all five, but it gives a basic idea).

As for the Bach, the challenge was different and in some ways much greater, since there was the piece, written centuries ago, and there were my fingers, not quite up to it. I worked on it from different angles and heard it getting better day by day, but didn’t know if it would be anywhere close to ready by Monday. On Sunday I felt a kind of panic and was tempted to contact István and cancel the Bach. But i didn’t.

Then came the event. Such a warm and interesting occasion, in the lovely Szigligeti Kanapé, a performance space with raked audience seats (sloping upward, so everyone can see), a carpeted stage (great for the cello, no chance that the peg will slip out of place), a great program, and the greatest audience in the world: Varga students, a few Varga teachers, and a few others. István Turczi interviewed the writers (Gyula Jenei, Magor Molnár, and Ahmed Amran), and each of them read from their work; at certain transition points, I played a piece. The Pilinszky went over beautifully, even better than I had hoped; it miraculously worked. I tried to relax in between the pieces and listen to the readings, but this was only partly possible; I was making sure in my mind that I remembered the upcoming piece. At one point I thought I had forgotten the third line of “Metronóm.” What was it? What could it be? Then it came back: “a szálkák mozdulatlan jelenét.” As it turned out, “Metronóm” may have been the best of all the pieces. But two pieces later, Ahmed Amran (a Yemeni author who has been living in Szolnok for about twenty-five years and writes in Hungarian) read his story “A földdombok,” which I had read a few times before, and I was surprised to realize that the very ending was going to connect perfectly with the Pilinszky piece that followed.

Azok a földdombok ereszkednek le hozzá, amelyek mellkasukat nyítottak neki, hogy meglelje gyermekkori örömét és a halal végtelen csendjét.

(Those hills descending down toward him are the ones that bared their breasts to him so that he could land upon childhood happiness and the infinite quiet of death.)

And then, immediately afterwards, and closing the Pilinszky series, “Ez lesz”:

Ez lesz

Oszlás-foszlás, vánkosok csendje,
békéje annak, ami kihűlt, hideg lett,
mindennél egyszerűbb csend, ez lesz.

(That Is to Be

Dithering-withering, the quiet of pillows,
the peace of a thing now chilled, gone cold,
a quiet simpler than everything: that is to be.)

And then, after some closing remarks and memories of Eső contributors who had passed away, it was time to finish up with the Bach. “What will be, will be,” I thought, and plunged in. It went a lot better than I had feared. It wasn’t perfect—mostly because I wasn’t anywhere close to perfect in my playing, but also because the cello needed new strings and a higher bridge, which I didn’t undertake before the evening because of all the adjustments involved (not to mention the necessary trip to Budapest). But I played it all the way through without breaking down or losing momentum, and there were some nice moments along the way. In retrospect, I see that I could have chosen something shorter and simpler. But I didn’t know that at the time. I think it was important to do this anyway, because every bit of practicing helped, and it helped the Pilinszky too.

People loved the evening: the readings, discussion, music, and whole atmosphere. Afterwards a few of us went out to a restaurant to talk for a little while. Someone suggested that I record the Pilinszky pieces. I had already thought of doing it, but now I am thinking of doing something other than a home recording, so that it really comes out well. We talked about this and that for at least an hour, and then Marianna and Gyula took me home. I am grateful that Gyula and István invited me to be part of this, and that Marianna took so many photos. And that we had such a good audience. In some way I feel part of Eső now, and the cello has been yanked back into my life in the happiest of ways.

P.S. Speaking of Pilinszky, do come to the online Pilinszky event (hosted by the ALSCW, and featuring special guests Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Csenger Kertai, and Gergely Balla, with me as interviewer and moderator) on March 20! Here’s the informational website, and here’s the Facebook event page.

More on Cellos

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.

Why Bring a Cello to English Class?

cello4 (2)
I have brought my cello to various classes over the years, and I remember these occasions. But today was one of the happiest of them all. In one of my ninth-grade classes, the students have been practicing songs from The Wizard of Oz for a possible short performance: not a full play, but a little concert of songs.

I promised them that I would bring the cello this week. In between the promise and the fact, I purchased it. It is the first time that I have bought one for myself; my other cello, now in storage in New York City, was purchased by my parents when I was 14. I got a good case to go with it: a hard but lightweight one with backstraps. Never before has it been so easy to carry.

I have been out of practice, so it will take me a few weeks to get back into shape. But that isn’t the point. The sound of a musical instrument changes things in a classroom. Everyone starts to listen in a different way; the room becomes quiet and relaxed. I wouldn’t bring it to every class every day; we have many other things to do, and the lessons are short. But there are times for this. We sang, and then I invited them try the instrument (no one had tried to play a cello before), and then we sang some more.


In the afternoon, I brought it to one of my twelfth-grade classes. In the last ten minutes of class, we sang (or I played, or both) “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and then, at their request, I played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

But that wasn’t all. Before the twelfth-grade class, I had a free period, and it occurred to me to find an empty room (in the annex) and play for a while. It has been years since I was able to practice without worrying about bothering the neighbors. That’s essential for a musician, even an amateur;  you need a place where you can play without worrying at all: where you can sound bad if you have to, repeat passages again and again if you have to, and find your way into the music.


“A Time When I Can Think Slowly Through Things”

Last spring I went to the New York Philharmonic to hear Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Carter Brey was the soloist; his rendition thrilled me with its subtlety and dialogue. (For years, Rostropovich’s interpretation was by far my favorite; Brey’s went beyond it.) I went back a second time, for the final night, and was sorry I couldn’t go back again.

So I was delighted to find a video clip of the New York Philharmonic rehearsing the concerto in Costa Mesa. The clip is much too short (just a fraction of the second movement), and I wish that the video editor had shown more of the musicians instead of including those city views. Even so, it’s great to watch and hear. The duet with Eileen Moon is gorgeous, and those few seconds of rehearsal accomplish and convey a lot.

While on this search, I found two excellent interviews: one with Noah Rothbaum in Runner’s World and the other with Tim Janolt for the Internet Cello Society. There are many more, but I had to limit myself. These two are full of interesting things. Brey describes running as “a time when I can think slowly through things.” He says of Laurence Lesser, his first cello teacher in college, that “his most valuable gift was showing me how to think for myself in order to find solutions to technical problems in a non-dogmatic manner.”

Here’s a quote from the first interview:

Is Bach better to listen to before running or Beethoven?
For a classical musician, great classical master works don’t really work as background music. We all find that when restaurants put classical pieces that we know on as soft background music, it’s a tremendous annoyance to us because we just want to stop and listen. The volume is usually just below the threshold for you to hear clearly. We find it annoying and offensive because this is music that wasn’t meant for background music. So it depends on what you need. If you’re really in the mood to concentrate on something that’s complex, that has certain surface complexity, then I’ll put on a piece of classical concert music. If I need something mindless to get my spinal cord going then I’ll put on pop music.

Hear, hear! And from the second:

TJ: How does one shift “in character” with the music?

CB: When shifting between two notes, many cellists tend to be on the late and fast side, which may serve musical purposes at times, though it often doesn’t. This kind of shifting is more utilitarian, merely getting from point A to point B, since it is but one of an infinite number of ways of going between two notes. It’s better if you can more consciously decide how much of a slide you want to hear. If you want to hear more of a broad-reaching kind of slide, don’t shift so late; leave the first note earlier so that there’s a more vocal effect in getting to the goal note. For wonderful examples of this, listen to the great singers, like Jessye Norman and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who were also great influences on my development.

I look forward to reading more, but much more than that, to hearing more.

No to Multiple-Choice Music Tests, But….

I’ve been following some of the recent news about the development of standardized music tests. Dana Goldstein’s Slate article met with responses from Diane Ravitch, Sara Mead, and Nancy Flanagan; many teachers and others offered comments. From what I’ve seen, most commenters oppose standardized tests in the arts because it emphasizes conformity over creativity, serves the wrong purposes, and restricts arts curricula. They do not oppose arts assessment in general; to the contrary, they argue for various kinds of thoughtful assessment.

I agree that multiple-choice tests are no way to assess arts performance or understanding. They could possibly serve to assess a small portion of the learning, but not the whole. That said, I believe some kind of common, standardized assessment has a place and could do a great deal of good. I will focus on music here.

My licenses are in ELA and ESL, but I have brought music into my teaching from the start. In my first four years of teaching, I directed my English Language Learners and other students in three musicals and a play that involved music: The Wizard of Oz, Oliver!, Into the Woods, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For many of these children, it was their first time singing in harmony or performing on stage. Some did not know at first how to judge whether they were in tune, so I included some ear training, which led to moments where things “clicked.” I also taught them how to breathe when singing, how to project their voices, and how to shape phrases. Some of them had great intuition for this and went far beyond my teaching. We practiced those songs again and again, and by the time the students could sing them, they were proud, amazed, and joyous. (Michael Winerip wrote a moving article for the New York Times about my students’ rehearsals and performance of The Wizard of Oz.)

The “assessment” here was built into the rehearsals and, of course, the performance. The audience could see how much the students had put into these productions and how much they had learned. Some of it was specific, concrete learning (such as scales, arpeggios, rhythms, and lyrics), some of it less tangible. Some of it came from the students and their own understanding; some, from the hours and hours of practice, and some, from the encounter with specific pieces, songs, and plays. The students were not only learning how to sing and perform, but also gaining exposure to musical theater, American and British culture, and (in the last case) Shakespeare. Some of this could be tested fairly easily; some of it, not easily at all.

I hoped to give my students certain kinds of music instruction I had missed. That sounds a bit odd, because I was unusually fortunate. I began taking cello lessons, at school, at age 8 and continued with formal study for another ten years. I spent two summers in the Young Artists Instrumental Program at Tanglewood, played in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, played duets with a friend, studied with a member of the Boston Symphony (a wonderful teacher), sang in choruses, and played in the Yale Symphony Orchestra as a freshman at Yale. As an adult, I have played in various ensembles and bands, recorded with some of my favorite songwriters, and written songs. But it is painful to realize that I still have many technical flaws—due in part to my continued scrambling with fundamentals.

There was a strange discrepancy in my training. Along the way, teachers told me that I was musically gifted; some waxed euphoric about my abilities. Yet, for the first four or five years, each new teacher told me that I had learned just about everything wrong and had to start from scratch. Though I practiced and practiced, I did not overcome this scourge. Several times, when auditioning for a particular teacher or for admission to a music school, I was rejected flat out because of my poor technique. The main problem was that I had no technical core. Teachers had taught me different ways of holding the bow and fingering, but until high school, no one taught me the underlying principles of relaxation, breathing, and fluid motion. Also, I tackled difficult pieces early on before I was ready for them. Most of my teachers let me do this, as they didn’t want to stifle my enthusiasm.

It would have been great if I had learned some fundamentals at the outset, in my first few years of study. It would have been even better if cello teachers generally agreed on what those fundamentals were and insisted that their students master them. I don’t fault my first teacher; she gave me the gift of an introduction to the cello, and I have no way of judging now how well she taught me. I do fault a system that treats children as non-serious amateurs until they prove otherwise, and that lacks consistency in early instruction.

I have seen other approaches to music instruction. In high school, I spent a year in Moscow and attended music school in addition to regular school. My teacher in the U.S. had suggested that I study with the great Natalia Gutman. Thrilled and honored by this suggestion, I called her shortly after our arrival and spoke to her in halting Russian. She told me graciously that she wasn’t taking on students and recommended that I audition for admission to the pre-conservatory school.

The cellist who listened to my audition said my technique was seriously deficient. He referred me to a good district music school, where I was placed in the fifth grade (in regular school, I was in the Soviet ninth grade, the equivalent of our tenth or eleventh).

The school followed the Soviet music curriculum. I spent almost the entire year on the Goltermann Concerto in B minor (not one of my favorite pieces). I played many technical exercises, practiced about four hours a day, had private lessons twice a week, and took ear training and music history classes as well. My teacher wouldn’t accept a note even slightly out of tune. “Chishche! Chishche!” (roughly, “Cleaner! Cleaner!”) she would cry out. I adored her and appreciated her demands. She appreciated my creative work as well; when I brought in a composition one day, she took time out of the lesson to have the accompanist play it. At the end of the year, I performed before a jury, as all students did; I was awarded the highest possible grade.

I do not glorify the Soviet system of music instruction. (The curriculum was too rigid; I should not have spent a whole year on Goltermann.) One thing I do applaud: there was a common understanding of what good technique entailed and in what sequence it should be taught. This did not impede musicality or joy; my classmates at the music school delighted in what they were doing, partly because they were learning to do it well. The performance before the jury was scary but also exciting. (If I remember correctly, the jury recognized expressiveness as well as technique.) My musical experience there was by no means limited to music school; I attended many concerts on my own, including performances by Gutman herself. Her performance of the Shostakovich sonata stands out among my memories.

What does this have to do with assessment in the arts? A certain kind of standardization at the beginning levels, conducted in the right spirit, for the right reasons, and with room for exceptions, would help young students enormously. Now, music instruction in schools takes many forms and directions. A school may lack resources for instrumental instruction, so it may focus on singing (granted, the voice is an instrument), theory, music appreciation, and music history. Or it may offer band and orchestra electives to those who already play. That’s a separate issue in itself; since music instruction can mean so many different things, there’s no single test, multiple-choice or otherwise, that can measure it. But let’s say a school does offer violin, cello, piano, trumpet, and other lessons. Shouldn’t it have a clear understanding of what the basics are, an understanding that it shares with other schools? Shouldn’t it have a way of testing the students along the way, to make sure they’re learning properly? Wouldn’t this open up possibilities for students, instead of closing them off?

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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