I’ve done something brave: I’ve arranged to take a cello lesson at the beginning of May.
Even though I’ve played the cello for close to 30 years, over the past twenty, I’ve had exactly one proper lesson – almost 8 years ago in Seattle. (Thanks Mary!) I’m sure there’s room for improvement.
For much of this time, the cello has been a means to an end: to play in an orchestra. But lately, I’ve been wanting to play cello to play cello. I want to improve my intonation. I often guess, I’m frequently close – as in, closer to an ‘A’ than an ‘A-flat’ but not exactly an ‘A.’ And I’d like to work on my tone being smoother and richer, with less hesitation and fewer rough edges. Less guessing. More listening.
So, on the recommendation of a friend from my orchestra, I’ve arranged a lesson. The teacher sent me a list of exercises to look at. Exercises. When I first started playing cello, I dreaded exercises. Dull. Repetitive. No soaring lines or playful melodies. Enough to make me lose my appetite for practicing. In a recent conversation my cello-teacher friend, Mary, remarked that exercises can be helpful because they remove the pressure of the larger context of a piece. I think she said something like ‘It’s just a string of eight notes. Play them loud, soft, fast, slow, in one bow, in 4 bows, 8 bows, dotted rhythm, triplets, and then, when you’ve had enough, move on.’
Our most recent orchestra concert was a performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom. It’s a really difficult piece. When rehearsals started, I was bewildered. The rhythms confounded me, the notes were tricky, the key signatures were constantly changing from too many sharps to too many flats. I couldn’t figure out the melodies. When I listened to a recording, it sounded opaque and rich. There was too much to take in, too much to understand. I wanted to shut down.
Instead, I picked up the exercise book and played 8 notes. And when I was done with those 8 notes, when I had played them well enough, I went to the next 8 notes. I didn’t worry about how one string of notes connected to the next, and if I should be listening for clarinet cues, and where this all fit in to the scheme of 50-60 other instruments and 100 voices in a 40-page oratorio. It was just 8 notes. I recall reading that Yo-Yo Ma learned to play cello by learning 2 measures of the Bach Cello Suites a day. I figured I was in good company.
I know it’s probably been said before, but, practice does help. Even if you practice different music, it helps! The week before the concert, we had 3 rehearsals: the evening of Monday April 15th, Friday the 19th, a dress rehearsal on the 20th, and the performance the evening of the 20th.
On the 15th, the music started to reveal itself to me. I could hear the melodies! I could play the melodies! The grandness was emerging, the emotion, the motion, the intensity were coming into focus . I left the rehearsal humming the music, it was sinking in through my pores. Halfway home, I turned the radio on: Boston. That evening, while I was finally beginning to understand this music, in the Cambridge across the pond, there was chaos, disbelief, discord, tragedy.
The events in Boston affected me on many levels. Massachusetts and Boston is to my mother what New Mexico is to me. I’ve married into a family of runners and become one myself. For many runners, Boston is the marathon to aim for. My in-laws were visiting the UK that week, with plans to run the London marathon on the 21st. There is always a story behind each marathon, propelling each marathon runner – why they run, what motivates them, their ways of going through the alternating drudgery and satisfaction of the many miles of training, their final inspirations for those last miles. It’s not the winners of marathons who inspire me. It’s the finishers.
I’ve run a few marathons and they, too, are really difficult. They, too, loom over you at the beginning with an imposing distance of 26.2 miles, and make you want to sit on the couch and read a book instead. But, the only way I know to do something as big as a marathon or find an entry into something as grand as The Kingdom is to go a few steps farther each run, to string together a few more bars of 8 notes each practice session.
For Boston, the days of April 15 -20 were filled with drama, anger, sadness, heroism. Underneath the toll and tenderness of the week’s events, the music for my orchestra concert was growing clearer and clearer in my ears. I would wake in the morning to majestic themes from the prelude. I thought I could hear the lovely lines of the second part with the arrival of spring blossoms.
Through the final rehearsals, and culminating in the concert itself, the threads of the music wove themselves together. Agony and sadness crossed with joy and determination. The warp and weft of a musical tapestry that told the story of Pentecost, a story of building a great faith from a profound loss. The crowning glory is that we played at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. I’ve always found this building astonishing. I’ve written before about playing in this chapel. Given that week’s events, it was especially poignant to spend last Saturday evening in King’s, swathing the soul in a vast statement of human experience, Edward Elgar’s The Kingdom.
Here’s a review of our concert: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Whats-on-leisure/Reviews/Cambridge-Philharmonic-20130422104939.htm
My cello lesson is in a few weeks. I’ll let you know how it goes.