Monday, February 9, 2015

My Cello Love Story




The cello, the embraceable cello, is known as being the instrument that sounds the most like a human voice.
The deep richness of its base notes to the high ranges capture the soulful sound of a love story.  


When our friend who is a neurosurgeon heard three years ago that I was learning to play the cello, he pronounced, almost like a medical prescription, "Learning to play a musical instrument is amazing for your brain. What a great idea--all those dendrites linking up.  Keep it up!" I appreciated his affirming assurance, but my aim was not necessarily to attach more neurons--even though, I am sure, I could profit from more neurons linked together.  Put simply, while I was trying to help my son with autism learn to play the cello, I unintentionally fell in love with it's rich resonating sound. It was completely serendipitous to become smitten with this heavy and cumbersome (to carry) instrument, but suddenly, with no warning, I was entranced. There was no going back down the mountain.   Falling in love with the cello has been a blessed accident, a tutoring journey every step of the way.

When I finally get the tone, tempo, and technique right, this instrument fills my heart, mind, and soul every time.

Many people automatically assume I have been playing for decades when they see me lugging around my cello or hear that I am now playing in an orchestra here in Doha, Qatar. I am a mediocre pianist, and play the guitar. But there is an interesting story, I would even say a love story, behind the grit and determination to play the cello. People ask me often why I would attempt such a fantastic notion--to devote any extra hours of the week I can spare--to learn to bow and pluck this instrument.

Here is the story behind my devotion:

A few years ago E. was captivated by the cello as he listened to Handel's music on youtube in his free time. The music must have been soothing or comforting to him because he listened to it incessantly.  For months, he pleaded to learn how to play the cello, and I would immediately suggest another instrument--or perhaps a different activity?  But he was persistent, repeating several times a day (as children with autism or I might add, any child will) that he wanted to play the cello.  Since I watched my older son learn to play the cello, I knew it was a very technical process to learn and would likely require more coordination and focus than he could manage.

One afternoon I was at my dear friend's home, and she heard him beg for a cello (she has a daughter with Down's Syndrome so she understands about listening to children with disabilities).  Luckily, she was intently listening to his pleas that day, and said to me, "Why don't you just let him try it?  Who knows?  Just give him the chance.  And guess what? I have an extra cello in the basement. You can borrow it for awhile."  In my heart, I knew she was right.  Why not try it?

Soon afterwards, I found a patient teacher who was willing to teach him. As I listened to him learn the cello and tried to help him, my own interest in the instrument piqued. My husband suggested,"Why don't you just take lessons along with him?" The dual lessons lasted a few months, but my son had a rough time, as I predicted (we soon thereafter found a patient piano teacher for him).

I surprised even myself when I asked his teacher if I could continue with the lessons. I inherently knew that it would be hard and require much rigor, but my aim to make beautiful sounds outweighed any doubt or hesitancy.  We worked together for about a year; I anticipated each lesson with great eagerness, as I plunged into learning how to play. When she moved away, I cried like a child because she gave me hope that I could really accomplish such a seemingly impossible feat. I found another teacher, this time from Bulgaria, who taught me more technique and precision.

I love this picture of Audrey.  Sometimes I have that same exasperated expression when I play too.

As I learned to play a few Christmas songs that first year, my cheeks were wet with tears, my heart raced faster, and goose pimples appeared on me.  A pure joy washed over me,  and I knew I wanted to always have the joyful feeling of my heart, mind, and soul merging together as I played the cello.   I ached to be able to play with others in an orchestra.  It seemed like a far fetched goal, but I still secretly kept it tucked away in a hidden pocket. Sometimes I would (and still do) become a little discouraged with the process--trying to multi-task and concentrate on about eight techniques on the cello at one time. Needless to say, I am not necessarily a precise person, but I continue to play--resolute to capture beautiful music from the strings with precision and the correct rhythm.

It is certainly not the end of the cello love story, but I successfully auditioned to be in an orchestra last fall when we moved to Qatar. It is a phenomenal group of musicians from all over the world, most of them trained in music conservatories.  In the cello section alone, there are six of us, all from different countries.  To be in this orchestra has not only fulfilled a mid-life dream for me, but it has softened my transition to live in a faraway place. I have a whole new set of friends from Yemen, Australia, France, the U.K, Columbia, the Netherlands, among other places, who play beautiful, stirring music with me.  One highly accomplished cellist from Australia, when I revealed that I was a beginner cellist, turned around with a smile, and said, "There's room for everybody on this bus." His encouraging words enabled me to feel like I fit into this talented, amazing group of musicians--that I have a another home so distant from everything familiar and known.

Often times I gaze over at my E., and remember it is him who gave this musical gift to me--to play this gorgeous instrument that nourishes and fills my soul. I hope that I can give him gifts that will foster joy and feed his soul too; it is one of my dearest dreams.  In my quiet moments (and they are very few when he is around), I thank God for a son with autism who teaches me every day. I am trying to listen to his every timbre, tone, voice, rhythm, expression, sound in his heart--some of the exact same skills that I am learning when I play the cello.


A Christmas concert in Doha....




I just had to add this picture of an ice sculpture that was found on the streets during the recent Boston blizzards! I am sure the sculptor has a love story with the cello too!