Friday, October 23, 2015

The voyage of learning the cello

I began playing cello when I was close to 50, and successfully auditioned to be in an orchestra in Doha last year (I think they needed cellists, but hey, I got in). I could liken it to embarking on a very scenic voyage. In these past four years, I have learned many things--not only about music and the cello. I have also met people who have greatly enriched my life--from unfamiliar places like Bulgaria and Yemen. Yet a few times I have wondered why I ever got on the voyage in the first place. And even possibly if I got on the wrong ship?  Occasionally the "musical" waters get deep and tumultuous. But I have resolutely stayed on--even if the waves swirled and tossed me around. Here is a post of 'My Cello Love Story' from almost a year ago that chronicles the reason I ever started cello in the first place: http://trekingonward.blogspot.qa/2015/02/my-cello-love-story.html

Each of the cellists in this section are from a different country.
One of the best things about learning the cello have been my teachers. They have been from all over the world: the United States, Bulgaria, Germany, and Russia. Each of them are uniquely trained, and have not only taught me about the techniques of playing the cello. I have learned other meanings of risk-taking, persistence, focus, exactness, and sheer determination. Today my German teacher said to me in our lesson, "It's not about the tempo. It's about perfection." I had to smile.

My cello teacher, Katrin Meingast, here in Qatar, who directs the Baroque Ensemble and German School music program.
I think I would have got off the ship long ago if it had not been for my first cello teacher. I remember when I was discouraged, she said some very wise words that resonated with me, and now I try to apply it to my life. I said, "I know I am playing 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions on the cello (I was already familiar with 1st), and I am doing it. But I can't visualize it. I don't even know the notes I am playing." She turned to me, and said, "You know enough. Just keep playing, and everything will fall into place." I can't tell you now how many times I have said, "You know enough" when I am playing the cello and attempting the unknown in other facets of my life.

My first cello teacher, playing some chamber music.
I have been stand partners in my orchestra with cellists from Australia, Yemen, the UK, Columbia, and France. The Australian cellist said to me in the beginning of the year, "There's room for everyone on the bus here." The UK cellist commented, "We have such a good mix here, don't we? (coming from people who have played their entire lives, and even one of them being a professional). I appreciate their patience in me, and their willingness for me to sit on the bus next to them. It makes me want to do the same when I am on other buses with people who are beginning something that I may know more about. As Louisa May Alcott's mother once said, "Encouragement is the greatest teacher."

My Yemen cellist friend came to my house to help me get ready for an orchestra concert. I will never forget him marching around my kitchen while I played, clapping his hands to the complicated rhythm. His English was minimal, and we would talk to each other with his I-Phone dictionary, as he looked up the words in Arabic. We somehow understood each other with the music that we loved and a few common words we knew. If anyone would have seen those teaching moments in my kitchen, they would have roared with laughter.

My Yemen friend  (in the middle) who so kindly taught me more exact rhythm, 
Most of the time last year my stand partner was a 14 year old ninth grader from France. I did not know when I said good by to her at the last concert in May that she would not be back this year. Her family decided to  move back to France in the summer. I miss her. More than anybody, in her quiet, gentle way, she taught me how to play in an orchestra. She would point her bow to the musical symbols, smile at me, nod, and we would whisper a little together. We were unlikely stand partners--probably that you would not see anywhere else in the world. Yet our "stand partnership" worked.

My French stand partner
Playing the cello, I tell people, has allowed me to see some staggeringly beautiful scenery and gone to places I never thought I would visit. But without the fellow passengers who have taught me so much, the journey would not be so grand.

Our holiday concert

Some lessons from the Cello:
1) When you play in an orchestra, everyone, no matter what instrument you play, all tune on the A to begin the orchestra practice each week. Every week as we tune together, I always think that with all our different instruments, nationalities (I would say there are 15-20 in my orchestra), opinions, persuasions, we all begin united--on the same note. This simple tradition or regimen in the orchestra always reminds me that with all our differences as peoples or in even a family, we can find the same note to begin our dialogues. We can even stay on tune as we navigate through our music or in our relationships.

2) Everyone has a chance to shine in an orchestra--not only the violins. Sometimes the harmony comes from the violas, cellos, flutes, clarinets, oboes. In Gustav Holst's symphony, The Planets, a euphonium has a solo. We take turns playing the harmony; in one song the harmony can rotate and switch around to various instruments. We are a group that enlivens the other, and applaud when others have solos or the harmony. We strive for a beautiful counterpoint or polyphony together--the interplay between various harmonies and rhythms. 

3) Sometimes I have to quickly retune--checking and adjusting the strings.  I do not want to be discordant, thus, affecting other's melodiousness. I know that my dissonance can affect the rest of the orchestra.  Just as in life, my mood affects the rest of my family or group I work or reside with. Sometimes I need to pause, check, and get back into tune.

4) Sometimes I play the wrong note, but as my Russian teacher says, "Just keep up with the rhythm, and don't worry about a fumbled note." If I make a mistake, in an orchestra piece or in life, I just get back into the pace or rhythm.   

5) One night our British orchestra conductor, after our feeble attempt to play Dvorak's 'A New World, said, "That sounded very impressionistic." I thought that was a very kind way to say that we were not playing balanced and together. In other words, the notes were blurred, not exact; our playing of that rendition stunk. To find ways to instruct and teach with humor, and not with the sting of criticism, is always the better route. 

6) It is so exhilarating, liberating, refreshing, to learn new things--especially things you never planned on but just came your way. You know enough!!!!