Sometimes I wonder why I do it. I was driving home this morning after a not-so-successful cello lesson and I asked myself, "Why do I put myself through this?" Including the lesson, it is a three hour round trip. I have a full-time job as a professor of chemistry at California State University, Fresno, and three hours a week is a lot of time. Add to that practice and orchestra rehearsal, and often mundane things like shopping and housework take a backseat. Some days even a visit with friends or a walk after dinner with my neighbor seems like a sacrifice of practice time.
Then there are lessons like I had today. Two four-octave Cossmann scales that I had down perfectly well at home came apart with the added pressure of having my teacher listening to them. I can almost play the Duport etude, but I'm not getting the major and minor thirds between my thumb and my second finger exactly in tune. And the Bach Sarabande is marching to the beat of a different drummer. These are all little things, but they remind me of all my weaknesses as a cellist. I don't have perfect pitch, and I have to work hard to polish my relative pitch enough to play accurate intervals. I'm rhythmically challenged. And I, like so many other adults, suffer from undue tension, especially under pressure.
I can't play fast or memorize easily. I have the added problem in orchestra that extreme myopia and astigmatism render sight-reading, which would be a challenge under any conditions, next to impossible. Some weeks work and social obligations cut deeply into practice time. I've known adults who started the cello with great passion, played for a few years, and eventually gave up, and it is easy for me to understand why.
So why do I do it?
When I first started playing, I had just begun raising two adopted daughters. Melia, who was ten, was taking clarinet in the fifth grade, and it reminded me of starting the cello in the fifth grade. I did not stick with it past seventh grade, and never had a lesson, but over the years I had wistfully thought of playing again. When I found a cello for $300, I bought it. It was a cheap, laminated cello that was coming un-laminated, and had a very muted, but pleasant, tone. I picked up a copy of Potter's Art of Cello Playing and started a self-taught refresher course.
A year later, when my nine year old, Kim, wanted to start playing the cello, I signed us both up for lessons. While my children were young, I had to struggle to find practice time, but playing the cello became a relaxing time that I could reserve for myself. The girls were told that I was to be interrupted only for blood or fire. Kim soon switched to violin, but through her often-turbulent adolescence, music was something that brought us together. It was also, for me, a stress-reliever, or, as I once heard it described, a source of "alternate stress" -- something that took my mind off of the real-world problems.
Playing the cello brought me some of my closest friends. I had played for only two years when a casual acquaintance from church mentioned that she played and taught piano, and suggested that we play together. The first year, it was all I could do to struggle through Krane's "Bach for the Cello", but Linda loved the piano accompaniment and had the patience of a born teacher. She eventually talked me into playing a movement of a Marcello sonata with her at our church.
Another close friend is my second cello teacher, one I stayed with for over six years. Nancy Skei encouraged me to be better than I thought that I could be. My original goal as a cellist was to be able to play easy tunes. She introduced me to real cello music and set standards that I had to strive to reach. I learned to relax and to trust my ear, and gradually overcame many obstacles. When Nancy told me she was moving to Monterey, over three hours away, I was devastated. After a brief and disappointing interval with another local teacher, I began several years of infrequent visits to Nancy's new home for cello lessons.
I learned something from not having a resident cello teacher and a weekly lesson. Before, when I became "stuck" on a passage, I just stopped practicing it, knowing I could ask Nancy at the next lesson. But with the next lesson at least several months away, I had to solve my own problems. Nancy sent me advice by email, but for a large part I learned to analyze and find solutions for myself. Although I made little measurable progress in actually playing, I gained a mental advantage.
But after several years I missed weekly lessons too much, and I decided to take another chance on a new teacher. Two years ago I began lessons with Valerie Walden. In a weird twist of fate, Valerie grew up in Monterey and ultimately moved to the valley, and although she and Nancy have never met, Valerie eventually inherited most of Nancy's students. As teachers they are quite different, and thus what I am learning from Valerie complements what I learned from Nancy.
This fall, Linda's daughter Emily, 13, joined me in the cello section of the Fresno City College Community Orchestra. Emily started the cello with Nancy just before Nancy moved away, and then began studying with me. The past two summers Emily has studied with Valerie, and Valerie has generously given me advice on teaching her the rest of the year. Emily is much more musically gifted than I am, and I do worry that Emily needs a full-time teacher who is a better cellist than I am, but for now I'm doing my best with her.
I was not musically literate when I first began to play. I knew the notes in a scale, but had no idea how they were chosen, and I couldn't read a key signature. But Practica Musica, an ear-training software program, sparked my interest. Since then, I've audited four semesters of theory and a class on arranging. Other than a certain tendency to spell "bass" the acid-base way, I've done well. Emily's string trio plays some of my arrangements, one was performed last summer at the Black Glove Cello Festival, and I've just completed an arrangement of a favorite organ prelude for strings. My next goal is to take a composition class, but that will have to wait until the course is offered at a time that I don't have class or lab to teach.
Even now that Kim is married and Melia is away at college, the house is still full. I have three Pembroke Welsh Corgis, a Labrador, and two cats. Dolly, my female corgi, sits under my chair when I practice the cello, although to be honest, she doesn't care who the cellist is; she just likes to sit under or very close to the cello. She prefers Bach above all other composers, and will sit with her ears laid back and her eyes half-closed, almost purring. She is terrified of the metronome, but I am trying to desensitize her to it by giving her dog cookies while it ticks. Dolly is the only one who is a real music lover. Abby, my rescue Lab, doesn't quite understand why she can't sit next to the cello like Dolly does, but being poked a few times with the bow usually convinces her to move. Luka, chews placidly on one of those plastic bones that most dogs won't touch, and Merlin waits until I'm practicing to jump on the sofa or bark to annoy me.
I do spend a lot of time practicing. Is it worth it? All these years later, I'm still struggling with scales and difficult passages. But now the scales are four octaves instead of one, and instead of having trouble with a shift to second position, I'm missing a note high on the fingerboard. I'm getting much better at keeping the beat going even with complex rhythms. Scales and etudes are paying off, and sight-reading is getting easier. Almost two years ago, Valerie started me over on vibrato, and now I have a nice vibrato.
I have a quotation from Pablo Casals that I keep on my music stand. Someone once asked him why, in his mid 80's, he was still practicing his cello for four or five hours each day. "Because," he said, "I have a notion that I am making some progress."
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