Membership Spotlight: Tom Sisk

When Tim asked me to do this, I'm afraid I made a bit of a pest out of myself asking him if he was sure that I was the person he wanted for this -- I thought he might have confused me with someone else, someone with more experience with the cello. He insisted, and I promised to stop being a pain and write something.

I'm 50 years old and live near Chapel Hill, NC, where I work as a private investigator and attend law school at NC Central University School of Law, in their evening program. It's not an easy program to get into, and although I don't know what they were thinking when they admitted me, I'm pleased that I got in. I'm married to (as Zambo would say) the lovely and talented Frau Doktor Schroeder, a Ph.D. in Chemistry who works in the regulatory side of the clinical drug trials biz. We live on five acres of woods in the country, with three lovable but relatively insane dogs. I used to be a police detective until my back turned on me and decided that I surely ought to find something else to do with my life. After the better part of a year out of work, I realized that I couldn't physically do the job anymore and began the transition into school and the private investigator business. I have an undergraduate degree in psychology from UNC-CH (though it didn't help -- both the dogs and I are still nuts and Maria's starting to tilt a little bit, herself.)

If you don't count acting out bad western songs with my brother as a 4-year-old, I first became musical in elementary school. They gave me a trumpet in the third grade and told me to have at it. It was a Conn, I believe. It had a black and white pebbled case, and blue furry lining, and was the coolest thing that this 3rd grader could possibly imagine. I couldn't play it worth a hoot, but it opened a door for me that has stayed open my whole life. In the fourth grade we moved from Wyandotte, MI, where we had lived for 5 years, to a tiny, tiny town in NC. Culture shock almost killed me. By the sixth grade we had moved to a much larger town and I joined the chorus in school. Later that year, I started learning guitar. I had an uncle that was in a band called the O'Kaysions (I think that's how they spelled it) and they had a late '60's song called "I'm a Girl Watcher", which now has them universally reviled by feminists everywhere (it's sort of the inverse of the Leslie Gore song "You Don't Own Me"). But that pop bug bit me hard, and I fell into popular music. I was in a number of garage bands, starting in the seventh grade, but none of them ever went anywhere. I graduated from high school in 1970 and was in hippie mode, traveling around the country, playing acoustic and folk music in bars, coffee houses and universities. That lasted a few years. By that time I'd begun to experiment with the concept of eating regularly and decided to go that route for awhile, so public performance took a back seat to working. I lived in Chicago and worked as a private investigator, with a brief interlude in Miami. In 1981 I returned to North Carolina and have been here, mostly in Chapel Hill, ever since. I'm still playing guitar, but not "performing" anywhere.

In the early 1980's I first thought about learning to play the cello. I had use of a cello for a short time in 1989, but no teacher or car (I lived within walking distance of my whole world, and only had a motorcycle for transportation.) It just wasn't the right time, I suppose, and I waited. I played with a cello one night in the summer of 1997, and was strongly urged to take it up by the musician who owned that cello, but I was under the impression that I couldn't get one for less than $2500.00, and as a police officer I didn't have that much to spend. So I waited. Then in January of this year I saw a small music shop in a small town. In the window were 5 upright basses. Now, you don't see that very often, and I thought, "I wonder if they have cellos?" They did, indeed. Terrible cellos. Cheap, fire-woody cellos. But the owner had a connection with the importer of these cellos, and they had better models available, at a ridiculously low price. I thought about it daily for a month. Then I asked around the university here, made some calls and located a teacher -- Elsbeth Van Tongeren. She said that she would teach me if I bought a cello. I told her I'd call her back, and ordered the cello. On a Monday I got the call that the cello had come in. "Man," he said, "I think this may be the prettiest thing that's ever come through here!" I told him I would be there on Wednesday to pick it up, and called Elsbeth. She told me she could fit me in the following Tuesday, and I said, "You don't understand. I'm getting this cello on Wednesday. That means I would have it a week and not know what to do with it. I need something sooner, if you can!" She gave me my first lesson that Thursday. It's been three months since that first lesson. I've played 1 to 3 hours a day, every day, since then. In the first two months I went through my first year books -- Suzuki, All For Strings, and A.W. Benoy's First Year book. Then Elsbeth went to Paris for a month. I practiced all the pieces she gave me from Suzuki Book 2 and also started learning some waltzes from a CD of Celtic fiddle tunes. Now that she's been back a couple of weeks, I'm about half-way through Book 2, just caterwauling along, having the time of my life! I'm working on the Theme from "Witches' Dance" -- and if you hear a whirring sound when I play it, that would be Paganini, spinning in his grave. But we do what we can!

What has this experience meant to me? I barely have the words to tell you. While I'm pleased with my progress, it isn't an instinctive skill -- so I have to work hard to get what I want to get. There's a certain value to being in love with something that demands work and performance -- those who have never experienced that have missed out greatly, I think. I feel a connection with this instrument that I've never felt before -- even with decades of guitar and other instruments. If I had this experience when I was a teen, it would have changed my life completely. I'm so much looking forward to learning and growing in my playing, to expanding my vision of cello technique (and incorporating other facets of my life into it -- such as art and martial arts) and learning how to let the cello play beautifully. And I am equally delighted to have discovered the ICS -- both the newsletter (which clearly evidences the hard work that Tim and others put into it) and the forums. Maybe especially the forums. I've "met" so many talented, gracious and accomplished people on the boards, all of whom are willing to share information and assistance and to put up with my rambling foolishness. And they are unfailingly kind while they do so. As a former police officer, used to seeing people only on the worst day of their lives, I can testify that finding a discipline that is shared by so many truly wonderful people is nothing short of a blessing. I can only say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

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