Tim is excited.
Generally speaking, Tim is an excitable guy. Tim finds hidden caches of excitement in corners few others would bother to dust.
“I thought of you the other day,” he chirps at the beginning of lesson.
And what brought this on?
“I’m taking a conducting class. We’re working on the second movement of Beethoven’s 6th.”
“Remember months ago when we talked about tempos, how differently one can interpret the marked tempo?”
Mm. I think so. Yes.
“The second movement is andante. But on the score, Beethoven calls for the andante to be played at 50!”
That’s pretty slow. Even for me.
“Yeah! And if you check the range for andante on a metronome, it’s-“
“Yeah! Let’s see.” Tim checks his metronome app. “75 to 110!”
“So there’s a lot of room for interpretation!”
Tim can always be counted upon to accelerate the tempo of lesson. I enter the room in a Beethoven-andante state of mind and walk out an hour later in a metronome-andante state of mind, punching and swinging like Jackie Chan.
Excitement pervades the house. Or, rather, anxiety. Somewhere, beyond the walls of Tim’s cramped lesson room, Roscoe bellows. As far as I can make out, these are not screams of merriness. No, this is anxiety. Most definitely. High anxiety.
I confide in Tim that Roscoe is in an unusually downbeat mood today.
“He’s testing the limits,” Tim explains. “What do they call it, the Terrible Twos? He’s entering that stage where he’s trying to see how far he can go.”
Doesn’t that stage go on, like, forever?
Tim doesn’t respond. Tim is still coked up on Beethoven. We talk a little more about the Pastoral, a discussion that segues organically into Disney’s “Fantasia” and then, somewhat more mysteriously, into Tim’s journey into martial arts. He points up behind him to a high shelf, off of which dangles a black belt.
I am sitting in a closet with a cellist who holds a black belt in karate. Words fail.
Roscoe’s wails crescendo from without, derailing our warm-up chat. I relax my cello. There are convincing signs that I will not be needing it for a while.
A knock at the door. Miranda pokes her head in. Roscoe’s small head follows below, his cheeks moistened from the kind of tragedy that only a 15-month-old can know.
“Can you watch him for a few moments? We’re having a diaper disaster.”
Tim lifts his son onto his lap, asking him if he would like to hear Jan play.
Roscoe eyes me warily. I make a funny face. He shows sudden interest.
I open to a Bach minuet and lift my bow. What good fortune. Only nine months at this, and already my audience has doubled.
Friends want to know why there are such long stretches between blog entries. I ask myself this very question nearly once a day day.
One reason I’ve come up with, thanks to many, many hours of therapy, is some combination of false humility and self-sabotage: the who-really-cares? factor. Who really cares about my trials and tribulations with a stringed instrument? Who wants to know?
Another excuse, perhaps, is that old devil writer’s block. Long bouts of inactivity put one in distinguished literary company, no?
A third and most likely factor is the increasing desire to stay concentrated on the practice and the process: fling myself fully and wholeheartedly into the doing, as opposed to the observing and analyzing. A desire to not turn into the tourist whose experience of Tibet is mediated entirely through the screen of his I-Phone camera.
But then weeks go by and I begin to regret having let all those images go by the wayside. I should have my very own baby photo album, one that preserves each and every stage of development: crawling, standing up, falling down, getting back up again, walking forward, cycling ahead. Who really cares? I suppose I do.
This is, indeed, a critical stage. Tim is attempting to wean me off the training wheels of Suzuki’s number system and set me on the path of identifying the notes. His method? A spoonful of sugar. Take favorite pop songs and figure out a bass line for them. Put the recording on and accompany it, first using sustained whole notes taken from the chord at hand and then, after a week or two, implementing those root notes to write and play a somehwat more sophisticated underscoring.
In my initial weeks YouTubing the Gary Jules cover of “Mad World,” the method tastes more vinegary than sweet. Tim first combs the recording and establishes the chords and root notes of each measure, then writes them in on an empty sheet of staff paper. Back home, I contemplate this elementary notation and stare at the page in a state of utter helplessness. It feels to me as if the boat has been prematurely unmoored and I have been set recklessly adrift without the first notion of how to mount the sails. What in my skill sets acquired up to this point am I supposed to consult in order to determine what the notes are and and how to locate them on my strings? My knowledge of notes from scale practice seeems woefully insufficient. Is this my fault? Should I have been more diligent? Or has Tim, as I begin to suspect, omitted a very important step. In short order, my befuddlement turns to irritation.
Six weeks of listening to Gary Jules singing “Mad World” could drive even the most even-tempered of souls to suicide. So I am most grateful when Tim decides, at the very moment I am beginning to see the light, that it is time to move on. For our next foray into pop, I choose Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s “The More I See You,” the creamiest of ballads and about as far from the nihilistic posturings of “Mad World” as one can travel. After pondering available covers on YouTube by Sarah Vaughan (too complicated), Julie London (too vampy), Frank Sinatra (too lounge-lizardy) and June Christy (close-but-no-cigar), I decide on a gooey, 1001-strings arrangement featuring Nat King Cole, who comes the closest of any of these vocalists to serving the song straight-up.
There is something to be said for the soldiering-on discipline of repetition: at some point, when practice has become so monotonous you can feel your bones ossify and splinter into fine bread crumbs, something kicks in. You have your “Rain in Spain” moment. By George, you’ve got it.
Over the course of the Christmas-New Year holidays, I dart back and forth between Bach’s ditsy Minuet #3 and a meat-and-potatoes underscoring of “The More I See You” that Tim has hashed out. Over and over. And over. And over again. After two weeks, my diligence is rewarded: the elements of the two disparate pieces begin to cohere in tandem, as if by mutual consent. Is it possible that, after my despairing wrestling matches with second position in the Bach 2nd Minuet, that I am emerging the victor? The leaps between first and second position in the 3rd Minutet seem considerably less onerous, and, as long as I maintain a deliberate, unhurried tempo, I can muddle through capably to the last note and even achieve something that resembles good tone.
By the same token, the mist of confusion that engulfed my attempts at the Tears for Fears song begins to lift with “The More I See You.” I am not quite “reading” music yet, but I am starting to make connections between the placement of my fingers on the neck and the notations on the page.
The well-being that follows from an awareness of progress is infectious. Even Cannobio, the house African Grey parrot, feels the joy. There was a time, just a few months back, when she would begin screeching the moment my cello popped out of the case, then beat a panicky retreat behind a cabinet door on the far end of the room. During Thursday’s practice hour, as I sawed away at the Minuet #3, she climbed up the back of my chair, rested her claws on my shoulder and listened with, dare I project, rapt intensity.
The thing about parrots, though, is that they make a lot of noise but you can never be entirely sure what they’re thinking. So, either my captive audience is exhibiting symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, or else I have the beginnings of a fan base.Tags: " parrots, "Fantasia, Beethoven, Cello lessons, Nat King Cole