“The hardest instrument to master,” says Tim, visibly unnerved by his own superlative, “is the voice. The second hardest are the string instruments.”
Tim is sharing this opinion with me by way of soothing my battered ego. After a week of sawing away at “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” I return to my Monday lesson and give a performance of it for Tim that could best be described, in a word, as calamitous. Murphy’s Law has rarely been observed with such a multiplicity of adendums and codicils: everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong with an echo-chamber-like vengeance; flubs that weren’t even on the map of probabilities, I invented and executed with fortissimo in-your-faceness.
All at once, I am eight years old again, cowering under the withering glare of Mr. Stellato, my elementary school trumpet teacher. But I practiced so hard, my eyes cry in despair. One should never underestimate the intimidating force of a music teacher’s presence to obliterate hours upon hours of diligent work.
Even cheery, bouncing-off-the-wall-with-positive-reinforcement Tim–the antithesis of the autocrat instructor—manages to throw me off course when the moment of truth arrives. It’s that old devil stage fright, that wretched creature who clawed at my back when I fell apart in front of the judges performing a tricky level III trumpet piece at state competitions in 8th grade. The same ogre who stalked me when I went up on my lines playing (can we talk about irony?) the Professor in Ionesco’s “The Lesson” in 10th gratde. The same miscreant who flattened me in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer just days before opening night of “The Fantasticks” in senior year. 38 years later, he’s alive and well and living in Western Massachusetts.
After I recover, Tim says something on the order of, “Whenever possible, you should try to be looking at the music when you play.” Only someone like Tim could say something like this without it coming off as remotely sarcastic. But I am undone, all the same. I was so proud during practice sessions that I could carry the song by heart, it had never occurred to me that I would never learn what notes I was playing unless I looked at the music.
Hubris is a many-splendored thing.
It then occurred to me that I had been so over-eager to expand my repertoire—could one blame me?–that I had given “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” short shrift. I toyed with “Lightly Row,” going at it with a choppy, bronze-weight paddle. I fiddled around with “Long, Long Ago.” I made a stab at “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” Tell her what? I can’t remember. That one was second grade chorus with Mrs. Landesberg.
This week, Tim wields the bow and demonstrates that elusive balance of lightness and subtle pressure that results in good tone. I experiment with a series of long draws over the A, D, G and C strings. I add the merest breath of pressure with each successive attempt. Tim coos with approval, but I can’t hear the difference.
We move on to my new assignment for next week, a French folk song. As I play, Tim makes a mental list of my accumulating bete noirs: the bow drifting up away from the bridge, the screeches (fingers on wrong strings), the difficulty of transitioning from an open note or first finger on the A string to the fourth finger on the D. Oh yes, and holding the bow.
Tim praises my acute pitch, and asks me what music I listen to. Cake. Bonnie Raitt. Eddie from Ohio, I fumble. And favorite classical? I falter over Ravel. Why does his name suddenly escape me? The Romantics. Schubert, Brahms, Chopin. Tim says that the Bach Cello Suites are really an anomaly, that there are really very few solo works written for the cello, but a great body of sonatas. He offers to make me a list. As Tim continues to probe my musical interests, it occurs to me that this is the beginning of an intimacy, that strange, particular rapport that develops oh-so-slowly between instructor and student. The incremental sharing of information. The letting down of one’s guard. It makes me a little self-conscious: there is an aspect of second or third date about it all. (Matthias, picking me up after the lesson, makes a joke of it: “Oh, my boyfriend left me for his cello teacher! My boyfriend made him gay!”)
At home, I promise myself that I am going to stick to the week’s assignment, but as the week goes along I find myself drifting away from the French folk song and the twinkling star to “Lightly Row,” “Long, Long Ago” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” (I don’t doubt that poor Aunt Rhody is rolling in her grave by now). As the days pass, I experience that long, long ago rush I used to know during trumpet lesson with Mr. Stellato, the little euphoria that comes with daily improvement. The pain in my right thumb is beginning to ease. I am able to hold the bow properly, with less discomfort and awkwardness. I am beginning to produce a tone that is vaguely, almost pleasantly, cello-like.
With each improvement comes a reluctance to let go. I anticipate each daily hour of practice with a gusto that is almost disconcerting; when the hour is up and fatigue is setting in, I push for ten or fifteen minutes more.
If I have any lingering doubts, they have to do with the inherent narcissism of recording the experience for public consumption. One evening, Matthias and I watch “Julia and Julie.” Whenever the Amy Adams’ character taps away at her appallingly precious blog scratchings on the tribulations of banging out 400-odd Julia Child recipes in 365 days, I am so mortified for her (and, by extension, for myself) that I want to hide under a table. Am I reducing my labors to the cutesy, cloying froth of a Nora Ephron comedy? Matthias does what he can to ameliorate my anxieties, which I also divulge to my friend Paul. Paul writes back, insisting that Meryl Streep will have a black hole in her career until she plays me playing the cello.
This is a cunning thought, although I would never wish it on her. I recall once asking Streep if she had ever accepted a role only to realize she had gotten herself in over her head. She nodded wearily and pointed to a violin that was sitting on a nearby couch, explaining “In four weeks I have to play that on the stage of Carnegie Hall.”
I think I’ll give myself a little more time. Five weeks, at very least.