My grandfather wanted to be a cantor, but that never came to pass.  My mother had a rich voice and sang in several groups.  But a few years before she died, she confessed that she had never learned to read music.   She had simply followed along and memorized what she heard. At nine years old, I desperately wanted to play the piano and, although money did not flow easily in our household, I succeeded in convincing my parents to buy a piano and send me to lessons.  My love of the piano was not just musical.  Touching the keys gave me more tactile pleasure than a nine-year-old was able to articulate.   To this day, I cannot pass a piano without stroking the keys and striking a few chords, even though I haven’t played the instrument for decades. After many years of not making music, I finally missed it enough to make the time to play again.  But alas, a piano would not fit into our tiny house, and a smaller electric keyboard did not send the same chills up my spine that a piano did.   

Thus I took up the cello.   The sound was sonorous and mellow, the instrument handsome and substantial.  And I associated the cello with good friends who had played well. Little did I realize how difficult it would be for an adult to learn to play a stringed instrument.  I had to find the tones, as there were no keys separating them.  Bowing was much more complicated than I had imagined.  And since the cello temperamentally responded to the slightest change in weather, it had to be tuned frequently.   As I was not endowed with perfect pitch, my untrained ear could only tell me that the instrument was ‘off’, but not by how much or in what direction.  

Music lovers have written about adults laboring as novices to play a musical instrument.   But my type A nature assured me I would be different.  After all, I was supposedly ‘musical’.  And not excelling was not an option.  However, once my cello life moved into the realm of excelling, ambition took the place of pleasure. When I did not have enough time to practice and could not progress noticeably, frustration set in.  And when my teachers’ music reverberated through my head, but I could not replicate it, I began to lose patience with myself and doubt my own ability.   Perhaps my instrument wasn’t good enough, I reasoned.  But when once during a lesson, one of my cello strings broke with no replacement available, my teacher let me finish the lesson on her magnificent instrument.  Smiling, I knew things would be different now, and with my cello teacher’s extraordinary music in mind, I set about playing my etudes.  But, of course, nothing changed substantially, except my disappointment, which deepened.

Over the years, I did improve, despite work and injuries that interrupted my playing multiple times.   My teachers were always patient and encouraging.  However, my ears were good enough to know how far I still had to go even to approximate the resonant tones that touched my body and soul when I listened to accomplished cellists.

Everyone was encouraging, including my ever-tolerant husband, as well as the bus driver who thought I was carrying an oversized guitar, and the children who thought I resembled a ninja turtle when I carried my cello on my back.  I smiled when someone on the street asked me if I played in the Philadelphia Orchestra.   But when a neighbor once quipped that I did not sound so bad anymore, I never again practiced with open windows. 

Sometimes when I mustered the courage, I was able to play music with others.  The thrill of hearing my cello blend with a violin or piano overcame my reserve in these cases.  But it was still nerve-wracking to play in front of others.  Relax, my teacher would urge me, though sometimes with the opposite effect.  And when my body tightened, my music became tense.  Drawing my bow through the strings, I felt as if I was skating on raspy ice the Zamboni machine had not yet cleaned.

Finally, when I had the luxury of practicing every day for a substantial period of time without rushing, I began to relax and feel the tones flow more easily.  One day, gently holding my cello as if it were part of me, and drawing my bow calmly but with inner strength, I suddenly felt the instrument vibrate in my gut, as if it were speaking with me, rather than to me.   From then on, my teacher was able to help me listen for the quality I wanted, for the resonant ring in the strings, as I began to trust my ears.   She helped me embrace the cello as an intensely tactile experience and to feel it as much as I hear it.  The music needed to come from my core, not just from my hands.   I learned to feel the instrument’s vibrations in my own body, as I learned to hear the cello as a living voice and to modulate it as I would my own voice. I finally found myself playing to experience the beauty of the music, rather than taking pleasure in marking an accomplishment.   It was the process of creating music that enchanted me, not the pride of achieving a goal.  On days when my cello and I are able to meld, I feel I’ve come full circle, as I think of a nine-year-old captivated by musical beauty and the feel of an instrument.  

About the Author:
carol f.Carol Fixman has written personal essays, stories and family memories.   They live in her desk drawer, although she is slowly beginning to share them with others.  Retired from the world of non-profits and universities, she is a transplanted Midwesterner in Philadelphia.