By Judy Pollard Smith
A wave of musical words has washed over me during the past seven years. They are lovely words that swoop like a charm of goldfinches, words that hush and lull, words that turn me inside out. I drift off to sleep with them floating through the darkened room: dolce, andante, pianissimo, ritardando. Soft words and words with vigor. Maybe it’s their European origins I love: spiccato, pizzicato, agitato. To me, they are words that say “Get moving!”
I owe something to this new language, these musical notes that are strung together like a necklace of pearls—a necklace that helps me celebrate my post-motherhood, post-working self. At age 63 I decided it was time to investigate the cello. I had run out of the excuse of not having time.
You see, the ring tones of Ofra Harnoy’s cello were calling out to me, and I love the instrument’s physical appeal: the glossy wood, the beautifully carved scroll, the elegant shape of the f-holes. So I found a teacher and rented out a cello on a year’s lease with the option to buy should I take to it and it to me.
After one year I bought it.
I promised myself that this new love affair and these lessons would last until I was at least 70. So every week I zipped up my case and put the cello into the hatchback of my Honda and off I went. A little part of me that had been on hold for years unlocked with every pull of the bow.
My eight years of childhood piano lessons too often included grim teachers and sticks rapped over my knuckles. But now I felt like the door leading to music was opening: I was like C.S. Lewis’ Lucy, finding that each time I stepped through this new cello-filled wardrobe, a thrilling world awaited.
For what seemed like an eternity, the squeaks of my strings sounded more like Canada geese than larks ascending. That improved with practice, and within my first year of lessons, I played at a small recital with other students of the violin and cello—some adults, but mostly bright and shining ten year olds. We played a bourée from Handel’s Water Music. At one point I lost my place. I stood my bow on my knee as if I were the guest cellist flown in from Vienna, waiting her turn.
“A little part of me that had been on hold for years unlocked with every pull of the bow.”
One thing I have learned about playing in front of other people is this: When you’re young, you care too much if you err. When you get older, you know that nobody cares—they are too busy worrying about their own mistakes. When it was time to take a bow, the younger cellists hopped up off their chairs. My own hopping up was more like the raising of Lazarus but it didn’t matter. I had done it and it was fun.
I like to think about what this might be doing for the blossoming of my hippocampus and all the new neuron-sprinkled pathways that medical experts tell us are being invented as we embrace new tasks. If my brain is plastic as they say it is, then I’d like to stretch it for all it’s worth.
I have a new teacher now, as my first is no longer available. He tells me to tighten the bow like the Russian School so I’ll use less muscle power. He tells me to relax, not to be afraid I’ll make a mistake, not to rush, and to worry less about my struggles with music theory. He says the notes will work themselves out as they string themselves into that beautiful necklace of pearls.
I recently turned 70 and I’ve kept my promise to myself. I don’t want to stop now. I’ve gone from playing “Twinkle, Twinkle” in year one to playing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at Advent and Bach’s arrangement of the tune “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” at Lent with a friend on piano at church. For the children’s program I join an upright bass, a banjo, a piano, a viola, and a guitar. We play energetic music that gets the kids jumping, including one lovely song called “With My Whole Heart.”
I’ve picked up a few Gershwin tunes and I’m longing for more. And I’m still working on the music in my cello-fiddle book. Friends—a pianist and vibraphonist—have asked me to learn Piazzolla’s “Libertango” to play with them. My life is full of music—the cello has opened up so many new experiences.
This whole process is still more largo than vivace for me. So much left to learn. So much I don’t yet understand when it comes to theory. Though I’ll never be able to imitate Mstislav Rostropovich when he played Haydn’s cello concertos, as the old foxtrot says, “in the meantime, in between time, ain’t we got fun?
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.