By Rebecca Metzger | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
I was newly wed and found myself living across the country from all that was familiar to me. My husband looked at me and said, “We should discuss what we want to do before we have kids.”
The next day he returned home from work and did a double take.
“What is that?”
“That?” I replied innocently. “That is my new rental cello.”
“A cello? I didn’t even know you played!”
“I don’t,” I said and smiled. “Yet.”
As a little girl I studied a stringed instrument for a very short time: I took classical guitar lessons. My memory is that the guitar teacher thought I showed promise. That she told my mother, “She is talented. She could do something with this. But she’d have to give up that ballet stuff.”
And so, I quit guitar.
Ballet always felt like my first language. My first love. Ballet was to me like those YouTube videos of an otter being put in a bathtub of water for the first time. Like, “Ah… this is where I’m meant to be and how I’m meant to move.” Ballet was my everything and for many years I ate, drank, and slept ballet. At 16, I left home to move to New York City and pursue my dreams. At 18, I joined the corps of the New York City Ballet, where I danced for almost nine years.
When I left the ballet I found myself struggling. It is not uncommon. They say that dancers and athletes die twice, because at one point in their lives they have to start over. Recreate themselves. I was once told that one of the reasons that smoking is so difficult to give up is that a smoker takes time out of their day to breathe deeply, and when they stop smoking, they also stop this practice. Ballet is about music as much as it is about dance. [Choreographer] George Balanchine famously said, “See the music, hear the dance.” To dance without a deep love for music… I suppose it’s possible, but it is not possible to make dance into art without this ardent passion. The music is the reason we dance. I was like the smoker bereft of breath. Without dance, without that glorious music, I was lost. How to fill the void? How to breathe fully?
And then, my husband asks me that question: What should we do before we have kids? And I hear “Life check on aisle 2! What do you want to do with your life?”
I heard the answer: I don’t want to waste it. I want to chase curiosity. Dream new dreams. Pursue passion. And I had always had a crush on the cello. Well, maybe more of a romantic fascination. But I was intrigued. And so I began.
The beginning was rough. The notes were not familiar and of course my memory kicked in with the most inopportune recollections of notes—from a different clef. But I loved being an adult student. Loved learning at my own pace. Loved making mistakes that didn’t matter. That were my stepping-stones. Didn’t love the music I was making—well, more precisely the sound—but it was a new journey. Besides, on this hike I wanted to be less of a trail runner and more of an ambling enthusiast.
I am not sure what would have become of me had I not moved to Los Angeles and met Emily Wright, who became my cello teacher, mentor, and inspiration. Emily found an adult woman still working through “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” not so merrily. Though it made me laugh, she treated me as someone who could actually play the cello. She taught to my secret aspirations. She pushed me toward pieces that had made me want to learn to play the cello in the first place. Pieces that were far out of my league, but that I salivated to play.
I loved the cello’s deep, rich tones even though they eluded me. They still elude me. But she inspired me to continue to strive and achieve. She made me think that I might make music someday. Even (gasp) in front of people! And she was patient. I met her having just had baby number one, and she was patient with my many cello sabbaticals as I procreated, and procreated, and procreated once more.
I have found that I set goals and life laughs. Divorce. A move back across the country with my young kids. Returning to work for the first time since the ballet. My cello (yes mine—Emily took me shopping and it’s a day I’ll never forget) remained in her case for close to a decade. I could feel her staring through the black padding reproachfully as she sat in the corner. “What do you want to do in your life? What are you waiting for?” She mocked me. Her presence had the silent but methodical effect of a metronome… tick tock baby. Time is a wasting.
And then more life happened. The pandemic. Covid 19. Suddenly, I was home an awful lot. The silver lining of my Covid experience: I was still employed, and there was a gift of time.
“Well?” my cello seemed to ask.
I called Emily. “Yes,” she said. “I will teach you via Zoom.”
Learning as an adult is endlessly satisfying, even as my experience of adult life is endlessly full of to-do lists and responsibilities. Because it’s a choice I made out of love and curiosity and an ambition to learn but not necessarily conquer or perform, my lessons and practice serve a different purpose for me. I know people who have found cello communities, and maybe mine is out there, but for me the cello, for now, is a private, personal endeavor. My practices are almost meditative. It is very hard to think about any of my anxieties or worries or the ever-growing list of things waiting to be done when I am searching for the right note. The right tone. The right feeling. There is no deadline, no worries about being wrong, and the full capacity to laugh wholeheartedly at my mistakes and fumbles.
Because who really cares?
I have a path that I am walking and enjoying and that is getting more satisfying and hopefully more beautiful as I go. It is a gift.
My cello now sits in a small area near my bedroom. For the first time in my life, she sits on a stand, not in her case, and instead of feeling her reproach, the sight of her makes me happy and hopeful.
I find that the same mistakes I make on the cello are mistakes I made in the ballet, or that I now make on the tango floor. As a ballet dancer, my artistic director would scold me: “You are too tentative! Too tense!” And I can see that tendency play out on the fingerboard or in my bowing arm as well. Now, however, I realize it’s happening. And I take a breath, take a risk, and try again. As a teacher of dance, I am constantly telling my students to fall down, do it wrong, to dive in with all of their heart and body! Who cares if you mess up? But in my life, it is the cello that still teaches me these lessons.
I love that at this stage I’m just as happy to try to perfect the academic technical aspects of the cello as I am to learn to play a piece. There is no pressure, no parents making me practice, no recital that I am anxiously preparing for. There is just a note to play and then another, and if I miss them there is the discovery process: Was it too big of a shift? Not big enough? Why was there no resonance in the note? Let’s try again and watch the bow arm this time…
My process is so slow. Single mom, full-time job, noisy dog. But I am so grateful to have this journey and even more so for my guide. Because Emily, who has now added “friend” to her list of titles in my life, reminds me of the why. Emily reminds me that there is music that I can play. Actual music! And even if it isn’t perfect. Even if I can’t make my strings sing (yet), my interaction with the instrument almost always makes my heart sing.