By Brian Forst | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
My road to the cello started at age eight, when my parents gave me singing lessons, followed by accordion lessons at age 11. We drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas every year to take in the spectacular shows, eat big breakfasts, and soak up the glitter. My mom especially wanted me to be the guy that Wayne Newton eventually became, and if not a famous entertainer, then maybe have a good career as a dentist, so I took Latin in high school. The accordion lessons were useful for teaching me to read and make music, but the accordion was laid permanently to rest once I heard classical music in college. (The Latin was useful too—for learning English—but the idea of working in people’s mouths for most of my life had no chance either.) My mom never understood my interest in what she called “longhair” music.
The seed for playing cello was planted a few years later when my mother-in-law treated my wife, Judith, and me to a live concert to see Mstislav Rostropovich in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. Over the years that followed we became lovers of chamber music and the intimacy that came with it. In the process I came to know some of the chamber musicians up close and eventually decided to play too. The cello was the instrument that most resonated with me. So at age 52, I bought a cello and started taking lessons.
Two years later, I heard radio commentator Noah Adams on National Public Radio describing his journey in taking up the piano, documented more fully in his book, Piano Lessons. He reflects on Robert Schumann’s Träumerei: “This piece—only two pages, three minutes long—is teaching me piano. There are technical knots to be worked loose, clues to mysteries hiding in the notation. I would be happy to play it several thousand times.”
So it was for me playing J.S. Bach’s Prelude to the Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, also two pages and about three minutes long. I now play it several times daily, usually after listening to a recording by a master. This daily exercise teaches me cello. As with Träumerei, the Prelude to Bach’s first cello suite is a playable masterpiece, full of mystery, with infinite opportunities for interpretation.
The similarities between Adams’ journey and mine are remarkable. We’re about the same age, started our journeys at about the same time, and even spent time at the same music store in Falls Church, Virginia, shopping for music. I first heard him tell his story on NPR in 1997. He bought a Steinway upright and then started looking for a teacher. The book ends [spoiler alert] with him surprising his wife in a tears-of-joy, tuxedo-and-candelabra recital, after weeks of practicing Träumerei secretly when she was out of the house, as if the project were a mistress.
Adams describes his journey learning to play piano through a series of live teachers and automated teaching alternatives. He was frustrated by instructors working with adults in much the same way they do children. He tried both classical and jazz piano teaching resources. In the end, he settled on a hybrid approach, taking what he could from each of several sources of piano pedagogy.
Like Adams, I bought an instrument and then found a teacher—the late Dorothy Amarandos. (Her response: “What, you bought a cello before your first lesson?”) It was reassuring to discover that Adams experienced the same sort of difficulties as I in getting a teacher to understand that adult students present different learning challenges than children—wanting to learn to play pieces we enjoy hearing, with specific goals in mind. Most teachers are used to guiding children who have no agendas, are less questioning, and more willing to play rote exercises, with brains and motor development resources still in formative, more malleable stages. Dorothy adapted to me, as I did to her. She went on to become a very popular cello teacher for adults in the Washington, D.C., area.
Thanks to her guidance, I was playing cello with the American University Orchestra (where I taught public policy) after three years. And for several years each semester, on the day my students presented their final projects at AU, I opened the session playing the Bach G major Prelude.
Eventually, my university research, teaching, and other activities began to overwhelm my cello project, so it was put on hold for about ten years. Then came retirement in 2017, followed by the pandemic of 2020—both of which gave me the opportunity to dust off the cello and, in June 2020, start restoring the brain-body connections that allowed me to play it again. The pandemic meant less time for playing live with others, but more time to dive back into the Bach cello suites.
I now play the sublime G major Prelude several times daily. Like Adams with Träumerei, I will be happy to play the prelude several thousand times more over the years to come.