By Natalie Bontumasi | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
I asked for piano lessons for my 41st birthday. The idea struck compellingly and without warning on a brilliantly sunny autumn day as I listened to Marianne McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” on the car radio. “You still have time to do this!” With a nine-year-old and a five-year-old, I hadn’t thought much about my own learning lately, but I had been reflecting on the midpoint of life. I quickly calculated (a bit naively) that by age 50 my skills would be polished and I’d still have years of enjoyment ahead, god willing. Later in the week when I saw a notice on the church bulletin board for lessons, it was decided.
My new piano teacher was a lovely person, and, as it turned out, lived right behind me. I could walk over and our kids could play together while I had my lesson. I had taken about two years of piano as a child, but I had rarely practiced. I could still read the treble clef, but that was about it.
That same fall, my son was enticed into the school orchestra program, and chose the cello as his instrument. By Christmas, we were both playing simple carols (so festive and satisfying!). Our house now contained two intriguing wooden boxes and the promise that the sounds we coaxed out of them would get more beautiful with time. And effort.
A year later, my son started private lessons, with the requirement that a parent observe. For an hour each week, I sat quietly and watched and was slowly drawn into the deep appeal of the cello. Watching his lessons, I was also increasingly understanding the demands of learning an instrument and the futility of lessons without a serious commitment to practice (not to mention effective practice). I saw the cycle: not enough practice would lead to not enough improvement, which would lead to frustration, which would lead to quitting. You had to jump on this horse with a certain amount of speed or you would fall off.
I loved the cello. The physicality of it, the resonance against my chest and under my fingers, the miracle of the sounding of the harmonics. Sympathetic vibrations gave me goosebumps.
Sadly, my piano teacher decided to move to Minnesota. So, rather irrationally, for my 43rd birthday, I asked for cello lessons. I excitedly decided to think of myself as a guinea pig in my own private experiment. How far could I get on the cello if I adhered religiously to the practice schedule I had expected (but did not always get) from my son?
How did I find the time to carry out this experiment with two school-age children? First, I gave up television. Second, there was some guilt involved. (When another fairly serious cello student I know told me he was stopping because it wasn’t the right time—he needed to be focusing on his kids—I really questioned whether I was behaving selfishly.) But it was only one hour a night. And I loved the cello. The physicality of it, the resonance against my chest and under my fingers, the miracle of the sounding of the harmonics. Sympathetic vibrations gave me goosebumps. Now, at bookstores, I went straight to the music section. The classical radio station, with its hushed, studied announcers that had seemed so depressing to me as a child, was the first setting in the car. I was tickled and awed that life could take such a surprising twist—that the world of classical music, which had always intimidated me and sometimes repelled me, was becoming so central now, in the middle of my life.
The Long, Dark Arc
I was giddy for a while. But progress was slow. I had been expecting to work hard every day. I had committed to that as a principle rule of my experiment. What I wasn’t expecting was the long, dark arc. When I sat down at night to practice or when my bow first touched the string at my lesson, I was looking squarely into the beady, red eyes of some powerful demons. Their names were Perfectionism and Fear of Failure.
It was so embarrassing to play a wrong note. The humiliation of one mistake would lead to an avalanche of negative mind chatter that was like a white-hot explosion in the middle of my concentration. My fingers, and especially my eager thumbs, would attempt to steady me by gripping their appointed wooden pieces and the sounds would get more rigid and strident. Which was embarrassing. Cue the endless loop. Often the sole adult in recitals, I watched with envy the playful bravado of the kids that was joyfully independent of perfect intonation or rhythm. My teacher said I should “care less.”
By forging on through my doubts, in theory, I could simultaneously hone my own grit, while modeling determination for my children.
There was also the monotony, every night, of leaving the warm light of the living room and the company of my family to close myself into the practice room—a room where I seemingly never made any progress. I hammered and hammered away at a surface that barely registered a dent. I had anticipated the occasional seismic epiphany or rapturous breakthrough to nurture my solitary pursuit. To be honest, that has never really happened. I have made progress, but it has been at a pace that is slower than human perception registers.
My guinea pig mindset helped with some of this. “Grit,” I read, was a highly desirable quality of character. Thinking about it, I was not at all sure that this quality was well-developed in me, and consequently, questionable in my children as well. By forging on through my doubts, in theory, I could simultaneously hone my own grit, while modeling determination for my children. And if I never got really good at the cello, surely it would still have been more than worth the time to battle those twin hellions, Perfectionism and Fear of Failure. (Why were they still hanging around at this late date anyway?!)
For quite a long time, there was no one to play with. After just a few years, my son joined a youth orchestra, and loved it. We bonded over cello, but did not play together. I tried hard not to compare my progress to his. His cello week was filled with school orchestra rehearsals at least two mornings, his lesson, and then youth orchestra, which took most of Saturday and included an hour of music theory. Not only did those musical engagements increase his learning time, but they buoyed his confidence and strengthened his resolve (he was practicing grit!). I had my lesson and my lonely practice room.
It turned out that playing with other people was the reward I needed to keep me motivated.
Once in a while, in a fit of frustration and hope, I would google “adult beginners orchestra” but for years, nothing came up. Then one day, about six years in, I found New Horizons String Orchestra, for adults with some instrumental experience looking to advance their ensemble skills. It was a godsend. It turned out that playing with other people was the reward I needed to keep me motivated. Having another adult professional—its wonderful conductor—take me seriously was a balm. I’d say it was the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel.
A few years later, randomly googling again, I found the most excellent Emerald Isle String Haven, a week-long summer camp. For six luxurious (and joyously exhausting) days, campers are immersed in playing. The rest of the world falls away. It’s the kind of experience afforded mainly to children or very advanced adults. I kiss the ground every summer when I arrive. It has kept me from quitting on numerous occasions.
Are you surprised that I still think of quitting after all this time? I am 10+ years into the cello (I resolutely stopped keeping track). I have a perceptive and amazing teacher who embodies the perfect mixture of high expectations and rigor with loving support. I just joined an orchestra that’s a little too hard for me. I notice improvement. But there are days when the thought still crosses my mind.
There is a certain lush singing sound the cello makes. I’m chasing that sound. I’ve heard the faintest of glimmers of it in my playing. In my dream, when I achieve it, it will be like riding a horse in the rapturous moment when the jarring, bouncy trot breaks improbably into a graceful, rolling canter. I’m hoping to get there, but if I don’t, it has still been a glorious ride.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Cellos series gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.