By Sara Langbert | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
I am on stage at a restaurant packed wall to wall with people, all dancing and joyous. For many, this is their first night out since the pandemic began. Playing next to me is the rock band I have been a part of for a few years. Here it is, my time to shine. It’s a blues tune, and I have practiced countless variations of this solo. I am ready to play, and I am improvising through the changes. My younger, purely classically trained self could never have imagined this. As I play, the thought flies through my head, how did this all come to be?
I started playing cello in middle school not long after falling in love with the sound of my best friend’s older sister practicing her cello. Those deep notes, the elaborate string crossings. It was not just an instrument; it was a human voice. I knew then that cello was the instrument I would take up in school. Lessons soon followed at Greenwich House in New York City, and graduations from the High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia High School) and the music program at Queens College.
It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be a professional cellist. But after I took a year off of college to focus on practicing, I did just the opposite. Maybe it was my youth, my anxiety, my impulsivity—who knows?—but I barely played at all. I found it was actually liberating to not play. I realized I lacked the drive and discipline needed to be a professional musician and panicked as reality struck. I wanted a realistic career, one that would allow me to spend evenings, weekends, and holidays with family. I turned to computer programming and didn’t look back. I loved my job and had a fabulous career. Yet the cello was always there in the corner, tugging at my heart. I would start and stop playing over the years, but once the kids were born, there was no time.
It was a brand-new way to think about music and pure fun.
Time marched on, the children got older, and I found time to play in a string quartet with other amateur musicians in my area. It was exciting to start playing again. A fellow musician recommended a local teacher, so with quite a bit of trepidation and unsavory memories of music school, I began lessons again. These lessons led me to a new consciousness about music. I no longer felt the pressure to practice like I had back in school—I now felt desire. Whenever I had free time, I would use it to practice. I had changed so much since my youth—études became meditations, repetition was soothing, and thumb position wasn’t that hard after all.
As an adult I had learned patience and persistence: it all just took time. As my callouses grew, my intonation improved and my bowing technique advanced. My mature perspective was allowing me to tackle difficult passages successfully. Over time, my quartet began playing more advanced pieces and making real music. We had coaching sessions, discussed theory, and listened to many versions of every piece. This wasn’t like school at all—it was pure joy. Chamber music became my favorite form of entertainment, and the ACMP (Associated Chamber Music Players) allowed me to find others with whom I could play as much as I wanted. When both my parents passed away, I inherited some money that I used to buy a cello made by Lawrence Wilke. This exquisite cello only strengthened my love for playing the instrument.
Whenever I would bring my kids to the local rock teacher for their various music lessons, I would suggest they bring their viola and cello to have him teach improvisation on their classical instruments, to experiment with the genres they were being exposed to. I would nag them all the time: “How cool would that be?” One day, the teacher asked me why I didn’t simply bring my own cello. This was a lightbulb moment, and within a few weeks I was taking improvisation lessons with this unconventional rocker.
It was a brand-new way to think about music and pure fun. But I needed someone who understood the cello’s nuances while I experimented. I discovered a great website: the Improvisor’s Guide to the Cello. It is chock-full of prerecorded lessons by Jacob Szekely, an amazing alternative cellist. He totally opened the door for me to change my vision when approaching nonclassical improvisation and presented a completely new approach to fingerings and scales, which allows me to improvise more freely.
Before long, the same rock teacher invited me to join his band. I was unsure I could do it, yet here I am three years later, onstage playing with them and loving it. Now I feel I have it all! I am going to Winterhaven Chamber Music Retreat in New Hampshire this winter to play classical cello, playing and improvising in a local rock and roll band, and practicing both styles all the time. My musical life couldn’t have turned out better. I’m so grateful for my friend’s sister practicing that day, long ago.