Why the Cello?
A few weeks ago I received a brand new 7/8 cello that arrived in a tall box that could have accommodated an average size human being, I thought. So, you might ask, why a cello? Why now? I have been a piano player much of my life, and found my home at the ivory keyboard, as I plugged away at Bach's music and thought about my beloved grandmother and all the mysteries of her life before I came into the world... This WHY is haunting me for some reason, and I want to reflect on what drove me to do this - again. You see, I purchased a cello impulsively many years ago after being at the Carmel Bach Festival and becoming enchanted with the chamber music events in the little church on Dolores Street. I remember being particularly fixated on the cello player, a young woman who had refined facial features, short dark hair, long white fingers, and an oh-so-serious look on her face. So, I bought a used cello and took it home. I then found a young teacher, and I tried like crazy to figure out how to wrap my arms around (literally) this formidable instrument and extract sounds from it that reminded remotely me of Yo Yo Ma and Bach's Cello Suites. I had fallen in love with all that years before. I gave it about six months or so, I think, and then admitted defeat. I couldn't make my little hand hold the bow properly so it could glide evenly and firmly over the strings. Best return to the piano, I said to myself. At least I knew the territory there and could move my fingers properly over the keys and with enough perseverance play a beautiful variation by Bach. I didn't feel embarrassed or ashamed, I simply felt that it was no use making myself suffer over something that was obviously an uphill climb for both my physical and mental body.
So then, what happened exactly? Was it that I saw Yo Yo Ma again at the Greek theater and marveled at his genius (once again) this spring on a beautiful sunny afternoon with a good friend? Was it that I kept seeking out a sight of the principal cellist at the symphony - a mature meditative woman - hoping to see exactly how she held that beautiful bow? Or that every time I hear the cello when listening to my classical music station, I feel my heart literally melting inside? These are all plausible reasons, but I think the real reason is that I want to challenge my mind - again. I want to exercise it, forge new neural pathways (they say meditation also does that!). I am getting older and older as the days pass, and one of the things that sends chills through me is that possibility of losing my mind. Senility, dementia ... these are both words that fill me with terror. A guy I used to live with said once that if he were found to be facing Alzheimer's, I should take him out and shoot him. I think many of us as we become elders (currently preferring this to "getting older") come to realize that even a well-educated and beloved brain is subject to deterioration, a fraying around the edges OR worse, and that what we must do is give it lovingkindness and deep respect, and perhaps a little exercise! And because life is inherently uncertain, we need not take any of it for granted. And this means not waiting to do something helpful for ourselves.
Is trying to learn the cello at the age of 72 "helpful"? I'm not sure, but I do have this abiding hunch that my brain is asking to be stimulated. I have always loved feeding it, I must admit, and was an avid student much of my life. And when I rattle off insights and learning from my past, whether it's about James Joyce, Dante, or Bach, or the cultures of foreign lands, I feel happy and energized. And I forget how old I am. I inspire myself once again. I have been reading a lot in the last few years, but mainly as a form of research for my memoir (now finished) -- reading memoirs like crazy and becoming inspired at how many different ways one can dig into memory and tell a story. But now I want to read different things. I want to read Shakespeare again, and have even started with King Lear; I want to read The Better Angels of our Nature by a writer called Pinker about how the volume of violence in the world has actually decreased in modern times, despite what we see on the news and read in the paper. I want to re-read Flaubert, and go searching sacred literature for the life-affirming beauty of Hafiz and Rumi. And there's a book on the elephants' capacity for communication that I'm now reverently perusing. It's all about feeding the mind... There clearly is not enough time to read all that we think we want to read, but you have to start somewhere, don't you?
And so I start with the cello, again. I am going to sit down this week and try to get to know this beautiful shiny instrument hand crafted in the midwest and sent to me by some stringed instrument artisans. Before I approach another teacher, I am going to start to make friends with this daunting instrument that emits such achingly beautiful deep tones, and some say, is more like the human voice than any other instrument.
Maybe my old brain wants to be sung to, who knows... and just maybe I can get this instrument to do some singing.
"Come, let's spread flower petals and fill cups with red wine,
Unlace the roof of the sky and fashion a new world." ------- HAFIZ
And why not, I ask?