Me and My Cello

Six years ago I, then a fellow of 35, was struck by an impulse of the romantic and irreducible sort, which I have since compared to a torrid scene in The Godfather except that it was not a Sicilian virgin who fired my thoughts but a shapely descendant of the violin family, the cello.Straightaway I obtained a rental instrument of heavy plywood and appeared before Wendell Margrave, professor of musical instruction. It was winter. "You can be as good as you want to be," Margrave said rather mysteriously. On a scrap of paper he drew a staff with the notes E and F. He showed me where to put my fingers on the neck and how to draw the bow. Then he entered my name in his book: 10 a.m. Tuesday. Tuesday followed Tuesday, and soon it was spring.

Thus began my voyage out of ignorance and into the dream. Is there one among us who has not had this dream? Who has not picked up a friend's guitar and felt the songs locked inside? Who has not wondered if he could learn to play the Moonlight Sonata, at least the easy beginning part? It was most remarkable to have a teacher again. E-F, E-F, we played together - and moved on to G. It was a happy time. I was again becoming, and no longer trapped in what I had become.Surely the most abominable recognition of middle life is that we are past changing. Oh, we switch – switch salad dressings and mutual funds -- but we don't change. We do what we can already do. The cello was something I demonstrably couldn't do. Yet each Tuesday I could not do it slightly less.No one was watching, and a good thing. In an upstairs room of my city house, at midnight, I would send out through the open windows long, tortured fragments of Alwin Schroeder's 170 Foundation Studies for Violoncello to mingle with the squeals of cats. The footfalls of unseen passers-by would curiously stop, and then resume in haste.Riding home on the bus one snowy night and perusing the score of Mozart's C-Major Quintet, I felt the page burst into music in my hands. I could by then more or less read a score, and was humming the cello line, when suddenly all five parts blossomed harmonically in my head. The fellow across the aisle stared. I met his glance with tears, actually hearing the music in my head for the first time. Could he hear it too, perhaps? No, he got off at the next stop.

As the years slipped by, my daughter passed into the teen-age vale, developing a youthful proficiency on the piano. My goal was that she and I would one day perform together. I also wanted to perform in public with and for my peers, and to be secretly envied.I continue to play, to perform, but it is not the same. Fantasy, it turns out, is debased in the attainment. Before, when I heard a cello, it was all beauty and light. Now, as the TV camera pushes in close to Rostropovich's face, I recognize that charismatic grin as a mask of fierce determination. Even for him, the cello is an intractable instrument, unforgiving of ambition. I picked up my cello, screw tight the hairs of the bow and soar once more into Belle Nuit, the vibrato still wobbling like an unbalanced tire. As good as I wanted to be, I am as good as I'm going to get. It is good enough.