February 24, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Pitch perfect

By |2018-03-21T18:42:37+01:00December 17th, 2010|"American Girl"|
Challenging position shifts.

#8220;That was good,” my teacher said enthusiastically. “Great progress.” I exhaled deeply and beamed.

I first took up the cello more than 10 years ago. Overcome by the instrument’s beauty, resonance and quality of sound, I naïvely set out to master it. I had no musical training, save a few piano lessons from a grey-haired woman when I was 12.

Aside from that, my knowledge of what it took to become a musician amounted to playing tennis racket guitar to Beatles songs. They made it seem fun and easy.

Growing up, we’d dance around the room and sing into pop bottles. Making music was a highlight of being alive. In this spirit I bought my cello and found a teacher.

After one lesson, which amounted to drawing the bow across the strings attempting to make a sound, I knew this wouldn’t be easy. My repeated attempts to play a scale in tune led to complaints from the downstairs neighbor, who huffed upstairs and knocked on the door. Too much noise, she told me. This was not a good sign. What I was making wasn’t music.

I stayed with it for a few months but soon recognized I was in way over my head.

Learning to finger the notes, bow the strings, read music, and comprehend theory, daunted me. I’d started too late in life. I now understood why children began at ages four or five. You need total immersion to comprehend and to keep going. For children, life lies ahead. There’s only curiosity, discovery, and lots of time.

I put the cello away.

The instrument stayed in its case for years before I picked it up again. It took an ultimatum to myself to get it out: Play it or sell it. When I opened the case, it looked as beautiful as when I first bought it. It seemed to hold no grudge for its years in the dark. It had patiently awaited my return. So I decided to restart the lessons.

This time I was less naïve. I committed myself to dedicating as much time as I possible to the instrument, notwithstanding a busy New York life. Stay with it, I told myself. I’ve been back at it for two years.

One evening recently I sat in the studio with my teacher Maureen. I’d just finished a Bach piece that I’d practiced diligently. I secretly found 30 minutes after work and before dinner to learn it. I woke up early to go over the challenging position shifts. I was proud of my efforts. Her broad smile pleased me.

The words “good” and “great progress” contained their own resonance.

She continued: “I have to tell you I’m really excited about a new student I have.”

I hoped what she was about to say was somehow connected to my own proud moment. After all, I was good; I had made great progress.

“I have a young boy who just started with me. He’s got something special.”

“Really,” I replied reluctantly.

“He’s jumping ahead in the book, he’s taking on pieces that are way beyond him. He’s curious and he just tries them. He really has a natural facility.”

I wondered why she was talking about him and not me.

“I think I have a child prodigy. I really do. He’s got so much potential!”

A young boy. A child prodigy. My heart sank. She continued animatedly but I went into a fog.

How could I compete? I might have the eagerness of a five-year-old, but at 45 I was long past anything prodigious. It was too late.

My teacher was too excited to notice my deflated spirits. She assigned me the next piece in the Suzuki book. I packed up my cello, walked out into the cold New York night, and caught the 69 bus home.

For a little while I felt old and finite. But then the three words came back to me: Stay with it. If age teaches you anything, I thought to myself, let it at least teach to remember your own resolutions.

About the Author:

Madeline Klosterman wrote the "American Girl" column from 2008 through 2019.