I’m not sure if it was the warmth of the room where I first set my eyes on you, or if it was how absolutely stunning you looked in your perfectly polished, shiny casing that emanated a glow brightening the entire auditorium. Whatever it was, I fell in love with you about three nanoseconds after setting my eyes on your wonderful, wooden body.
About a year or so ago, I pestered my mom into buying me my very own cello. I’d borrowed one from school for the year before, and managed to show her that I was dedicated enough to lug the instrument to and forth from school, and often, during the busiest subway commutes. We had one shipped over from China, with its very own specially reinforced cardboard case, inside which rested another case of fiberglass that protected the very instrument of my dreams, secured by several pairs of socks and cocooned by even more layers of packaging film.
One month after I got the best present ever, I received some of the worst pains in my fingertips I’d never imagined possible. It wasn’t just the soreness from consistently pressing human flesh against metal wires; the hand I used to bow—my right—was constantly tensed and stiff from the exertion of pressing the bow onto the cello strings. I spent my first month acquainting myself with reddened, sore, and half-peeling fingertips that ached seemingly without end. As the swollen fingertips slowly gave way to calluses and lumps of hardened skin, I found myself facing a different, arguably more difficult situation. Try as I might, the notes I played would not come out in tune. It wasn’t even that they were off by a little, they were completely off. So off, in fact, I had to purchase a chromatic tuner and constantly keep it on so I’d know immediately when (read: how much) I wasn’t in tune.
I told myself that it would all get better after the first few months. I told myself that, no matter what, all I needed to do was to keep my wrists relaxed, press down on the strings firmly, ensure that my cello was in tune before my daily hour of practice, and soon I’d be playing Bach’s Cello Suites along with my recordings of Juilian Lloyd Webber. Or Jacqueline Du Pre. Or even Yo-Yo Ma if I was lucky. I really wish I could say that it all worked out in the end. It didn’t. Seven months after I first began my lessons with the strict, Chinese cello teacher, I realized I really hadn’t improved much. Hand positions were still a blur, I still couldn’t play Exercise #47 up to speed, not to mention I still couldn’t figure out which symbol meant “down bow” and which meant “up bow”.
Earlier this summer, my cello teacher recommended to me that I join a Youth Orchestra. I’m not particularly keen to reflect on what exactly my face must have looked like as he told me he’d signed me up to audition in September, but it would be an understatement to say that I later “flipped out.” There was no way. Absolutely, positively, entirely no way I would be able to prepare for the audition in time to not embarrass myself (and my teacher) in front of the judging panel.
Lo and behold, the date for the first orchestral rehearsal loomed like the deadline of a certain newspaper article. The idea of “auditioning for a youth orchestra” still hadn’t completely sunken in. Wearing my cello on my back, I reluctantly boarded the bus that would transport both me and my first (read: only) love to the site of the music-making. I wasn’t nervous. I was absolutely terrified.
Upon entering the rehearsal room, it occurred to me how badly unprepared I was. All around me, thirty or forty other, well-seasoned, beautifully-playing musicians were carefully unboxing their precious babies and gently dusting them off, in preparation for the two-and-a-half hour rehearsal about to commence.
Time seemed to slow down as I inched my way towards the back of the cello section. Time really slowed down as I was called aside to play something for the conductor, as my “audition”. And time practically stopped as my memory blanked halfway through my two octave B-flat major scale.
As I returned from my “audition”, I couldn’t help but notice the three-page-long score sitting atop my music stand. Notes. Lots, and lots of notes. Syncopations I could barely count out, a tempo I’d never encountered before, a clef I’d never seen all contributed generously to my ever-growing horror. I had half a mind to stand up, pack my cello, and leave immediately for fear of losing my rapidly-diminishing dignity.
Two and a half weeks later, I’m sitting here tapping away as I eagerly anticipate this week’s rehearsal. Unfortunately, I’m still very much unable to sight-read in the Alto Clef, and half the time I’m hoping someone in the section is playing exactly as sharply as I am flatly so our sounds would “average out”. The other half of the time, I’m avoiding looking in the conductor’s eyes. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice that the really annoying passage at Section F has been getting increasingly easier to play. Not to mention my ears seem to be bleeding a little less after my practice time every evening. And I’m thinking the fact that the fire department hasn’t knocked (again) since the time my neighbors called alerting them to a dying animal in my backyard is probably also a plus.
My parents tell me it hasn’t been long enough since I’ve joined to accurately pinpoint precisely how I compare to the remainder of the cello section. I say it’s been much too long, since they really should have kicked me out halfway through that B-flat Major scale. Mr. Zhang just tells me to keep practicing.
I don’t know, really. Am I ready to take this relationship with my cello to such a level? I’m hesitant, not only because I don’t want to end up a hindrance to such a wonderful group of musicians but also because I don’t want to embarrass myself and my teacher when people ask him about the girl in the back, the one with the awkward bowing. Yet at the same time, I’m completely ecstatic to finally play with other people, and to offer my time to a charitable organization.
My cello and I will be celebrating our first anniversary soon. It won’t be big, just an extra-long practice-session sometime in early October. We’ll probably reminisce thinking back to the dying-animal noises of the early days, followed by an extended conversation about what joining an orchestra would mean for our relationship. Where we go after that, though, I’m truly not sure.