The Cellist's Challenges

Last Tuesday evening I accidentally stumbled across two accomplished young local cellists as they practiced: Jessica Lee and Daniel Prislovskly. Both have performed with the Symphony of the Hills for several years, but Tuesday evening they were practicing for an upcoming performance of the Hill Country Youth Orchestra. They let me sit in as they ran through the first movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos, which they’ll perform with the full Hill Country Youth Orcestra this weekend.

As a beginning cellist I always welcome a chance to watch experienced players as they make their instruments sing; watching these two youths glide through arpeggios and complex bowings was quite a treat. As I watched their left hands dance along the neck of their cellos I was quite amazed – they flew so surely, so precisely, yet so smoothly.

The cello was designed without the player in mind, its size and scale dictated by the gap in voice between the viola and the standing bass. Unlike the violin, it is too large to hold, so the player must contort around it, sacrificing comfort to the needs of the instrument. The back of the large hollow portion rests against your chest, and as you draw the bow across the willful strings you can feel the notes resonate inside your heart. The body of the cello has, by design, four sharp points surrounding its waist – which, by coincidence, are about where the poor cellist’s knees rest. The entire instrument stands upon a thin rod ending with a sharp point – called an endpin – which delights in skating away from the cellist as the instrument is played. The fingerboard faces away from the player, which can cause problems: if your finger is even 1/16th of an inch from where it should be, the note played is either sharp or flat, out of tune. Because you cannot see where your fingers are supposed to be, you rely on your ears and something mystically called ‘muscle memory’ to find where your fingers should be, skills some players (like me) never fully develop. Playing the cello requires many complex skills, all at once, and all in harmony. Young Ms. Lee and Mr. Prislovsky demonstrated last Tuesday night the grace and beauty possible when talent patiently overcomes the inherent obstacles the cello places before the player.

As they walked through the music their cellos sang with hearty timbre and glad delight. One of the players wore sneakers, the other boots, both wore jeans: Aside from the cellos they looked like the teenagers they are. But when the two wrapped around their cellos and leaned into the music, they joined a long line of musicians, starting with the young Venetian orphan girls in Vivaldi’s orchestra, who have enticed an ephemeral art from a wooden box and taut strings, horsehair and their own fingertips. I watched them and listened to that long line, musicians young and old, all playing these notes, each player lending the notes a part of their own personalities, their own talents, their own limitations. Like an artist’s brushstrokes, music can be very revealing, and each note can be a signature of the musician.

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Last night the adult beginner orchestra of which I’m a member (cleverly called “Take a Bow,” playing with both meanings of the word Bow a bit) had its Christmas concert. Most of the adults have been playing for about 2 years — and all of us are way out of our comfort zone. My poor wife Carolyn, and our daughter Elizabeth (along with her current sweetie) attended, and said gracious, nice things about the event. Frankly, we sounded awful.

But that’s not really the point.

Here we are, a group of adults in a small town in central Texas, trying something new. Sure, we sound like a bad 6th grade marching band. But it is one of the most fun things I do each week — and I’m proud to be one of the cellists. (Cellists Unite!)