The Beginning
The Doldrums
The Breakthrough
The Bet
The Great Retirement Concert
Reflections on Music as Education

The Beginning

I started playing the cello at age 7. My father was our town's orchestra teacher for grades 4 through 8 (ages 9 through 13), so I had to play something. At first, Dad tried to start me on violin and piano. Piano was fun, but standing up for violin lessons was for the birds. When people ask why I play the cello, I tell them that it's because cellists play sitting down.

As a kid, I didn't work very hard on cello. I played in the orchestra, and reached first chair, but practice time was a source of constant arguments. I would have quit if Dad hadn't forced me to continue. The argument usually went something like:

Dad: You didn't practice this week.
Me: Yes I did. I practiced when you weren't home.
Dad: No you didn't, I can tell by listening to you.
Me: I hate practicing, I don't want to play cello.
Dad: You're not good enough to know whether you like it or not. Go practice.
What he taught me, more than just technique, was that you have to give new experiences a fair try. It takes a while to learn enough to have a valid opinion. Often, "a while" is measured in years.

The Doldrums

By age 13, I liked cello enough to continue without constant prodding. On the other hand, I still didn't practice enough to sound good. I studied privately with a local cellist and played in the orchestra. During high school I played at various community events. It seemed that my cello went to church as often as I did. In the summers my father played in pit orchestras for community musical productions. Conductors would call to ask Dad to play, and oh yeah, bring the kid, we can use another cello. We played "Carousel", "Gypsy", "Annie Get Your Gun", and "Guys and Dolls". I had never been keen on the idea of playing professionally, and doing seven performances of a single show convinced me that music wasn't a professional option for me.

I continued playing in orchestra through college. Luckily the University of Illinois has two symphonies, the University Symphony is where the music majors play. The Illini Symphony is for the engineers, business majors, and music majors playing secondary instruments (i.e. not their major instrument). I was in the Illini, and at the time, we were pretty bad. The conductor used to joke that it was only a dollar to get in to our concerts, but it was twenty dollars to get out.

After graduation, I took a job in California. The first thing I did when I got to work was post an "Orchestra Wanted" note on the company's internal news system. Kris, a tuba player, recruited me to play in the orchestra he was in. The Peninsula Symphony has been a great experience. But despite being pushed by Maestro Klein to play harder and harder literature, I remained a very mediocre player.

The Breakthrough

The real breakthrough in my playing came when I started playing chamber music again in 1992. I hadn't played in a chamber group since high school, and the ability to hear yourself makes a huge difference in tone quality. Also by playing in two chamber groups at once plus symphony, the number of playing hours per week went up dramatically.

For a while I was in a quartet with three members of the symphony. Unfortunately, the second violinist was fighting cancer and was soon too ill to play. For a while, I was also in a trio with a violinist and a violist from work. We would meet in a conference room during lunch and play Beethoven. But the company down-sized and we lost touch with each other.

A longer lasting group was with Kris (the tuba player) on keyboard, and Steve (yet another musician from work) on flute. Mostly we played music from the baroque era (Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, Marcello). Occasionally we ventured into more modern pieces. I even learned enough bass guitar to play some of the Claude Bolling suites for flute and jazz trio. The trio lasted four or five years before life got too complex.

The Bet

In 1996, my friend Rich announced that he needed to lose a lot of weight. Many of my relatives have died from obesity related illness, so I wanted to encourage his effort. We mad a bet. When he lost the 120 pounds that would put him at a reasonable weight, I would give a receital.

My friend, Angela, is joining me on piano. She had been looking for an incentive to play more, but it is often difficult for pianists to find a gig. For a long time we had trouble finding time to get together, but now I work closer to her house and we've decided to meet weekly.

In October, 1998, we did our first performance. It was supposed to have been a half-way check up. Rich has lost about half the weight and has started taking karate classes. He was supposed to have come to the concert, but life exploded and he couldn't make it. Since a bunch of other people were coming over, we did the performance anyway, but I was pretty bummed that Rich wasn't there. We opened with a Vivaldi concerto which I've been working on occasionally for 15 years. Next a Breval sonata to do some high, fast bits. We closed the first half with a Corelli sonata which is Angela's favorite. After a break, we tackled the Beethoven Cello Sonata in A major. It sounds easy when Yo-yo Ma plays it. It's not. We made it through without embarassing ourselves. Actually, it was one of the best runs we've had at it. To finish off, we did Vaughn-Williams "Six English Folk Songs" and Rachmaninoff "Vocalise". It was fun and people seemed to enjoy it. It was also time to perform a lot of it, since I was starting to get tired of it.

More recently, we had a 9/9/99 party. Ok, it was more of an open rehersal with a few friends. Angela and I ran through a couple of Vivaldi sonatas, a couple of Corelli, some Strauss, and a piece by Granados. Musically, it wasn't a great night. Both of us were losing concentration (working too much? Oh yeah.) so one movement would go great, and the next would hang on by a thread. A couple crashed and burned. One of the folks there was asking what happened -- which time? The one where Angela forgot if it was the first or second time through a repeat? Or the time where I missed a shift and couldn't find my place on the fingerboard? It was just one of those nights.

The Great Retirement Concert

On Memorial Day (May 25), 1998, we held a retirement concert for my parents. Both my parents taught in the Libertyville, Illinois, district 70. The Libertyville High School orchestra director, Frank Lestina, wanted to put together a concert as a tribute, as in the movie Mr. Holland's Opus. So he found a bunch of the orchestra alumni and we did a show. Frank managed to contact about 130 former students, most of whom did play the concert. As a rough guess, there were about 400 people in the audience. There was a really nice article about it in the Chicago Tribune.

We commissioned not one but two pieces from Paul Basler. One was a string orchestra suite. The other, Highland Stomp, was for full orchestra. Both were very good, and the composer flew in from Florida to hear the rehearsals and the performance.

I played a solo, The Song of the Birds by Pablo Casals. Dad had given me the music the previous Christmas, and since the piece isn't that hard... The performance went passably well, considering the last solo I had played had been at solo contest in 1982, and there certainly weren't 500 people listening to that. It's amazing what that many people does to your adrenaline level.

Another of Dad's former students played the first movement of the Bach Violin Concerto in E major, which she had performed with the junior high orchestra when she was 13. Lisa also won a contest to play a concerto with the University of Michigan Symphony in the fall of 1998. I guess playing a little music keeps her busy, since the only other thing she's doing is attending medical school.

We had been a little worried that people would get choked up. We came close during "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations by Elgar, but that mood vanished when we played a 1920's medley and the kids got Mother up on stage to dance the Charleston.

After the show, we packed the high school lunch room for a dessert reception. There was a huge line of people waiting to talk to Dad. It was great to see so many of the old neighbors that I hadn't even thought about in years. Quite a send-off for the old man. (He plans to get the piano tuned and start practicing "real" music again.)

Update: As everybody predicted, Dad is busier now than when he was employed. He's substitute teaching at both the junior high and the high school. In addition, the woman who took his old job isn't a strong pianist, so Dad plays for his old Strolling Strings group as well as solo contest. He's going to be on the music selection committee for the symphony he plays in, and in June of 1999 he's a chaperone for the high school orchestra's trip to Europe.

Reflections on Music as Education

People often ask whether or not they should get their kids involved in music. My answer is always an emphatic yes. In addition to life long enjoyment, there are many physical and mental benefits to playing an instrument.

Many of the physical benefits are in small muscle coordination in the hands, as well as eye-hand coordination. No, it's not the same eye-hand coordination as catching a ball. But reading a note and playing the note in time is certainly eye-hand coordination. For many instruments (violin, piano, guitar, etc.) there are studies that show left hand coordination and flexibility are greatly improved. I don't know if it's a case of self-selection, but many right-handed string players are more comfortable using their left hand for every day tasks than average right-handed people.

For wind players and singers, lungs and diaphram get a workout. I was speaking to a 78-year-old trumpet player who says he always feels better after practicing. He attributed it to more oxygen in the blood.

The most obvious mental benefits are stage-presence and improved concentration. Since the purpose of learning to play is to be able to perform, musicians spend time in front of crowds concentrating. Deep concentration is necessary in music, and there are few other activities where that sort of concentration can be practiced and observed. A Tchaikovsky symphony isn't hard for string players because there are a lot of notes (although there are), it's hard because it requires fourty five minutes of uninterrupted concentration. A lapse of concentration is immediately observable by the resulting wrong note, wrong rhythm, or a missed entrance after a rest.

There's also a much overlooked "team" aspect to music. If there's more than one person playing, music is a team activity. Each musician needs to listen not only to themselves, but to the group. Each player must fit their part into the whole sound. Anyone who has sung in a chorus will know this: to sing together, you must breathe together. It is equally true for any other ensemble. I can think of no activity other than music which requires a large group of people to actually breathe in time with one another. It's an intimate experience.

There is also a lot of communication happening between players with their body language. Each time I have joined a new chamber music group, it takes a dozen or more meetings before the silent communication starts to click. At that point, the playing changes from being a series of notes to really being music. This is because most classical music is not strict time. There are slight pauses between phrases, places where the tempo pulls back (rubato), and places where the tempo pushes ahead (piu mosso). These are all communicated with body language and eye contact. When it's working, there's nothing better. Of course, the catch is, if the players start to enjoy themselves too much, they risk losing concentration, and that's why consistantly playing well is so hard.

Anne Powell 9/10/99