My sister found a picture of me from 8th-grade, playing cello, in the dress.
I started taking cello lesson when I was 9. Why the cello? Well I have 3 older siblings. One opted out. One of them picked the violin. The other chose the viola. Which left me, the youngest and smallest, with the cello.
It started out as fun and games, but then I realized people were actually expecting me to perform and be good at it. It didn’t help that my older siblings were indeed proficient on their instruments. They were the first chairs of their sections in our youth orchestra; I was the last. It also didn’t help that the rest of the members of the orchestra were playing like their lives depended on it (but then again, the orchestra was mainly Asian, so maybe they did, haaa).
It was still all well and good because I got to go on tour (read: goof around in different locales) with my friends (which I’m sorry to have to let you know parents, is the real reason your kids will join band/choir/debate team, etc).
But it became excruciating when well-meaning people started asking us to play at weddings. Whereas playing in an orchestra allows slip-ups and warbly notes to be disguised, when playing in a trio or quartet, everyone can hear, with startling clarity, the off-beats and pitchy notes.
Bu they offered us food and/or money; how could we say no?
Being fairly good players, my older siblings were often impatient with me (to be fair, we were all teens and things like “maturity” and “empathy” were only SAT vocab words at this point). Playing and performances became hyper-stressful events.
It was with great relief that I put aside my cello after high school. I would occasionally dust it off for church performances of Handel’s “Messiah” or UCLA’s PCN, but that was about the extent of my “playing.”
But Mr. D had other plans.
Mr. D had been my 8th-grade teacher. As such, he witnessed my 8th-grade self playing a cello solo during graduation in my white, pouffy-sleeved dress with 3-tiered-lace skirt and hair in an updo (with tendrils, no less! It was the early ’90s, what can I say).
I hadn’t seen Mr. D in probably 17 years. But when I moved up to the north state, he was impossible to miss in church with his flashy suit, suspenders and unmistakable smile. He remembered my siblings (he taught all of us), my mom’s cooking (he came to all our graduation parties) and yes, that I had played the cello (that dress is hard to forget).
“Where is your cello?” he asked.
“Oh well,” I stuttered, “it’s in the basement of my parents’ house. In Los Angeles.”
“Perfect!” he said. “I’m going on vacation down there. I’ll pick it up for you!”
And that is exactly what this kind, generous man did. Drove all the way to Southern California in his big Cadillac, went to my parents’ house, picked it up and drove it all the way back up.
It was a surreal, trembly feeling to see that case again. But so many years had passed, the negative associations with it had faded. When I opened it, I remembered only the good things: how much I had loved the color of my cello and the way its color deepened and brightened in light; the smell of rosin and wood, how fun it was to twirl by the neck. Without the pressure, I remembered the joy.
But remembering how to play it was something else.
I didn’t really have any music with me. I tried playing “The Swan, ” by Camille Saint-Saens, but it sounded like it was dying. So I looked up cello pointers on YouTube and realized my posture and the way I held my bow had been wrong for years.
But Mr. D had gone out of his way to pick it up, and he believed in me, so there was no way I was going to disappoint him. Plus, I don’t really believe in coincidence. If the cello was back in my life, that meant I should play it. I resolved to say yes to anyone who asked me to perform if I was available to do it. I soldiered on and practiced (probably to the great annoyance of my neighbors).
Luckily, my first outing wasn’t so bad: Our church was playing Handel’s “Messiah.” I had played this at least once a year after high school graduation, so the music was fairly familiar and muscle memory is an amazing thing. Plus, I was part of an orchestra so I could just blend in. And it turned out to be a lot of fun.
Then, I was asked to play as part of the worship team. Less people involved, but I was fairly confident the singers would drown me out. Until they mic’ed me. But that too proved to be a highly enjoyable experience.
Finally, “Do you want to play as part of a trio for special music for offertory?”
Once again I found myself in the position of being the weak link in the team. The other two players were professional-caliber (but at least they had loads of empathy and maturity). I was off-beat and out of tune during our first practice.
I decided there could be no shame in my game— I pencil-marked positions on the cello for the notes I kept missing; got up early to practice at places that had pianos; used a metronome for pacing. I got a cute new outfit because looking good is half the battle (unfortunately, my husband also deemed it worthy for hostesses at the Rice Bowl.)
During the warm-up, I missed a beat and was thrown off-rhythm again. A high note sounded pitchy. My hands got clammy and I could feel the heat flaring in my armpits. This was the day of the performance.
I don’t remember much about the performance; there were some pitchy notes and some off-beats. But at the end, I remember looking over at the other players with a huge smile. We had done it, we were finished!
But more importantly, I had done it, I had beaten fear.
Thanks, Mr. D.
A snippet of our performance of Haydn’s “London Trio” #1
Jammie Karlman is the entertainment editor for the Chico Enterprise-Record. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JammieKarlman