April 25, 2019 | Feature
resonance and reflection
rehearsal musings of two musicians
10:00 p.m., Steinert Choral Room
We file into the rehearsal room one at a time and open our cases, revealing familiar instruments.
Anita: The cello is the largest of the chamber music instruments, crafted to fill the space it’s meant to fit. The widest parts of a cello’s body sit just between the player’s knees, where patella meets femur, connected by articular cartilage. The smooth back rests against the player’s chest, and the long neck that supports the fingerboard hovers next to the player’s own. These points of contact make the instrument and the player one.
The player’s left hand runs the length of the fingerboard, each finger a dancer, skilled in the rhythmic tap of a fast arpeggio or the sensuous sway of a rich vibrato. The right hand holds the bow, its fingers operating less like individual virtuosos and more like unified rowers of a boat.
The bow pulls across the strings in swift, sure strokes or short, staccato sequences to achieve the desired sound and character of the music. Horsehairs pulled taut on a wooden stick glide across metal strings, sending ringing vibrations into the air with each sweep and lift. Rich or rhythmic, deep or light, all up to the pressure and technique of the right hand.
Sara: Lutheries—crafters of the smallest chamber instrument—select the wood that will become the violin with extreme care; respectfully and tenderly, the wood’s moisture is maintained through temperature and humidity control. The top plate of the violin comes from the fir tree (genus Abies), specifically spruce, chosen for its resonance and sturdy levity.
The lutherie strikes down their hatchet— the spruce is split.
While the fir is chosen out of respect for the sonic vibrations that the body will give way to, maple is chosen for its aesthetics, forming the back, ribs, and neck (assembled like a human, the violin produces sound that no body could). Its grain is lush, crafted so a flame goes up the violin’s back con fuoco. Finally, the fingerboard is rendered from hard blackwood ebony, made to resist the fingers that will create melodies upon it.
There is symmetry to the violin—in its shape, in its grain, and in how its methodical construction transcends generations.
We position our instruments and settle into our seats for the next two hours.
When I was younger, I wanted to be just like my sister because I didn’t know who I was. I needed her approval on everything I did, and anything that she chose or wanted must have been the better option. So when my sister decided to play the violin, the same instrument that my father had fiddled with as a teen, I set my heart on playing it too.
But when I turned six, and it was my turn to begin playing an instrument, my parents would not let me choose the violin. I was devastated. I didn’t want to be different, or lesser than. So I decided to be more. I chose the cello, a physically larger and sonically deeper instrument. Eventually, what began as an overcompensation for a lack of individuality became a major aspect of my identity, as well as a source of joy, connection, and expression.
In 1945, my grandmother, sixteen at the time, performed piano on the radio, a weekly gig (her father didn’t know). In 1980, my mom practiced her cello before school (my grandmother, too, could be heard, fingers hitting keys—silence was rare in their upside-down house).
The cello was chosen for her as my violin was chosen for me, bestowed to my mother so that she, her sister (a violinist), and my grandmother could play piano trios day through night. In 2002, I became old enough to have my own violin—a mobile comfort in the face of a chaotic world. I wanted to play the cello, but my hands were too little, so I was gifted the smallest of the string instruments instead.
I am four-and-a-half years old (the half is important); my violin is 1/32nd-size and can barely produce a sound.
The clear tuning A of the cello rings out, loud and true.
Here are some miscellaneous details that my adolescent brain chose to remember about the three cello teachers I’ve had.
My first teacher (whose name escapes me now):
- She spoke with as much force as she played.
- Just as I was a beginning student, she was a beginning teacher.
- She had me play an instrument that was a size too big for my hands, which messed up my technique for years.
- She was patient, and she helped me unlearn what my first teacher had taught me.
- Her right palm had large calluses, which she would pick as I stared and listened to her correct my posture or my bow hand position.
- On the wall of her back practice room, where we often met for lessons, she had an old, worn photo in a little black frame of one of her students posing with a grinning Yo-Yo Ma.
- I hoped to one day also be framed on that wall.
- Her crazy curly hair always bounced around her face as she asked me about my day in her chirping voice.
- She went to Juilliard and was much too talented to be teaching a bunch of sugar-high middle-schoolers who didn’t know how to hold their bows properly.
- When it felt like it was all too much, she would let me nap in the private practice room with the bright green pillows and the dark green walls.
When I was four-and-a-half, I did not pick up my violin and find profound beauty in it the way I imagine prodigies do. When you first start to play the violin, you don’t get to play the cornerstones of the repertoire—or even the middlings. You start with simple melodies and repetitive etudes that strengthen your fingers and ingrain decades of muscle memory, so much so that the part of your brain controlling your left hand actually becomes oversized compared to that controlling your right. You spend hours playing open strings, getting used to the pressure and speed of your bow and how they change the tone, the quality, the innate emotion of the notes, before you even begin to resist your fingerboard the way it’s built to be resisted.
You aren’t making music; you’re pro-ducing sound, and none of it makes sense.
We flip to the movement we want to rehearse and discuss areas we want to focus on and improve.
One strong marker of identity is the mosaic of stickers on an instrument’s case—a tradition many music kids uphold. But I never put stickers on my case, maybe
because I was afraid of commitment, or maybe because I was always waiting for change. Every time my fingers could stretch a couple millimeters farther, I would move a cello size up. My mom would drive us to California, to the closest respectable cello shop, and I would sample different woods and shapes and tones of cellos from all over the world to pick the one that sung to me. With it would come a new case, freshly lacquered for infinite combinations of laminated logos and musical puns.
But to this day, the shiny turtle shell I haul around campus every week remains sticker-less. Maybe it’s because I still only play a 7/8th-size cello. But even if my hands never grow large enough for a full-size, I hope to do what Mrs. K. has told me to do since day one—practice hard and play well, because you don’t need a full-size cello to be a full-size cellist.
So how do you ever fall in love with those four strings, the bridge they rest on, and the regal scroll at the top? Some say you simply persevere and get better until your fingers move faster and your bow stroke is controlled. This can take six, seven, even eight years of diligence until you can finally shape the music, and the instrument becomes not just your extension but as flesh and human as any part of you.
But something more has to have gotten me through the teachers who berated, the conductors who literally threw chairs out of their frustrations, the marathon-long rehearsals.
My something: I was twelve-years-old, my extended family went to Lincoln Center to hear a chamber music performance, and on the program was the Brahms piano quintet (seven years later, I would perform this piece at Brown; full circle). The melodies were traversing, the harmonies dissonant with few resolutions, the structure swelling. I didn’t think the music was beautiful, but it wasn’t created for my pleasure; it was sound that demanded to be listened to.
The composition reached within and twisted me around until my eyes burned and my blood pressure rose and my thoughts darkly swirled and spiraled, constructing labyrinths in their wake. I’d never before been affected by music, never had the transcendence of written notes through hollow vessels strangle me. But now I saw clearly the power musicians wielded through maple bodies.
We run through the movement once and stop for further notes.
I’ve never had a problem with words. Even though English is not my first language, it has become my primary one. I feel confident answering questions in class, explaining my feelings to others, controlling the letters as they fall out of my mouth.
But my fingers are clumsy. There are times when they don’t listen to me. When I’m playing and I tell them to be fluid and flexible, but they tense up, locked and rigid, gripping the bow until my knuckles turn white. When they should be prancing like nimble deer, but they trip over each other like Bambi learning to walk. There are times when they are blistered, callused, and exhausted from practice, but still can’t get the right rhythms. When the metronome ticks and tocks, but my notes teeter and topple over one another, and I contemplate casting to the ground the mechanism that so undeniably and so constantly reveals my flaws. When my face is hot and red with frustration and disappointment—at my fingers, at myself—and I declare to my parents, “I quit.”
These are the times I have to be reminded why I love classical music.
Chamber music is the most intimate of classical music forms, escaping the solitude of solos and the anonymity of orchestral playing. And, it is on those stages (sometimes not even stages, but porches or fields or living rooms) that I have felt musical intimacy most deeply—instruments speaking to one another, dueling, whispering, proclaiming, and acquiescing through layers of dis-sonance and harmony. Exaggerated eye contact and breathing that appear maniacal are the way I, and we, communicate, until our time is over and whatever magic we’ve created dissipates, living on in the crevices of unassuming interiors.
Full circle—sophomore year, I am performing the Brahms piano quintet, with its three-versus-two rhythm, tripping us up as we try to resist its drunkard nature and cadences of romance, despair, and chaos that can’t be expressed adequately in literary terms. That’s why Brahms turned to the piano, the two violins, the viola, the cello as the carriers of his cacophony. The day of the concert I cannot speak to anyone—I am twisted up inside, like I was seven years prior, only this time it is up to me and my fellow four to smother our audience with bows and strings and keys.
Mvmt I. (Allegro non troppo): A boat sailing through a storm, swell after swell, the wind changing and pushing and holding us back. We are moving against, with, diagonal to the wind, exalting and wailing as we travel.
Mvmt II. (Andante, un poco adagio): Docile and sweet, a lamentation, but with the permeating sense that solace is fleeting.
Mvmt III. (Scherzo, allegro): A con-strained march that wants to drive forward—if you let it, you will leave behind an instrument, and it will dissolve. Stay resolute.
Mvmt IV. (Finale, poco sostenuto–allegro non troppo–presto, non troppo): The movement opens with dissonant sighs of grief, until finally we are unified after forty-five minutes of feeling disparate. It’s a race to the end. We explode. (Now that I realize it will soon be over I want us to slow down, but the music demands speed.)
And then it is done, and we are standing up and bowing and my friends are hollering and I am buzzing until I am back in bed and the high is gone and all I feel is a profound lack even though I should be—no, I am—so full.
We play through it again from the beginning, keeping our new notes in mind.
The summer after eighth grade, I went to a music camp called Sound Encounters, met new friends, cried at performances, and was inspired by music to make music. And I ran into a boy from my school who also took cello lessons from my teacher. He was a year older, and I was too scared to talk to him.
The summer after ninth grade, I went with the Phoenix Youth Orchestra on a tour through Germany, where we played in stunning churches, met the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and slept on long bus rides. We snuck through the hotel hallways to hang out in each other’s rooms past hours and laughed until we cried.
The boy was also on this trip, and with a tour group of only about 40 instead of the 400 musicians at our previous camp, I couldn’t ignore him. He invited me to meet up with him and his friend, who was also older, cooler, and a bit intimidating. All of it was a bit intimidating—from sneaking away from the group to find another sight to see, to staying up late playing cards even though we knew we had to wake up early the next morning.
At one performance on the tour, the modest venue was shaped like a huge concrete cube from the outside. A closer look revealed hundreds of small, dark windows in a gridlike formation lining the exterior. On the inside, the cube was flooded with brilliant, cascading light of infinite shades, shifting and rising and breathing with our notes, each of which I heard with a new clarity, a previously withheld secret. The boy and I agreed that this was the first time playing music made us feel truly alive.
It is 2014 and I am in Milford, a small town three hours outside of Toronto, where I spend two formative summer weeks immersing myself in chamber music. In rustic bunks that smell of festering lake water, marked with the carvings of girls before me, I exist blissfully.
During morning rehearsals, coaches struggle for the right metaphors to help their
teenage musicians grasp music that contains too many worlds for most of us—we attempt, boldly, anyway, rehearsing late into the night and walking back amidst constellations of fireflies.
In the afternoons, we plunge into the arctic water of Lake Ontario. We lay on the dock, finding spots made warm by fleeting rays. Conversation flows easily from what will be for dinner to our first loves to Shostakovich to how we wish our quartet members could count to four, dissolving into peaceful silence. As musicians, our ears are always laboring, and sometimes it is nice to just lay.
The evenings, though, are when the bunks and the hills and the lake are imbued with unique fullness. One evening we sneak out to sleep in the mobile home of our bunkmate’s great-aunt beneath my first harvest moon— an orb so golden I feel it through the dusty ceiling. It is on the last evening that we huddle around a struggling campfire, resisting the blowing wind, and say why we are so thankful for this place: its embodiment of musicality (not intonation nor metronomic rhythms, but that which transcends technique) and the pause from life’s anxieties it allows.
A cadence—our time modulates, we go home.
The final note stops ringing, our bows are in the air, and someone breaks the magic of the silence with their first breath. We pack up and say our goodbyes until the next rehearsal.
After another summer and another music camp, I came back to school, and so did he. We carpooled to rehearsal every Wednesday night, both of our cellos puzzled perfectly in the trunk of his car. We would finish our respective sports practices (me, soccer; him, lacrosse), pile in, and head out. During the 15-minute break of our three-hour-long rehearsals, he would grab my hand as he rushed me to pack up faster, and we would run through the crisp night air to the café across the street. We would sip our hot chocolates or chai lattes and think about big questions before running back into the auditorium—just a couple of minutes late, every time.
He helped me practice for all of my auditions. We played a cello duet at his senior recital. I listened to his solo piece and gave him feedback on the accents in the runs and the proper bow stroke for that part that’s supposed to sound like how it feels to look up at the trees and see light streaming through the rustling leaves. I fell in love with it all.
After my junior year, he graduated high school. We parted ways and made only vague plans to meet up when our music camps overlapped that summer and we would both be in Michigan for a single day. We sat by the lake and watched the reeds sway, and he said that in that moment, his life felt like a movie. Then he told me more about his trip, and about her.
We met up one final time at home in Arizona before he left for college, getting lunch at a restaurant we frequented often in our glory days. I was nervous. It was a brief, polite conversation. And then it was all over.
I never cried. I knew it was coming. I’m not sure if I’d been steeling myself in preparation for that moment, if I was numb, if I am still numb. But now, all I feel is grateful, for learning to love, and for continuing to love music.
Pensato: a note, written but not played, not heard but felt.
“This meant that a note had to be so indescribably tender and soft that it was only allowed to be thought of.”
— (The Score, 1958)
We file out of the room.