Small schools have small music departments. My high school, with its total enrollment of 350, had a chorus and a band, but no orchestra. Given the rural setting, there probably weren't many prospective violin players around anyway. So stringed instruments remained a mystery to me.
When I turned 65, a little voice in my head said, "If you ever want to learn about stringed instruments, now would be the time. It's later than you think." So I took up the cello.
I rented a student model, found a young and inexpensive teacher, and began. It wasn't easy. It was exciting ("Look, Ma, I'm playing the cello!") and daunting and frustrating. Knowing how to find middle C on a piano doesn't give you an advantage when it's a cello in your arms. The very concept of "middle C" means nothing on the cello fingerboard.
With piano, your two hands are doing more or less the same thing: they may be playing different notes, or even different rhythms, but both hands are resting on piano keys. When you play a cello, the left hand presses down the strings to give you the notes you need, but until the right arm sweeps the bow in a smooth arc across the strings those held-down notes won't sound. The left arm and the right arm are in totally different positions doing totally different things. Pat your head, rub your stomach.
I can remember tears of frustration in those early days. When I learned that my left hand would have to become accustomed to different positions along the finger board in order to play all the available notes, I was sure I would never be able to master it. Remember that, unlike a guitar, the cello has no frets. Playing in tune depends completely on placing your fingers correctly. Every time.
But I learned. Every day I practiced the major and minor scales (both melodic and harmonic minors) and arpeggios, along with the diminished seventh arpeggio.
I was assiduous. Diligent. Serious. I was a keener, and I made excellent progress, or so they said. I could see the progress, but it felt agonizingly slow. My teacher passed me along to a second teacher, I bought a new (non-student-model) cello and a lovely, expensive bow. I worked harder and harder.
I described myself as a student of the cello. When I attended chamber music performances, my eagle eye never left the cellist: is his bow-hold the same as mine? Does she raise her elbow properly? How does he coax such MUSIC from his cello box?
For that was the key: the music. I was making great progress, but the actual music-making eluded me. Each phrase of a piece had its own technical problems to work on. So I worked and worked on the difficulties of that phrase, and then it was on to the next and ITS problems. A piece of music often felt like a long series of problems to be solved rather than a musical experience.
And then came the Christmas when I turned 70. If there were ever a time to rethink one's activities and one's life, moving to the other side of that boundary line is the time. There's pre-70 and then there's post-70, and the latter is where I find myself now.
From this new position in life, I looked at all the things I do and put each one to a pleasure/pain evaluation. Does the joy of an activity equal or surpass its pain? If not, then why am I doing it?
Having taken up the cello five years previously with good will and curiosity, I found, during this re-evaluation, that the joy of the experience had been lacking for some time. I loved my teacher. I loved seeing myself as a "student of the cello." I loved finally learning the lessons of one piece and moving on to the next.
But I no longer loved the tight shoulders that curtailed my practicing. I never loved hearing myself play out of tune. I no longer appreciated the pressure of trying to schedule two practice periods every day, juggling appointments to fit the demands of the cello. I no longer loved carrying the cello on my back to my lesson, striding jauntily along the sidewalk. I found myself instead plodding up hills, mincing across icy patches, and just generally wishing there were some other way to carry my cello.
You get the picture. You see where this was going. Two weeks after my birthday, having spent several months noticing that I wasn't happy and several weeks imagining what it might be like NOT to study the cello, I threw in the towel. It was the end of a noble experiment.
When I woke up the first morning after formally taking leave of my teacher, a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders. I would never have to practice cello again!
I am grateful for all the things I learned about cellos. I am grateful to know now (I never did before) that slow and steady actually does win the race: if you keep practicing and don't attach to the results, you will be amazed at the progress you make. I went from zero to a little Bach in five years. I have no regrets at having spent five years with that big, ungrateful lug of an instrument. But equally, I have no regrets at having ended the experiment when I did.
Five years ago it was "Hello, cello!" And now it's "dear cello, farewell-o!"