Something Good and Lustrous

Something Good and Lustrous

cel

Beneath the print of Diego Rivera’s “The Flower Seller” and behind the African drum stands my cello, safe and silent. It is now enclosed in a hard storage case that my father gave me  in 1984. If I had only had that case before the move to Tennessee, when a moving company delivered my cello in pieces to our newly purchased home. They had failed to properly pack the cloth case and fragile body within, but it was I who had exposed it to danger by not taking better care from the start. Or so it felt.

I took in the wreckage swiftly. The graceful neck broken from its body. The once smooth back jaggedly split in three places. Graceful curves of the front of the cello nearly collapsed under a failing sound post. The perfect bridge which held the strings in place now just gone. My own flesh and bones recoiled. I left the house and family to take in gulps of open October air, too warm in a strange land. Devastation trailed me. I wept the tears of one who had lost her beloved, bitter sobs slowing to moans. My children were held back by my husband as I lay on a porch.

What was left of my cello was sealed away in its soft case, pressed into a dark corner of a walk-in closet behind a box of shoes and purses. The maiming of my cello felt like an omen of worse to come but there was little time to worry. Within the day I was immersed in mothering and adjusting to our new community. I pushed away the lingering sorrow. A task I dreaded was telephoning my father, giving him the bad news.

My cello was his gift to me when I was twelve years old. I had studied music–a little piano and violin, a little harp–since I was old enough to hold an instrument for long and would go on to study classical voice. Making music was as much a part of daily life as hands being held around the table at dinner with a prayer offered or seven of us managing a fast shower in the crush of early morning hours.

I had begun more public playing in fourth grade music classes, the third of my parents’ three daughters to profess a desire to play cello. My two brothers sampled wind instruments as well as violin and viola. Since Dad administered and developed the public music education program as well as conducted, we often had him as a teacher both at school and home. I aspired to great heights–to play like my eldest sister (my other sister changed to flute and bassoon) at the least, or like the famed Jacqueline Du Pre, if at all feasible. So I devoted myself to it as best I could. The tedium of practice, the pressures of perfecting skills could be tough but I loved my instrument. Apparently by sixth grade my father felt I had made enough progress to graduate from the school’s rather mediocre cello, as he took me aside one spring when he got home.

“There’s a widow woman in Bat City who says her husband made stringed instrument and also collected them. She wants me to take a look at them. There are a few cellos. Some might be decent. Do you want to go with me?”

The next morning we wedged in our trip between his piano tuning appointments. I was as excited about spending a few hours alone with my father as I was about looking for a cello. I wasn’t certain I would actually take one home but secretly thought I might. A quiet man unless espousing on his favorite topics–including music, history, Scripture, science and math, and perhaps oddly cars and motorcycles–he said little on the way over. The air fairly hummed with our separate thoughts. I glanced at him a few times, noted a smile visiting his barely lined face. He bought, sold and repaired stringed instruments; he harbored a profound appreciation for craftsmanship. I suspected he felt like a treasure hunter.

The large, dusty attic of the woman’s house was half-full of instruments. I learned she had requested that my father appraise them before she sold them. I poked through worn books, a collection of porcelain dolls, a stack of yellowing Life magazines, waiting for the adults to stop talking business. One by one, the instruments were examined by Dad, his touch intuiting and testing, wavy black and silver hair shifting a bit over his forehead as he leaned in closer. He then pulled a bow across a few violas and violins and shook his head. He tried another bunch of bows, too, peering down their length, loosening horsehair on each. He was checking for any deviations; I had watched him in his home workshop doing the same work there.

I quietly made my way to the five cellos and plucked the strings gingerly. My hand rested on the one I was most curious to try.

“Find anything?” Dad asked. Anticipation seemed to color his large blue eyes bluer as he moved closer and stirred up a  tiny swirl of dust.

I shrugged. He looked over the cellos of deep red and rich brown woods and then stopped at the one that was tinged a slight yellowish-green. Lifted it from its resting position. The one that had drawn me to it.

“That’s the one I wanted to try,” I said shyly.

“Well, time to see what it does.”

A high-backed chair was found and I sat upon it with suitable cello bow in hand, the instrument settled between my knees. I drew the bow steadily across the C strong, then the G, D, A strings. The muted tones drifted through the rafters. I adjusted the pegs until it was tuned. Played a scale, then, encouraged by my father’s nod, a short exercise. The notes rang out more robustly, as though released from a long sleep. The sound rang out, warm and bright. With a sudden determination to make this cello mine, I played an adagio only learned a week before, the strings letting go a resonant timbre, the notes clear, sure.

“It’s a little homely, but I think it has a strong voice, don’t you?”

I studied his face, unwilling to make assumptions, but he smiled reassuringly and then–the giveaway–winked. I could not imagine that we had enough money to buy this instrument. He wrote a check then and there for one hundred fifty-dollars, a fortune in my thinking. They finished their business while I stood with hand about the fine neck, twirling it now and then on the point of the endpin, light from a small window bouncing off its smooth wood.

“It sure is an odd color…I’m not yet sure what that is…but he was an excellent craftsman. In fact, that cello is remarkable for the cost.”

“Thank you, Dad,” I said as we backed out of the driveway, waving to the older woman. He patted my knee and off we drove.

All this I recalled in Tennessee one day as I settled by the first wood stove fire in early November. It was barely cold enough, but the habits of a northern life lingered. The sunset behind the west woods of our acre dissolved in a thunderous, restless rain that stirred up treetops and longings. I had resolved to call my father, had planned what I would say. It had taken a month to develop the courage and my heart was jumpy. I dialed the number.

“Lawrence Guenther here.”

“Hi, Dad.”

“Well, hello. Did you want to talk to you mother? All okay?””

“Yes, no, I mean, I want to talk with you about something.” My breath caught in my chest and any composure was futile. “It’s so terrible, what happened. My cello was broken when we moved. It’s all in pieces and I don’t think it can be salvaged. It’s just lost, Dad, gone just like that!”

There was a moment of dreadful silence between us before he answered. “How about if we come down to Tennessee and take a look at it?”

More tears took my words until I pushed on. “Yes, please come, Dad.”

I was thirty-four years old. I had not seriously played my cello since I was eighteen. Unforeseen events–assaults, drug abuse, failed marriage and a second one with dear children–had altered my life course radically over the years. I hadn’t done a lot of things I had planned like finish degrees or becoming a performer. A scrabbling, zigzag course had taken me far from the passionate center of my self: music. The truth was, I had been afraid my father would be angry at such carelessness–or worse, offer simple condolences and suggest I get on with my non-musical, pedestrian living. 

When my parents arrived he took one look at it and shook his head in disbelief. He caught himself and sighed. I stepped away and chatted with my mother, waited from his pronouncement. At the end of their visit, they took with them what was left of my cello. Never once did my father say it wasn’t worth the effort and cost it would take to mend it. My insurance company would reimburse some of the cost but I knew it would take more than allotted. I tried not to think of it. He was a fine string repairman after forty years of such work, but I hadn’t known him to fix one that ruined.

After about two months he called to tell me he had shipped my cello to me–in a new hard case. He didn’t assure me it played well, only saying it was playable.

“You’ll see,” he said.

The day it arrived I was alone in the house. I opened the box and its new hard case, afraid of what I would see: a badly scarred instrument not worth the wood it was made of, a cello deeply changed and without its telling voice. I ran my hands over the shattered but now healed places, each rupture sealed almost imperceptibly. It felt strong to my touch and glowed, refreshed, even more than it had. It was all of one piece in my hands. More or less.

I rosined my new bow–Dad had given me one that was far better than I needed–and inserted the endpin, pulled up a chair in the living room and nestled the cello against the bony spot on my chest, between my thighs. The strings were surprisingly in tune; I drew the bow across them with verve, as if to challenge them to talk back to me. The first notes lurched into the stillness and I tried again, drawing horsehair against taut metal strings until sound billowed bit by bit. I ran through some scales, warmed up with an exercise or two. Then I played the opening measures of “Allegra Appasionato” by Saint-Saens. Then, emboldened by notes issuing from awakening strings, gave over to Faure’s moving “Elegy.”

Time ceased. Every fiber of my flesh and portion of my being were transported. It had not forgotten the sound of its own singing. My father had brought my cello back to life. I was excited to share the news with my family when they came home.

But I was right about the sense of there being an omen. The stay in that small town in Tennessee could be enchanting but it finally too trying, the weather too often dangerous, the kudzu and snakes and insects so insistent. As Northerners in a yet Confederate South, there was a loneliness that dogged us. We left after less than two years, cello and five kids and husband and all.

******

Twenty years later I took my cello in for refurbishment. The shop was in an exclusive part of the city and the proprietor was pleasant but unimpressed with my instrument.

Uncertain whether he would have time, he inquired about my musical background, I admitted I am a sometime-musician if that, certainly more a has-been than a will-be. It was a little embarrassing. I knew he worked with some of the best musicians and their instruments. But there must have been something in my eyes because he reconsidered.

“It’s always good to make music, no matter the age or circumstance. I’ll see what I can do.”

When I picked it up later and handed him a good sized check, I lingered a moment. It seemed to have lost its greenish-yellow hue. That didn’t seem possible so I didn’t remark on it.

“This is costing me a lot more than what it cost my father to buy it in 1962,” I said with a half-smile.

“Well, I can tell you the bow far exceeds the value of your cello–it’s a truly fine bow– but it sounds pretty good and it’s yours. So play it, you must play it to keep it alive.” As he showed me out he offered a real smile, his bright critical eyes warming.

But something inside me knew I was unlikely to draw from it the music I had before and left with sadness tinging my relief to have it back again. I was writing, I was working every day at my job. I was not really making music.

******

It has been over fifty years since my father gave me my instrument. He has long exited this atmosphere. Sometimes I wonder why I have kept my cello so long. Other times I wonder why I can bear to leave it so silent, untouched. It has a past that, though short of being illustrious, is not so unremarkable to me. It has played under the open sky and on velvet curtained stages. It has competed and won and has been attendant to the hurt of defeat. My cello endured all kinds of lovely and ghastly weather as I lugged it from one event to another. A lot of sweat. It was for years almost my closet companion, led me into a life shaped by discipline and challenge, a devotion to beauty that can be heard and felt. To moments where epiphanies awaited. Without my cello, I would have been far less courageous, found less relief and hope.

And yet I do not play it now, not truly. I have fewer excuses since being retired from counseling with greater solitude. But it has gotten harder to pull the bow (it yet bears a minuscule sticker with my father’s initials, LWG) across the strings and elicit sounds I am happy to hear. Every now and then, though, when the apartment has the sort of stillness that begs for the sweeping alto of my cello, I take it out. Play fumbling and coaxing until it sings a small song. It harbors that voice, brings to life something good and lustrous that has always been there. Something I had the gift of sharing just ten or twelve years with other young musicians. But more so, God, and my deepest self. So whenever we try to speak with one another, my cello and me–oh all that reunites us still.

 

(Note: This is a revision of my previously published creative nonfiction piece bearing the same title. It first appeared in VoiceCatcher, an anthology, copyright 2006. I retain the rights to this work.)

Why I Love to Whistle: A History

Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore                                (Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore)

Most people came from musical families; I knew this was fact when I was a child. They were my neighbors, schoolmates and friends. I was just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students in my Midwest town’s public education music program. It encouraged students who tested well on standardized music tests in the fourth grade to take up an instrument. My father developed and oversaw the program, so I was glad I passed. I looked forward to participating in school and learning at home.

I was the last of five children to coach. I had tried violin before kindergarten. Though I liked it, I wanted to play what my sisters played: the cello. It just sounded better than any other instrument I had heard, except for the trumpet with its sparkling cheer or melancholic sweep of sounds. Since dad was known as “a string man” I surmised the trumpet would not be the best choice. I considered the French horn, as well, but never mentioned it; it seemed too formal somehow. The trumpet appealed to the dreaminess of a properly raised child straining to be free (and later jazz drew me like honey draws bees). I must have heard it played in that style on the few records of big band music we listened to occasionally. Dad had played lots of instrument as a younger man, including the saxophone and clarinet–he liked reed instruments. Brass seemed less favored; the violin and viola were his chosen instruments.

As I worked at learning piano as well (I sought minimal skills, enough to I could justify making up songs on the baby grand), I took up the commanding cello. I fell in love with its stirring elasticity, its resonant notes responding to the briefest pressure from my bow and fingers. Its power startled me. Sometimes I felt it took over, leaving me breathless, anxious to catch up–to what? What did all that music mean? It was a mystery what could happen with practice and critical feedback and more sweating over tedious exercises that led me to sonatas and concertos. The years brought private lessons, innumerable performances in orchestras, solos at concerts and competitions, summer music camps. I played the harp for a year or two, but I wanted to do with the cello what my oldest sister did. She would go on to become a professional cellist (as a female cousin did, as well) though I had a suspicion by fifteen it was not to be. My middle sister had ditched cello for bassoon; it was the perfect choice for her. My brothers? They played violin, viola, clarinet, oboe, flute, saxophone between them. Everyone sang, but have patience with me on that one. They became paid musicians as well, eventually.

stringed instruments

But ambitions aside, music just belonged to me, and I, to it. All of us lived our lives imbued with its powerful force as well as a responsibility of making music and making it well. The family DNA supplied musical scores and an impulse to master instruments. We were the proverbial ducks born to swim, submerged at birth then quickly floating our way through music-making, music history, music theory. Except for my mother. She championed us all, hummed along, played a bit here and there on the piano. Her pleasure in our music and the applause of audiences offset my father’s critical analyses. It took all this to do well, then excel.

But although the cello found, loved me, even let me romance it back, all this time I was also doing something else, in private and on stages. I was singing. There you have it: three words I spent over five hundred words not writing. I have thought about this post ever since I mentioned elsewhere that when I write poetry it feels as though I am writing songs. It took me back to all this music business, the singing issue.

Try to imagine that singing is speech: you open your mouth and songs slip out as the native language. To give any other a whirl feels unfamiliar, even clumsy. Life is not a musical, exactly, but it is clearly something to be sung about. I wanted to sing all day long, in school, on the ice rink, in the pool, at the desk where there was homework waiting. Of course I sang at church but also while riding my bike, walking on the street. I needed to sing past bedtime when mother called up the stairs to turn out the light. I didn’t want to obey, could not. Songs were happening and they were not done with me. They were musical poems that lingered, danced, crested on words, a language that sang out, and my body and soul were the instruments. I would whisper the melodies if needed. And in the morning when I awakened, the song awaited me like a lovely puzzle, a tantalizing desire. A blessing. Sometimes I would take it to the piano when all the house was empty or strum my guitar. And singing on stage felt no different from singing from our maple’s treetop. It gave me profound joy like little else, opened up the universe, connected me to life’s deep soulfulness. It felt natural.

DSCF0182

But it ended, which brings us closer to the whistling part.

It was a gradual separation that began in earnest after sexual and other assaults were survived, substances used to endure the fall-out. Finally and also importantly, time constraints developed along with unexpected choices. I grew up and married at twenty, but not to a musician–that happened much later. I attended college, studied art, psychology, sociology and writing, not music. Not being fully engaged with my passion, it became neglected. Or I neglected it because it was too close to what mattered most, so far from my reach I felt it leaving me daily. It all resulted in a terrible ache, a longing for something that felt no longer possible to recapture, refine. Rather than feel as though I was a walking wound again, I left music. It was that or try to find it in fragments, in random pieces of time and space. I have a practical streak. I turned away, went on with my life.

I did continue to play my cello off and on when alone but my now-untried skills failed to uphold what my ear needed to hear. I sang to myself, to the babies that were rocked with lullabies, who danced to music made up together. It was there, the music, all that time, like a fragrance that pervades the atmosphere but faintly. Occasionally I harmonized softly with my second husband, in the privacy of home. But it had changed, and my voice had been transformed from soprano to alto from having too many cigarettes and drinks. Life can challenge dreams; we all have them, often change or lose them. For much of my family, the music played on. For me, it quieted, then was finally silenced in one regard: I could no longer sing. This is reality. I don’t kid myself even though I do let my voice out for a phrase or two in church. Even joined a couple choirs years back and found it physically and emotionally taxing to create the necessary sounds. I put it back in a secret place where it hibernates, having forgotten what it used to do.

But wait, there is still music that surfaces. I could and can whistle. No  other other animal can do it though there must be approximations. Whistling is undervalued and overlooked. Its wordlessness makes a case for relationship to instrumental music, my opinion. I have heard people whistle from exuberance or sorrow, offer an aria or a pop tune or something that makes no sense at all but is catchy, at least for the whistler. It can be as impressive an art as any other. There are competitions for whistlers, I have found. But kids can do it in time. I am no expert, but I can still purse my lips and blow as though on, say, a trumpet’s mouthpiece, yet the instrument is my own body. Like singing, yes? The notes are created by altering the shape of the mouth inside and out, by regulating the air from diaphragm to chest to throat and sinus cavities then out. A cinch. Before long, I may be working up a C major or D minor scale, then catching the drift of a tune, resilient, sweeping across space. Whistling may be cheap, even proletarian entertainment, but it is its own reward and then some. It makes people happy, including me.

The whistler’s music, for me, can be a generous smattering of auditory star dust that glimmers and rises on a whim. Islands of notes erupting from a landscape that feels like home. Sun dapples and rain splatters of sound that make me smile, remember. When whistling, I know I have forgotten nothing of what music means to me–I’m not talking about my taste preferences or how it relates to my philosophical or spiritual ideologies–but what it means to my innermost being. What I cannot sing today, I can whistle with precision and subtlety, a dash of friskiness. Maybe one day it will be a prelude to something that can flower with more attention. Nobody’s testing me for virtuosity. I don’t have to win a prize anymore.

article-new_ehow_images_a01_uq_ce_teach-child-whistle-800x800Classical? Modern jazz? The old standards? A favorite number from musicals or a pop tune? Try me! But it is likely you will have to catch me unaware. I don’t perform for anyone but myself and that’s finally good enough for me.

(Note: A print of the painting at the top of this post hung in my childhood bedroom and, later, in my parents’ den.)

Music, Starlight and Bug Bites: Living the Dream at Camp

The cabin was cocooned in darkness, save for the wan daybreak light that found its way between the cotton curtains. I lay still and listened to the sighs, coughs, and peaceful exhaling of sixteen adolescent girls and a much older (or so it seemed to me) counselor. There were other creatures rustling around in the night, beyond the sturdy cabin door. I longed to see them. Maybe it was a sleek fox or a fat, confident racoon. It was possible there was a bear trundling through the pines to the lake or a rabbit burowing deeper. Earlier in the day I’d spotted a shy skunk sniffing the winsome summer breeze. I’d been very still, noting it luxuriant fur, its darting eyes and tiny paws. Happily, it had vanished without leaving me a calling card.

The girl in the bunk beside me stretched in her sleep, then all was silent excepting a mosquito or two that had refused to turn in for the night. I swatted, this time successfully. A light wind slipped through a screened window and swept across my face. It carried its own perfume, cool and redolent of all things wild and wonderful. Sleep overcame the night for another hour.

Before long, morning was punctured by the voices of my cabin mates. There was the promise of sunshine and blue sky. After eggs and toast at the Mess Hall, I lugged my cello to the small fieldstone building in a cluster of pines and birches. It had two, four-paned windows that opened from side hinges, and was big enough for perhaps two people, a music stand and instruments. I positioned myself in the chair, cello held steady between my knees, then tightened the rosined horse hair on the bow. Tuned the strings. Placed the foldable metal music stand just so, the concerto opened and ready. Leaned into it, its glowing wood against my already-damp shirt: hands, fingers, play. Sing for me.

If I wanted to keep first chair in the youth orchestra I would have to work much harder. Gazing out the window at sunlight rich as honey, I attacked a rigorous passage. I played by heart and the multitudinous notes beckoned and taunted me. A large black beetle opened its wings, flew and landed by my foot. Bees buzzed. I closed my eyes. My calloused (but sometimes still tender) fingertips slid along the strings. My cello unleashed the sounds I sweated over, coaxed. This time, at least.

And so it went. The day filled up with orchestra rehearsal, then modern dance class at the large stone dance building where dozens of windows opened to the lake below. Later, a quick lunch, and then to a creative writing class held by a stoney beach. What did we really see, our pencils poised above notebooks? Our eyes observed white sails of a Sunfish, green canoes and rowboats sturdy and slow. There were old docks and kids splashing each other during free time, which awaited me after this class. I took it all in, and what I saw was a small heaven on earth: all the arts unfolding, nature sharing its secrets, everyone creating to their hearts’ content.

I was at Interlochen’s National Music Camp again, 1964.

Evening was mysterious and comforting at once. There were several performances to choose from if we weren’t playing, ourselves. This included plays , musicals or operettas and dance concerts, most offered on open air stages. Leaning back on a green bench, I would scan the sky for Orion or Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dipper. Venus, ever imperious, danced in place. The lush swells and complicated puzzles of music came and went, the old masters’ works awakened once more in the hands and voices of children and young adults. Mosquitoes circled and buzzed, attacked and moved on. The slap-slapping of lake water was the welcoming sound of something like home. My friends and I whispered among ourselves about the campfire later, the potential for clandestine meetings with boys.

It could seem a hard place to be, Interlochen. It meant tough discipline and long hours of study and practice, sweaty days and nights without much privacy or many physical comforts. There was no other music but the music we made, no television to while away the time. But it was here that I found the privledge of time and many means to fan my passion to create. It was here that I got to step a bit away from family roles and school year pressures or worries. Here I could attend to what I truly loved.

Besides the arts, I had acres of land filled with lakes, rocks and fascinating insects to study; throngs of lovely trees that had lived longer than I ever would. An encounter with leeches that left me aghast and smarter. Firelight and starlight that held tentaive overtures of romance. A green-blue lake with a murky bottom that offered unbridled play. And right beside me, were youth from all around the world who cared about the same things. I was part of something very good, something much bigger than each of us alone.

All this comes to me after reading an article recently that summer camps in the U.S are still going strong. The magazine was glossy and the camps likely formidably expensive. Still, it heartened me. There are camps for children of nearly any means and ways to get money to attend. They are sought after for many reasons, and the diverse skills gained and friendships made endure and bring back the kids and, later their kids. But they clearly come back for the fun of it. There is being away from parents, getting introduced to the real outdoors, finding something new and surprising in the course of a day, and sinking into a gentle sleep at the end of day. There is learning a lesson or two, such as discovering that what may seem too challenging–from backwoods tenting to learning a sonata, from hitting a target with a swift arrow to executing a pas de deux–can be well met and enjoyed.

There were other music and church camps, as well as a great day camp in my hometown that I looked forward to each summer in my elementary school years. But the  Interlochen experience informed my whole life. It so imbued me with wonder, resilience and a desire to reach high no matter what I choose to do, that I have talked about it for over forty years. I am finally completing a novel that shares an essence of those times. Not surprisingly for me, it is partly about the healing that is sparked by the potent combination of nature and human creativity.

Tonight, I can easily recall those signature strains from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 “Romantic” that we all played–the last concert of camp. The resonant strings,  lithe harp, those glorious french horns. Anyone who has heard it as a camper knows what I mean. It still stirs me, and cheers me onward.

Send your child to a great camp this year. It will be a dreamy summer of a lifetime.