Whenever I say that I’ve been playing cello for twelve years, it feels like a lie. That’s well over half of my life that my fingers have been attached to this extra wooden appendage, that I have been breathing in the oaky smell of varnish and rosin, that I have been making noises; sometimes beautiful, gut-wrenching, soul-searing music, sometimes just an ugly, disappointing blip of unnatural sound.
Beauty has always been my specialty. I can never seem to play those loud, jumpy sections with as much accuracy as others, always hesitant to truly commit my body to the chaos, but sacrificing my body for beauty – I have never had trouble doing that. Long, languid, aching notes, filled with the swelling of the heart, exploring tenderly its cracks and hollows, its little broken bits. Cello is often sad, yes – mournful and wistful, reaching out and scooping up a bit of the past with gentle hands – but no one can argue that it is not beautiful.
I love this instrument. But it wasn’t always like that. I first picked up the cello because it was different, and because at the time, I was obsessed with being different. Little third grade Sarah was not like other girls with their teensy violins, scraping out meek squeaks and squawks – no, no, she lugged around cello, and adults said things like: “How can you play that? It’s twice your size!” This was an exaggeration of course, but it still made little Sarah puff up her chest with pride.
It wasn’t love at first sight that made me pick up the cello. In fact, when I first interacted with it – I wouldn’t be so generous as to call it playing – it felt unbelievably awkward. I was in second grade. I was small, and the cello was large. The strings instructor positioned me behind the cello, and I sat with my legs tucked behind its back since they weren’t quite long enough to reach around as they should. The bow was heavy and awkward, and my natural inclination was to clench it in my small fist. This, of course, was very wrong, but in the moment, no one really cared.
Naturally, when I managed to make a noise, it was not a very good one – a shaky, crunchy low groan on the C string. No one cringed, but at the same time no one threw their hands up in the air and declared, “she’s a natural!” In fact, my parents soon began to attempt to convince me that the cello was too big for me – why not pick up the viola? This argument only convinced me further that the cello was for me. I wanted to be the small girl that played the cello, an instrument usually thought of as only for boys, at least in my elementary school. I wanted to be defiant. I wanted to be different.
Well, I got what I wanted. I was one of two kids who played cello at my elementary school, and the other was a boy. We had lessons with the cello teacher Mr. Diehl in a room that was essentially a closet. It was not exactly how I’d dreamed it would be. We didn’t make a sound the first lesson – all we learned was how to care for our instruments, to lay them on their sides but never their backs, to always loosen our bows when we were finished, how to apply rosin, how to clean the strings, an endless barrage of lessons that did not include the one thing I wanted to learn. I wanted to play, with all the force of a petulant and overeager child.
But even when we did begin to play, plucking our way through short passages, placing our fingers on tape markers that showed us exactly where the notes were, I wasn’t satisfied. I was just making noises, not music. I was not a prodigy. I wasn’t even that good. One day, after a lesson went particularly badly for me, Mr. Diehl, who did not know how to be kind to children, told me that if I didn’t start practicing, he and the boy would leave me in the dust.
Even practicing, which had a certain glamour at first – I was playing the cello! – soon lost its luster with repetition. I became bored with rehearsing the same passage over and over. When would I get to use my bow? When would it sound beautiful? Why, why was I not as good at this as I expected to be?
After the first two months, I was ready to give up. It was hard, practicing was boring, it hurt my tiny fingers, which were completely free of the callouses that would later protect me from the hard, metallic strings, and had to stretch to reach the most of the notes. I would’ve stopped practicing altogether, had it not been for my strict parents. Every day, my mother would ask if I had practiced. Sometimes I would lie, but she would always know. Most of the time, I would sullenly, reluctantly, retrieve my cello from its case and practice through my passages, just once, studiously ignoring my fumbled fingerings, my scratchy bowings.
Eventually, this became habit – fifteen minutes every single day, no matter whether my parents coerced me or not. Fifteen, and then thirty, and eventually a whole hour, and I cared about my mistakes; I still made so many mistakes, but it was the caring that really mattered.
I am grateful that my first time playing cello was not my last time playing cello – not even close. I am grateful that I had supportive parents who provided an instrument, and also cracked the whip so that I would actually learn to play it. I am grateful that I am not a prodigy. Playing the cello is a physical, mental, and emotional struggle, constant and unceasing – even Yo-Yo Ma struggles. But it’s also a struggle that is fiercely rewarding, in the burning of muscles, in the quick movement of fingers, in the patient revision of noise into music. It wasn’t like that the first time, and even as I funneled endless hours into practice, I never knew that I would come to love it. But now I know – love is never effortless.
Sarah is a turtleneck enthusiast, tea drinker, and cat lover currently studying English Writing and History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also a copyeditor and writer for The Pitt News.