The year I turned 40, I began a self study, tracking events, behaviors, and occurrences for 365 days. This experiment inspired Project 40 – my life in numbers and stories.
She was double chinned. She gathered herself in the bulkiest of sweaters to be found. In her home at a given time were no less than three cats. With the exception of annual half-inch trims, she’d not had her hair cut in decades, allowing her the ability to sit on it if she so desired. It usually was worn down and straight, every once in a while thickly braided and hoisted over one shoulder. One got the idea she spent little time outdoors, her doughy skin only coloring when she spoke of something that excited her, like the arrival of a new and celebrated conductor to the Stockton Symphony. She was my cello teacher.
My mother had a love for stringed instruments. For orchestras and concertos and minuets. At age 3, I began the Suzuki method for violin instruction, which teaches that children can easily, almost innately, learn music by listening to it; by being immersed in it, surrounded by it, similar to how toddlers pick up language. As she spun the Suzuki, Volume I long-playing record, my teacher (different from my cello instructor – rather, Ms. Wilcox kept only one cat at a time) had me pinch an egg carton between my chin and left shoulder while listening over and over to the music. After proving myself worthy of keeping the carton from landing on the floor, I graduated to a teeny violin and learned my first song, California Sunshine – foundational notes that eventually, with changes in bow strokes and the addition of a few rests, become Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. I made it through several Suzuki volumes with Ms. Wilcox as well as a little Suzuki on the piano, playing solos as a member of duets, quartets, and large groups at a number of lodges, retirement homes, and churches throughout San Joaquin County.
When I got to preteen-hood, mom thought it would be nice to add cello to my repertoire. It sounded like an okay idea at first. Why not. One more lesson. It wasn’t as if I’d practice any more than I already did, which I didn’t.
But once I started, I found I hated the cello. It pained me just to pull mine out of its bulky case, to try to muster up a friendly greeting to my cello teacher during our weekly sessions. My preferred instrument was the flute, that lustrous nimble tube full of puffy high notes that the popular girls played in elementary school. If I’d been an established flutist (in 5th grade, we only had a choice of wind instruments; I played clarinet because my mom somehow happened to own a clarinet) by the time I reached my middle school years, I’d surely have wanted to flaunt my talents. Instead, I sometimes lied about playing the cello. I had a heavy denial about it, changing the subject when friends came over and asked about the zippered canvas cello case in our family room next to the piano. Even my closest friends didn’t know that I was a cellist – not a violinist – in middle school, where I was one of a handful of students who, having years of private music lessons, took my orchestra class at the high school across the street.
One weekend, one of my cousins visited from Tahoe for a weekend. He made the trip often, very close at the time to his Uncle Charles and Aunt Deloris (those would be my parents) with whom he’d lived for part of his life before I came onto the scene. On this particular stop with us, he’d brought his new girlfriend, her age perking interest from my parents, from me, and my pal Erika who was over for the weekend as well. The girlfriend looked to be about a decade or so my senior, which meant she was closer in age to me than to my cousin (with both my parents the youngest of their siblings, and the two of them having me relatively later in their years, there exists an age gap between me and many of my first cousins). As supper settled in our stomachs, we retired to the family room, the ideal space and time for a bit of a concert. Or at least my mother believed so.
“Diane, why don’t you play that new song you learned the other day on the cello.”
If she’d suggested I pull out my left eyeball and start juggling with it, I’d have been more eager. In my periphery, I could see Erika imploding, mentally counting the ways she’d be able to dog me in a most public way at some point in the future. She, too, encouraged the opening of the cello case, the gathering ‘round of those present to hear me play.
Truth was, I sucked at the cello. With all my years with Ms. Wilcox and Suzuki, I’d developed a dynamite violin ear, able to mimic melodies, notes strung together after hearing them. But my cello teacher, while using Suzuki, made it a point that I actually read the music. And I didn’t read music very well. So my “new song” sounded more like the bellows of a heart- (or belly-)sick whale than any musical piece. It wasn’t long into bowing my way through that the girlfriend began to lose it. She first covered her mouth, but from the buoyant curve of her eyes, I knew a fit of laughter lay just beyond her lips. Another deep brush of my bow against the G string and she began to make sounds. Locomotive bursts of giggling. Then straight out snorts, which was all Erika needed to get on board. To co-sign on my humiliation.
My mother seemed unstirred. Or wanted to keep up the façade for me that my tune was well and good. She smiled, nodding along as best she could since my tune lacked any regular rhythm or steady pace. I wanted to quit before ending the song but was too embarrassed to do so, not wanting Erika and the girlfriend, or even Alfred (since he didn’t try to correct his girlfriend in any way – not even with an elbow), the satisfaction of knowing I’d stopped because of them. Not that they knew the song, surely imperceptible even to my cello teacher. At least playing prolonged the moment of reckoning, of having to face off with my mocking audience.
When it was finally dead and done, everyone clapped, the girlfriend immediately excusing herself to the bathroom, wiping her moist eyes with the back of her hand as she walked away. Erika was still laughing, but she was allowed. We had that kind of friendship. But I was happy when my cousin and his girlfriend left for the night – who laughs like that at a 13-year-old?
Okay, I probably would if she played the cello as badly as I did. The next time he visited, Alfred didn’t bring that girlfriend. Or any other girlfriend, ever again.