Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ode to the Cello

I've played the cello for so long I too often forget why I play it, what it was that drew me to this instrument, and that feeling of "oneness" I get. I mean, I've talked about it before in a previous post here, but this time I feel it coming from a different angle.

I remember in 5th grade when everyone had to choose an instrument to play. At the time I had pretty much no idea what I wanted to play, but I knew what I did not want to play. Most of them were brass and wind instruments (sorry brass and wind players). Of those that I did have an interest in were the French horn, the flute, and the bassoon. I couldn't play the French horn. I mean, I physically couldn't get a sound out of the mouthpiece - I lost my breath and almost blacked out from the effort. I couldn't get a controlled sound out of the flute mouthpiece and I felt like I was hyperventilating. And the bassoon . . . we weren't even "allowed" to try out that instrument in 5th grade.

So stringed instruments were the way to go. Now, every Asian and his mom plays the violin. I liked all the sweet solos one could do on a violin but I hated the range of the instrument - it was way too high. After it exceeds a certain pitch, the tones it produces hurt my ears as it tends to create an almost piercing and shrieking sound. Also (and this reason's a little lame), violinists had to stand. I didn't want to play an instrument that would require me to stand. Furthermore I didn't want to jam an instrument against my neck. So the violin was out. The viola was next. I liked its sound MUCH better, but it suffered some of the minor annoyances with the violin (that is, in the way it's played). Later I would find that violists don't get very good parts in pretty much anything. Poor violists.

So then there was the cello and bass. The bass was too large for me, I mean the instrument's about as big as you are. The cello seemed good enough. I really liked the sound range and I loved the fact that I always had to be seated while I played it. So in 5th grade I was the only person in my entire elementary school who chose to play the cello. It made me unique, I stood out, and I was proud of that.

Years later as I moved on to better and better cellos, I would realize the full weight of my decision. In a way, choosing an instrument, sticking with it, and liking it, is almost like finding and realizing a part of your soul. You choose the instrument that best fits you. And in almost every way, the cello fit me. The cello was me.

The cello is satisfied to play the parts in the limelight, the foundation of every ensemble. At the same time, the cello is capable of such wonderful melodies and solos. Of all the stringed instruments it has the greatest range. It can even trespass in the violin's territory (though not their upper territory, as if we cellists would want to). Then there is the deep resonance of the instrument. I know my cello's in tune when I play a note, for example the C on the G string, and the C string vibrates in resonance with it. And it can also vibrate all other C notes, producing a very interesting harmonic effect. I know when my cello's happy when it even vibrates another person's instrument, so that they can feel the vibrations of my cello through their violin or viola. The violin and viola, to the best of my experience, is incapable of this feat.

On certain floors one can feel a cello's resonance through the ground, as the vibrations are grounded through the end pin. It's weird to talk about my instrument in such a way, personifying it, but not really I suppose. It's a reflection of myself in a lot of ways, a mere extension. One channels himself through his instrument, and the instrument reciprocates. I mean, my cello can be moody and uncooperative. In any case, when my cello's happy, I can't help but also be happy. My cello exalts in the resonance that fits into the gaps in the music, and I follow it there alongside. I can feel the vibrations going around and through me, and I remember, "This is why I play."

Also, the very nature of being a cellist is different from many other instruments. Cellists must, on one hand, be the beat keepers in many cases. But not so inflexible that the adhere to the beat rigidly to the detriment of the ensemble. So cellists also have great listening skills and can here where they need to play out more, where they need to back off, where they need to be another instrument's backup, and where they must shine. I've a feeling that violinists tend to be a bit too egotistic as they only care about their own parts, as all other parts are "below them." So they can do whatever they want and almost ignore the rest of the ensemble, but the cellist must support everyone. The violist are sometimes too timid and uncertain, they also tend to resent their parts a lot. A cellist can't afford to be timid or uncertain, as the very fabric of the ensemble often depends on them (unbeknown to the listener).

Interestingly enough, I've come to realize that my cello will very rarely sound the same way twice. Every time you tune a stringed instrument, you're competing against 3 "entities." The first is yourself, your own ears as they listen to the sounds. The second is the wooden body of the instrument, which changes depending on temperature, humidity, and location. Wood will contract or expand accordingly, so that affects sound. And the third are the strings themselves. When all three of these cooperate and are in harmony, then the sound that instrument is capable of producing is rather remarkable.
Now on to an interesting (and somewhat related) story.

My friend, TR-M, who I haven't seen or talked to in almost a year, randomly called me today. It was really good talking to him after such a long time. We have been friends since we were about 7-years-old, so it really was great to hear from him.

He called to tell how he had been listening to Yo-Yo Ma (the famous cellist) and the group Apocalyptica (4-member cello group that plays rock music with cellos). Apparently he's been thinking a lot about the cello lately and wanting to pick it up. Also, his younger brother, JR-M, just finished a movie where I played the cello part for the music score. So TR-M has been listening to that too. So, as logic follows, he thought of me and decided to call me and tell me about this.

He's really considering picking up the cello. He's always thought that stringed instruments were more refined (he played the trumpet in middle and high school) and that he always had an appreciation for the cello. He also said how he came to like the cello more and more as he's matured and as his tastes mature. So he called me, and now he (and his JR-M) might visit me on Sunday! It'd be great to hang out here, as I'm not sure he's ever been to this city as we would normally hang out occasionally when I went home. So this is all very exciting and I really hope he does come out to visit me. He also wanted some pointers on how to play a cello, which I would gladly give him.

Completely unrelated, this would also be a great opportunity for me to come out to the both of them, as I've no idea when I'll be able to see them next. Hopefully I'll be able to do it this time. That is, if they come out here to visit me. I mean, it's only about an hour's drive away.

P.S. Okay, I don't do this often, but I've edited this post like 3 times already as I keep thinking of things I want to put in it. This is a bit weird for me.


Andy said...

I googled "Ode to the Cello" and you are number one. I enjoyed reading your post. I just purchased a cello because I have always been mesmerized by way the sound that comes from a cello somehow makes me feel "at home" (not home like with my family, but the home feeling you get when you experience something higher than yourself). Anyway, I just was looking for a post from someone who had experienced this with a cello... The best case scenario - a cellist. And I found you. Thank you.
PS - I am 28 and just starting. Some think me crazy for doing so, but I don't care. I am going to learn it and become one with my cello.

Aek said...

Hey Andy, I'm glad you enjoyed my post! 28 is not too late to learn something new! It takes a lot of time and practice to attain that "oneness", so don't get frustrated and give up too soon.