T Minus 40: The Stunted Cellist

In third grade my school introduced us to musical instruments. We’d had music class in first and second grades, but by third grade we were allowed to pick an instrument to study. The school would provide us with our chosen instrument and we would learn it with the other children who had chosen the same one.

I had known for a while that I wanted to play the flute which was not the greatest choice for an asthmatic youngster, but there was something about it that I just loved.

It was September, about a week or two into the semester and the teacher accepted my choice and praised me for it. There was only one problem, there would be no available flutes until January. I was told that I could get started second semester and sing in the chorus until then. I didn’t want to wait. I was eager to develop a skill that so many of the adults in my life (my mom, and most of her friends) possessed, the ability to play an instrument and entertain. So I ditched the flute idea immediately and began to explore my other options. That’s when the orchestra teacher demonstrated the cello to me. I fell in love.

The low and somewhat somber warmth of it’s sound elicited an emotional response in me that I didn’t really understand at eight years old. My choice was made and I went home that day excited to share my huge life decision with my mom and my not-yet-stepfather, Tom.

It was 1984. My mother had just purchased (for the first time in her life) a brand new car. It was the coolest. The first model year ever of the Pontiac Fiero. It was bright red with tan interior and had speakers in the headrests of it’s two seats.

There were only two seats.

It was not a cellist’s automobile. It was not a cellist’s mother’s automobile. The small stature and lack of cargo capacity was an immediate concern for the adults. How in the hell would this eight year old get to school while dragging a cello that was almost the same size as the child herself and did not fit in her mother’s car? It was not possible. It would require too much.

The solution came from one of Tom’s sisters. They had all played instruments in school, as did he and his brother. Tom was the only one of his siblings who went on to play professionally and so his mother’s home was full of forgotten instruments. The one that came the closest to my choice of cello was his sister Emily’s old violin. She would give it to me, or at least lend it indefinitely, and I could learn to play a pretty close substitution for my beloved cello.

What could I say? I was eight. I knew the violin didn’t have the same beauty in it’s sound as the cello, but choosing it made everyone else’s life easier.

Plus, I would have one of my own and not need to rent from the school. It would save money. I would get more practice time than the other students. All very practical arguments that meant nothing to an eight year old, but these things were explained to me and so I agreed. It was the first time in my life that I compromised as an artist. It would not be the last.

The Fiero ended up being a lemon. That car was a complete disaster. By the time I was ten we had a different car, an equally impractical 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. The thing had no seatbelts, right when they became the law of the land. The violin however remained my instrument for over 15 years, despite a brief attempt to quit entirely early in my second year of study.

The grown-ups told me I was not allowed to quit, I had barely given it a chance. I went on to play in orchestras and bands and ensembles of all kinds. I played at school functions, weddings, galas and events. The violin got me singing jobs. Why should a band leader pay two people when I could do both?

When I was in Junior High I got my own violin, it had a warm, almost viola-like timbre. Years later I returned Emily’s violin to her so that her niece could learn to play it. She had chosen the instrument for herself.

I put the violin down for good shortly after I graduated NYU. It sits in the corner of our studio now, waiting.

I never stopped wishing it was a cello.

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