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cello during covid

Covid Controls, the Cello, and Me 


Six years ago, fate had me stumble across a YouTube video of Mischa Maisky playing the Sarabande from Bach’s first cello suite. I don’t know why, but I decided to rent a cello with the goal of playing this song, at least badly. 

I didn’t have a teacher nor any more sophisticated plan beyond that. Fate would strike again in a fit of harmonic synchronicity: the woman who would teach me appeared at the luthier the day I picked up my cello. I had no musical experience; she was a professional. 

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. I had the right guidance. I practiced. By the end of the first year I could play the Sarabande badly. I had accomplished my goal, but I was hooked. 

Sitting down with a cello in front of sheet music became a form of meditation, solitude, and rejuvenation. For the first time ever, I began attending the orchestra regularly. I signed my children up for music lessons. It was a single-minded obsession for more than two years.

In March 2020, I was cast out. The Orchestra fully shut down and refunded half of their season. Lessons were to be virtual. The small cello ensemble I played in fell apart. 

I declined the virtual lessons. I chose to play as a duo with an old man from the ensemble at his house. That led to a rift with my teacher whom I revered. I was accused of nasty things. I no longer had a teacher.

For two and half years, it was just the old man and me. He had run a bookshop during his life. We talked about Nietzsche, Thoreau, Thomas Hardy, philosophy, art, and we played the cello badly.

Opposite the old man and I was the local orchestra. They patched together Beethoven’s 7th Symphony from homemade videos – the same symphony and format every other orchestra did. Separate but together, or some such solecism. 

When the orchestra did return to live performances, they insisted first on a chamber music series with mask wearing, distancing, and reduced capacity audiences. When the vaccines came out, anyone unvaccinated was banished entirely. 

This continued for three full years. 

Finding oneself adrift is always a profoundly personal experience. I don’t know how many times I read Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize Speech where he speaks on courage, and how the arts are a driving force for it. I was not an artist, yet the words called to my spirit and kept me playing the cello, even when it would have been vastly easier to simply stop.

Childishly, I saw life as if I were Don Quixote. While I wouldn’t bring back chivalry to the world, I could bring back music. I named my cello Rocinante. The old man and I became buskers. 

We played badly at the park for whomever had the courage to leave their house and brave our music. I thought of every note I played into the world as an impenetrable shield against the Sword of Damocles threatening our existence. 

In the third year, amends were made between my venerated teacher and myself. Lessons began again. The old man and I helped her rebuild the ensemble. I can now play cello concertos. The relationship was renewed by a deeper sense of respect, appreciation, and humility. 

On the other hand, the Orchestra took a different tack: moving forward as though nothing happened, and their concert halls sat half empty last year. 

I have read several reasons for why this might be the case: the woke ideology, having declared themselves non-essential, but I think the true reason is far simpler. The people in charge just don’t know what made the orchestra great in the first place. They’ve lost touch with the magic that transforms a windmill into a towering giant. 

The alchemy that Bach touched in the cello suites, transforming notes into a spark that made me a cellist. The harmonic consonance of a teacher showing up at the exact moment the student without a plan is seeking. The enchantment Rusalka felt when she sang her famous Song to the Moon

The cri de Coeur of an Oliver Anthony that has recently struck a chord.

I think sometimes, maybe I’ve lost my sanity. Either way, I enjoy the world where there is made up magic and enchantments around every corner. The world where notes can shake the foundation of souls. As with Don Quixote, maybe, whenever it is that I recover my sanity, I’ll perish.

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