More Largo Than Vivace
by Judy Pollard Smith
A wave of musical words has danced its way across my path in the past four years; words that sift and swoop like an exaltation of larks, words that hush and lull, words that wash over me and turn me inside out.
Perhaps it’s their European origins that I like most; their “Let’s get moving” intent. I like these new words in my life that sound like their meanings. Spiccato. Pizzicato. Agitato.
They are delicious sounds, sounds that make me think of a creamy platter of pasta. “Waiter, per favour, will you please being us a platter of cantabile with a dish of fermata on the side and cantata for afters?”
It would be so pleasant to drift off to sleep with these soft words floating throughout the darkened room; dolce, andante, pianissimo, ritardando, semplice.
I owe something to this new language, these musical notes that are strung together like a necklace of pearls, a necklace that helps me celebrate the Reinvention of my post-motherhood self.
My three children have moved on and so must I.
I’ve always longed to play the cello, to hear its ringtones calling out from each long bowing of a string. When I turned sixty-three I knew that the time for new adventure was now. That was three and a half years ago.
Learning how to play this glossy-bodied wooden instrument has unlocked a part of me that has been put on hold. A small door, like the one in Alice In Wonderland, has been held shut for years. Now, with each stroke of the bow, it opens some and beyond it lies a new word of magical sounds and words.
Perhaps I feel, too, like C.S.Lewis’s Lucy. Each time I go through the wardrobe a new thrill awaits me. I do squeak a bit. The sounds are sometimes more like honking Canada Geese than larks ascending, but patience will win out.
My mother gave me every opportunity to prove my potential musicianship. She insisted that I take piano lessons that droned on for eons without much in the way of yield let alone anything Bach-esque.
It was Marcel Proust who reminded us that it is the fallow periods of our lives that “most often fructify into art.” I’m not sure about the ‘art’ part just yet, but certainly starting a stringed instrument after sixty years of age opens the window for new imaginings, with new friendships as a wonderful by-product.
If you had told me five years ago that I would be playing a Bouree from Handel’s Water Music in a recital, well, I would have assumed that your adagio was slower than it ought to be.
It did bring back the mortification I felt as an eight, ten, twelve year old in piano recitals. The perennial emcee in that part of the country would call out my turn in her English-accented voice: “Judith Poll-LARD’ she would announce, with the emphasis on the Lard rather than on the first syllable. And so I would stumble my way through the piece, panting when I got to the eighth notes and only feeling comfortable once I could sit down again in one of the stiff taffeta dresses that my mom had sewn for the occasion.
My recital as an adult was much better that that. When I lost my place, (I knew I would; it’s so tempting to focus on what those violins are doing),
I simply stood my bow on my knee as if I was the Guest Soloist who had just been flown in from Vienna and was awaiting my turn to join in again as the others whizzed four bars ahead of me. Who knew? And who really cared? One thing you imagine when you are young is that everybody cares. One thing you know for sure as you get older is that nobody cares because they are all too busy thinking about themselves. At the end of the piece, when our teacher asked us to stand up and take a bow, I did so with a detached air of bravado. The others, younger than me by a few decades, hopped up off their chairs. My own ‘hopping up’ was more in the form of the raising of Lazarus, but I still didn’t care. “Lucky me,” I thought, “doing this.”
There is a lot of advice for people like me out there. Itzhak Perlman says that if you practice slowly you will forget slowly. I wish I could follow his advice and slow down. I cling to my childhood habit of getting the technical bits over with first and then it’s zip, zip zip and we’re off to the melodious stuff. One generous pull on that bow from frog to tip and I’m channelling Jacqueline du Pres.
Had I never watched Julian Lloyd Weber play Arioso on YouTube I’d never have known what unforgivable things I’ve been doing to it, but three and a half years ago I didn’t know the finger board from the G string so it’s all good.
Dr. Charles Limb, Johns Hopkins Professor of Otolaryngology, says that music “allows you to think in a way that you used to not think, and it also trains a lot of other cognitive facilities that have nothing to do with music”( Elizabeth Landau, CNN, May 28th, 2012, CNN.com).
And now, the experts tell us, our brains have plasticity and can change as we learn new cognitive skills, music included, and that all of this practice will create new neurons and new pathways in our brains. And then there is the creation of dopamine, that wonderful brain-created substance that gives us pleasure including those moments when we get to specific, thrilling musical phrases.
With these factors in mind, every Monday afternoon I drive to a neighbouring city in our little red Honda with my cello in the hatchback.
I park the car, hoist the cello onto my shoulders, climb the flight of stairs to the tiny practice room where the acoustics are so mellow that they trick me into believing that I’m on my way to geriatric musical stardom.
My teacher is so much more inspirational than were the haunted Munchian piano teachers of my youth, one of whom kept a long stick for whacking stray fingers. My teacher has agreed to let me keep time with my foot rather than with the Devil Metronome that sends me into a panicking race with the beat.
My music lesson in the 1950s made me feel like one of those tiny, tortured people in a Hieronymus Bosch painting who are crushed by an unseen Overlord and spend eternity dangling over their own particular Hades. I practice every day but if I can’t there is no blame, no feeling of not having done enough. There is freedom to be found in aging.
I want more, and then some. I want to play Gershwin and let those strings ache their hearts out over ‘Summertime,’ ‘Embraceable You,’ ‘But Not For Me.’ I’m learning a piece of Fiddle music on the cello with one friend on banjo and another on acoustic guitar.
This whole process of reinvention will be more largo than vivace. I’ll never replicate the bliss that took off from Mstislav Rostropovich’s strings when he played Haydn’s Cello Concertos, but “in the meantime time, in between time, ain’t we got fun?”