“No, no, NO! You're thinking, not feeling!”
My music teacher bent over her cello and swept the lower strings with her bow. The arpeggios of Bach's Prelude to Suite No. 1 danced in the air with a vigor I could not hope to imitate. Mrs. Schoenblum's calloused fingers flew over the fingerboard. She punctuated the lowest notes of each arpeggiated chord with a slight fermata, a lingering over the richness of the tone before the ascent into the next musical phrase.
When she finished, her eyes were closed and her breath came hard. She paused as if savoring the final echoes of her performance before opening her eyes and turning to me.
“That is how the Prelude must be played. You are flawless with the mechanics, but the feeling, the passion is lacking.”
I began to protest but Mrs. Schoenblum interrupted with a gesture of her bow. “Again, Marcie, and this time, with feeling.”
I stroked the strings with my bow, intent on every note. Internally, I seethed. Bach was so precise, every note in its ideal position in the piece. Bach was not Saint-Saens or Dvorak. I longed to play “The Swan” or the Cello Concerto. Those melodies sang with beauty. But my teacher insisted on the Bach for my recital.
“You must find your voice with the Prelude. Yes, you must think the notes on the page but you must feel them with your heart. Again.”
I obeyed. What else could I do? Mrs. Schoenblum charged eighty dollars for each half hour lesson. She had been my teacher ever since my parents purchased a child-sized instrument for me at the age of five. Her own musical accomplishments included tours which brought her to the finest concert halls in America and abroad. She did not accept just anyone as a student. The realization that I must have shown promise inspired me to spend long hours in the practice rooms at Juilliard perfecting each musical passage.
“Stop!” I removed the bow from the strings and balanced it upright on my knee. Mrs. Schoenblum's mouth was set in a firm line.
“You are treating Johann Sebastian Bach like he is a mathematical formula to be solved. He wrote his works to the glory of God. He followed the musical conventions of the time, yes, but his works were masterpieces of beauty.”
If she only knew how difficult algebra was for me, she would not have made that comparison. I grimaced.
“If you can not find your voice, you are no better than a player piano. Here.” Gently placing her cello in its stand, she strode to a low shelf. She removed four DVDs, nodding as she selected each one.
“I do not wish for you to imitate any of these performances. I lend them to you so you may hear and see the Bach played with different voices. So you may understand.” She gave me three of the DVDs. I glanced at the covers to see master cellists Janos Starker, Yo-Yo Ma, and Rostropovich. I held out my hand for the fourth video but Mrs. Schoenblum hesitated and blushed.
Her voice was lower and less confident. “I wish for you to play this one last of all. The performance does not equal that of the other three but it is another expression of the Bach.”
The plain cover did not contain an artist's name. I raised my eyebrows in an unspoken question.
“Come back next week with your voice.” Whatever Mrs. Schoenblum had been thinking was replaced by her clipped business-like command.
That evening, as I lounged in my apartment eating cheap supermarket pizza and sipping skim milk, I watched the masters. I marveled at Starker's aggressive playing, melted with Yo-Yo Ma's intimate rendering, and admired Rostropovich's style.
The final DVD slid into the slot. On the screen, a teenager appeared embracing a cello. She took a deep breath, her bow paused over the strings. She smiled at the camera before launching into the first arpeggio. With the final notes, she shyly smiled again and hunched her shoulders toward her instrument.
The performance was not mechanically faultless but the young girl seemed in love with each note. She coaxed resonant sounds from her cello, exploring the full range of her emotions.
I wiped greasy hands on my jeans and cradled my cello. Closing my eyes. I resolved to discover my voice like Mrs. Schoenblum had so long ago.
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