The Prelude to Cello Suite number 1. There aren’t a ton of good solos for Cello. It’s a foundation instrument to most composers, the sweetness all goes to the violins and violas, the horns and the winds. The Cello gets the gravy, the grits. Fill in the richness and provide a contrast, rhythm. At least where I stopped playing, that’s what Cello is. You wanna be the soloist you learn violin. You want to be in a band that’s not orchestral? Learn the bass or the violin.
I didn’t pick cello randomly. I could see that I wasn’t going to get along with the kids in band class. A few cute girls went that way but also a lot of goober guys, you know, the ones who graduated from eating boogers to farting for attention, so I headed toward the orchestra room with the quiet kids. Violin was for girls. You didn’t have to be a genius to see that. It was the squeaky one, too, squeaky enough my ears hurt sometimes listening to it so I couldn’t imagine practicing it at the house, interrupting Dad’s naps, blotting out TV shows. The viola was closer, bigger, the tone was a lot more listenable. But it was obvious, again, that it was for the boys to bear the cellos. You play them splay legged, they’re heavy, they sing in the same range as men. I could imagine napping to cello song. So cello it was.
We’re in the Gammage, at the college. There are lots of adult looking people around and I feel awkward and young and I would like to go home. The last time I did this was very stressful and I had an accompanist then, somebody who was an adult who had been there with me coaching me through the entire experience. This time I am alone. I tug awkwardly at my clothes. I think I’m just wearing my metropolitan youth symphony clothes, I don’t think I have any others. Cummerbund and Cello both start with C and they go together. I’m not sure where the bow tie fits in. Somewhere beautiful music is playing but I can’t even hear it, all I can hear is my pulse and the sound my clothes make scratching against me.
Years of lessons. Private lessons. Orchestra at school. MYS. Practicing at home. Your fingers hurt, they don’t tell you really about that and you get blisters places. Your hands cramp. You’re profoundly bad at it, and everyone knows, including you. There is no bliss of ignorance with a fretless stringed instrument, there is only poor intonation and lack of practice. You have to do stuff over and over that is really annoying to listen to. No one encourages you. They tell you that your parents will but nobody does, it’s an expense and a hassle and they know you’re never gonna make a dime with this so they say all the stuff they’re required to. They tell everybody how much they support you doing it. They get excited about how the activity is gonna look on your college transcripts. But ultimately it’s just more stuff they paid for that they have to tell you to clean up. They wish you’d quit and get a hobby that didn’t cost anything, maybe one that made money.
I walk out and all I can see is the spotlight, I can feel myself sweating and I can feel my breath, fast, way too fast. Whoa did I start already I can see the bow moving and I can see my fingers going but I cannot stop… I don’t know what speed things are going and I can see the crowd and they’re embarrassed for me. Oh no. Most of them avert their eyes. It is over in… dozens of seconds. My three minute piece. When I finish I can’t even bow. The announcer isn’t prepared, I have left him speechless. I leave the stage wordlessly.
My parents can barely hold back their laughter. This is their strategy with all shame, to make it a joke and if you can’t laugh about it you are the asshole. Why aren’t you laughing, asshole.
FASTEST CELLO IN THE WEST. I wish I were dead. DID YOU EVEN BREATHE. No I did not. I didn’t and I wished I never had to breathe again. OH YOU KNOW WE ONLY TEASE YOU BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU. Yes I am aware that you say that every time and that in repetition there is truth. HAHAHA WE WILL LAUGH ABOUT IT SOME DAY. You appear to be laughing about it now.
We had some kind of shame meal on the way home, some grotesque food mistake to corporealize the emotional horror I was feeling. Greasy Tony’s? The Chuck Wagon? They joked about it. And joked about it. And joked about it. They waited what must have seemed like an appropriate amount of time and joked about it again. Finally I laughed about it, because it was obviously what they needed. They needed to know they had fixed it and that I could laugh about it. Ha ha, fixed. What a moron I looked like up there. Ha ha. Yep wow what a failure! Haha Cello failure. In front of SO MANY PEOPLE TOO ha ha man what a jape.
That is when I quit Cello. I kept playing for a while after that, but I really just waited for an excuse. I stopped practicing. Eventually my mom asked me if I wanted to keep doing private lessons, and I said I did but I didn’t. I toyed with the idea of learning guitar, which seemed like a more modern and versatile musical instrument. Or maybe piano. Maybe even violin, see what the big deal was. And one day I was trying to do something, work on something, and I whistled a little song when I was working, and when my mom heard it, she said “You are just tonedeaf aren’t you.” and I guessed I was if she said so. Dad had once said she had perfect pitch, so she would know. So that meant I wasn’t good at music right. I practiced a lot and while I did OK I didn’t get great at it, like not famous, so the problem must be I have some dysfunction with music. If at first you don’t succeed – maybe try a different hobby because this clearly isn’t your forte. So I quit.
Not every Thanksgiving, and not every Christmas, but enough that I’ve stopped counting, I’ve gotten to listen to that story, from my parents point of view. The story of the fastest cello in the west. They’ve told all my friends. Every girlfriend they’ve ever met. How hilarious they thought it was to watch me fail in front of my peers and adults and how obvious it was from the stage how panicked and awful I felt. Always when someone else is there, never just to me. And I’ve had to sit there again, my fork clenched in my right hand, and a rapidly dwindling beer in my left, listening to them recount the story of how they shamed me out of music in front of dozens of strangers, recalling it with the sort of glee and nostalgic wistfulness that I hope other parents use to describe the day their kids graduated college. Oh what fun we had that day. And we can still laugh about it! They laugh. They CAN still laugh about it.
I wonder why they never bring it up just to me, not that any of them talk to me individually much. But according to them it’s such a fun story, they have such fun with it I wonder why that’s never something they just talk individually to me about. Maybe because I’d have told them that it was the reason I quit music. Maybe because it’s so obvious I’m still hurt about it. Maybe they think it’s sweet of them to not poke at my wounds unless they’re working as a pack so everybody can get a taste.
But today, when my weak little adult fingers try to make a G chord on this guitar, all I can think is.
“It’s OK, Aaron. Everybody makes mistakes and you panicked. I’m sorry you feel discouraged and I’m sorry you had to get embarrassed like that in front of folks. You might feel like you failed. And you did. There are two things to remember about failure – 1. failure is a real result, that can happen even if you’ve done everything right. 2. failure is not final. Having failed does not make you a failure. How you respond to failure determines whether or not you are a failure. If you pick up and you move on, you don’t let it stop you, you will be a winner. If you fail and try again and fail and try again and fail and try again…. you will be a winner. Only if you let a single setback stop you will you truly be a failure.
You made this mistake this time, but you will get over it, you’ll get past it and next time you’ll remember to breathe, and you’ll remember to count it out. Nobody does it perfect the first time, and even if they did, nobody does it perfect every time. If you see somebody who is doing something amazing that looks effortless, you need to recognize that it probably took hours and hours and weeks and months of hard work to make it look that easy. No human being knows how to do ANYTHING when they are born. Everything that people do other than piss on themselves and cry are things they’ve learned and practiced and messed up at in front of people doing, and it’s important to them to keep doing anyways. Even if Cello isn’t important enough for you to keep doing right now, you need to find what is important to you and make time for it in your life.”