Saturday, July 28, 2007

Cello Hands (Blogathon 26)

Hi, I'm MissMeliss, and I'm
taking over Jessica's blog for a few minutes. She's either very cool,
or very trusting, probably both, so I'll try not to abuse the

I wish I could tell you that because I am a product of music in the
schools, I am writing this from a busy cafe on the Left Bank of Paris
after earning a ton of money playing my acoustic guitar on a street
corner, but I can't. I hope it's not horribly disappointing when you find
out I'm actually writing in bed, with my laptop propped on a pillow, and
two small dogs playing dominance games, vying for my attention, and
nudging my poor husband until he's almost on the floor.

As tender as my version of domesticity may be, I promised I'd write
about music.

So here's the thing:

I am a product of public school music classes, and I'm proud of it.
(Actually, I'm a product of public schools in general, and I'm even
more proud of that, but we're focusing on music today.) I was
going to say that it started with me begging my best friend to let me try
her violin one afternoon on the post office lawn, where we'd stopped on
the way home, but it was probably much earlier. After all, I remember
being involved in choruses and choirs all the way back in kindergarten.
And we didn't have to pay for a penny of that, but the violin story is
way cooler.

And it's true. When I was in fourth grade, and we lived in Arvada,
Colorado, my best friend Jill was taking violin lessons. I'd always been
a singer - Cora and I pretty much split all the solos in school shows
- but we didn't own a piano, and I'd never really been exposed to other
instruments much. Every day after school, I'd bug Jill to let me play
her violin, and she'd patiently try to teach me. I pretty much sucked
at it. Short people with small-ish hands don't do well as violinists, as
a general rule. But one afternoon there was a stranger (to me) at the
door of our classroom. He had merry blue eyes, and a white goatee, and
he radiated music and joy.

My teacher brought me out into the hall and introduced us, so I
learned that he was Mr. Guillian, and he taught instrumental classes twice
a week in a small room near the cafeteria. "Jill says you want to learn
to play the violin," he said gently. "So I came to meet you. Could you
hold out your hands?" And I did, and he made a show of looking at
them, asked if I could do the Vulcan salute (hey, it was 1979, everyone was
a Trekkie then), and pretended to ponder. "Here's the thing," he said.
"I have a lot of violinists, and I'd really love a couple of cellists.
Do you know what the cello is?" And I did, because when I was little
I'd had this really nifty record (like, vinyl, dude) with Bob "Captain
Kangaroo" Keeshan introducing Peter and the Wolf on one side,
and he went through each of the instruments and taught you their themes
and sounds...I explained all this, and he laughed, but it was the kind
of laugh an adult makes when a child has thoroughly delighted them in
some fashion.

"The thing is," he explained, taking me gently by the wrist (this
was before teachers risked jail time for innocent contact), and holding
my hand out so that the light from the transom windows filtered down.
"You have cello hands. Would you like to come join some other students
and learn to play the cello?"

And so I did. The music classes were free, and my mother rented a
cello for me, from the school, for $10 a month. (When I wanted to keep
playing during the summer, Mr. Guillian graciously loaned me his
daughter's old cello. It was amazing, really dark almost walnut colored wood. I
loved it.) We started with Suzuki books, even though we weren't using
the real Suzuki method. Suzuki books are great for learning because you
play real tunes from day one. There was one other budding cellist, two
violists and four violinists in our group, and we met on Tuesdays and
Thursdays. When we were invited to play in the county orchestra, we'd
walk together to the junior high school for rehearsals, and one of the
boys would help me carry my cello. (I want to you picture a bunch of
kids in 1970's clothing walking down the street holding violins like
machine guns and a cello like a cannon. Yeah. It was like that.) Our mothers
would take turns driving us home. Did you know you can fit four small
children and a cello in the back of a classic Beetle? Now you do.

Cut to 1980. We'd moved to California, and I was shocked to find
that there was barely any arts education in the schools. Wasn't California
supposed to be progressive? I learned very early about what happens
when people decide that arts education isn't important. I went from a kid
who loved school to a kid who hated it, and that didn't change til
high school.

Cut again, to 1984. We're sitting in the office of the director of
what was then known was R-PAM. Roosevelt High School's Performing Arts
Magnet program. Auditions were over, the school year had started, but
we'd just moved to Fresno, and after looking at my file, the principal at
the overcrowded school in our neighborhood had said, "You know, she
should go to the "Fame" school." He'd pulled strings. I ended up singing
and doing a monologue in her office with no prep. And I mentioned, "I
also play the cello." I was triple threat. And I was in, baybeee.

Cut one more time, to 1986. Our orchestra has been invited to tour
UCLA, and then play in the California Orchestra Directors Association
(CODA) competition. We score highly, thanks do our director, Archie
Rader, who is the most amazing man on the planet. A double bassist, and a
delightful person. My parents were chaperones on that tour and I heard
him tell my mother, "Melissa has perfect pitch. We could tune the
orchestra to her voice. Did you know?" My mother has NO pitch.

So, this has been horribly long, and I can't even tell you that I
led a fascinating and unusual life as an itinerant cellist, playing on
street corners in San Francisco. In truth, I so disliked the person who
replaced Mr. Rader, that I let it kill my love of music for a long time.
I went to a university that didn't even have a music department
(although we did have a drama teacher who looked like Fidel Castro and kept
talking about Solidarity, so, it wasn't all bad). And then about ten
years later, after I'd been married to Fuzzy (my husband) for a while,
after I'd lived on my own, had a disastrous pre-marriage relationship with
a man who was a brilliant musician but a despicable human being, after
all that, do you know what I did?

I bought a cello. It's sitting in my library right now, waiting for
a new set of strings (which I have, but I hate restringing it because
I'm always afraid they'll snap and hit me in the eye), and I go in there
and play scales and noodle on it and stuff. Some day, I might join a
community orchestra. Or maybe I won't. But I am a better person, with a
greater love of music, because I had free music classes in school.

And I have cello hands.

Now give Jessica some money. Okay? Oh, and because she's The
Rock Chick
, I should mention that there's an all cello band
called Apocalyptica that does covers of Metallica tunes.

Help support the VH1 Save The Music Foundation by clicking here!

COMING UP NEXT: A guest blog entry by Janie Hickok Siess!


Michael C said...

Great post! Take care of those cello hands :-)

Sharon Lynne said...

Great post! Jam sent me over to this blog of Jessica's.

I've always wanted to play the cello!

The Rock Chick said...

all of my guest bloggers have been excellent! make sure you check them all out!!!