Once there was a tree, probably germinated in the Bavarian forest around the turn of the 19th century- and this tree was felled, bucked, hauled and delivered to the workshop of a luthier. Although we cannot be sure of the dates, the stamp Joh. Baptiste Schweitzer anno 1813 ended up on this luthier’s creations, though most likely they were fashioned by some other German maker during the late 1800s and early nineteen teens. Some of this wood was hewn into the broad frame of a cello. As was the style of the time, the luthier varnished it in a warm chestnut finish, with long pinstripes of grain running down the front and flames whipping widthwise across the back. For the better part of a century, this instrument was played, altered, damaged and repaired- until one day it made the voyage across the Atlantic to the New World. It may have been in the hold of a ship, or perhaps in stately quarters, the plaything of an aristocrat’s child, or maybe one of many cellos belonging to a touring orchestra that was traded for another instrument in New York’s bustling market. Perhaps it was part of an unclaimed estate, auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Around 1993, this cello appeared in Los Angeles. That year, a tall girl with glasses hauled this cello up Mt. San Jacinto for her summertime teacher, Hans Jensen, to evaluate for potential purchase. After their lesson, which was on Bach and shifting, Hans said, “If you don’t buy this cello, I will.” The girl raced to the payphone and called her parents, who’d mortgaged more than their home to afford their child’s growing ambitions in music. Later that same day, she left the cello in the back of Bowman hall to eat lunch with her fellow music campers. Upon her return, she found the cello in a different place. Upon opening the case, she saw that the neck had been uprooted from the shoulders of the body and the fingerboard threatened to penetrate the face.
She went outside in the fresh mountain air, and sobbed as she vomited inelegantly in the brush. The cello was surely destroyed.
She phoned her parents again, and they drove up Mt. San Jacinto to pick up the cello they did not yet even own and dropped it off at the shop to be purchased and repaired at great expense.
The girl loved the cello. She began winning competitions and appearing as a soloist. She auditioned into good music schools and played for legends in master classes. Her arms ached, tingled and buzzed, and the cello asked if it wouldn’t be a little easier with a lower bridge and different fingerboard. She moved to England and the cello was happy for the change in climate, finally back home in Europe. She returned to Los Angeles and the cello endured endless modifications to steady her through recitals and auditions, burning stage lights and unforgiving microphones. The girl grew into a woman. A teacher. A professional. The cello traveled thousands of miles and cheerfully greeted the woman at the end of every journey, scarcely falling out of tune even after long flights over countless time zones. The cello sang sweetly. The cello growled deeply. The cello even rocked out in front of arenas full of screaming fans. They were happy together.
One day, the woman made the decision to relocate. Suddenly, the cello was dizzy with humidity and violently tightened in the cold winters. Things were made better with a few bridge experiments and more frequent string changes. The cello was happy to play well for the woman, and the woman looked down at the instrument in her arms as one of the only constants she had known, through thick and thin.
Change is the only constant. In previous times, thick and thin were more like thick and a little less thick. I’d not really known thin until I moved to this coast, saddled myself with student loans and debt incurred trying to establish a new life in an uncertain economy as an unknown entity. Starting around the new year, it became clear that something had to change, that I could not rely on students and the astoundingly well timed last minute reprieves of royalty checks from the boom time back in LA. I began looking for other work, all of it related to my training: adjunct teaching, arts programming for wounded veterans, private teaching at established schools. Then I began looking for any work. Target. The Home Depot. Anthropologie. I’m not too proud to do what it takes to make the ends meet. None of them would have me, all for the same espoused reason: overqualification. And they were right. I would not stay around and be a career retail employee. I get it. But where would the money come from? I looked at my good bow and promptly sent it to New York, to be shown to dealers there. After a several months and a few near buyers, the bow came back. I’d just started some part-time work to supplement my student load, but it was scarcely enough to displace the crushing burden of debt two years of self-employment and graduate school had left me with. I looked past the good bow at my cello, and tearfully put it up for consignment in late spring. And last Friday, it sold.
For the first time since I was a little girl, I have no cello of my own. I am lucky to be borrowing an instrument from a colleague until things sort themselves out, but the absence is palpable. Also palpable is the good fortune to have had an instrument to sell in the first place. Like the giving tree who relished doing whatever the little boy needed at various phases of his life, my cello was in a position to once again propel me to the next level in mine: financial stability. I will borrow instruments and live within my means until I have a way to acquire another cello. While not a glamorous aphorism, it does seem to be rooted in the common sense so lacking in the musical sphere, where the true professionals never really struggle, and the idea of non-performance or non-professorial work is best left to the lowly scoffers who have less talent and even less relevance. I grew up not understanding that most musicians don’t make it on music alone. I cursed my bad luck to only have 30 students and shook my head when I had 5 measly recording sessions per month. This post will surely delight my detractors as further evidence that the square peg can change coasts but still won’t fit into the round hole.
I’m writing this for the other professionals out there who are asking themselves the same questions I’ve asked myself over these past few months. Am I a real musician any more? What is my value? My purpose? How do I do this in an economic environment that doesn’t even support the most dire necessities, let alone art?
Given all of this, maybe I’m not in a position to offer advice. But if I was I’d say this:
Without tests, what the hell are we? Surely we can’t expect a lifetime of pats on the back and guaranteed relevance. In the end, as is always the case, you just have to want it more than the other guy and not let the naysayers sculpt your vision. There will be sacrifices and hard questions to answer. How you choose to respond is up to you. How you respond is what defines you.
The Giving Tree, written by the incomparable Shel Silverstein.
Oh, Emily. I wish I could hug you right now. And yes, how you respond to challenges is a lot of what defines you. Every time you get back up again after a setback, you inspire me.
I’ll be thinking about this beautiful (and sad, and very real) post for a long time.
Thanks, guys. I debated whether or not to even talk about this, but in the end it seemed like the right thing to do. 🙂
This is lovely – and sad – and pertinent to so many right exactly now. The less we work in this grim economic climate, the less we feel like real musicians – but the instincts and the training and the love don’t go away. Thank you for posting this!
Emily, it is you and not your ex-cello that is the giving tree. You have been a great inspiration and teacher to me. Maybe teaching is one of your callings in your life, in music and in the way you approach the world. Please know that you have deeply changed and moved me and many of your students and friends. Love, Wendy.
Damn it, this is just wrong in so many ways. For a player, a real player to be without an instrument is a mark of shame on us. If we can’t help our friends, our teachers, our artists, our basic humanity is destroyed. Please – let’s not let this stand. If I can help Mike Block pay for new teeth, I can darn well help you get a decent instrument. Kickstarter, anyone? I would love to be the first on that subscription list.
I would be not far behind.
Being in much the same situation myself — not enough work, no real prospects or opportunities beyond those I create for myself, huge student loan debt — I can only say I’m sorry and I hope things start working out. I kick myself frequently about the questions you posed at the end of the post. Regular people and amateur musicians think I’m lazy or unmotivated because I don’t work much. It’s hard to explain to them, especially when I’m asked to play for free (by organizations and promoters who could pay if they chose to); then I have to decide between doing it for “exposure” or not doing it (because I need the money and free work vs. expenses involved is too much of a consideration.) When I do get paid, it’s generally much less than the “real” professionals (i.e., the ones playing in the Big Local Union Orchestra). I feel like I’m begging, and that it should be a great privilege for me to work, that I should consider myself lucky anyone called. It is a horrible feeling.
I enjoy reading your blog very much, even though I’m not a cellist. As a professional, I’m always looking for authenticity. While I wish things were better, I’m glad I can read here that I’m not the only musician in the US who is having financial problems.
You appear to have sustained a rite of passage that is offered only to the purest of heart and earnestness of love for how music can connect you to others. About another who traveled that way before you: http://www.cello.org/cnc/piatti.htm