Bill hadn’t played his cello, for years.
We’d both studied with the same first teacher, Dimitri, but several years apart, never crossing paths coming up. However, about a year ago, in that roundabout random way, somebody hooked us up and Bill became yet another adult member of the studio of multi-aged students I’d established back in 1989 after my first trip into the world of Suzuki-based musical instruction at Stephens’ Point, WI.
The two of us, Bill and I, were now nearly 65 years old.
We private teachers of musical instruments run the gamut. Some are self taught, promoters of their own unique styles and approaches; others are conventionally and soundly trained by conservatories; still others come by their skills employing a mixture of acquired pedagogies and “shoot from the hip” instinct.
But, we all take on students, and that for reasons both selfish and noble. Some do because it’s easy money, no accounting for quality; others want to produce the next Perlman, Botti, or Ma; but among us authentic, Suzuki-registered devotees is a collective desire to help each, young or old, grow to enjoy the ability to make good, solid, beautiful music.
Bill was immediately likeable. He had the twinkly eyes, a clean cut presence, and a gentle demeanor. And, he said, his daughter (with whom I’d collaborated while she’d been a college student) wanted him to get some help with intonation. Sure thing, I told him; he’d come to the right place.
We set about some serious ear training. Dimitri had always been about tone, the bow trajectory, himself tall and lean, striding back and forth before us with puffing pipe, declaring with sweeping, long armed gestures: “Seeeng mit de chellow! SEEEEENG!” And, seeeeeng we did. We sang with our bows, drawing full resonance, sound albeit perhaps sourly out of tune, but big and glorious for Dimitri.
Bill already knew how to produce full, Dimitri style tone. So, the two of us worked on his ear, via his muscle memory, with keen aural attention. Pitch by pitch, Bill mastered the G major scale, pocket by pocket, until he could get through a whole Book I tune without losing its tonal center.
We moved on, into pieces which had more complex structure. He’d played some pretty advanced works of music by master composers, in the years between our lessons with Dimitri and the day we’d finally met. They’d been out of tune then, and they were now as well. We addressed all that, phrase by phrase, and there was no denying how much he cared, how earnestly he applied himself, and how each week he’d demonstrate noticeable improvement.
But, once we were all forced to go virtual, and Zoom et al afforded us zero opportunity to play together, I began to pick up on another curious feature about Bill. When playing alone, he seemed completely devoid of any internal rhythm. Even when counting, he’d start out fine but lose it midway, either accelerating or dragging until the steady beat was a vapor.
Bill understood note values. He realized that they each had specific duration. He just couldn’t express duration, when he played. Relative recognition, but complete imprecision, there was no steady beat in his consciousness.
Before anyone reading this thinks that I am in the habit of denigrating or throwing shade on any of my students, stay with me; there’s a point, here, and it’s probably not what you might be thinking.
Teachers are supposed to care about their students, hands down. But, I believe we should also strive to know them. Know them, fully. Get into their heads. And, with adults, this necessitates getting into their histories.
What was Bill about? How had he spent the bulk of his adult life?
Not as a cellist. Nope. Bill was a Security guard.
In fact, he’d begun his career as a policeman, in one of our outlying counties. From there, he’d moved to Baltimore MD, joining a force of about four thousand. Then, he became a Federal Marshall, spending decades in this field and, now, in retirement, Bill was the lone Security Guard for a major, local medical center.
As I sat listening to Bill play, I tried to get deeply into his brain. I wanted to become familiar with how his lifelong habits informed everything about him. Why was he unable to stay focused on the steady beat, even with the metronome pounding into his left ear?
I followed him from the beginning of the song to the end, and then it hit me. Bill had been trained to employ a global view. He was all about the entire scope of the environment, not the details. Any officer caught fixating on one aspect, one person’s behavior, is a cop waiting to be overtaken by a crafty criminal specializing in slight of hand. No wonder he couldn’t stay with the pulse; about a minute in, his brain would go panoramic. To the observer, his mind may have appeared to “wander”, to have “lost concentration”; but, in Bill’s world, he was merely returning to his job — as grand surveyor.
Bill being more than just pleasant, but gallant, he took to my confronting this with grace and deference. In fact, he concurred completely. I posited that he might, at work, entertain the occasional interchange of small talk with the proverbial smile and nod, but that absorbing conversational content was all an act. Again, he concurred. He didn’t like big parties, he said. He couldn’t concentrate on anything anybody ever said to him. At this point, surprise; I told him I was exactly the same. Relatability, the essence of common ground.
So, now Bill had a plan. He could harness his widely scanning, revolving, weather vane of a brain to the task of actual focus for 3 solid minutes during the passage of time required to produce a musical tune. He knew now when during the piece he’d likely veer off, and would set his intent with resolve to stay with that pulse through to the end.
Many teachers might question this conclusion. Excessive over think. Unnecessary analysis of basic inability. I stand in challenge, to all that. To my seasoned experience, there is no such thing, inability. There is only absence of informed understanding. The brain, and the mind which governs it, continues to produce – new cells, new blood vessel pathways; the mind, who is kidding whom, here? is as infinite as the God Who created it.
As we age, let’s remember that our successes are never either defined or limited by years.
Bill, the cellist, will tell you.
© 1/11/22 Ruth Ann Scanzillo/littlebarefeetblog.com. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. Thank you for respecting rights of authorship, and for being the better person.