For nearly 27 years, I was a regularly appearing member of the cello section in the third oldest symphony orchestra in the nation. The Erie Philharmonic which, as of about 1975, made its home in our local Warner Theatre (also, one of three operating Warners in the country), was – three out of every four weekends – my job.
Yes. That trio. The third oldest, in the third theatre, for three weekends every month.
To any observer with a keen eye, I was the one labeled “expressive”. I used my body to make the music happen. To some, such physicality was an annoyance, assumed to be some sort of affectation interrupting the collective of automatic, otherwise congruous motion of the body of players; in reality, due to the absence of short muscle mass, I moved of necessity. My arms like slender reeds, they needed leverage to get the sound out. And, I used that leverage, with all my might. In short, I was the body that never sat still. And, occasionally, audience members remarked that they enjoyed “watching” me play.
Indeed. Playing the cello requires a remarkable physical command. Unlike the wind instruments, which demand a steely control of the abdominal musculature, this nearly life sized wooden “box”, anthropomorphic in design, must be mastered using the large muscles as levers, and the small digits for dexterity, integrated with isometric attention.
The cello is positioned at the sternum contact point, then held between the knees for stability, its endpin anchoring the instrument to the floor. The player’s back remains straight, at 90 degrees to the hips, and the legs open to contain the instrument. While the torso and hips appear stable, the core of the body generates all the power which informs the upper back and arms, responsible for moving both across and down the instrument, assymetrically, to achieve sound production – the left arm, in vertical traversal up and down the strings, and the right arm in horizontal trajectory. Decades ago, the Music Educators’ National Conference (MENC) sponsored a study to determine which of the symphonic instruments required the greatest expenditure of kinetic energy; sure enough, the winner was: the cello.
I can still remember the day we “met.” My father the family crooner and “one-man band”, he’d sung to me from my birth as I’d taken the bottle in his arms. That male bari-tenor voice was my first love, and perhaps what spoke deeply to me that day while, returning from the school lavatory down the hall, I heard it; an older boy, sitting alone in the reading room, practicing by himself.
Following the sound of that “voice”, unable to identify it or the source of its timbre, all the way into that reading room I stood, stock still, for how long I cannot say, mesmerized; why had nobody ever told me about this instrument?
I would sign up, thereafter, to learn to play one – with the traveling music teacher, in the small closet adjoining the gymnasium. He’d seat us, crammed into that tiny space, our motley handful of childhood eagerness – a clarinet, a trombone, a cello, maybe a violin and flute. I loved the smell of the canvas case, and the old, shiny rosin, and the twisted strings. I loved all its dusty mustiness, its dark German Shepherd brown finish, and the mystery of the sound every time bow drew across gut. I loved the simple book, with its easy little songs, and I played them, over, and over again. I loved carrying the cello down the hill and home after school, and back up the hill the next morning. I could not get enough. I was in fourth grade. I loved the cello.
Three years hence, at the transition to junior high school, somebody referred me to the local private teacher. And, I loved Dmitri Erdely. [See littlebarefeetblog/Dmitri]. He would guide me through Dotzauer and Goltermann and Klengel for the next couple years, and I would join the Jr. Philharmonic at age fourteen to sit in the first desk next to the high school senior, Kathy.
The music we played in the Jr. Philharmonic opened up a whole new world. In our household, the only recordings ever played on the Philco Stereo were inspirational artists from the Word Record company – soloists like Helen Barth, and George Beverley Shea, and Ethel Waters, or combos like the Palermo Brothers with their duo accordions. I had never heard a symphony before in my life, and here were Beethoven’s 8th, and other works, by Sibelius, and Rossini, on the music stand between us. I was in glorious heaven, under fluorescent light, and the man with the stick up in front of me – my special favorite, Harold Bauer – was some kind of god.
But, I had discovered while sitting in the tub one evening that the bones on the back of my neck were crooked. I stopped taking cello lessons. My mother took me to a doctor at the Shriner’s Hospital and, after several x-rays he determined that I did, in fact, have idiopathic scoliosis. But, as he told my mother, my bone growth had nearly ceased, and wearing the confining, steel brace for a solid year would be redundant.
I stopped taking cello lessons.
The final year of high school, I resumed lessons , this time with the principal cellist of the Erie Philharmonic. She introduced me to the Haydn Cello Concerto in C, but I struggled; the parts that took my hand up onto the fingerboard seemed impossible to navigate, and our repeated sessions with this same piece that whole year were disheartening.
Yet, in spite of my feelings of dissatisfaction, she insisted that I would qualify for a full scholarship to the university where she had obtained her degree, and told my mother so. Mom, however, seemed fixated on whether or not I should attend college at all; she fretted about my willingness to help “earn” my right to go, by doing things like the dishes and the housework. A full scholarship seemed lost on her limited world view, and her resistance was forceful. I would sit at Prayer Meeting after every lesson, biting my nails until they bled, trying inside my head to reconcile all these things.
An art scholarship earned me 700 dollars later that year, the award contingent upon proof of its use toward a higher education, and my mother deemed it God’s will that I be permitted to enroll in college. I chose Fredonia State, already familiar with its music department and its campus; as high school teens, my church youth group friends and I would ride the tandem bicycle all around its concrete walkways at the height of every summer after the Grove City Bible Conference.
As an art major, I quickly signed up for cello lessons. Dr. Louis Richardson lavished me with praise. I was his “most talented student” since Michael Goldschlager, he’d say – but, we all wondered if he said that to all the girls. He permitted me an occasional performance with the members of his studio; he urged me to pursue more music; I played in the college orchestra. Its music, chosen by Harry John Brown our conductor, was always exciting and thrilling and luscious and beautiful, and I loved making every note of it, every week.
About halfway into my college career, the art professors encouraged me to transfer to the Cleveland Institute of Art. We gathered a portfolio of my work, and I took it to CIA, and applied; the Institute accepted me, into their third year, as a graphic design/medical illustration student.
But, our family was short the final 1000 dollars required for me to enroll, and so I remained at home. I took my portfolio, by my mother’s urging, around to several ad agencies in town, all of whom said they liked my work but were not hiring. I gave up just before visiting the final agency, only to read of their having hired a new art director and assistant weeks later.
Working for two more years in town, I saved my money. I’d earned three thousand dollars, and put it in the bank. In an epiphany, while driving home from a visit to Fredonia, I realized that I could return to school, switch my major to music education, and become a music teacher for children.
Two and a half years later, the requirements for that degree were complete. All my art studio credits had transferred as electives. I played a solo recital – two pieces, from memory: The Boccherini Suite in G, and the Richard Strauss Sonata in F.
Not realizing that, these both being chamber works, memorization was not necessary, at that point in my life playing the cello in the reverberant practice rooms of “Old Mason”, with their large, sliding windows wide open over the atrium, was pure joy; these pieces memorized automatically, because I played them so many times. I played them, and I graduated. Dr. Walter Hartley came to my reception afterwards, and enjoyed the crab h’or doerves.
But, lean in for a moment. People often speak about “living the dream”. I had never fantasized about becoming an orchestral musician. Such an option had never reached my consciousness. I was profoundly uninformed. Dr. Richardson, in the whole time I spent as a bona fide member of his studio completing the music education degree, continued to insist that I should switch to performance and I, ever oblivious, persisted in my determined quest to be of service as a music teacher. The idea that I would qualify as a performing soloist was impossible for me to process; too frightening, such an unknown. Plus, I was too fearful of disobeying God’s dictae about living life as a servant. Nobody in my family had ever known anything at all about the life of a performing professional musician, and none of them were about to become willing to learn, either.
I finished school. Graduation, for me, was slated for December but, since there was no ceremony scheduled for that small class, cap and gown was set for the following May. I remember breaking up with my boyfriend, crying for twenty solid minutes, returning home after student teaching – wherein I had discovered myself woefully unable to address repertoire that I myself had never played in high school or college – and, crawling into bed, to sleep for nearly two months.
A trip to Florida pulled me out of that reactive depression, and so did a job at the Greek dinor. A year or so later, one of the local musicians heard that I was “back in town” and recommended me for the sub list of the two city orchestras. It was that simple. I joined Local #17, American Federation of Musicians, and off I went to become an orchestral musician.
My stand partner was none other than my college cello professor, Dr. Richardson. He wasn’t sure, even then, that his “most talented student” was ready to handle the symphony. But, at his guidance, and by his model, I clambered into the ranks. Determined, I learned by doing.
Yes. What had laid the foundation for those who would become my colleagues was lost on me. Completely unaware that they had all studied the orchestral “excerpts” with the degree of attention paid by literary scholars and mechanical engineers to their own skills, I was a monkey; put the notes in front of me and, somehow, I would make them into music.
Perhaps this drive was borne in me, decades earlier, by my self taught father – a man who never knew either his parents, or a decent meal, or a secure roof over his head until he’d met my mother. Perhaps being in the periphery of the mainstream for so many years taught me to persist. For me, it was never about fantasy; rather, it was about the harsh reality of being left, on the sidelines, while the rest of the world pursued their dreams. I was not about to be relegated to any cloud of dust. I would commence, just like the rest of them.
And, commence, I did. And, I’m still beginning. Every day. The process, for me, is always new; the music is always a curious, mysterious stranger, asking to make my acquaintance. And, I am ever ready.
In 2013, I left the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra’s list of hired players. I still miss the smell of the stage, the velour and cables in the wings, the feel of the original, wooden floor under my endpin, the opulence of the grande Art Deco theatre. But, the scene has changed there. Now, a player like myself is considered dispensable; younger, fresher, caffeinated and confident, the generation that came after me, all its fantasies vividly expressed, has slid into all the available seats. There are few advocates for the reliable, wisened musicians in these orchestras, unless they prove competitive enough to secure and then maintain contracts for a chair. Clearly, I missed this option – by several years, and a few miles. But, those miles remain, and I plan to travel them before I sleep.
Addendum (modified 10/21/18):
I continued to play my beautiful cello – in a different orchestra. From 1978, the Erie Chamber Orchestra had offered its programming to audiences free of charge, and I had joined in 1986 to become its principal cellist by 2000. The legacy of one Bruce Morton Wright left behind a mission to bring the world’s greatest music to everyone, regardless of station, and the maestro who took the helm after Bruce’s passing, Matthew Kraemer, remained committed to that promise for almost five years. You could hear us, once a month, for one night only, on a Saturday at 7:30pm, in our concert hall. It wasn’t the magnificent Warner. It was a little cramped on stage. The lighting was a problem. But, the music? The music was every bit as gorgeous as any you will find anywhere, performed with the highest commitment to excellence and emotional depth, to beauty, and in truth .
To you, I said, “Welcome!” To the rest of the world: “Bon Voyage!”
That was before February 24, 2018.
The Erie Chamber Orchestra is now history. Musicians who populated it are scattered. Some remain in the Erie Philharmonic; others perform with a newer, start up ensemble.
I am now a bona fide free lancer. For the past two months, the music composed for solo cello and piano have occupied my hands and heart. I can say that this is likely the path Louie, my mentor, always wanted me to take. Louie, I play for you, now….and, for my father, and his God. New beginnings, at long last, can truly be this good.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 11/7/15
All rights those of the author, whose story is told as you read it. p.s. On November 21st, 2015 MIDORI [was to have played] the Korngold concerto with the Erie Chamber Orchestra. In her place, Michael Ludwig, who performed memorably.