by Sae Kyoung Jang
When I open my cello case, I always catch a whiff of my instrument– a warm, woody, dark tone infused with a sharp splash, almost like acetone. Maybe it’s the type of wood my cello was crafted from, or the polish the violinmaker used, but the smell gets more defined each time. As I sit down, I hug my instrument from the back, bow arm resting comfortably on the strings, left hand resting on the shoulders. In a lot of ways, a cello is shaped like a woman: the slim neck, the shoulders, a narrow waist, and a round bottom. Most musicians develop a personal attachment to their instruments, and give them human traits – gender, personality, even names – and it says a lot about who they are. I have a friend who named his cello “Ivy.” At a glance, his instrument is light yellow-brown and timid. But once he starts playing, it’s clear that Ivy is clear and strong-minded, just like he is. He told me once that he doesn’t like how she sounds so bright, that he wanted to buy a mellower cello. Maybe it’s because I’ve never heard him with a different cello, but I always imagined they were soul mates.
I’ve thought about naming my cello for quite a while, but I get stuck on the first question – is it a girl or a guy? I think my confusion is a battle between my voice and the male composers’ voices coming out of the instrument. I’m not even sure what kind of a sound my cello has. I’ve had professional performers tell me something is “off” about my instrument, that something just doesn’t “click.” But I remember the first time I pulled a chord from my cello. I blinked my eyes wide in surprise at the thick, booming sound. The sound dashed through the room and I felt a gateway open inside of me. Still, I haven’t decided on a gender or a personality type, and I certainly have not thought of a name. Nevertheless, I think I picked the right instrument. Even if the violinmaker got the formula or the proportions wrong, I like the calming effect my cello’s smell has on me.
After warming up, I read through my piece, the Dvorak cello concerto in B minor – one of the last pieces Dvorak wrote in America. Dvorak never wanted to leave his country, the Czech Republic, but financial needs forced him to move to America. In the piece, he expresses his pride in, and nostalgia for, his nation. As I play, I feel the melodies spreading out from my guts, to my chest, through my arms, and out through the resonance of my strings. The harmonies, on the other hand, are almost unnoticeable, like a duck paddling under the water, constantly pushing and moving, supporting the smooth glide over the surface. I’m so close to grasping Dvorak’s longing as he reminisced about his home, and I can almost understand the calm sadness he felt when his cousin Josephine passed away. With a little practice, maybe I could fully comprehend Dvorak’s nostalgia, maybe I could turn his musical notes into emotions and mental images, and maybe I could even tell my own story through his melodies and harmonies.
As I study the orchestral score of the concerto, the harmonies are starting to fit asymmetrically with the melody. The flute accompaniment intertwines its hollow harmony with the frantic cello solo, as if there’s still a calm consciousness behind the desperate yearning to return home. The French horns foreshadow the cello’s eventual collapse in energy; they hum the same melody steadily without emotion, smooth without vibrato and tight within the beats. I know how I should shape the piece the way Dvorak meant it, the way he never mourns Josephine’s death, the way he accepts the event just as a part of him, the way the entire piece is an announcement of who he is. I can show it all, his passion and his longing – only I can’t get my left thumb to lead my fourth finger. My fingers won’t shift and rearrange as swiftly as necessary, and my right bow arm squeezes so hard the sound squeaks out. If only I could relax, my muscles would be more flexible to stretch the chords, my muscles would relax into the strings and let the instrument resonate. But Dvorak wrote the drama and the intensity into the music– how could I ever relax without losing the essence of the piece?
I look at my pinky and tell it to shift down so my C-sharp doesn’t fade out of the melody. But my left hand is playing Twister on the fingerboard, and moving the one finger would ruin the balance. I take a deep breath to relax my bow hand, so it doesn’t slide up in the middle of the piece. But as soon as I start playing, I tense up so hard my knuckles start to hurt. I can feel my tendons start to tingle – a sign that I should stop, or I’ll get tendonitis. The more I practice, the more I tense up. I’m looking at the black and white score Dvorak wrote, the musical notes reined to their position on the lines. But once I start playing, the notes go out of control, as if they have a mind of their own, and they get wilder the more I chase them. They’re running all over the place, and I can’t even remember where they used to be, or how the melodies and the harmonies made sense – “clicked” together – in the first place.
My cello croaks every time I try to draw a note out of it. It feels as if I’m trying to push through a wall, and the wall is pushing me back harder. Even if I fix my left hand to move swiftly down the fingerboard, my strings rattle or my bow will make them screech. Whatever I do, the worse I sound. I hate my cello. It doesn’t have a gender, a personality, or a name – and it wouldn’t even sing for me. As I put the wooden box back in its case, I catch a whiff of it. It’s sharp and disgusting. I put it in its locker, and lock it up in the corner of the practice room.
I open my locker, my daily 9 AM ritual, pausing before taking the case out. But I can’t bring myself to unclasp my case open. I don’t want to leave more disappointed than I did yesterday.
My fingers dance like string puppets, controlled by the composer’s spirit, tapping on any surface they can find. The melodies haunt my mind, playing to the beat of my steps or the professor’s chalk rhythmically hitting the board. The concerto plays over and over in my head, refusing to budge with any of my attempts to ignore its melodies. Subconsciously, as the song repeats internally, I feel the piece start to take shape. The passages that my finger muscles have refused to learn play perfectly in my mind. I close my eyes and imagine myself playing the concerto, the way I would want to in front of an audience. I see myself starting with the most vibrant note, being able to look at the audience straight on. My fingers shift like dancing spiders, reaching for the hard notes with vigor – until, even in my head, I mess up that one passage, missing that one C-sharp and letting the note fall flat to the ground. Even without the physical constraints of my hand, I let myself miss the note that I agonized about. I rewind to that perfect starting note, playing the scenario again in my head and practicing to get the note correctly. Unlike in the practice room with my cello, my mental practice finally lets me hit the note perfectly.
I come back to the practice room and open my cello case. The smell of my cello reminds me of sunlight on a summer day, and the metallic strings remind me of a refreshing splash of cold water. Setting my bow on the strings, I can feel the balance of my bow and my entire arm and the leverage of the bow hair resting. I relax my core weight into the strings and pull the bow, just letting the open string ring. As the note resonates, my mind clears. I close my eyes, and rerun my perfect performance in my head. Even though I have missed a couple of days of practice, I don’t feel a wall blocking me. I start the piece with a little squeak – I put too much pressure on the strings. Nearing the troublesome passage, I remember getting the note perfectly in my head, and stretch my hand for the C-sharp. My pinky lands firmly on the string, letting the C-sharp resonate in the room. I gasp at the note – how could I have perfected it without practicing? Could it be that the key to improving was in fact not practicing?
I continue onto my favorite passage; I’ve always been able to understand the lyrical lines and the strings’ rumble of harmony by the strings in this part, and there haven’t been any technical difficulties. It expresses an almost painful joy, the kind that hurts but makes you smile in reminiscence at the same time. I let my vibrato accelerate, anticipating the release of all of the tension in that soothing long note – but this time, my bow hiccups before the melodic line can merge into the note. The hiccup amplifies with every repetition, as if it had always been there, and my new perspective has allowed me to catch it. With more practice, the imperfections of my playing amplify, as my ears get more sensitive to tone and pitch, and as my mind fine-tunes the structure of the concerto. Each time, as I try to reach the perfect performance, I can understand the desperate nostalgia of Dvorak, yearning to reach something always closer and yet endlessly out of reach.
Sae Kyoung Jang is a member of the class of 2013 majoring in Chemical-Biological Engineering. She has been playing cello since age seven. At MIT, she continues to study cello performance at MIT with Rafael Popper-Keizer through the Emerson Scholars program, and plays in a chamber music group.