Travels With My Cello

  • Damage, Part 1

    By Marianne Ide

    I knew that having a cello in Yemen was going to be complicated.  Before making the purchase, I had thought over every likely scenario and decided that it was well worth the risk.   However, of all the problems I anticipated, the one that proved my undoing was one I had truly not foreseen.  I had thought about the fact that Yemen had no national orchestra, no local orchestras, no other cellists, no cello repair shops, no cello teachers, and still I decided it would all work out.  Some might consider me delusional to the point of insanity; I prefer to think I am just a "glass is half full" kind of person.  What I didn't understand, what only an experienced string player would have known, was how badly the weather in Sana’a was going to affect my cello.

    Now, Sana’a isn't as hot or as barren as you might think when you consider the Arabian Peninsula.  Anyone who has seen ”Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” knows that it rains quite a bit in the spring.  However, during the rest of the year, Sana’a is as parched and dusty as a high school history book.  The first hint that I had a heap of problems on the way came soon after my cello arrived.  I was sitting on the dais the school had provided for the “orchestra” (two violins, me, and a piano) for graduation.  We had just finished “Pomp and Circumstance,” and were now free to enjoy the ceremony until it was time to play the recessional. The graduates were sitting on the stage behind me, and I really wanted to watch the ceremony.  As I twisted around in my chair, my head bumped my scroll.  I heard a zipping sound, not unlike a child’s top when he pulls out the ripcord.  I looked down at my fingerboard, and saw that both my C and G strings had come completely unwound when my head hit the pegs.  Furtively, I tried to tighten and tune them, but I was sitting right in front of the audience.  There was simply no way to tune and not draw attention to myself.  I began to sweat.  How was I going to play the recessional on two strings?  My intonation in first position was sketchy enough without attempting shifts to positions I had never really practiced.  I tried playing quietly on the A and D strings, hoping nobody would notice.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tanya, the music teacher, looking at me as if I had lost my mind. She began playing the piano louder, trying to cover for my questionably timed impromptu on two strings.  Imagine “Trumpet Voluntaries” with bass clef fading in and out like bad radio reception and you’ll get the idea.  The good news about playing a cello for a Yemeni audience is that most of them have no idea what a cello is supposed to sound like, so when I screw up, none is really the wiser.  But Tanya knew and was well aware I was sending out the musical equivalent of a terrified cry for help.  After the graduates left, she looked at my pegs and calmly informed me that my cello was too dry.  We went back to her classroom to find some blackboard chalk to try to get my pegs to stay put.  Chalk worked for a while, but she warned me that I was going to have a serious problem if I didn't keep my cello moist.

    The concept of cello moisturizer left me totally bewildered.   Keeping me moist I understood;  I was a slave to body lotion and drank about a liter of water every day.  But how does one keep a wooden instrument moist?  I went home to my electronic teacher, Google, and typed in “cello moisture”, trying to figure this out. First, I learned that the mysterious looking thermometer inside my case was actually a hygrometer and that 20% relative humidity is hazardous to a cello.  The hygrometer in my case registered 5%.  Not good.  Next, I learned that those green snaky things that arrived in the F holes were actually Damp-it sponges and to moisten them every single day.  I bought 3 humidifiers and ran them constantly.  In addition to the weather, the problem was our house.  We had a beautiful old Yemeni stone house with single-paned windows and virtually no climate control devices.  The rooms were large and airy, with very high ceilings, designed to keep cool in the summer, and warm (sort of) in the chilly winter months. Plus, Yemeni architecture features loads of stained glass; lovely, but virtually impossible to insulate.  Since my daughter had the smallest bedroom, and thus the best chance of maintaining a constant environment, I turned her room into a tropical rain forest   My hygrometer now registered 50% and I felt like I had accomplished something only an industrialized country could manage:  I had created climate change right in my daughter’s bedroom!  


    I showed my Ethiopian housekeeper how to maintain the tropic zone, packed my stuff, and went home  to the States for the summer, hopeful that all would be well when I got back.


    Marianne Ide is an international schoolteacher and amateur cellist currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  When not playing her Artist cello, she teaches government and economics.


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