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.