Travels With My Cello

  • The Sana'a Community Orchestra

    Marianne Ide

    My neighbor had a friend, Stephen, who had started a small orchestra in Sana’a several years back.  He was a missionary with two daughters who played instruments and felt like they needed musical companionship, so he rounded up anyone who could play a western instrument.  Aid workers, teachers, government employees: whoever had a little extra time joined.  Usually he wanted musicians to be at least 12 and have played for two years.  While I more than met the age limit, I was quite a bit below the experience requirement.  Stephen didn't care: there were no cellos in Yemen, and he only had one other instrument playing bass clef.  I was thrilled and terrified all at the same time, but I figured that since the orchestra had never actually played anywhere in public, my musical shortcomings would be kept semi-private.  

    So, on the first Sunday in October, I dragged my cello through the gate separating our compound from my neighbor’s house where rehearsals were held, and set up.  I was the first one to arrive.  I tuned, re-tuned, rosined, fidgeted, and started to sweat.  What was I doing here?  Really, at this point, I could read a time signature and was comfortable with 4/4 time as long as there weren't more than 4 notes in a measure.  I understood tempo to the extent that “adagio” meant “slow” and “allegro” meant “fast.”  I could read all of the notes on the bass clef as long as they didn't go higher than open string A.  I sensed raging humiliation coming on the horizon.

    The group started to arrive.  Stephen came first with his lovely daughters, one a flautist and the other a bass clarinetist, and his wife, our piano player.  Stephen was a force of nature.  The only thing that ever mattered to him was that we played, hopefully well, but it was the sheer feat of having an orchestra in Yemen that thrilled him.  He welcomed me with open arms, and was fully aware that I was a serious beginner.  I loved him immediately.  Others trickled in, unwrapping head scarves and chattering away.  In all, we were about 20 people.  Mercifully, we had a bass guitarist, so I had someone to follow…sometimes.  Stephen introduced me, distributed the Christmas scores, which they had all played last year.  He enthusiastically handed me the cello part, and then told the group how happy he was to finally have a cello to play the solo at the beginning of “Coventry Carol 

    A solo?  A solo what, exactly???  He couldn't possibly be serious.  I thought my hearing had gone off, but while I was busily having a panic attack, Stephen got started and my musical education began in earnest.   I opened my score, and suddenly felt like I was trapped in one of those dreams where you are in a play, but you can’t remember the lines.  My music looked like it was written in a secret code.  There seemed to be arrows everywhere; arrows over notes pointing up, down and sideways.  Longer arrows under notes, while commas floated over staff lines.  Weird words I had never seen before like rit., allarg., arco, marcato and pizz.  Someone mentioned a “bird’s eye.”  The tempo was indicated with expressions like “With Wonder” or “In Awe.”  

    What the hell was this?  Worse still, I couldn't make any sense of the line I was playing.  Sure, I know the melody to “Silent Night”, but my music didn't sound like any “Silent Night” I had ever heard.  Instead, I saw a whole series of goofy eighth notes with rests in between.  Where was that in “Silent Night?”  Later, I found out that this was the wonderful world of harmony and only on rare occasions would I ever be playing the melody line, which meant I had no way of knowing what anything was supposed to sound like.  I could have been playing “The Roses of Picardy” for all I knew.  Sure, I could read most of the notes, but I didn't know what to do with all the symbols scattered across the music.  I vaguely wondered how badly things would turn out if I simply ignored them.

    Then we got to “Coventry Carol.”  And there it was, the dreaded cello solo- about 10 measures of beautiful, haunting cello music preceding the old familiar carol.  Stephen graciously gave me a pass at that rehearsal, as I think he could see the sheer terror in my eyes.  I squinted at the solo passage, and I thought, “Ok, I can read these notes, and I know where most of them are on the fingerboard.  Maybe I can do this after all.”

    The rehearsal ended, as all horrifying situations sooner or later will.  I went up to Stephen and thanked him, and promised to practice, but really, this was way beyond me.  He smiled warmly, and said, “Hey, no problem!  I couldn't hear you anyway.  But that sure is a beautiful cello you've got there!  See you next week!”

    I went home and practiced with an intensity bordering on manic obsession.   Even though I was truly lost that night and mostly just sat, clutching my bow and listening, it was still an unforgettable experience.  The horns behind me, violins next to me, flutes facing me.  The sound swelled, and if you will forgive me a moment of pure corniness, the music touched me.  I wished at that moment that I could play all of the music, including the solo.  I didn't want to be a terrified onlooker.  I wanted to be a full-fledged participant in the Sana’a Community Orchestra, making music with my new friends in this ancient land.

    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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