Travels With My Cello

  • Misha


    It was a beautiful, brisk October morning in Tbilisi, the kind of day that makes you think of apple cider, bonfires, and Halloween.   I strapped my cello to my back, and made my way down five flights of stairs, and out onto Kotetishvili Street where I lived.  My neighborhood was an interesting mix of new apartment buildings and 19th century houses, now crumbling to bits.  Picking my way across the cobblestones, I began the slog down the hill to the Tbilisi State Conservatory.  I was going to meet my Georgian cello teacher for the first time and we were going to be using one the of the  practice rooms for my lessons.  While the location was wonderfully convenient for me, my heart was pounding in my chest and not just from exertion.  I had heard the musicians in the conservatory; I belonged inside the building about as much as a ham steak on a Passover table.  But the lure of a real cello teacher was enough to make me suck up my fear and keep walking.

    I came to the Griboedov Street and approached the second of the two entrances.   As  I entered the lobby,  the receptionist at the desk looked up at me.  Wanting to avoid speaking Russian and the inevitable embarrassment that followed, I headed for the staircase, pretending like I knew where I was going.  When I came to the first landing, I stopped.  Crap.  I always get confused in European buildings- is the first floor the ground floor, or do you have to go up a flight to first floor?  My heart hammering so hard I was sure the receptionist could hear it, I started up the next flight of stairs, figuring I would just wander around until I found the right room.  At that moment,fate stepped in and I was saved.  The lobby door slammed shut as someone else had entered the foyer.  I turned to look, and saw an older gentlemen, also carrying a cello on his back.  Wondering if by some miracle this was Misha, I stood and waited.  He greeted the receptionist and started up the stairs.  He looked up and saw me, and smiled warmly.  “Marionne?”  he asked, mispronouncing my name slightly.  I smiled back.  “Misha?”  And that was it.  Our staircase introduction.  He motioned for me to follow him up two more flights of stairs and to the practice room.  He asked me if I spoke Russian (in Russian) and I answered that I didn't (in Russian), but I gave him Tanya’s letter telling him about me.  He put on his glasses, sat down, and read her letter, while I surreptitiously studied him.  Misha was a very big man, taller than me, (which is saying a lot), with intelligent eyes and a serious face.  When he finished reading, he looked up.

      Georgian Cellist and Teacher Extraordinaire,

      Mikheil Khoshtaria

    “Is ok.  Music is international language.”  Oh, if wishing made it so, I thought as I unpacked my cello and handed it over.  He looked at it, knocked gently on the sides and back, examined the bridge, then he hit an A on the practice room piano and tuned it. 

    Then he played.

    Two thoughts instantly collided in my head.  The first was an overwhelming sense of relief.  The second was a jaw-dropping sense of awe.   No, StringWorks hasn't paid me to say this, but they will be happy to know  that not only do their cellos sound good, they appeared to be impervious to enormous amounts of musical jackassery on my part, because in Misha’s capable hands, my cello sounded wonderful.  Misha was simply magnificent.   How many hours, how many years, how much commitment and patience went into coaxing sound this glorious out of a cello?  If nothing else, the hike down the hill was worth just this moment of beautiful cello music, but this was only the beginning:  He was going to teach me.

    He broke off playing mid-passage, nodded his head and said, “Is very good cello.  German?”  "No", I replied "American."  He handed me my cello and smiled and said, "OK, now you."  Somehow he indicated he wanted me to play the C major scale.   I threw my end pin rest on the floor, and tried to settle my cello into the rubber stop, but it kept sliding on the smooth wood floor.  Misha watched me struggle for a moment and said, “Marionne, no.”  He took my cello back, removed the cap on the tip and drove the spike into the wood floor.  You can do that??  I thought, but sure enough, when I looked more closely, I noticed that the floor was stippled with hundreds of tiny little holes from previous cellists.  Cello firmly settled in place, I started the scale, with fourth finger C on the G string.  He let me play about three notes, looking terribly confused, before he stopped me.  “Marionne, no.” (I was getting used to that expression).  “Play here” he said, plucking my C string.  Oh, yes, of course, THAT C major scale, you know, the one that starts on the C string.  Feeling like a giant idiot, I started to play again.

    When I finished, he sort of smiled, but as a teacher myself, I know that face:  it’s the one we use when we really mean “TRAIN WRECK” but we don’t want to be discouraging.  Starting with my ridiculous bow hold,  he took my hand in his, showed me how to position my thumb, relax my fingers and curl them gently around the frog.  Then he worked his way up my arm.  Wrist loose, elbow down, shoulder down.  I played a few open strings, and he stood behind me, pressed on my shoulders and said “Marionne, breathe.”  Apparently, I couldn't even breathe correctly. 

    Really, I am  not sure what I was expecting, but a year and a half of playing in Yemen had basically resulted in a bushel of bad habits.  I could read the bass clef and understood musical notation a bit better, and I knew the notes in first position, but that was it.  Everything else was utter crap, and I was feeling a little despondent.  But now I had a teacher.  A wonderful, patient, cello god of a teacher, and at that moment, I made up my mind to do whatever he said, give him whatever he wanted.  Screw the language barrier- I was now his devoted cello slave.

    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.  You can reach her at

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