Travels With My Cello

  • The Russian Way


    And so it went.  Week after week, I made the trip down the hill to the conservatory for my cello lessons with Misha.  He sat facing me, knee to knee, while I played open strings;  we weren't moving on to actual notes until my bow and my strings formed a perfect 90 degree angle, and I released my crazy death grip on the frog.   Sometimes he would hold my bowing hand and the tip and move the bow back and forth across the strings with me.  For an hour.   Misha gave me an old exercise book to take home, the bottom of which said in Cyrillic “Soviet Music Publishing.”  That figured.  Only a Soviet could have come up with exercises this fantastically boring.   While I understood the importance of practicing good technique, I was starting to feel a little mutinous.  As I lugged my cello up the hill to my house and then up five flights of stairs, I wondered is this really how you achieve excellence on a stringed instrument?  Maybe Misha was secretly torturing me, hoping I would just give up and go away.   It didn't help much that Christopher took mild delight in my aggravation.  Every Saturday I would drag myself breathless and sweating through our front door, and he would sort of smirk “Did you get any notes this week?”  No, I would mutter darkly, cursing all males and everything they stood for.  My initial vow to do whatever Misha said was starting to run a little thin.

    One afternoon at school, I was whining about the monotony of my lessons to my new friend Natasha, a beautiful  but slightly flinty Russian blonde who took vast amounts of pride in her heritage.   She gave me absolutely no sympathy whatsoever, and lectured me sternly on the grave importance of exact, precise, staggeringly PERFECT technique.  “Russians only do things ONE way- whatever it is, whatever skill is required, we master the technique before we move on to anything else.  Why do you think all Russians have exactly the same handwriting?  There is only ONE WAY to hold a pencil.  Why do you think Russia has produced the very best athletes, musicians, artists, writers, and scientists?  Because we perfect everything technically.  People who cannot master technique go on to find other work to do.”  Oh yeah?  I wanted to retort.  Well, I’ll see your Rostropovich and raise you a Yo-Yo Ma.   It occurred to me that if Natasha hadn't been raised in Moscow, she would have made a fabulous New Yorker.

    I would never admit this to any Georgian I knew, but ever since I read Anna Karenina back in the 1980’s, I have been deeply, hopelessly fascinated with Russia.  Dark, snowy winters, enchanted swans, the Winter Palace, Czar Nicholas and his tragic family, the colorful language- all of it struck me as wonderfully magical.  I frequently wondered what it would have been like to BE a Russian, to have some crazy Party apparatchik stick an instrument in my hands when I was a child and say, “You will play this all day long, forever.”  Of course, with my luck, I probably would have ended up the wife of a potato farmer, distilling vodka till my cirrhotic liver planted me in a frozen grave, but who knows?  In my fanciful Russian daydreams, maybe someone would have given me a cello and by now, I would be as good as all the people I envied so much.    With Natasha’s help, I was attempting to revive my long lost Russian language skills so that Misha and I could communicate better.  On a whim, I bought a book called “Dirty Russian” which was basically how to curse in Russian, but included some hysterical expressions I could only ever use in a bar fight in Moscow.  It felt really good though, when frustration with open strings reached a boiling point, to scream some horribly graphic expletive in Russian.  But then I got back to my open strings and continued sawing away.

    My Russian Guru, Natasha

    Later, with the assistance of a cool glass of Bagrationi champagne, I realized that Misha  was doing me a giant favor with his nit-picky insistence on perfect technique.  I would never, ever play even remotely good without the basic skills he was trying to get me to master.  In a roundabout way, he was also paying me a compliment by taking me this seriously.  Georgia had no culture of “adult beginners” and while my cello playing proclivities had been delightfully “quaint” in Yemen, they made me a total oddball in a culture where, if you hadn't mastered an instrument by the time the amniotic fluid dried, you gave it up for dead.  So, I redoubled my effort,  moved my cello into my bedroom and practiced in front of a mirror until my bow was straight and my hand was so relaxed I feared I was slipping into a coma.

    After a few weeks of this, my patience was finally rewarded.  I moved on to scales, and Misha gave me a very simple song to practice, called “March.”  Now that my left hand was finally called into action, we had still more work ahead of us, because my fingering was fairly awful, too.  But I had a song!  A real song!  I played it to death and I felt such an incredible sense of accomplishment when one Saturday, I played it in perfect time with Misha accompanying me on the piano.  We finally retired “March” after about a month, and he gave it to me to keep, “for the memory.”  I still have it, mostly as a reminder of how at this moment, I had moved microscopically closer to mastering “The Russian Way.”



    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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