Travels With My Cello

  • Lost in Translation


    Lost in Translation

    After about two weeks of lessons, I took inventory:  near as I could tell, Misha had about 20 or so usable words of English.  By “usable,” I mean words that could reasonably be used in the context of a cello lesson.  I mean, I knew he knew the word “cancer” but it’s hard to imagine how that particular word might apply in a music lesson.  I had a few more words of usable Russian, but he tended to speak too quickly for me to understand his answer.  Weirdly, we filled holes with German, another language I don’t speak that he spoke fluently, but some of the words, such as "finger" and "bow"  were closer to English.

    So how did we communicate?  Well, at first it was easy.  He would show me and I would follow.  When he wanted me to watch him, he would say “Marionne, looking.”  Scales were a little difficult, because I had learned the usual North American letter names:  “CDEFGABC” Russians used “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So La, Ti” and Germans used a lettering system that sort of resembled English.  To be honest, I am not really sure who did what.  I know that no scale I ever played with Misha was called by any name I knew.  But, I figured it out- when he said “Gamma” we played scales,and I checked his index finger to see which scale we would be playing.  I got better with the names of the notes, but we did get into a scrape once over the note “B natural.”  The first time we played it, he called it “H” which I found sort of odd, and in an offhand way I told him that in America, we call it B Natural.  He said in English, “No.  No B natural.”  I was stunned.  I was sure there was a B natural.  I tried again, in much slower Russian, taking care with my pronunciation.  He again said.  “No.  No B Natural.  H.”  I was nonplussed, but recovered quickly.  Really, he could call the notes “Elmo” for all it mattered.  I knew what he meant.  I dropped it and when we played scales, I took to calling B natural “H,” and A- sharp, “B.”  It got trickier when he taught me the minor melodic and harmonic scales.  The notes had one name on the ascending scale, but changed on the descending scale.  Once upon a time, I would have nailed this in a New York minute, but now I found myself thinking “okay, if it was C-sharp on the way up, it’s now D-flat on the way down.”  But mentally translating tended to exhaust me.

    Sometimes the language lessons went the other direction.  Misha would ask me how we say something in English, and far be it for me to teach string vocabulary to anyone, but I did my best.  One afternoon I played a couple of notes too sharp, and he stopped me to ask me what we call that particular error in English.  That was tough.  To the best of my knowledge, he didn't use “sharp” or “flat” to indicate a poorly played note.  When I used to miss notes in Yemen, Tanya would yell at me “Marianne, that note sounds like DIRRRRT” rolling her beautiful Russian R’s.  I thought about telling him they were “dirt” notes, but that didn't seem quite right, either.  I settled for “pitch-y.” 

    But very quickly we reached language barriers that simply could not be surmounted with our vocabulary mishmash.

    For example, I played at home with a chromatic tuner and was a slave to that little green line that indicated I had nailed the note.  Before every lesson, I scrubbed the dead rosin off my strings, wiped down my fingerboard with vodka (hey, what can I say?  It was cheaper than rubbing alcohol) and precisely tuned my cello to 440.  Then, every week, without the help of a piano, he re-tuned my cello to 460.  Every Sunday.  For two years.  It really was amazing.  Why?  Why 460?  Did he just, I don’t know, hear sharp?  Was 460 some sort of magical number?  I looked it up online, but couldn't find anything about playing sharpened strings.  It was just one of those mysteries.

    As time progressed, he taught me thumb position, but in a way that didn't really make sense to me.  I had always thought that thumb position was for playing in the higher registers, but for Misha, “thumb position” meant anywhere you play with your thumb- upper registers, lower registers, it’s all good.  Need to reach an entire octave and don’t want to play an open string?  Use your thumb!  I think if he were really pressed, Misha would have no problem playing with his feet. 

    He taught me “The Swan” (of course) and as we were playing one afternoon, he said in his very serious, Misha-like way “Marionne, the Swan wants beeeeeg vibration.”  OK, I said, how?  So he showed me.  Rolling his index finger back and forth on the note, he slowly dragged his bow along the string.  He sustained the sound for about 30 seconds, then changed fingers and bow direction.  He finished, smiled and said “After 3 hours, perfect vibration.  OK?  OK.”  Now, I had scoured the internet looking for suggestions on how to improve my vibrato, and literally everywhere I looked, there was a new theory:  It’s in the hands!  No, the arm!  No the shoulder!  No, the upper back!  I swear to God, there is a YouTube video called “The Vomit Exercise” for improving cello vibrato.  In the end, I practiced just as Misha suggested, focusing more on keeping the sound steady and even, and less on which muscle group I was using, and certainly no vomiting.

    But the biggest issue was that I really wanted my cello to have that lush, gorgeous cello-y sound, and I simply wasn't there yet.  Sure, I was starting to hit notes with greater accuracy, even after big shifts, and my vibrato improved to where I no longer sounded like an ambulance racing toward a 5 alarm fire in downtown London, but still.  My playing lacked that singular sound that cellos can make when played by someone competent.  And I knew it wasn't the cello- Misha had played my cello often enough that I knew how good it could sound.  No, this was purely operator error, and I had no idea what I was doing wrong, nor did I know how to ask.  I told Natasha my problem and asked if she could suggest a Russian phrase that could capture what I wanted to convey to him.  She looked at me for a moment, then said “Kak luchsha?”  (How Better?).  How better?  That was it?? This from a woman who hails from the literary genius of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Akhmatova?  That’s the best she had??  But without saying a word, we both realized that sure, she could teach me the phrase and I could ask him, but I wouldn't understand his answer.  I could copy Misha perfectly, but some element would be always be missing because he couldn't tell me, and while I read everything I could find on sound production, I didn't really get it.  I desperately needed to have someone tell me in English.  There was only one thing to do:  it was time to go home for a while.

    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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