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.
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.
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