Travels With My Cello

  • Back in the USA! Cellospeak 2011

    I was sitting in my dorm room at Bryn Mawr college, feeling not a little like a giant doofus.   Chris and my kids had just laid scratch out of the parking lot, heading for the King-of-Prussia mall, and I was left in a 8x10 monkish cell at an elite women’s college with a bag of clothes and a cello.  I knew absolutely nobody, and while I am not normally a shy person, I was feeling a little… wrong footed.  I was at cello camp.  For a whole week.  With 100 people I had never met before.  Who does that?  Was I having some sort of mid-life crisis for the cello obsessed?  I had never been to camp in my whole life, and for that matter, I had never been inside a college dormitory, but here I sat, at the ripe old age of 44, doing both for the first time.   I sat on my plastic covered mattress, idly flicking through the packet of information they gave me at check in, until I was able to suck it up, put on my name tag, find the dining hall and go meet my fellow cello fanatics.

    Bryn Mawr College
    I found Cellospeak after a friend of mine suggested I go to a music camp for adults.  It seemed like a good idea, as I was desperate to find somebody who could both play the cello AND speak English to help me out.   So, after some online searching, I actually found a couple of camps dedicated solely to cellists.  Cellospeak looked the most promising, so I contacted the director, Dorothy Amarandos, sent in my application and deposit, and 6 months later here I was.  Dorothy started Cellospeak about 10 years ago for adult cellists of all skill levels to have a place to come and play together for a week.  The organization started with 10 people, but  because she has clearly tapped into a pocket of need among
    amateur musicians, the organization just keeps getting bigger every year.  The amateurs ranged from cellists who had been playing for less than year (some had literally just picked the instrument up) to some serious hardcore cello heads that could play fantastically well. And play cello I did;  all day long, every day.  Breakfast was followed by choir rehearsal (all 100 of us, and our conductor, Gary Fitzgerald) in the great hall at Brwyn Mawr.                                                                                                                        Dorothy Amarandos  
    100 cellists (and more to the point, their cellos and their cases) in one room was a sight to behold.  It was also a logistical nightmare.  The great hall wasn't quite big enough, so we crept around the room very carefully to avoid crashing our instruments together.  The ensemble pieces had been sent to us weeks ahead of time, so when it came time for us to play, it was amazing how quickly the music came together.  Choir rehearsal was followed by quartet practice, then section rehearsal, then individual lessons.  We were technically “free” after that, but                                        
    people either rounded up their quartet for practice, (because all the quartets had to perform,) or those who had signed up to perform in the evenings practiced their solos.    Dorothy had warned us to put in a little extra practice before hand, as our fingertips were likely to be sore.  My fingertips were fine, but by the end of the week,  I was starting to worry about carpal tunnel syndrome.  After dinner, there were scheduled performances, and late into the evening, when all sane people had gone to bed (or maybe it was just me, but that 8:00 a.m. choir rehearsal was kind of a killer) beer and wine flowed freely, and there was cello improv in the great hall.  They played everything from Telemann to Apocalyptica.  Seriously, the improv sessions were wild.

    I was in complete and total cello geek heaven.  The music was stupendous, the people were incredibly friendly, and I learned more about cello and strangely enough, life, in that week than I had learned in a long while.  So, did my technique improve?  Yeah,  a bit.  My private teacher, Victoria de la Cruz, watched me play for about 2 minutes, chewing on her pinkie while she scrutinized my technique.  When I was done, she was like “Yeah, you got way too much tension in your hands.  And your shoulders.  And your knuckles collapse.  And stop drooling on your cello.”  (okay, I made that last part up)  But she reassured me that playing without tension is a lifelong struggle for most cellists.  When I truly let go of it, my cello would “sing” as she put it.  (And I’ll take her word for it- she was a great cellist, and she had the coolest set of F-hole tattoos on her back I have ever seen. )

    I think the best part of the week were the musical surprises, things that astonished me because they undercut my assumptions about life and being an amateur musician.  Sure, I expected 100 cellos to sound amazing.  I expected the pros to be wonderful.  This may be a lack of imagination on my part, but I didn't expect average, ordinary people to rock my world quite the way they did.

    For example, I met the loveliest lady, Grace, who looked exactly like a Sunday school teacher, and was incredibly sweet to talk to.  The group was so big, I didn't really know anything about her cello background, and at meal times, we talked about other things.  So one night during the performances, she got up to play a solo. Gary Fitzgerald, who is a Julliard trained musician (on either the cello or the piano or both- I am not sure which)  introduced her.  He made some joke about being able to keep up with Grace because he once accompanied Lynn Harrell.  Now, at this point in my musical education, I still thought Lynn Harrell was a  woman, so literally none of what he was saying meant anything to me at all.  There was something more about the Mendelssohn piece she was going to play, and then they got to it.   Her bow flew across the strings at a dizzying speed, her head nodding with the beat,  while Gary’s hands rocketed up and down the keyboard.  There are no words to describe her playing, or my shock.  Now, I am not the slightest bit ageist, it’s not that she was an older adult, it’s just that suddenly I really had no idea what defined an “amateur” and a “professional.”  Is it just the fact that no one pays her to play like that?Can any “amateur,” in time, play like that?  Could I??

     Gary and Grace get ready to tear it up

    One night I came into the great hall after dinner and a quartet was practicing.  Three of the players I recognized as teachers, but I didn't know the fourth.  They were good though, and I stopped to listen for a while.  As they played, the teachers occasionally called out instructions and then I realized, the fourth player was a fellow camper.  She was terrific, and as the week progressed, I learned more about her.  Her name was Brenda, and she started playing somewhere in her mid forties (sort of like moi).  She is now in her 60’s and plays with wonderful skill and sound.  On the night her quartet performed, she came sashaying down the aisle with her quartet toward the stage, all four of them carrying silk roses in their teeth.  They ripped into “Habanera” and then the “Can-Can”, all of them alive with joy and silliness and the fun of the music.  At the end of the performance, they all threw their roses out into the audience, and of all the crazy things, I caught Brenda’s rose.  I tucked it in my cello case, and took it back to Georgia, and it is here with me in Thailand.  You can probably see the point of this anecdote coming a mile away, but here it is:   standing in front of me on the stage was living, breathing proof that starting the cello later in life really doesn't matter at all.

    On the final Saturday, my quartet took the stage to perform.  Now, to say that we were awful when we started wouldn't exactly be an understatement.  I saw the look of horror on Amy’s face when we first played. Amy was our quartet coach and I knew what she was thinking:  no way in hell are these four going to pull this together in five days.  But we did.  We got together every afternoon and played till our backs and fingers gave out, and by Saturday, we had it.  The walk down the aisle to the stage was one of the longest in my life.  I felt my face heating up and my heart starting to hammer away, as the nerves kicked in.  But as we played, I started to relax, so much so that I could hear each cello in my group.  We were together, we were (mostly) in tune, and when we hit a series of rests where Amy told us to breath, we made eye contact and smiled.    By the end, I was so filled with exhilaration  and pride that I thought I would leap out of my skin.   As we left the stage to collect our kisses from Dorothy (everybody who takes the stage gets a kiss from Dorothy), I was thinking to myself that in my life, I have fallen in love, given birth, graduated a few times and even won some pretty cool awards.  Each experience was powerful in its own way, but nothing felt like this. 


     Amy's #1 Quartet:

    Joan, Fran, Sydney, and me.

    I didn't get to return to Cellospeak last summer because of my job situation (or should I say "jobless" situation?) and I can’t go back this summer because I am moving to Pakistan.  But somehow, someway, I will find my way back to Dorothy’s magical fantasy land for cello lovers.

    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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