Travels With My Cello

  • St. Valentine's Day Massacre


    I sat in the front seat of my car with Christopher, the furry hood of my parka pulled down low over my eyes.  Silently, we passed a small flask of Jose Cuervo back and forth.  My stomach was churning and even though it was snowing outside, I was sweating like a pig.  I thought about crawling out behind the car in the snow and just have Chris back over me…then go forwards, just for good measure.  We were back in Georgia, it was Valentine’s Day, and while most people contemplate love, chocolates, flowers and other Valentine-alia, I was about to make a giant jackass of myself-playing love songs, unaccompanied, in the school cafeteria for the hapless parents that actually showed up for our school Love Dinner.

    So how did I end up in this stupid situation?  A big part of it is my own fault.  I tend to have, shall we say, a disagreeable attitude about mandatory staff meetings.  If you can say it in a memo, why burn an hour of my time making announcements I could just read?  So I spent “mandatory” staff meetings doodling on the agenda, passing rude notes back and forth with the wickedly funny kindergarten teacher, eavesdropping on the 6th grade teacher, who always seemed to be catching up on his Georgian cooking tips, anything to pass the time.  I also tried to sit in the back of the room so that I could avoid getting “volunteered” for anything.  On this particular day, Lika, our music teacher, was called on to talk about… something.  Lika is an excellent musician, and although she hides it well, she is a very nervous public speaker.  She happened to be sitting right in front of me, so when she stood up, turned around and faced us, I put on my best “speech teacher” face:  attentive eyes, slight smile, encouraging nods, to help her get through whatever she was about to say.  She began, “We will be having a dinner for love.” I had no earthly idea what she was talking about, but I kept smiling and nodding anyway.  “For St. Valentine’s Day.”  I instantly stopped smiling and nodding and tried to slide down under the desk because it was back- a horrible idea that just refused to die.  Last year, someone came up with the idea of having sort of a 1950’s sock hop show and dinner for Valentine’s Day, where the kids would cook and be the entertainment for their parents. This part was fine, but there was also some rumble about teachers participating too, but this school didn't have the kind of culture where teachers performed in any way, shape or form.  So, as Lika was finishing up with, “…so if anyone would like to sing?”  You could hear crickets chirping in the back row.  She made eye contact with me, “…or play their cello?’  And all around me, my lifeless, near dead colleagues suddenly began murmuring, “Yeah, yeah play your cello!”  Now, don’t for one second think that anyone in the room was on the edge of their seat with anticipation to hear the musical stylings of Marianne Ide.  What they wanted was a sacrificial lamb so that they could all stay home and stream NCIS or whatever it is they get up to on a Tuesday night.  Actually, I had managed to avoid playing my cello in public completely, and was safely becoming a musical hermit.  Playing in public in Georgia was just too intimidating.  The musicians, even the amateurs, were so good that the idea of playing in public made me feel sick.  I smiled weakly at Lika, didn't say a word, and then proceeded to avoid her end of the building for the next few days hoping this would all go away.

    But it didn't.  Three days later, she appeared in my classroom wanting me to come with her to select some music for the Valentine’s Day Dinner.  I was thinking to myself, yeah, I got some love music.  How about some Joy Division?  Or better still, Alice in Chains?  I could screw that up royally and no one would ever know the difference.  But I meekly followed her to her classroom where she passed me music books to choose some songs.  I was thinking that we were going to play together, so I picked a couple of kind of cheesy love songs, and then suggested a few that were slightly more retro and a little classier. 

    Now at this point, there were a few problems I should have foreseen.  First, exactly when were we going to practice these lovely love songs?  Second, when in the grand scheme of the evening were we going to play five songs?  No one seemed to know anything, even Lika, so I went home and dutifully practiced.  I felt like I knew the songs well enough that if I goofed, Lika could cover for me with the piano.  About 3 days before the event, I went in to play with her, and got quite a rude surprise.  I was going to play as the parents arrived, for around 30 minutes, all by myself.  She didn't have time to practice with me, and she would be busy during that time working with the kids.        

    Alone?  For half an hour?  With 5 songs?  In front of Georgians?                                        


    I thought I was going to die.  I nearly did die- I started to play for her, and what had sounded fairly nice at home turned into a disaster.  My right hand shook so hard I sounded like I was warming up an AK-47, not playing a cello.  Sweat poured down my back and I could feel how red my face was.  This wasn't stage fright:  I was having some sort of coronary event.  When I finished the first piece, I expected her to say, “Yeah, let’s forget this.”  But she didn't.  She made me play it over and over and over, grinding away at my humiliation until I sort of calmed down.  Then she said, “You will be fine.  Practice more.”  And that was it.  Now, at this point, I should have run for the hills.  But I didn't  because after coaching debate teams for years, I know a thing or two about stage fright:   you really only have two choices:  1) Stop whatever you are doing and never do it again.  2) Do it, and know that for a while, it might suck really bad.  Given that it is hard for me to give up on anything, I chose option two, with the liquid courage remedy.  (Of course, liquid courage has its own pitfalls- too much, and any hope I had of playing in tune goes out the window.  Not enough and my bow still shakes.)  So, I played.  I felt absolutely ridiculous, but I tried to focus on the sound, my breathing, and not dying.  In the end, it was OK   (Actually, Christopher said it was more than OK and I am way exaggerating this whole story.  But he is my husband, he is really supportive, and he knows that the garage is a really cold place to sleep in February.)

    In my campaign to work through my fear, I volunteered to play “Pomp and Circumstance” at graduation, which is a ridiculously easy song, and if I know anything about graduation ceremonies, it’s that no one is listening to a thing- not the endless speeches and certainly not the music.  This seemed about as safe a venue as I could think of to work through my nerves.    The senior class graciously agreed to let me off the hook for the keynote speech and play instead.  And I survived that too, although my friend’s husband did take the time to tell me I was “off.”  (Nice, huh?)

    The thing is, I don’t really want to be the cello hermit.  Music, especially cello music, is meant to be shared.  I recently got some great advice from a professional cellist:   Stage fright may never go away.  Just work around it, sort of like an annoying house guest that won’t leave.  And after a few measures, you will find your rhythm.  Have faith.  And don’t stop playing.

    Marianne Ide is an amateur cellist living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  When she is not playing her artist cello, she teaches government and economics.

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