The indefatigable Mrs. Elsie Persson conducts three members of the Macdonald College Mini Strings in 1966.

Fat Kid with a Cello

Why you should probably make your child play a musical instrument.

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The autobiography you won’t read is the one I won’t write because nothing short of Mitty-esque imaginings could make it interesting. I am vain enough, however, to know what the title of that pathetically thin volume would be: Fat Kid with a Cello.

In the fall of 1966, when I was just five years old, my parents enrolled me in what I just recently learned was an experiment in teaching five year olds how to play the violin. Noted professional violinist of the time, Elsie Persson, published an academic paper in 1968 describing how she “undertook to organize a pilot group of ten children at Macdonald College of McGill University” in Montréal. Turns out I was one of those ten children who were organized into “[t]hree lessons per week on an individual basis [and] opportunities for ensemble playing every second week.” Mrs. Persson, the only name by which I ever knew her even into adulthood, was a darling elderly woman who I also just recently learned warranted a headline in the Lethbridge Herald of Lethbridge, Alberta where she played a wartime fundraiser in 1944.

The objective of the experiment was to determine whether, after just six months of this Parris Island regimen, the ‘music’ these six boys and four girls produced could be me made tolerable enough to perform at Montréal’s Expo 67 in May of that year. It turns out it could, although I have no direct recollection of that concert other than there was some sort of incident with an upended garbage can. It precipitated an utterly pointless shouting match between our unilingual English parents and the unilingual French event staff — a clear indication of the ugly relationship between English and French speakers in Quebec at the time. That discord had been angrily bubbling just below the surface for decades and would explode with a vengeance a few years later and send our family westward.

The great thing about being five year olds involved in a grand experiment of which we were completely unaware is that we were not subject to pre-performance jitters or expectations of any kind. Any such jitters at all were more about possibly letting down our tense parents who made up the vast majority of the audience at our Expo recital. That is, other than passers-by who stopped to gawk in the same way they might at a car accident once it had been established, despite the horrific screeching, no one had actually been hurt. Managing the mild anxiety of performance, however, turned out to be a useful life skill. I still feel it today and use it as a guide to know when I am sufficiently prepared to belt it out to the back row.

Mrs. Persson was following the revolutionary teaching method and philosophy of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki who had developed it in the brutally austere post-war period in Japan. He may not have had any other practical alternative given that his family’s violin factory had been bombed into rubble after being converted to manufacturing seaplane floats for Imperial Japan’s war effort. Perhaps as a result of that utter destruction of his past, or maybe the desire for a shortcut to joy in a truly abysmal period, Suzuki’s method broke decisively with the rheumy, conventional wisdom of traditional music education. The latter focused on hazing out all but those with congenital musical talent and then developing that rare, elusive commodity using painfully dry formal methods. The atrociously high casualty rates from this undeclared war on fun led eventually to the now strangely anachronistic “concern over the shortage of rising young string players to fill orchestral chairs” as the earnest Mrs. Persson wrote back in 1968.

Above all, Suzuki had no pre-qualification for those entering his schools — all were welcome either talented or talent-challenged. There was only one guiding principle: the younger the better which Suzuki felt was the key to eventual success — as young as 18 months, in some cases. His philosophy was that children initially learn language entirely through repetition of what they heard. More abstract formal education on what made language right or wrong only comes much later in life, if at all. Suzuki believed music was much the same. Simply get the student to repeat what they heard and leave the theory until much later. He posited if you provide children, and their doting parents, with a shortcut to the sheer joy of music — in particular the performance of music in public — you had a fighting chance of sustaining students through the bleak, endless, solitary years of Royal Conservatory theory exams and recitals.

Well, 52 years on from my halcyon days with the Macdonald Mini Strings, I’m here to say I’m living proof that Dr. Suzuki was right. You really can eat dessert first and worry about the vegetables later.

I was more than happy to adopt that philosophy. Eating dessert came easily to me, the vegetables not so much, and I eventually began to fill out a frame which made the hopelessly euphemistic Husky section at Simpson’s in Pointe-Claire a more sensible choice for pants than Young Mens and the attendant prospect of six-to-eight inch hems. Coincidentally — I hope — it was around this same time I was also growing out of my first Suzuki violin and was asked whether I might consider a switch to cello. My decision to proceed might have been as simple as “you mean I get to sit rather than stand? Sign me up.” Beyond that, I have no clue why I switched so it’s safe to say the cello really chose me.

In retrospect, I think it was something like a parent giving their freakishly strong, lanky kid a basketball and high tops with the hope they get discovered by a college scout. It’s a shame to waste those extra inches and wingspan on activities for which they provide no advantage and where they might actually get you a free college education in the bargain. For me, hiding my steadily widening torso behind a cello just seemed like the right thing to do. It simply might be easier in the long run both for me and any sort of audience to which I would play someday and who would charitably clap when I eventually finished.

However, there comes a time when the dessert is finished and there is nothing left on the plate which isn’t naturally green.

After my family’s move to Vancouver in the early seventies, I was placed under the severe tutelage of the quietly ferocious Miss Audrey Piggott. Weekly lessons were on Saturday mornings in a long since demolished firetrap on Seymour Street. It could be I remember the firetrap better than the lessons. It was a choice between negotiating the decrepit, cluttered stairs or riding an even more decrepit elevator to her upper floor studio. Even relatively early on a Saturday morning there was the occasional drug-addled scream coming from behind a bedraggled door from which the paint was peeling into large flakes on the floor. This was inevitably followed by a cinematically distant dog barking on yet another floor. I also remember thinking it was odd that the building manager felt it necessary to post badly handwritten signs with a stern warning against blocking the fire exits with garbage.

I don’t recall precisely what Miss Piggott thought of Suzuki ‘trained’ students but I suspect it wasn’t much. She conceded that while I had a pretty decent ear, my sense of rhythm was absolutely terrible. Suzuki was an early pre-cursor to the everybody-gets-a-ribbon, just-showing-up-counts generation and I found being told “well, that was pretty awful” jarring, at first. The patrician Miss Piggott was not one for faint praise, or praise of any sort come to think of it. But, importantly, every once in a long while she let me play a piece all the way through to the end and said nothing. This was her unique five star, triple-A rating. It confirmed I had swished the basket from well beyond the three point line.

That sense of accomplishment is still something I recognize today when occasionally it all comes together and my compulsive, Suzuki-fuelled craving for external validation is fleetingly satisfied.

I finally reached the age, in my mid-teens, when my parents felt I could start making life-defining decisions for myself. Apart from finally being able to reclaim my Sunday mornings from the Roman Catholic church, the first thing to be tossed over the transom were those really, really hard cello lessons. The relief of that period finally being over after nine long years clearly overwhelmed the quiet arrival of the new period which continues to this day. That is, the one of regret for having given the cello up. Think of how good I could have been by now I often think.

I dabbled in other, cooler instruments from time-to-time. However, bass guitars are tuned in fourths, not the fifths of the cello and most other stringed instruments. It made all that I had learned hard to adapt to my Sting-only-fatter ambitions. The tenor saxophone? John Klemmer made it look and sound so easy. It wasn’t. A note perfect air guitar rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Riviera Paradise didn’t make the actual playing of it on a real guitar any easier. I finally realized I would still have to put in the 10,000 hours in nameless bars in nameless towns near Nowhere, Texas. That, and only that, might make me Stevie and more likely not even then.

My abandoned cello remained, ever hopeful, in the corner of my parents’ various homes over the years. It never got lost in a move although with its fragile bulk I’m sure that would have been tempting, at times. In a testament to my parents never giving up on their son, with every new home it magically showed up in a corner of one of their rooms. As such, it also went through a period of being the object of curiosity for my growing niece and nephews who asked me to play it for them every once in a while. I resisted. It seemed more like the curiosity associated with having a weird physical quirk, like double jointedness or ear wiggling or being able to curl the edges of my tongue in both directions at once. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t love of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite №1, which I couldn’t play anyway.

When my parents eventually downsized out of the last home they owned, the inevitable call finally came. “Do you want this cello, or not?” they asked. Reluctantly, I made arrangements to have it make the 1000 kilometre journey to Calgary where my wife and I made space for it in a corner of our home. Regularly, my mother asks if I still have it, and I always re-assure her I do. “I’m going to take it up again someday” I tell her. So that’s not technically a lie, I really mean only when I have time to do it justice — which conceivably could be never.

However, there was was an exquisitely crafted television commercial from a few years back which featured that haunting Bach Prelude played by Yo-Yo Ma. It was combined with images of sports being played in extremely slow motion against a pure black background. It is, beyond argument, one of the most beautiful commercials I have ever seen. Its juxtaposition of minimalist elements instantly brought and still brings a lump to my throat. But mostly it emphasized, when played by a true maestro like Ma, the cello is still the most beautiful musical instrument there is. Its sound effortlessly bypasses all the logical channels into one’s rational brain and tunnels into the primitive, purely emotional subcortex. There it finds a timeless and limitless love: then, now and forever.

That one short film made me think that someday should still come and that someday will always be possible. At least now, I finally understand that showy public performances are not the point. Rather, it’s the internal, relentless, solitary pursuit of perfection you have to learn to love along the way.

©2019 Terence C. Gannon

Thank you so much for reading. This essay is also available as an episode on the Not There Yet podcast, read by the author.

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