My Friends

Every cello that has been mine to play will always have a special place in my heart. I can recall every detail of all of them, from my first rental all the way to my current instrument. I can even remember the slight gradations in the color of the varnish on the back of the instrument I played on in high school; a deep autumnal yellow in the center fanning out to a dark brown, like the color of wet tree bark after a summer rain. I loved them all. How could I not, I spent more time with them then with anything or anybody else!

Finding them wasn’t always easy. In fact, it is more as if they found me. It seems that every cello I have played on was meant to find its way into my hands. In some ways they have been more than just a tool for musical expression; some have taught me about music and myself, others have been (on some days) my enemy, and others at times were my only true friend. For me, a cello is way beyond a mere wooden box and strings. It is as close to a living, breathing thing that an inanimate object can come.

My first cello came to me by way of my first music teacher, Daniel Wilshire. He was an immense, colorful personality, and aside from being a wonderful public school music teacher he was also a gifted composer. He showed up at school one day during a fourth grade assembly. He told us that we had the option of either learning a stringed instrument or singing in a choir. There was no way I was going to sing, so that was out. He first held up a violin, played it a bit, and then asked for a show of hands of who wanted to learn. Half of the assembly raised their hands. I was suspicious; I was already quite the individualist at 9 years old, and it would take more than a majority to impress me! Next was the viola. Almost no one raised their hands. I decided against it; it seemed like a strange hybrid of an instrument, and I didn’t much like the looks of the people who had raised their hands (I have since made friends with some very nice violists, they are a surprisingly nice bunch!) All that was left was the cello and the bass. The cello was the clear winner. It seems that I was enough of a pragmatist to see that the bass would be a literal pain in the neck for me to carry around!

I was given an instrument that day, along with a short lesson on how to care for it. I was actually a little annoyed, as I didn’t really want to be involved with music at all. My passions were history and astronomy, among many others, but none of them remotely close to music.

At home, I unpacked the cello. I tentatively plucked the c string, and it was all over. I was hooked, just as much as when I now take out the instrument every morning and pluck the strings. There was something about the knowledge that I was in control of the sound that I found mesmerizing. The cello itself was a deep brown color, very ugly, with a muted sound. But I loved it. It became my constant companion. I would even practice at 6 in the morning, much to my parents displeasure!

My next cello came two years later. I had been one of the few students to stick with a string instrument, since in the fifth grade they gave us the option of switching to one of those awful wind instruments (such as that glorified duck call, the saxophone.) Of course many were lured with the idea of one day becoming a member of the feted Glendora High School Marching Band. Again, suspicious of any kind of collective movement, I stayed with the cello, but mainly because I loved it. This was a lucky break for me; because of the sudden lack of cellists I got my pick of the best instruments! The one I picked was brand new, not a scratch on it, and its tone was full and noble, if not particularly large. It was only a year later that I started to take private lessons (having only had group lessons twice or three times a week for the first two years of my studies) so it was on this instrument that I first really started to practice.

Around the age of 13 it started to become clear to my teachers and my parents that I needed my own instrument. I was practicing a lot, and I successfully auditioned as fourth chair in one of the best youth orchestras in southern California, so it only made sense to take the next step. I remember going to Studio City Music (now Benning Violins) in Studio City, CA with my dad and my cello teacher at the time, a wonderful lady by the name of Doris Savery. She was an extraordinarily tough teacher who taught me to think seriously about the problems of playing the cello. She herself was a wonderful cellist, and had in the past played in the studios of Hollywood during the golden age of films.

The shop was filled to the brim with celli. I had never seen anything so wonderful! After playing five of them, I had already made up my mind. The cello had found me once again! It was a german made cello, around ten years old, with a rich, golden varnish, and a wonderful sound. I had never played on anything like it. It was on this cello that I played my first competition, first big youth orchestra concert, and my first solo performance for over 1,000 people!

About two years after this wonderful new friend came into my life, it was already time for another. When I was 15 I started studying with Dr. Richard Naill, the man who became my chief mentor (and who in some ways is like a second father.) He determined that in order to be more competitive and to grow more I needed an instrument that could respond to more sensitive impulses. The Colburn School, where I was studying with Dr. Naill, had a few instruments available to loan to students, and I was lucky enough to receive one. It was a wonderful french cello, made sometime in the mid-19th century, with an incredibly rich and buttery sound. It wasn’t especially powerful, but it projected well. It was also the easiest to play among all of the celli I have ever played. It was on this cello that I won a place in the cello studio of the venerated teacher and cellist Ronald Leonard at the University of Southern California. I played on that cello for almost 3 years, which was actually the longest I had ever played on a single instrument up to that point!

Since I would be leaving for college soon, I no longer would be able to play on the cello owned by the Colburn School. It was time for the next purchase, and thankfully my parents had the money for it. I am forever in their debt for not only their wonderful, supportive parenting but also their financial help in acquiring instruments. As many of you know, celli are terribly expensive, and for a middle class family such as mine it was always a stretch. I was an expensive child!

The next instrument was maybe the ugliest looking of them all. It was a very dull brown color, it had a very bizarre form (the upper and lower bouts were almost the same width, and width of the sides were unusually thin) and its provenance was highly suspicious. It had a sticker inside of it stating that it was from the workshop of Hermann Prell, who was a bow maker! There is no record that he ever actually built an instrument, so it was definitely a fake. However the sound and playability of this cello was fantastic. It had a full, slightly coarse and nasal sound, but what power! It was the most powerful cello I had owned yet. You can actually hear this cello being played at the beginning of my Virtual Sheet Music videos!

On to my current and longest relationship. It is a beautiful, extraordinary instrument by the french maker Bertrand Delisle, who lives and builds instruments in Cremona, Italy. He is now becoming more famous for his celli, but when I bought the instrument in 2006 it was the first one sold in the U.S. It is visually stunning. The varnish is bright red with a slight yellowish hue at the edges. Mr. Delisle thankfully left the instrument in its natural state and refrained from antiquing it, so the true beauty of his craftsmanship really shines through! It has a very open and bright sound, which has mellowed considerably after I started using gut strings. It is also the first cello that is thoroughly mine, as I bought and paid for it with a generous interest free loan from my mom, which has since been payed back. I have played on this glorious instrument for over ten years, and it is hard to imagine my life without it!

Not only have all of these celli found me, but music also found me. And I am thankful for all of it. Music has done much to define me, and anyone who is blessed enough to study music (but especially the king of instruments, the cello) will find their life enriched by endless beauty and wonder. Its funny, when we search for beauty we rarely find it; it is only when we give up the search that, like a beautiful instrument, it seems to find us!

 

JM