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I have had a long and tempestuous relationship with my cello including some very long periods when we have had no contact at all.  And each time our relationship sours I imagine that this will be the last time and that “Charlie” will have to reside alone in his case without ever seeing the light of day.  Charlie has been around since I was 11, six years into my first period of cello playing, and though he’s been played by a couple of keen teenagers over the years when he and I had nothing to say to one another, he’s always come back home in the end, often looking a bit the worse for wear after being handled rather roughly.

Until a couple of years ago I’d hardly given him a thought or even looked at him for the best part of 20 years because I last stopped playing when I took up Alexander Technique lessons from my then cello teacher when I found that I was too often in pain to sit and practise.  My Alexander Technique training led me to realise many things and among them was understanding that if I were ever to take up with my cello again it would need to be FUN.  The process of playing needed to be enjoyable in and of itself.

For me playing the cello had always been about excellence - playing well and aspiring to be the best.  First Jacqueline du Pré and later Steven Isserlis were my impossible role models.  While I was a competent player (mainly due to a lot of cajoling to practise from my mother when I was a child) I was never going to be brilliant.  So setting my sights on a horizon I had neither sufficient talent nor dedication to attain meant that eventually I fell out of love with playing the cello at all (twice).

Then, a couple of years ago my daughter rang me.  She was planning her wedding and wondered, just tentatively, whether I would consider playing something.  My immediate reaction was “Absolutely not! I hate playing in public, I no longer know how to play, and this would just be humiliating, so forget it.”  But as the days went by I found myself visiting the top of the house where Charlie was sitting alone.  And I brought him downstairs and took him out of his case and started to play a few scratchy tuneless notes.  Over the next days and weeks I started to play a bit more, suffer the soreness of unpractised fingers sliding up and down the strings, and to re-visit old pieces I used to play, noticing that though my fingers were stiff and easily tired, they did sort of remember where to go still.

At this stage I was still not making plans or commitments to anyone, I was just playing around to see what if anything was still possible and to challenge my own first instinct to refuse to participate.  And then I remembered the lovely and unusual tune to Sing for Joy that was played at my wedding.  I have always had such a vivid memory of walking up the aisle on my father’s arm to that soulful melody.  This piece resonated for me in other ways too that made it a both personal and poignant.  When I started to look I couldn’t find the music anywhere though it turned out that the tune in my head was sufficient to work it out for myself. It began to seem possible that I might have something to offer.

I had six months to become competent and confident enough to play in a yurt in front of 180 people. I didn’t commit but I started to practise often and I started to improve. I even put myself through the excrutiating experience of playing for a couple of friends and relatives just to see if I could bear to play in front of others.

In the end I decided to go ahead because I began to see this as an offering and as my way to meaningfully participate in this beautiful celebration of life and love – it had nothing to do with performance, or me at all, really.  

In the final weeks before the wedding I sought out a cello teacher to help me a bit.  I found someone the age of one of my own children. She seemed very young but I nevertheless felt that I could learn from her. I continued my lessons in the months afterwards as well,  having decided that now I had started, I should re-engage more seriously with playing the cello again. I stocked up on new pieces and began working towards Grade VIII, that elusive final Associated Board exam that I had had in my sights twice before and never actually taken. I was diligent in my practise but I was enjoying myself less and less as each day went by.

My lessons were not destined to continue it seems.  My lovely young teacher died suddenly and tragically just a few months after we had met.  I was shocked and bereft.  I had lost two cello teachers in less than a year and I didn't feel I could carry on. Charlie was abandoned once again.

But then just the other day I was driving home across the beautiful Suffolk countryside suffused in a wonderful green-gold light playing in the bare branches of the trees in the winter sun listening to the radio and I heard a piece I knew (but couldn’t identify immediately) that was being played on the cello.  I knew this was not originally a cello piece but to me it sounded sublime.  I came home and started searching the internet and I came across The Piano Boys arrangements for cello and piano.  And I thought, yes, maybe this is how to have fun on the cello again. I do not have to revive that old habit of trying to learn technically demanding pieces that are right at the edge of my ability and which kill all enjoyment for me. No, I can play the cello as I sing, purely for pleasure and because, as it turns out, I can.  It transpires that many of the melodies that I find moving and lovely are also simple to learn and to play.

So Charlie’s been dusted off and warmed up and played with twice in two days, so maybe this is the start of something new.  I plan to have some fun and not let things get too serious…………