During my first year of learning the cello, I read some sage advice that a new musician should start their performing career with music that is at least a couple degrees easier than the most challenging piece they are currently learning. I cannot attest to the truth of this suggestion because during the 2.5 years that I have been playing the cello, every single performance has been with music that is beyond the edge of my current abilities. As a result, all of my performance preparations have been imparted with a heightened degree of urgency and significance. This last recital was no exception in which I played my heart out to the tune of the Sarabande of the first suite, a movement that is written in the style of a slow, sensual, and spiritual Spanish dance.
The Sarabandes are some of my absolute favorites from the Bach Cello Suites because they are all so deeply moving and span a wide range of intense and meditative emotions. The mood of each can also seem to change dramatically depending on how they are played. To my ears, the Sarabande from the 1st suite feels like waves of passion, a sublime sense of nurtured longing that is as rooted and ephemeral as a well tended garden, like a summer love that lasts for decades growing stronger with each year, constantly renewed with a quiet sustaining energy – like the sensuous rousing of a lover waking from a deep and restful sleep. As is always the case with music, words fail, but these are the images in my head that I am attempting to convey when I am in the practice room.
The technical aspects of the piece include a multitude of shifts, asymmetric bowing, sostenuto bowing over challenging string crossings and double stops, harmonics, 8th and 16th note vibrato, legato bowing during shifts over string crossings, and many harmonious and dissonant doubles stops and chords – including one fairly tricky dominant 7 chord. In addition to these items, there is also the intangible challenge of performing such an iconic piece with whatever musicality and expression that my novice skill can muster.
Perhaps everyone who plays from the Bach Suites feels some hesitation at presenting these masterpieces through the narrow lens of their current ability. But by that same logic, having played for only a couple years, I realize that no single performance can be seen as final verdict. For this particular performance, the dominant thought on my mind was simply a desire not to utterly disappoint my teacher. It has felt like she is taking something of a chance by teaching me these Suite movements (which are so important to every cellist), and also by allowing me to actually perform them with so little experience. Perhaps it was my near-addiction to practice that convinced her to leap forward with this material.
In any case, I am happy to say that for my current level of skill, the performance could hardly have gone better than it did, and I hope it was sufficient to justify my teacher’s hopes for my potential and eventual growth. While I was under the powerful narcotic of stage anxiety/excitement and very likely unable to fully hear what I was doing, my teacher reported that my performance was the best she had ever heard me play it. Another more advanced student noted that my double stops sounded “perfect” which was a huge relief to hear objectively. To my own untrustworthy ears, it sounded at least as technically accurate as my best practice session, and my only regret was that it lacked whatever emotional dimension I can arouse when I am alone with my thoughts. This was probably because all of my emotional energy was being spent trying to keep some semblance of composure and focus.
A significant part of the reason for this success story was based on some timely and wonderful insight from a wise musician on the cello forums that implanted the encouraging idea that a performance could actually exceed anything achieved in a practice room due to the heightened focus and energy being on stage affords. All things considered, this turned out to be the case for me last Sunday as the room was filled with kind and encouraging eyes and it also didn’t hurt that I truly wanted to share what I had learned about a piece that feels very personal to me.
As always, I was quite nervous and keyed up despite my reportedly calm outward appearance, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also a little sad when the piece was finished and felt a certain sense of loss when it was time to leave the stage. This was quite a difference from prior performances where I practically leapt out of my chair and ran off stage in cathartic relief. Now, I find that I am actually looking forward to the next performance not just as a stressful trial by fire, but also as another opportunity to share what I have learned, and perhaps also to share something more personal about myself through the language of music.
Right now I am just a babbling baby cellist who is playing with words of which I barely comprehend their full meaning. In next year, one of my goals will be to learn to speak clearly and with purpose, and perhaps also to begin to grasp the narrative structure of music so that one day I can begin to tell musical stories that might actually hold the attention of a skeptical and unfamiliar audience. Ambitious goals much? Well for now, I’ll stick to forming complete musical sentences…
Other Interesting Developments
As I mentioned before, the Sarabande is a piece with many dissonant and harmonious double stops as well as chords. The range of notes extends well into the lower registers of the Cello. After four months and roughly 120 hours of practicing this single piece, the wood on my Cello has opened up significantly, particularly in the bass. Perhaps this is from the energetic bowing on the C and G strings, and perhaps some part of it comes from the complex interplay of competing overtone frequencies resonating throughout the wood. In any case, the C2 and D3 fundamental tones on the open strings are now much stronger, whereas prior to this time period, they were almost completely undetectable on my spectroscopic tuner. I hope this trend continues since my student cello began its life with an emphasis on the brighter overtones and often sounded almost like a violin or viola. Now it sounds distinctively more cello-like, though it still pales in comparison to anything above a student quality instrument.