A Solo Cello Recital

2018 Nov 24

Today I put on a solo cello recital. It was the culmination of many years of interest and effort. I performed well enough that I was happy with the outcome. And so it was very satisfying.

It also over-extended me enough that I delayed writing this entry four years!

I am motivated to play cello as an adult by deep enjoyment in producing rich and exquisite sound. These vibrations of notes, melodies and harmonies dance in the air between you and me. They create a stream of moments that overlap and linger briefly in our mind. Sometimes the music tells stories made out of feelings - dread, surprise, regret, chaos, calm, grief, joy. Sometimes it reaches into us and grabs our soul, and for a moment we can’t even breathe.

How can wiggling air do this?

Looking back

I grew up in Japan, where the Suzuki method of learning music came from. They can do music recitals differently there because all players share the same music literature. The most experienced players come on stage and play a challenging piece. They stay, players with less skill come out, and together they play a piece that is less difficult. At the end, all the students down to the least skill level are on stage, and everyone plays Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

This is brilliant because it teaches the learners that they need to know a body of literature and to remember what they first learned. It reduces stage fright because each is not alone. And it teaches about the broad experience of learning: it reminds the skilled of the path they took, and it shows the beginners that this path can take them to amazing places.

In my last year in Japan, my teacher suddenly jumped far ahead in my book and had me work on The Swan (a piece having deceptive simplicity, yet great depth). The assignment was surprising, but the music didn’t end up too difficult. It turned out this was the recital piece that the most experienced students were to play, and the one after it was a bit elementary. Since at 13 I was already as tall as the adults, this was a gracious assignment to let me play with students that were closer to my size.

After I graduated high school, our family returned for a year to North America. I started college in BC, Canada and my youngest sister Lisa lived with my parents in Seattle. I was able to regularly come home and I noticed Lisa working intensively on several difficult violin pieces. Her teacher had challenged her to do a solo recital, and so one weekend we went to a house with a good piano and Lisa played music for a small crowd. My mom accompanied her on the piano, and her teacher joined for one duet piece. I recorded the event because this accomplishment really impressed me, and I was proud of her.

Developing music

As time progressed, I found various pieces of amazing music that were slightly beyond my level, but that I believed I could learn. Rachmaninoff wrote Vocalise, which I have come to deeply love. Then I noticed his Sonata for Cello and Piano and played part of it with a friend. After re-starting cello lessons as an adult (with Ellen), I played the other three parts of the Sonata over some years. Then I thought I should put it all together.

However, the Sonata was about half an hour of music. I remembered what my sister had done with her solo recital. So finally, with encouragement because I knew some of what it would cost me, I started preparing for my own solo recital. It would include The Swan, Vocalise and the Sonata. I worked with Ellen over the whole Sonata, and the first time I played it all the way through for her was a notable milestone.

As one person said to me, the most difficult part of playing the Rachmaninoff Sonata for Cello and Piano is finding a pianist that is able to play it well. Through Ellen, I found Carlin, an amazing pianist and artist (also a photographer and violinist). Then in the course of many weeks, I rehearsed with Carlin to bring the music to performance level. She is a piano teacher, but with her additional understanding of the violin, she also taught me cello through this music.

I had to put in my practice work at home as well. When I was a young learner, I had never enjoyed practicing music. As a child, I never had the option to not be playing music, and now I am grateful to my parents for that discipline. I had always loved the sound of the cello, but practice time was not what I was interested in. This recital, however, required a lot of it. Rehearsals took time too, therefore, many evenings I returned home close to midnight. (The one great advantage of that hour was that the notorious Seattle traffic was missing!) Finally we were ready.

The Recital

Carlin graciously allowed me to use her home as the venue for the recital. I was limited by space for who I could invite, so I chose people that were interested in music and in me. I asked my sister Lisa to bring my mom down from Canada, and this also brought Lisa to the recital.

The event went well. Before each music piece and section, we talked about what was coming. This created breaks and gave people context (because not everyone was a hard-core classical music type).

Larry and Carlin playing

Although my playing wasn’t perfect, there were no disasters and the music was good. I was able to be a conduit for this body of music to be alive in that room in our shared experience. Then suddenly it was done!

Even though the "crowd" was small, I was surprised by the vigor of the clapping. I had some deep thank you’s to give to individuals. note There were refreshments and some final good conversations.

Carlin also commented that in her experience, an event like this was rare for adult learners because they get afraid of the uncomfortable challenge.

This has stuck with me and I take it not only as a complement, but as an encouragement to continue to push myself as an adult learner.

And, we were able to get a family group picture.

2018 Nov

Epilog

After a high-water mark like that, what do you do?

I was worn out in some ways on cello, so in my lessons I took on some (deceptively) easier projects. In time, my cello energy returned, and those "easy" pieces turned out to have depth and subtlety that kept me moving forward.

2018-11-24 updated 2022-12-26   © 2023 Larry Grove