Heart Strings


It’s not every day that a music critic for The New York Times makes me cry.

But that’s exactly what happened when I read Zachary Woolfe’s story “After Playing, Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow,” in which he writes about having donated his unplayed cello to a program that provides instruments to underserved public schools.

Much of Woolfe’s account rang eerily, uncomfortably true. His cello, he wrote, had become “as useless and forgotten as my appendix,” gathering dust in a closet, taken out only to move from one apartment to the next.

As I write this, my own cello leans silently against the wall in a corner of my dining room, where it has more or less lived since we moved into this house in 2003. It hasn’t been taken out of its case in months, and the last time it was played with any degree of seriousness, Bill Clinton was still governor of Arkansas. But the thought of giving it up, of having it out there in the world without me, makes me positively queasy.

“These instruments become vessels for so much of our time, energy, care, anxiety and joy,” Woolfe wrote. “To give them away is to admit that there are parts of our lives that are over. For many of us, it is to say goodbye to our childhoods.”

And how.

I first began to play the cello in fourth grade, and within two years I was a serious presence on the local music circuit: All-County. All-State. All-Milky Way. OK. Maybe not that last one. But there was an endless schedule of lessons and concerts and auditions, hours and hours spent practicing and rehearsing. And always when I looked out into the audience, there was my father, my perpetual chauffeur, patiently doing The New York Times crossword puzzle or reading some dense book to the strains of Saint-Saëns and Vivaldi. In one of our family’s most painful episodes, my 50-something father, inspired by the pint-sized talented musicians in my circle, decided to try to learn to play the violin himself. And while his devotion was commendable, let’s just say it significantly dwarfed his talent.

Throughout adolescence, music became my entrée to the world at large, my cello like a trusty sidekick. It went with me on countless bus and car trips and flew with me to concerts in Canada and the Bahamas. I spent four life-changing summers playing chamber music at a tiny camp on the shores of Lake Dunmore in Vermont. In high school, I got my first taste of quasi-adult independence lugging that cello on the Long Island Railroad and the New York City subway to take lessons in Manhattan.

Eventually, though, it became clear that music did not have the utter grip on my soul that it did on some of my fellow players. “Don’t become a professional musician unless you absolutely have to,” I was warned. I decided not to go the conservatory route, but I dutifully brought my cello to college and continued to study. I had always assumed that after I graduated, playing the cello would naturally find its way back into my life somehow. Mysteriously, that never happened, but my long-silenced instrument has stayed with me ever since. In the summer of 2001, it was—quite miraculously —in the one part of my Washington, D.C. apartment that wasn’t destroyed by a freak flash flood. It seemed almost providential.

When I first stopped playing, I was taken aback by how much I missed the physicality of it, the familiar sensation of my fingers against the metal strings and glossy wood. But eventually those cravings faded, as did the hard-won calluses on my fingers that had always marked me as a card-carrying member of the string players’ fraternity. For a long time, muscle memory was strong enough that I could still pull out the cello and sound reasonably legitimate, the way some people can still robotically recite parts of their bar mitzvah haftorah. But now I am so out of practice I can hardly play at all. The cello is like a ghost from my past, a language I once spoke fluently but can now only understand a few words of.

Of course, the oldest cliché about parenting is that it makes everything old seem new again. And so when my six-year-old son decided he wanted to take up the violin through a program at school last year, I felt a stirring of something essential but long dormant within me. As I watched him hold that tiny instrument for the first time, beaming with possibility, I was overwhelmed.

One Sunday afternoon last winter, I settled into a creaky wooden chair in a school auditorium to watch my son’s very first orchestra rehearsal. As I unfolded The New York Times, I was flooded with memories of my father, who passed away unexpectedly two years ago. So this is what it looks like from the other side, I thought. Zachary Woolfe wrote that over time it “became harder to justify letting my cello accumulate dust, knowing it could be doing for someone else what it had once done for me. I began to imagine life without it.” Selfishly, I am not there yet. I still need my instrument with me, a physical reminder of who and where I’ve been. I’m just not ready to let it go.

In the meantime, I have no idea whether Alec will take to the violin as I did to the cello. I can’t predict whether a passion for music will burrow its way into his soul, whether it will open his horizons and literally take him places he otherwise would never go. But if one day, the thought of giving up a beloved instrument brings tears to his eyes, I know I can call it a win.

Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend. She also serves as one of Us Weekly’s Fashion Police “Top Cops.”

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