Betty Duffy

(Amateur)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let there be banjo... or cello... or whatever

I spent two thirds of my life learning how to play an instrument, and then gave it up when I got pregnant. Granted, I got pregnant twice in a row, and then I had two toddlers who double timed me whenever I tried to play, and the cello is not like a violin that you can frolic around overhead and out of reach of their little hands. It's right there in their faces, and it was frustrating to worry about poking one of them in the eye with my bow, even though sometimes I wanted to do it on purpose.

But they're older now, and the baby really only likes to suck his thumb and push tractors around on the carpet, so he's no obstacle to cello playing. The only obstacle is my post-hibernation dustiness, weak and tender fingers, and a bow that needs re-haired. There've been all these videos going around online, heavy metal cello playing, like Apocalyptica playing Metallica covers. I've always been drawn to the song "One," because when I taught English, a relatively troubled student loaned me his Metallica CD so I could listen to that song and understand him somehow. I do detect a few grace-notes in there, a truly lovely piece, until it drops off into complete nihilism, which Apocalyptica plays skillfully, but it's nihilism nonetheless, which isn't my thing.

So it got me thinking that while I'm too shaky right now for classical music, I could definitely pull off a pizzicato bass line, or some mournful whole notes in the background of a pop song. A friend of mine runs a music co-op, putting contract musicians in touch with one another, so I asked him if it would be something I could do--get into his database, and maybe pick up some small gigs. He thought maybe his band could use me, and we made plans to get together and "jam"--which sounds funny to me. Jamming on the cello.

I've been practicing, and playing bass lines from songs I like. Rush always has a good bass line, even when the lyrics are cheesy; "Freewill" for instance. And then I thought I could pull in themes from certain hymns and punk them up a little, "Caelitum Joseph," maybe. And then I started thinking about old poems I wrote that stink as poems but might actually work as a pop song, and then I wanted to sing rather than play the cello, but I couldn't pull out a tune that sounded right, so I just sang hymns.

The baby, then, starts putting his hands over my mouth to shush me. He doesn't want me me to sing. Maybe because "O Sacred Head Surrounded" doesn't sound good when the songstress takes intermittent bites of dry Cheerios and chases it with coffee. Regardless, my singing voice is horse and off key and only sounds manageable at a low timbre like a lullaby. What if I whisper, Baby? Will the sound of mother's voice singing hymns in the morning be a grace note in your memory, or will the smell of coffee and dry cheerios, the throat clearing and chest bumping, and Shh Baby, Mommy's singing make you forever averse to this particular song?

Beauty requires discipline, which is the troubling thing about it, because discipline can be terribly, terribly ugly. Recall for instance, the mother combing her daughter's hair, and every time the bristles get stuck in a tangle, the daughter pulls away shrieking. The mother pulls back, holding the pony tail tighter and they're in a hair tug-of-war, till the daughter drops to her knees in a tantrum, and the mother walks out of the room saying, "It hurts to be beautiful. Doesn't it?"

But the product of discipline is nearly always a grace note, especially when it comes unwarranted, unsought, unscripted, as years ago when I sat in the upstairs bedroom reading a book at the lake house, and wind blew in the open windows, bringing with it the sound of wind chimes and my older brother playing the banjo. Slow at first as he found his bearings, soft like a lullaby, then faster, he practiced a few runs and put the banjo away.

We've had a troubled relationship, my brother and I, and whenever someone you painfully love produces something beautiful, that beauty becomes mythical somehow, something to chase and recapture. So I can't tell whether it's a sign of aging, or some quest for a mythical beauty I once knew that causes me to scroll through the radio stations in the car listening for banjo. It sounds honest to me, even played badly--let there be banjo.

Anyway, my son doesn't like my singing, but the way the kids all gather around when I play the cello, the way they ask for it now, I've realized that while I thought I was doing them a favor by putting the cello away, I was actually depriving them. And the baby goes around the house looking for objects to turn into a cello bow, like my husband's carpentry pencil, the flat kind that you sharpen with a pocket knife. He sits down on the floor next to me with his knee bent up, and runs the pencil lengthwise over his fibula saying, "I play cello, Mommy!"


14 comments:

Lizzie said...

That's it - I'm definitely booking the piano mover to get the piano from my parents place to my new flat.Thanks for the final push - for too long, I've been making excuses not to create music with these talents that I have undeservedly been given in abundance. It's time to bless others through my piano playing and singing (although my standard has dropped so much over the last few years, my son probably will be screaming at me to stop and it may be a while before the grace notes come..!)

Thank you, as ever, for the inspiration, beauty and for lifting my soul...

Young Mom said...

Violin isn't much better, even though it is abuve their heads. They still manage to need something every 30 seconds, hang on my bow arm, jump off of the couch onto me etc. The hardest thing for me to push past though, is getting over how awful I think I must sound. :/

BettyDuffy said...

My guess is, you don't sound awful to the kids, though.

Erin said...

Betty, my dad used to play the guitar. He didn't play often and he didn't know many songs, but there was one song in particular that I loved to hear him play. When I was 16 years old, I finally decided to take lessons and as soon as my fingers learned the basics, Dad taught me to play that song. It is still one of my favorites and it always brings back good memories with my Dad.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

If you're looking to jam on the cello, do a youtube search for Crooked Still. I think you'd call it "newgrass" and it features the cello prominently. And banjo.

Me, I've been torturing my family with the mandolin for a couple of years now....

Kimberlie said...

I love, love, love the cello. Thanks for posting that video. Yes, play. Sing. Let the music, or joyful noise, or whatever, get deep into your soul. It's good for you, and for your children. Make a video of yourself playing so we can all enjoy it! Please. :) Thanks.

PS - I have no musical background just like I have no art background. But I appreciate a musicians effort when I hear it just as I can appreciate an artist's effort.

JMB said...

Have you heard Eddie Vedder's latest banjo tunes? I think there's something about the banjo that calls to my Scotch-Irish roots. My dad used to play the guitar and having lost him at a young age almost 4 years ago, I still laugh whenever I think about him playing the guitar. Of course, we used to rock out on Godspell tunes, but Johnny Cash and Jim Croce were his favs. It's stuff like that that you never forget as a child.

JMB said...

OK, I meant uukele. I'm a musician ignoramus:)

BettyDuffy said...

JMB--Is that the "Longing to Belong" song--cause if so--I love it.

BettyDuffy said...

Anon- thanks for the Crooked STill recommendation--glad to find them!

Agnes Regina said...

Music is such a great gift! It's funny that while it may seem like the kids wouldn't appreciate it, they really do. My biggest fans are my two littlest sisters, who will sit by the piano and just stare at me as I play, sing along with my arias, or just run around the room and dance. Little kids have a natural sense of rhythm and all it takes is a bit of music to get them to find it, be it singing along, bouncing around or just nodding their heads to the music.

And I LOVE cellos. That deep warm sound is unbelievable... sigh...

MrsDarwin said...

I played the violin when I had two small ones. I had recently picked it up after having played the viola years before, and having the kind of free time that one doesn't realize one has when one only has two children, I played for hours a day. I reached a mild proficiency and used to rock out to Irish tunes with some friends. One day, early in my third pregnancy, our little group played a talent show at church. I always feel stiff and nervous when I get up to perform some mostly unmastered skill in front of a crowd, and I had the worst case of stage fright, combined with morning sickness. Our set went okay, but I couldn't touch or look at the violin for a long time afterwards without getting violently queasy.

Afterward, we bought a piano -- an instrument on which I'm far more experienced, as my dad's lightened wallet can attest. The kids like the piano, but it's Darwin who loves to sit and listen to me play.

And now I sing around the house, and I'm always pleased when I hear my girls trying to mimic my technique, instead of the styles they hear on the radio. My maternal heart was thrilled when I watched my two oldest sing karaoke last week, and do it well (enough). They watch and listen, and do what we do. And sometimes that turns out fine.

Steve Gershom said...

Beautiful post! I love the cello very much. And I'm glad your linking to my blog has led me to yours. Thanks for the kind words, and all the visitors.

Sister Mary Martha said...

It won' be long before he uses your bow as a sword. They all do that that make every stick into a sword thing.