One of my first memories is sitting on my mom’s lap, at probably about four or five years old, humming along to jazz music on the record player. My mom said to my dad, “she knows this song already.” I didn’t know the song, but I sensed her pride. I just was able to predict the notes. Being the first child and all, I guess they thought I was gifted.
Fast forward to fourth grade, when we were permitted to take up a stringed instrument. If we wanted brass, we had to wait until fifth grade and I wasn’t able to wait. Patience is not my best trait. My cousin, Jane, played the cello, and Jane was cool, so I chose the cello. Plus I liked that it was large and unusual. I was signed up for private lessons, rented a ¾ sized cello, and off to the races. It was easy for me. I graduated from the tape on the fingerboard in no time flat.
Leaping ahead to high school, I was able to take a music class and actually get a grade for it. We had a small orchestra; a few cellos, a viola, one bass, and maybe 6 violins so I joined up. We played a lot of quartet music and small ensemble pieces, with band members stepping in on occasion. I was first chair for all of my years; freshman to senior. Easy breezy, right? Well, it was until my senior year. That year I didn’t deserve it.
Sometime that fall, the Whitmer High School Band and Orchestra Boosters wanted to focus on the orchestra at one of their meetings (the ratio of one meeting for the orchestra to about 10 meetings about band = the ratio of orchestra members to band members.) Needless to say, we didn’t get a lot of attention. Plus we couldn’t march at football games, so there it is. Anyway, for the yearly nod to orchestra, they asked if two of us could play solos at the meeting. Mr. Hainen, our director, chose me and a freshman cellist named Steve Taylor. I didn’t know Steve very well, but I knew he was pretty good, and my general attitude was “whatever”. I had been working on the Boccherini Cello Concerto in B flat, which was a good audition piece for college. It was technically difficult, and about 7 minutes long. I practiced more than my usual 15 minutes before my lesson, and it sounded accomplished.
For some reason I went first. I’m not sure why. Maybe Steve was running late since the younger student usually plays first. No matter. I played the Concerto as well as possible—hit most of the notes, not too many strained ones, except for the ones up higher, and ended with a flourish. The applause was deafening (OK maybe I’m imagining that, but it’s my story), and I bowed in gratitude. I sat down with a Mona Lisa smile and Steve got up, or rather took a seat, to play.
I am not sure if time actually stopped at that point, but it did for me. When Steve started to play, the reason music exists became clear. He played “The Swan,” a short, simple, classic cello piece. The music was serene, relaxed, flowing and in short, perfection. The soul in that piece flowed through him, through the cello, and swirled around the room before it drilled right through my heart. He had The Gift. I remember leaning forward so I wouldn’t miss a note.
It’s funny; you would think that the emotion I might feel would be jealousy, or resentment, or even motivation to work harder, but it wasn’t. I probably grumbled about him a little throughout the year, but inside I knew that no matter how much I practiced or worked, I would never play like that. If you have had the experience of seeing someone with The Gift in person, you understand. This freshman kid had something I would never have. The truth is, I saw the cello as a means to an end. Through the cello, I would get a scholarship, an easy “A” in school, and a certain amount of respect. He seemed to see the cello, and the music, as the end itself. He made it talk. It’s been 40 years and I never forgot that moment. It still takes my breath away.
One of my favorite movies is “Amadeus.” It explores themes of talent and giftedness; who gets it, how it affects people with it and without. I am Salieri minus the animosity. All I know is that some people, for no apparent reason, have this thing, this magic, beyond the rest of us. No matter what the field, it isn’t common. There are many great cellists, and many more like me, who are pretty good but not great. We can play well and enjoy doing so. But even among the great ones, there are some who just rise above for whatever reason.
It seems random, the ones the lightning bolt hits. They don’t “deserve” it, and though they work hard, they don’t “earn” it. I only wish that were possible. They may not want it. Some thrive, able to balance out their lives. Some don’t. Some can’t handle the responsibility or magnitude of this talent. It’s hard to have what others strive for. Kind of like winning the lottery in a way. I had a teacher who won the lottery and said it ruined his life. He didn’t know who was being real.
Some run away from it. We lose some, and I write this with heartache; the pain is great when a young, bright light is extinguished. A young man I saw perform a few years back recently lost his life. He had it..when he played you couldn’t help but watch. He lit up the stage. When he died, the pain touched so many, in everlasting ways.
When David Bowie died someone said they were glad to have been on the earth at the same time as he was. I am so happy to have been able to see and hear Steve and the other amazing artists during my time on earth. This isn’t a “poor me” writing designed to elicit praise. On the contrary, I am very happily mediocre. I can’t wait until I see it again in someone new, like a treasure hunt. You don’t know who has it walking down the street, what child, what high schooler, what average middle aged man or woman. But you know when you are in the presence of it because you feel like angels are speaking. And there is nothing you can do but listen.
PS…I am happy to report that after 40 years, I found Steve Taylor. He is a cello professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia and has had an incredibly successful career! I contacted him and think my sister and I will have to take a bucket list trip to Georgia sometime when he plays😊 As a bonus, he said he settled by Mr. Hainen. 😊 😊 Life is good.