I was chatting with my sister about classical music just before I started writing this.
So I’m listening to Beethoven 7 as I’m writing this now.
(Check out #10 in this morning’s Axios AM. If you don’t subscribe to Axios AM, you should. And Axios PM. It’s the only newsletter I read every morning besides Matt Levine’s Money Stuff, which I read almost every morning. Also Bill Sinocism for China stuff, but it’s weekly now, unless you pay. I was subscribed to a million newsletters at one point. But then that bubble popped. And all that remains are those three. Mike Allen. Matt Levine. And Bill Sinocism. Whatever his last name is.)
My dad is more of a Rachmaninoff kind of guy.
Which is sort of apt. Since his name is Karl with a ‘K.’
He chose that name himself, BTW.
At night, when he washes the dishes, he’ll put on the Bach cello suites. You know the Bach cello suites. The la-la-LA-la-LA-la-LA-la piece that Yo Yo Ma plays for TV commercials.
I switched from from violin to cello in the 6th grade. That was the year Mr. Handman joined our school. The guy made a huge impact on my life.
Switching over to cello was a great choice. It just came so naturally. And the instrument just fits my personality.
Violin is so obvious. Cello, a bit more hipster. A bit more… big?
You don’t get as many obvious times to shine as the violin. So when you get them, you surrender to them with a gusto.
And those moments are so, so beautiful when they arrive.
They say that the cello’s range most closely matches that of the human voice.
Every spring, you would prepare a solo piece that you would perform for a bunch of judges who would score you. In NY, it was called NYSSMA. Your score would basically qualify you for various regional and state orchestras.
There were 6 levels of difficulty.
And so in 7th grade, I chose a piece that was level 4 difficulty. Which was a pretty big deal for someone just starting out on the instrument. 4 out of 6 in his second year.
That piece was the first prelude from the Bach cello suites.
And cello was just this like new, casual thing for me.
Mr. Handman had switched me mainly because we had like, not enough cellos in the orchestra. So I didn’t take it that seriously. I was just helping out. (He was also giving me private lessons on the side to help speed up the process.)
Me playing cello was out of necessity.
And so before my big NYSSMA adjudication in 7th grade, I wasn’t practicing. I was out on my driveway rollerblading, doing laps. Roller hockey was a big deal at that age, after all.
And it’s all about making those fast, deep turns. Really carving around those corners.
Around one corner, I caught air and just totally wiped out.
I wasn’t padded up or anything because I was just doing circles
And so I just got completely wrecked.
Huge patches of skin were scraped off my arms and legs.
I was dripping blood all over the place.
And my big solo performance was in less than an hour. And it was at the Rhinebeck HS which itself is like over a 30 minute drive.
And so my mom is patching up and we’re in a rush to get to the school.
I get there and Mr. Handman is like, WTF!!!
Because I’m literally a mess. Bandages everywhere. Moving my arms hurts. Walking hurts.
He’s like, WTF MAN!!!
And then I start getting ready. I FORGOT MY FUCKING BOW.
THE BIGGEST DAY OF MY CELLO CAREER SO FAR AND I FORGET MY BOW.
WTF, Mr. Handman is like. WTF.
This is the kid I’m stuck with now on cello?!!? WTF!!!!
So they found me a replacement bow that was a size too big.
(Beethoven just ended so I’m listening to Rachmaninoff No. 2 in C Minor now.)
If you’ve heard the prelude and you know anything about stringed instruments, then you’ll know that this piece is all bow.
Yo Yo Ma actually performs it in a very hipster way. Because the piece is broken down into 8 note arpeggios basically. Remember? la-la-LA-la-LA-la-LA-la, la-la-LA-la-LA-la-LA-la, and so on and so forth.
Well Yo Yo Ma plays all 8 notes individually, which is crazy because he makes it SOUND so smooth. As if they’re all connected. That’s insanely hard. Most commonly, players will break up the 8 notes into groups of 4. So you hit all notes with two strokes of the bow, which makes it much more manageable.
Mr. Handman was a bit more ambitious than that. He wanted me to hit all 8 with one stroke, which is damned hard. It takes really solid bow management to hit all the notes with equal, luscious (or not so luscious) tone.
And to do it with a bow that’s the wrong size!!!
So I didn’t really expect much from my performance.
A couple hours after I get home, I’m still aching from my roller blading injuries and I get a call from Mr. Handman, which is unusual. We usually don’t hear anything until the next day.
He had just happened to see my scoresheet as it was being processed, he explained.
“You got a perfect score!!” he reports excitedly.
It’s a funny thing when the universe gives you like an unexpected sense of validation. Like you don’t really know why or how. But it happens.
And it ends up making this huge impact on your life.
I’m not gonna lie, getting that score felt great. But more importantly, it made cello matter to me in a way that I had never expected. This was something that I was good at. Suddenly, I felt obligated to live up to a potential I never knew I had.
And so that was just the start of my cello adventure. A long, difficult, beautiful, and intensely rewarding experience.
Man, I should reach out to Mr. Handman.
(I actually just donated my one of my cello cases to Poughkeepsie HS.)
Anyway, so my dad plays that SAME prelude from the Bach cello suites. The one piece that started it all.
When he’s washing the dishes.
I can’t tell if it’s because he really likes the suites. Or if he’s trying to subliminally get me to play cello again.
My dad is a very nuanced, not very direct kind of guy when it comes to these things. So it really could be either or. You never know with this guy. Dude is very annoying. The strong, silent type that Tony Soprano always talked about during his therapy sessions. Gary Cooper or whatever. A stoic.
Maybe I should pick up my cello this week.
PS I mentioned this story to my sister. “Lol he likes all the music that we played.”
BTW, my sister was also very good at the violin. She got a perfect score at the HIGHEST NYSSMA level. So there is level 6, but there is also level 6 ALL STATE. And she got perfect for level 6 ALL STATE and played in the ALL STATE orchestra.
Which like, at our level, was basically the most prestigious thing you could do as a public school stringed instrument player.
(I also nailed my level 6 ALL STATE audition my sophomore year. Sadly, FOUR OTHER CELLISTS did from my region that year. And apparently I was the worst of the best. Which is a pretty lame thing to be, TBH. It also meant I was an alternate so I missed out on ALL STATE. It was a huge disappointment at the time. Like, devastating. Literally everything you worked for. AND it’s one thing my sister will always have over me. That part is kewl though. Well played, sis. Well played.)
Top photo: Our high school orchestra. IDK why I’m so tan. But that’s Mr. Handman to my left (your right). You’ll also see Pawan there, another DONUTS reader, the Indian guy with the incredible jaw line in the middle row and to the right (my left). The good ol’ dayz.