Winter Comes Early

We had just wheeled the wood-splitter down to the lower shop. Such smugness found in looking at the woodshed stuffed with two years worth of wood, one drying for the following year, one ready to roll. We could relax a little, take the dogs on long walks down the dirt road scuffing the dead leaves as we strolled. We could take our time in raking the leaves out of the front yard into giant piles destined to become a comforter for the raspberries sleeping in our garden.

Cello Blogs

Saturday morning we woke up to white. That’s how it works in the Northeast, the change of seasons falls upon us, surprising us with it’s resoluteness. Yesterday we wore a sweater and spoke of pressing apples and carving pumpkins: today we bundle up, dragging winter gear out of storage. My Muck boots are pressed into service: they are bone-dry and bearing cobwebs for their first few steps into the snow.

Yesterday we raked, today we shovel.

Early November snowfall can be staggeringly beautiful. The trees look like they have been sprayed with white frosting. They arc gently over the road creating the Christmas card- perfect pathway to our house. However what we all know is how heavy their branches are with, not just snow, but ice. As I drive through the tunnel I hunch over the steering wheel and hold my breath, I know how fragile these branches now are and, more important, I know how close we are to that dreaded period of time without power.

As I mash avocado for toast the lights flicker. Each flicker makes me stop and look around, as if I might see a red flag giving warning. Each time I go back to mashing it happens again. I find myself picking up my pace, quickly washing all of the dishes because, although we have a well, without power, there is no pump. Without the pump...there is no water.

Lack of power is super romantic. For ten minutes or so. We have lots of oil lamps at the ready and their warm glow makes you think that you really might have been able to live out of a Conestoga wagon- I mean, how hard could it be? Five hours later Paul has to listen to me admit that I’m not a pioneer and begin my litany of swearing.

Five years ago an early storm shut the power off for five DAYS. Day three Paul was at the store looking for a generator. Supply and demand dictated it’s exorbitant cost. Little did they know that I had told Paul not to come back without that generator. I believe the final amount I was willing to pay was just under one million. I truly considered that our son, with the ink still wet on his college diploma might go for a good price.

Saturday morning we woke to white (but with power)- a Christmas...well...Thanksgiving miracle! However, as we gazed out the window at the beautiful drooping branches we noticed that among them were some not-so-beautiful drooping power lines. It seems a large tree had pinned the wires to our stuffed woodshed. Power-outage homes numbered in the 6000 range, so for five days (five seems to be a magical power number) we watched the orange flags we had draped over the wires blow merrily in the breeze. No gas delivery: the truck could not get under those flag-flapping wires, no Fed Ex delivering cellos and no town plow. So, as we live at the end of a dead end dirt road, it seemed we were quite on our own. The snow kept coming, so without a plow the cars that could come in began to pack the snow down into a skating rink. Futility was vividly demonstrated by taking cupfuls of sand and tossing them onto the road. Students somehow made it in and I gave one lesson by stand-light alone. Luckily my student Luke is ten, with ten year-old eyes, so he thought it was a wonderful adventure.

Paul and I pulled Luke’s dad out of the end of the dirt road as he tried to turn around in a Honda Fit. We charged down the road with our shovels and trusty cups of dirt. We looked like a classically trained towing team.

David’s Prius got stuck in the driveway and yes, I have asked him why the Prius and not his truck. Paul grabbed hold of the door-frame and I pushed from the front of the car, David peering over his steering wheel at me. Apparently you can’t gun a Prius - some mechanism convinces it to go to sleep when you try to get it to roar, heck, even move backward. So we mightily pushed and, without any help from the car, it began to move which also began to make my Muck boots slip- apparently we missed that spot in the driveway tossing sand: suddenly I fell forward and completely disappeared from David’s sight. David went into a panic, he had killed his cello teacher, when, in reality, I was on my knees on the ground, hysterically laughing.

We love Vermont. We love where and how we live. The challenges we face are what make us feel alive. Falling down is a given- it’s always about the getting up. I’ve decided that maybe I am part Pioneer after all.

Happy Holidays,

Melissa Perley


There aren’t many days that I don’t enjoy teaching. I love puzzling over how a certain student learns best. Message given one way to Chris won’t have the same effect on David. Jen is an engineer by trade so learns analytically, Joyce is a painter, she learns with her heart. People studying the cello are, for the most part, a warm, interesting, curious group. Sometimes the week is long, Wednesdays are back-to-back for seven straight hours, making it a dilemma on where to shave off the few minutes it takes to run to the bathroom between students!

And of course not every lesson day is perfect. There are days where a few too many people have been too busy to practice….again. It’s not good news when you ask someone to turn to the page that the assigned scale is on and they ask “what page is that?” Or better still - when someone (sorry to pick on the teenagers) tries to sight-read their etude. Dotzauer is many things to many people but sight-readable is rarely one of them.

But these are small things. I love what I do and am grateful to be able to do it. Today one of my student,s who is closer to the beginning of her path, emailed me a video of herself playing familiar Christmas carols to an Aunt in a facility for memory care. I could hear O Come All Ye Faithful playing in the background while the camera was fixed on her Aunt’s face. I watched her look a bit confused at the beginning of the playing but then I could see recognition set in. Her hands, thin and fragile, lifted like small birds from her lap in an obvious attempt at gentle clapping along with the rhythm. She watched the cello with a new smile on her face as it was being played. It was pure magic. I was sad to see the clip stop her Aunt, suddenly frozen mid-clap.

Included with the short video was a photograph of my student and her husband sitting on either side of her Aunt. What struck me was both the family resemblance of the two women but also the shared joy on their faces: both moved by the experience.

Paul and I watched a documentary called Alive Inside not long ago. It dealt with a retired doctor who had specialized in brain function. He brought tiny audio systems to elder-care facilities along with head-phones. For each patient he asked a family member to tell him what period of time in the life of the patient would be most remembered, most significant to that person. He then programmed music of that time, ie if someone was a teenager in the fifties he programmed fifties rock songs by a favorite artist. The camera was fixed on their faces without moving. Some patients’ heads were down in a state that looked like sleep. The doctor put the headphones on the patients and within a very few minutes of the music connecting to their brain they began to come to life, often in miraculous ways - singing along with the music, laughing, telling stories. If the camera had moved one might think it was all an illusion, but we watched it happen in front of us. Pure magic.

After some time he would take off the head-phones and within ten minutes that person would return to the state from which they had climbed out of. It happened over and over again- Alzheimer, dementia, age - it didn’t matter. He explained to us that music is inherent in all of us: we understand it without knowing that we do. How many times have we watched a young child, under two, bouncing, in perfect rhythm to a song being played?

I had explained that film to my student and she took it one step further by bringing her beloved cello in to her Aunt. It didn’t matter what she played, it didn’t matter how she played, only that she played. Interestingly, the benefit to her Aunt was clear: but just as clear was the benefit to the player. When she was playing without regard for perfection, without tension about reactions, there was true joy in her music. I could hear it. It was about giving, not receiving.

As I sat at my computer and watched real life evidence of what the doctor had spoken about in the film, I watched a gift being given. The gift was from student to Aunt, and Aunt to student. And, as surely, the gift was to me as well. Sitting there I had the unique opportunity to see, quite literally, my work at play.

I am humbled and remain grateful for that chance.

Melissa Perley

11 6 18

(Happy Birthday Joshua.)


For weeks color has been creeping up the trees but this weekend we are fully aflame. We’ve been able to spend time wandering down the dirt road watching the leaves spin lackadaisically to the ground. The smell of wood smoke curling out of chimneys is new again.

Paul and I bought a cider press. Each morning we use apple cider in our fruit smoothies so we decided that, along with the forty quarts of raspberries from our garden that we froze, we would press the apples on our property into service. We found that approximately a half-bushel of apples yields a gallon of cider. Juicier apples = more juice. We gathered all the apples on our land and when we ran out of those we carried milk crates, at all times, in the back of all cars in order to be ready at a moments notice to gather apples from the side of the road. It must have been a comical sight to see us leap from our vehicle, crates in hand, frantically picking apples only to run back to the car in to do it all over again a few miles down the back roads.

Along with the cider press we bought an apple chopper so technically there are three jobs in this endeavor; the chopper-cranker, the chopper-feeder, and the presser. Luckily our son, Josh, is around and is young and strong so we quickly gave him the job of chopper-cranker. The chopper-cranker has to turn the crank constantly while it is being fed the apples. I gave myself the job of apple feeder because its much easier to look at the leaves spinning to the ground if all you have to do is toss apples into the chopper. I did find that if you are watching the leaves falling you are likely to throw apples over the chopper instead of into the chopper which tends to irritate your chopper-cranker. I could see the frustration in his eyes even behind the handy-dandy, super-necessary plastic goggles he wore to deflect chunks of chops.

Paul pressed until it became almost impossible to press anything else out and then we had Josh step in and use those twenty-five year old muscles. What was wonderful about making cider is that, even knowing how things work (apples are pressed and juice comes out) there is true magic in putting the pulp into the presser and almost immediately watching the cider flowing out of the holes. No matter how many times we did this (and it was a lot) each time we “ooohed” as cider poured into the steel container. We stuck a community glass under the spout of each batch to taste the first pours. There is something wonderful about sitting outside on a beautiful fall day sharing a glass of apple cider that you have made yourself.

We froze fourteen gallons of cider for the winter. It gives us great pleasure to take what we have, modify it, and make it work for us.

Susan finished playing a piece that was particularly challenging for her and turned to me with a tepid smile. She wasn’t sad but wasn’t happy- she had practiced and clearly was working hard but what was missing in her smile and playing, was joy. We talked technical for a few minutes then I told her what I had seen in her face. I told her that I had read somewhere that Beyonce, the singer, created an alter-ego to help overcome stage fright and simply to become more fierce: the actual word she used. It is obvious that we need to practice, need to put in the time working the music- but of equal importance is finding/creating a joie de vivre, that certain something that resonates through us and into our playing.

When someone is able to tap into that, music becomes much more than playing notes.

The following week I was finishing up with my 12:00 lesson and I heard the familiar clunk of a cello case trying to navigate the narrow path past my washing machine into the music room. Expecting Susan, imagine my surprise when “Suzette” breezed into the room. On the outside Suzette looked suspiciously like Susan but oddly greeted me in french. She wore Susan shoes but a scarf was casually tossed over her shoulders, a beret rode jauntily in on her head, and Suzette’s smile was framed in fire-engine-red lipstick.

Susan is retired from finances, Suzette doesn’t feel the need to work at all.

Susan is careful and calculated, Suzette is flippant and fun.

Susan uses only the first third of her bow, Suzette often uses such big bows that they end up on the floor...and she does not care. Suzette carries several bows for that very purpose.

Suzette has accompanied Susan to several of her lessons. We have found that we allow Susan to be in charge when it comes to things like counting and rhythm, but we let Suzette take the reins when it is time to play with abandon. If I find Sue (a combination of the two) drifting into being particularly careful, her focus causing her bow to dramatically shorten, I ask her to reach up and rub her beret, a touchstone of sorts, to remind her who needs to be in charge of this particular task.

We are finding that it gives her great pleasure to take what she has, modify it, and make it work for her.

Suzette decided that she would like to come into our cello shop and try instruments. She felt that an older cello, with all of it’s character and complexity would suit her better than the cello she had been playing. Beret firmly in place she sat in the shop for several days playing cello after cello. Finally she turned to us with a big red-lipsticked smile and declared: je suis fini!

Interestingly though, when it came time to write the check- it was signed by Susan.

Melissa Perley

Perfectly Not Perfect

It’s important to me that the studio be flexible. I like people to feel that they are playing in safe space; free to groan, grumble and gripe if need be. However, there is one word that is banned from use for everyone - including myself, perfect.

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First of all perfection is simply unattainable. It is also a word that is completely subjective. We don’t have the ability nor the time to achieve perfection. Most students, when asked, would tout perfection as a virtue, something that they could wear as a badge - but I see it as something that people actually hide behind. After all, if they are shooting for perfection how could they possibly expect to succeed? I can often see when a student has already made their decision that their piece/work is never going to be perfect, perhaps even satisfactory, so why put so much effort in? It’s a good excuse, a good cover up for what they are really feeling which is fear. Perfectionism masks the fear that we are just not good enough. Some people seem to find odd relief in not having to try. Writer Rebecca Stein reminds us that “So many of us believe in perfectionism, which ruins everything else, because the perfection is not only the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun.”

When we make the decision to put ourselves out there- to take a chance- it is nothing short of walking a tight rope of emotion. One slip, one mistake and off we go into the deep waters of insecurity. I often open a student recital by talking with the crowd of expectant parents, spouses, friends and neighbors and reminding them how brave this endeavor is; not just the performance but the trying.

I have a friend, Daniel Patrylak, who was the original first trumpet of the Eastman Brass Quintet, a superb musician and wonderful man. He once told Paul and I that he had never heard a perfect string performance. He wasn’t being critical of string players, he was simply conversing with us about the reality of things. Instead of feeling discouraged by this, we felt it was actually a gift. How empowering if we can play without the concern of perfection. It’s not going to happen so how about we just let that idea go and be all that we are capable of being?

Nothing is beyond criticism. No matter how much time we put into making something “perfect” there is someone who can find fault with it, so that very effort wastes our valuable time.

Playing music is never about how many notes are correct. It is about the performance as a whole. Vladimir Horowitz was coming off a long break in playing by performing a concert at Carnegie Hall. He began his very first piece by crashing down, dramatically of course, on the complete wrong chord. He went on to three standing ovations. After the concert a music critic asked Mr. Horowitz how he felt about making the blunder. Without pause Horowitz answered “Do you want perfect or do you want Horowitz?”

I say Horowitz every single time.


Melissa Perley

Learning From Teaching

In my studio I spend an inordinate amount of time turned to face my students so that I can not only hear but watch them play. I’m looking for correct body posture, hand position, relaxed muscles and the all-important breathing. It seems counter to logic but it is amazing how many people forget to breathe when playing. I find I need to give a little elbow nudge once in a while, often eliciting a quick, full breath not unlike a snorting snore sound. Mainly I’m looking to be sure that players are at ease, that their bodies are as comfortable as they can be in the middle of an intellectual and athletic task. That can all fall under the umbrella of “correctness.” I’m looking to see that they are playing “correctly”.

One of my teenage students whom I have been working with since he was in grade school and is now in early high school came to a lesson the other day. He took out his cello, set everything up, tuned and proceeded to put the cello slightly out of his lap. I sat down, arranged his notebook, took a drink of water and gestured for him to pull the cello up higher into the “correct” position. Each time, each week this happened and all was well in our world.

Only this week he balked. Call it hormones, call it defiance or call it bravery but he balked at my wordless signal. So, being a genius, I changed the signal from wordless to verbal. Balk number two. This time he turned toward me and asked “why?”

It seemed simple enough to explain; if the cello is sitting too low in your lap, your hands are not going to reach the upper positions easily, and the soundpoint of your bow will want to fall too close to the fingerboard. Traditionally, depending on the cellist, the C peg should sit somewhere on an arc that begins at the back of the base of your neck and ends somewhere behind your left ear. I even finished that explanation with a tiny flourish- it was that simple!

Again….”Why?”- only this time he showed me that, although the cello sat lower on his body, the peg fell on this arc and he felt he could reach the upper positions quite easily. And this was comfortable for him anatomically.

I defaulted back to hand signals, he brought it up slightly and we finished the lesson.

However, the lesson stuck with me and presented a dilemma: what if “correct” could be subjective based on a person’s anatomy, or even personal preference? In the “correct” methodology is there still room for uniqueness? No one argues with the brilliance of Yo-Yo Ma but not everyone agrees with his hand positions.

It made me think about how change can come about if we don’t ever allow things to change, or at least bend.

I would like to be the person who listens to what people have to say. To not feel that I have every answer to every question and to be respectful of our differences as well as our similarities. Perhaps a young cellist can show us a new path.

When Emmett came back the following week he took out his cello, set everything up, tuned and, before positioning his cello, looked over at me. I sat down, arranged his notebook, took a drink of water and looked right back at him. We began a dialogue about “why.”

And for now, his cello is not too high, not too low- but just right - for him.

Melissa Perley


There is a challenge for every cellist as she begins to traverse the path from early to mid level player. Most students begin their study with their hands in first position- aka- “the block”- The block helps with the understanding of hand position for whole and half steps. Because I like to minimize stress on the hands, it is my goal to move students out of the block as soon as their understanding is solid. Herein lies the challenge; it seems I put you into the block simply to move you out of the block!

Movement away from the block involves the introduction of vibrato. I like to talk about the physical aspects of vibration but also discuss the necessity of patience with the whole process. Vibrato is like a free-wheeling party guest - you can invite her but you can't predict when she will arrive. Working on vibrato can produce tension which, interestingly, is the anti-vibrato. Too much stress and the hand is not free to move and you will tend to create more of a tremor than vibrato. If you are working on this or any new technique and begin to feel aggravation, it is always best to put the cello down and take a break. When the desire to throw your bow abates - you are ready to return to work.

As you become more advanced in vibration technique, the notes that you are not vibrating will become more noticeable. When working in the block your hand stayed in that position, the balance point being the center of your hand. Now that you are vibrating finger to finger you want to have your balance point be over the finger being vibrated. Most of the center fingers are easily balanced, however, the first and fourth fingers are notoriously imbalanced. Moving away from the block naturally creates anxiety about moving your hand “free form”- understandably we feel safer with our hand in the block, the position that we first begin in. It is now that I begin to introduce the idea that your hand is always in motion. It may not be visible but flexibility in our left and right hand becomes more and more important as we begin to work with more difficult music.

Vibrato itself introduces more relaxation into the hand. If you work slowly through vibrating each finger you find that if you are able to focus on the offending imbalanced first and fourth fingers you are able to “over balance” the fingers by exaggerating their position for a while. For example, when you are truly balanced on the fourth finger the balance point will be on the fourth knuckle and, rather than keeping the finger leaning toward the others - exaggerate its lean away from the other fingers in the vibrating arc. It won't be necessary forever but will help to keep us aware of the need for flex in our hand.

When practicing it remains important to really listen to your playing. The ease of recording on phones makes hearing your intonation and vibration much more possible. It can be a painful part of practice but it is invaluable. Is your vibration moving in a wave motion from note to note or are there notes that stick out because they aren't being vibrated? If so, you can bet that there is imbalance in your hand.

It is scary to release your hand, to gather your fingers into vibration and moving rather than reaching. But there is no freedom like a released hand. One that has the flexibility to “go to” the notes. The balance in our hand allows us to be more exacting in landing our notes and, once there, to make small adjustments instantly as needed.

In our hands, as in our lives - balance is key.


Melissa Perley


Paul and I stepped off the elevator and wandered down the hall looking for the correct apartment. We’d landed in NYC just hours earlier. I knocked softly and Jacob opened the door. After we’d spoken for a while he left the room and returned with his cello, the reason we had come.

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I noticed he kept a tight grip on the instrument as he talked with us about the technical part of its history. I mentioned that it must be difficult to sell the cello that he’d had since he was a child. “Not really,” pause, “I hate this cello.” Silence. Our quiet seemed to open up the box where the truth was living. His eyes filled as he told us about the hours his father had forced him to practice. Relentless years of criticism, frustration and rage. He had not had the courage to get rid of the instrument until after his father’s death. However, as we reached for the cello to begin packing it up, it seemed difficult for him to release it. His beautiful instrument sat quietly, keeping his secrets, loyal to the end. There was true relief in us walking out with it, but there was also true sadness.

The cello landed at Barbara’s home on Friday. She opened her door and squealed at the sight of the massive box. She had been waiting for this day, for this instrument.

Her emails could barely contain her joy. “MH and I are getting to know each other...” “The cello has been so patient with me...”

When we contact the woman who placed this cello on consignment with us she is thrilled that it has found a new home. Her emails can barely contain her relief that her old friend is safe and being played once again.

Paul and I are the matchmakers. We bring home the cellos of your mothers, grandfathers and the failed experiments of your children. Stories filled with symphonies, immigrant crossings and stardom, of accidents, suicides and failure.

People need attic space, to be rid of clutter, to move on and, people need money. The instruments rest here for a while, standing among friends, waiting:

  • For the college student who has taken a loan to buy the cello.

  • For the adult who played as a child but gave it up. Until today.

  • For the beaming teenager with the slightly nervous, but smiling, parents.

  • It is what we do and we are honored by the task.

Brian was happy I called him to tell him that we’d sold his cello. He wanted to know all about it’s new life but then was quiet for a moment, “I’ve had that cello since I was a child, took it everywhere, so I’m happy, but I’m also sad, do you know what I mean?”

We do.


The Journey

Recently we needed to be in New York to have a cello bow evaluated for a sale. Our first thought was to hop on a plane. Immediate thought number two was expense. Another option, which we have taken many times, was to drive. We love a good road trip, hours to catch up with each other, the freedom of unlimited bathroom stops, the great road snacks. Then our final option, the train. This option, while not without cost, seemed a no-brainer to Paul who has loved trains since he was a little boy. So we made the drive to the Rutland station to catch an express train to the city.

We clamor on board whacking our suitcases on every other seat as we maneuver down the isle. I should note that travel, on the whole, seems to put me into another time dimension altogether. The minute we get into an airport my heart begins to race and I feel the need to run…. everywhere. I race to get coffee, zoom into the bathroom and breathlessly grab a magazine for the trip. I sprint back to our gate only to find Paul dozing in the waiting area since we have another 2 hours before we fly.

Our scheduled train departure is 8:00 AM and, sure enough, exactly at 8:00 I feel a lurch and we begin to move. In travel mode, I quickly gather my possessions around me. Three books which require reading glasses, so regular glasses get safely, but speedily, stuffed into their case. I check my credit cards several times to be sure there is good access in case I feel the sudden (obviously) urge to nosh.

We begin rolling and I find myself leaning against the glass watching the world chug past. Train tracks are actually behind everything. The path that we are taking seems to put the utilitarian side of things toward us: people have taken time to renovate the front of buildings but tend to leave the backs untouched. Looking at the rickety back stairways leading to old porches, it seems as if the laundry swinging on the lines is waving to us as we travel by. Crooked sheds, stuffed behind modern facades give us a glimpse into other decades. I can almost see my lanky, high school age father making lay-ups in the net-less hoops leaning off the wooden garages.We see the back doors of large businesses. The places where they keep the industrial size garbage bins, and the picnic tables where the staff sits, smokes and watches us watch them.

The morning sun warms the glass where my forehead rests. If I close my eyes into the warmth, even for a second, I am sound asleep. The rocking of the train is primal and my body remembers it.

This train travels along the Hudson River and soon I’m gazing at ice chunks swirling around small patches of open water. I see lighthouse after lighthouse perched on piled stones. Small but sturdy in their offering of protection. Because we are on the Hudson and not too far outside the city we are voyeurs to the backs of huge abandoned houses. Paint peeling from the gingerbread decorating the roof line. Enough left of them to help us imagine their ornate stories, enough left of their stairs to the river that we understand the privilege.

Barges calmly stomp their way through the ice, unflappable in their steely determination. I can see a deck hand scurrying to a task - strange to see him in a wool hat and gloves on a ship.

Someone comes around to collect tickets. They make friendly banter with us about the cold then tip their train hat as they pass by. Time changed only by the scanner for your tickets instead of the punch- much to Paul’s dismay.

My books sit next to me untouched. Paul mentions heading to the food car for some lunch and I lazily offer up my order but never break my gaze out the window. Quickly nearing New York I find that the slow and steady rhythm has been deceptive.

We pack away our unused books as we come into Penn Station. We remain relaxed in our seats entering the darkness of the tunnel.

And here we are in New York. I recognize that I would have made it to this place had I chosen to travel in any of the other means available. What has mattered on this trip is that I’ve realized that the journey, not unlike the journey of learning the cello, has been as important as the destination.

Melissa Perley

More Than Notes

It's Ella's time to shine. She has been studying with me since she was in fourth grade and is now a high school junior. She sits in her weekly lesson ready, if not willing, to discuss her piece for the winter recital.

Normally my theory on choosing repertoire is to choose music that reflects new found ability of the student as well as some of their personality. This has worked pretty well although I have found that Ella has cajoled me into letting her play a duet a few more times than I'd like. There are two reasons this happened, one: having four sons, I do understand that high school students often have too much on their plates. Two: I am a sucker.

This season as we sit down for the discussion I silently hand her the Brahms E minor Sonata. She takes it, looks at it, looks at me and sets it on the stand. I literally watch the wheels turning behind her eyes. “Are you kidding?” “No.” I answer.

Early in high school Ella would do all of the things I asked of her but not much more. Her parents had helped her purchase a beautiful older cello and there was a definite sense of obligation in her study. But as she rounded out of her sophomore year things began to change. She auditioned and was accepted at the Apple Hill music camp: she found that she knew more than she thought and, better still, it mattered to her that she did. Suddenly playing the cello made her even more special.

Handing her the Brahms was handing her a challenge. That day she looked at me, understood, and accepted that challenge.

Getting the notes came fairly soon, I knew that would not be where the difficulty would lie. Once we had the bones of the piece in place the work began. We had many discussions about the back story of the music. history has it that Brahms was living in Robert and Clara Schumann’s home, and shortly afterward helped Clara with her many children when Robert was confined to a mental health facility. During that time, possibly before, he fell desperately in love with her. The E minor reflects that desperation. It is a beautiful cry of pain.

What I had to do was try to help Ella to connect to the music, to the story, to Brahms. I was asking her to internalize the notes on the page and bring forth her interpretation of what Brahms was saying to her. Letting the cello tell the tale.

Adult students often struggle with the desire to make everything perfect, hitting every note being the ultimate goal. In doing that they often forget to tap into their experiences in order to really make the music speak. And kids simply don't have a lot of experience to tap into.

Something I often write in notebooks about playing a piece is “Tell me the story”- This became my mantra to Ella.

At first things like the recapitulation seemed simply like repetition to her. She would, dutifully, bring the main theme back with the exact same expression she had used before the painful watershed in the middle of the movement. What really changed things for her was adding the piano. Before going with an accompanist I sent her the piano part to play with from her computer. I asked her to put recordings of the piece into the background of her daily life, to listen but not really listen.

At her lesson some weeks before the recital I had Lynette, our accompanist, come to the studio to rehearse the piece with her. As they began to play together, began to feel the way one was moving around the other, Ella started to really hear what Brahms had been whispering into her ear.  Paul calls this moment “warming to the piece” it is the point when you can, literally, watch someone relax into feeling. To let go of the “have-to's” and just play.

At the recital Ella rehearsed with Lynette and made a few comments to me about being glad to be done with the piece. Somehow it was a relief to know she had not completely let go of being a teenager.

As her page turner I sat beside her as she began that most haunting of melodies. At the beginning she was totally performing, doing what she had learned to do from me and then she began to warm to the music and it was transforming to her, for me.

Ella was pleased with her performance, she could even give me that, but what she couldn't say, but what I know for sure, was that she had taken up the challenge I had thrown down and succeeded not only in getting the notes, but telling us the story.


Melissa Perley