‘Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.’
― C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
So here I am, in the music room of my friends’ house in Jericho, Oxford. I’m travelling home today, and there’s just time for a short practice wedged between packing and a taxi to the station. Time to take a look at Dotzauer. I open the book to the first etude. It’s a simple etude in C major, with occasional excursions to neighbouring keys, using semibreves, minims and crotchets. The range is limited to the first position, the dynamics to loud and soft. It is not as basic as I feared, but it is probably the simplest etude I have ever tackled. And I think, ‘Perfect.’ I will begin now, today, with this etude, to tackle all of the problems that yesterday’s exam highlighted. If I can work assiduously on this simple material to the point where I can make it sound like a concerto movement, I will have taken the first steps towards having the sounds I want to harness for the repertoire that I think is most worth playing. I will work on it, and then refine it, and refine it again, and then further. This means living with it for a long time. So let’s pick a round figure; say, one hundred days.
Significant leaps in musical artistry require this refinement; in particular a refinement of the ear. When we begin to learn an instrument, we are sometimes pretty pleased if we can get any sound out of it at all. Shortly afterwards we are pleased to have a few recognisable notes to play with. We soon come to manipulate, to a certain degree, the intensity of sound: the louds and the softs. Tone initially develops on its own, and later we learn ways to produce better tone, and hopefully to offset the impairment of tone, and of pitch, which occurs when we play softer or louder. It is really better, at this stage, if we don’t possess too fine an ear, as it would be difficult not to become discouraged if we heard every fault in our playing. This can be a problem for an adult learner, especially if they have previous musical training. It was a problem for me, taking up the cello at seventeen. If we learn for a few years, we would hope to be able to play a piece of moderate difficulty, with a reasonably consistent tone, and gradations of dynamics and some degree of phrasing. The refinement of all of these things is difficult, especially the development of a range of tone colours for expressive purposes, but perhaps the most difficult is to hear all of the sounds you make. To hear when a crescendo, moving from soft to loud, has a bump in it, when the tone of a held note has too much variation, jitters and judders and rough places, when the tone quality of one note is substantially different from that of the one before, or the one after, when the sound of a string ringing is interfered with by an accidental touch from a finger, when the bow changes create a muddy noise, or when the bow very lightly touches a neighbouring string.
This is my main ambition for this unassuming etude: to listen critically to every note, to every sequence of notes, every phrase for these tiny imperfections, and to find the control to manipulate the musical material. Whatever work I do on this etude will carry over into the other pieces that I am studying, for of course, I am not going to play only Dotzauer for one hundred days. At the moment I am working on the third Bach Suite, in C, on further exercises from Feuillard and Mooney, on an etude from Duport, and tackling three new pieces; Bach Sonata (for viola da gamba) No. 1 in G, Boëllmann’s Sonata, Opus 40, and Couperin’s Cinq Pièces en Concert, as arranged by Paul Bazelaire. These other works and studies will pose further technical questions, not contained within the Dotzauer etude, specifically of extremes of dynamics, of phrasing, of bowing in different metres, or playing in more exotic keys, and of range, including playing in the thumb position.
I decide I will play through the whole thing first, to see how it works as a piece. The resources are limited, but it makes a number of nice journeys through keys, with a number of sequences, and dramatic use of timing, building up from quiet passages with semibreves to active extended sequences of crotchets. The play-through shows up pretty much everything I am worried about: the uneven note beginnings, the sense of lurching through the passages because of the unevenness of the tone, scraping noises on the top string, a difficulty getting the bottom string vibrating sufficiently without grunting, and some problems with playing the fourth finger, both in normal position and extended. I decide the most glaring problem today is the string crossings, especially to the highest string, so I spend some time working on crossing to the open A, and then to the stopped notes. It’s interesting narrowing everything down like this. I become acutely aware of the physical sensation of the bow on the string, and how it feels different when the string is open compared to when it is stopped. Even the individual stopped notes feel different. No wonder they sound so.
After a few more minutes noodling through string crossings, it’s time for the taxi. As usual, the driver opens the boot for the cello. I point out that it is too long to go in there, and it had better lie across the back seat. In it goes, and with a little adjusting, the door closes. In my early days at university I would put the passenger seat back a little, and sit the cello in front of it. Friends travelled in the back. It got some funny looks, but I resisted the temptation to draw a face on my cream-coloured cello case. Today’s journey involves a taxi, a train, a plane, a train and a bus. And my cello case, built by a boat-builder, and made to last, does not have back-straps, or even a shoulder strap. And I have other luggage. At the station the official opens the barrier for me, so I’m not stuck in the middle, having put down the cello to insert the ticket, and lost time while I retrieve it. The train arrives, and I scramble on near the front of the train, backpack, suitcase and cello, and a conductor comes on and shouts in my ear that I should take it to the luggage compartment in Coach D. I don’t think so. Scrambling through three carriages down the narrow gangway of a full train with a cello in one hand and a suitcase pulled by the other will probably take the entire length of the journey to the airport. Besides which, I don’t leave my cello in a luggage rack. Valuable musical instruments go missing from trains. I’ve included some links below about this.
At the airport station the barrier is broken, luckily, and the official waves me through. On the shuttle I prepare myself for possible reactions at check in. I have, on occasion, with a cello of lower value, checked in my cello as luggage, and stood mournfully as the boat-builder’s case disappears coffin-like behind the doors of the conveyor belt for odd-shaped luggage.
One of the many costs of having a better, more expensive cello, along with insurance and being unwilling to leave it for even a moment to got to the toilet, is also being unwilling to subject it to the ministrations of the baggage loaders at the airport. I have seen my other cello being bunged on the airplane conveyor upside down, and have waited anxiously at the baggage carousel for it to appear, only to have it fall off, front first, as it emerges onto the collection belt. Thankfully, all credit to the boat-builder, it has never actually been damaged, but many have, and on other occasions people have opened their case either to find the instrument smashed, or simply not there. Links below. So I have bought my cello a seat. The main issue at check-in is the name and identity of the cello. My friend who is a pilot once booked my other cello on as ‘Mr Cello’, but this newer cello, which I insist is female, will travel under the name of ‘Protect/ZZ’.
At security, I worry about the large metal spike inside it, but they examine the cello by hand, not by X-ray, and are apparently more concerned as to whether I’ve packed it with drugs or explosives. They are very careful, and can see my consternation as they lift it out to check underneath. Embarrassingly, I’ve padded out the case, which is too large for my little English cello, with a bedspread and a number of old t-shirts. It takes some time to check that they are all explosive- and drug-free.
So now I’m at the airport, with a large, unwieldy, valuable piece of luggage, and I give up the struggle. I can’t carry a coffee cup, as both hands are full, so I buy a sandwich and juice which can be carried in a bag, and head straight to the gate. Going to the toilet is a challenge, but at least the cubicles here aren’t as small as those at some airports, where you can’t even take your hand luggage in with you.
Arriving at the plane the staff inform me I’m to give a recital on the flight. I know this is a joke perpetuated by my pilot pal, who landed the plane twenty minutes previously, as in fact there is nowhere on the plane with room to place a cello with its spike extended, or to draw a bow. I strap it into its seat instead, with the extendable seat belt I am offered, and relax for the duration of the flight. No-one is going to steal my cello, mid-air.
The journey over to Britain was not so relaxed. I naively thought I could avoid either checking my cello or paying for a seat for it, by travelling instead by train. The day before I was due to travel, I looked up the tickets to gauge the times of the trains I needed to link up with Eurostar, and spied a note in the small print that baggage that is longer than 82 centimetres needs to be checked in. In a panic I phone Eurostar, who tell me in the first place that they can’t look up my ticket, because it was sold by NS International. I phone NS International and they can find my ticket, but I will have to discuss the matter with Eurostar. Meanwhile, as I chat with the phone jammed against my ear, I look up online and sure enough, find a policy from Eurostar about transporting musical instruments. If it is less than 82 cm long, it can travel with you as carry-on luggage. If it is between 82 cm and 136 cm (for example, a cello) then it can travel with something called ‘Eurodispatch’, and if it is larger than that, say, a double bass, you need to get it checked in 24 hours before departure. I look up Eurodispatch, and it seems to be a door to door delivery service, which is all good, except that the second door seems to need to be in London (I wonder if the first door needs to be in Brussels…)
I phone Eurostar again, and having located the right code, they direct me to Eurodispatch. I talk to a very friendly man there for some time, who says that if I get the cello there as early as possible, they might just have room for it on the same train with which I am travelling, and if not, they guarantee to get it to me within 24 hours (providing my final destination is London, which it is not) and it is only after I hang up that I realise that the whole time we were talking, he was getting it mixed up with a double bass. By this time, I have priced two tickets, one for me and one for The Bennet, aka. Protect/ZZ, on flights to Birmingham, and a further seat on Eurostar. I phone Eurostar to discuss the latter, but the issue is, the seat needs to be next to mine, and it’s all but booked up. They are trying to get two together in Premier class, but it’s beginning to look extortionate. I give up, and decide I will risk Eurodispatch after all.
After taking the bus, a train, and a further train to Brussels, from my starting point in Utrecht, I arrive nearly three hours early at Eurostar. The ticket-collector tells me in a very relaxed way that of course my cello will travel on the same train, 30 euros. So simple. I check it in with a man who is not inclined to be reassuring in any way, although there doesn’t seem to be any problem, and place it with a small pile of other items waiting to board that particular train, at least I hope so. I am on tenterhooks for the rest of the journey, and almost beside myself when after finding at long last the Eurodispatch office at London St Pancras, the man disappears for a good 25 minutes before returning cheerfully apologising, but with the cello in hand. I have now missed my train to Oxford, but am more intent on checking the case. There is the cello, still wrapped in her bedspread, and apparently unharmed. It is only later, on the train to Oxford that I realise there is a chip out of the fibreglass of the case. I guess I will be looking for another boat-builder…