Saying Goodbye

The run-up to spring recital is always chaotic. Normally there are about six weeks of lessons focused on recital work, rehearsals with Eliza, our wonderful, kind and patient accompanist here at the studio, programs to write, space to rent, lemonade and cake, always the cake. This season there is the added chajoy (chaos + joy) of having three seniors graduating. So now there is corralling added to the mix. Corralling seniors to rehearse a duet is like herding cats. Even when the commotion stops for a minute, there is a buzz of activity in our ears.

Ella started with me when she was about eight years old. She was at the Waldorf school where I already had several students. She was tiny with dark hair. She would look up at me with the solemn demeanor of a traffic cop. I remember her lessons were filled with my emotional juggling trying to get her to crack, give me a smile, a ticket...something.

She was always musically talented and could pick things up quickly. As she moved into being a tween there were times when she felt that her pretty sharp sight-reading skills might pass for actually having practiced...but between her having a savvy musical mom and myself we came through that stage.

When she entered high school she really came into her own musically. She played several instruments as a favor to the band instructor as well as continuing to study the cello. Suddenly doing well began to matter to her, not just me. Lessons that had been filled with cajoling became filled with...well more cajoling but now there was a grudging acceptance of it due to the newfound knowledge that work actually works!

We’d sit a minute at the start of each lesson and catch up - acknowledging that within each young musician there also lies a life filled with boyfriends and breakups and prom. At the end of each lesson there was a hug goodbye. In the early years that hug was a side hug hanging heavily off my side. But, as time progressed I’d find her standing in the hall waiting - the hug became the release and the reassurance.

I’ve raised four sons. Stood in the parking lot of several colleges and watched them walk away from the car and into their futures. Part of my job, as a parent, as a teacher, is to know when the time has come for them to make that walk.

I really hate that part.

In prepping students in performance skills, I teach them to vibrate their final note long past the finish of the piece. This is so that the sound continues to vibrate as it slowly dissipates into the air.

Or maybe it is really because I just don’t want the sound to end.

Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep Too (II)

The spring recital went beautifully, everyone performed well, whether they felt that way or not. And so disregarding the calendar, summer begins for us. I start teaching a summer schedule this week and taking more time to enjoy the beautiful Vermont weather...and continue on the road to owning sheep.

Because I have our border collies, Sam and Bronte, who I train at various friend’s sheep farms, I have access to tons of valuable information about buying/owning sheep. I have been wisely advised to join the Vermont Sheep and Goat association (I would join just for the sticker alone) and after chatting with my friend, Google, have been able to find many opportunities to learn more about our new endeavor.

Paul and I are signed up for a pasturing course through the University Of Vermont extension service. Good pasture = happy sheep. We are learning about soil quality, rotational grazing and basic anatomy of our ovines.

“Living With Sheep” was recommended to me and I am reading it religiously for the second time. I find (and annoy) myself beginning (too many) sentences with “the BOOK says.” The author has written a book intended to show us that owning/raising sheep is really pretty simple. I remind myself of this as I begin the chapter titled “The Four Concentric Circles of Fencing.” Paul often wakes up early and looks over at me, my glasses perched and nose pressed into “the book.”

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Yesterday I went to the farm of a woman from the extension service who is retiring from farming sheep. In our (many) conversations via email in which she kindly (and patiently) answered our questions, she also told me that she had some wool sheep for sale. Sam, Bronte and I took a trip to her place to ask (more) questions and to be sure that we were able to herd these particular sheep. My border collies are very good at their jobs, but we have, on occasion, bumped into breeds that confound even my older, wiser, dog, Sam. Fortunately, both young and old collie were able to convince the sheep to take a stroll up to me on the hill. This was good news for everyone. At the end of the afternoon we decided to purchase 2 Black Welsh Mountain and 3 Dorset Cross. They are wool sheep and Kimberly showed me a couple beautiful rugs that they had contributed to. At this moment they are wandering around her fields quite naked as shearing season has come and gone. As I directed the dogs in the pasture it seemed the sheep ran past me quite quickly - I’m pretty sure the nakedness had something to do with it.

Today, with both steely preparedness and giddy anticipation Paul and I put lime pellets on our field to enhance the pasture (formally known as the lawn). Picture it...Paul is driving our ATV with our homemade (think Beverly Hillbillies) wood wagon attached to the back with yours truly standing, precariously in it tossing lime onto the pasture. Sam and Bronte enjoyed leaping in and out of the wagon as we rolled along. With my blue garden gloves on I think we looked rather like a regal royal parade going back and forth. We have no idea if this spreading will actually do any good but we felt very good doing it.

We have mapped out our pastures for rotating grazing and will tackle fencing next.

There continue to be many moments of apprehension joining anticipation. I woke up early with a slightly queasy stomach at the thought of this new stuff. However, as I told my students in their (preparation for the recital, fear is a real part of challenges. It’s important to acknowledge it, even welcome it for a brief visit and then send it on it’s way.

I’m reminding myself that everyone feels the fear in tackling something new and foreign to them and wants desperately to stop, to go back to what feels “normal” to them, but it is the brave of heart who face that fear and simply move forward anyway.

Here we go.

Melissa Perley



Musicians Farming Sheep

My dad tells the story (a lot) of my being a child and communing with animals. He remembers me coming home with the neighbor’s dog, a stick wedged into his collar and my telling my father that this dog was surely lost and surely we should keep it.

Each time we would take a Sunday drive I felt it necessary to announce “HORSE” every time I would spot one. Obsessed would not be too strong a word.

Neither of my parents were animal lovers and my sister was terrified of dogs. Needless to say, it took some time for me to convince/cajole them into letting me have a dog of my own. But, once I began that journey...I have never been without one.

For a few years now I have sacrificed some cello practice time for competitive herding at sheep dog trials with my border collies, Sam and Bronte. What I love most about doing this is developing inter- species communication. This is something that requires not only my skills at giving appropriate commands but, perhaps even more, it requires the development of my skills in listening to my dogs and letting them tell me what should happen next.

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We’ve done all of our herding practice work on various kind friends’ sheep farms. But Paul and I have made the decision to bring sheep on to our property.

This decision is really not about working toward trialing. It is a decision about using our land for something more than mowing. It is about developing parts of ourselves that we have not yet met, it is about going bucolic!

We had a company come out and give us an estimate on what it would cost to have the desired pasture land fenced and gated. Their estimate was nine thousand dollars. It stopped us in our tracks. We know that we need to begin with fencing but there will also be the cost of building a small barn, all of the necessary equipment, as well as purchasing the eight to ten sheep we intend to begin with. Interestingly, I have been the one pausing, coming up with excuses as to why maybe this isn’t such a good idea. But Paul rescues the plan each and every time: clearly, while he is not actually doing the herding, he has the heart of a shepherd.

We put an ad in both Front Porch Forum and Craig’s List asking if anyone had sheep fencing materials that we could buy for a reasonable amount. I am now changing the adage “If you build it, they will come..” to “If you want to build it...they will come.”

Today Paul, Josh and I made the two plus hour drive to Pawlet, Vermont to pick up two hundred and fifty wooden fencing stakes, a post driver and mallet, electric fence charger, five metal gates, various fittings, a bucket of twisty things (that’s sheep-tech talk) and an enormous hay feeder that looks very much like a circus ring. We had to rent a trailer to pick these things up and had to drive home under sixty because there was so much weight in the trailer. To say we are all in is an understatement.

In Pawlet we had to decide what things we needed and drag them over to the trailer. We loaded the trailer there for the trip home. Once home, we emptied the trailer in our driveway in a blistering fifteen minutes as it was due back a the rental spot post haste. We then had to load our own trailer pulled behind our ATV and make several trips up and down the hill to where we are storing fencing stuff. At the bottom of that hill we had to unload (again) that stuff. That made us feel strong, like it was the true beginning for our new adventure, like we were farming. We worked shoulder to shoulder in total silence, not because it was hard (it was), not because we are stoic (we aren’t) but because we knew every time we opened our mouths we would eat another black fly.

And so, tonight I look out the window at the start of it all. Rain is falling on our fencing which makes me feel like it is really ours now, as if whatever newness is being washed off. Paul is going to help me pull the slivers out of my fingers and we will sit and contemplate what comes next.

Don’t you just love beginnings?

To be continued…..(from time to time)

Melissa

Fear Factor

Spring has sprung. I can say that with assurance, not because I have tulips and daffodils opening in my garden, not because the mud has (finally) dried up and not because the evening sky is that beautiful pale blue with streaks of ivory as the first stars appear, and not because, after weeks of watching the leaves sit quietly tucked in on themselves waiting like the rest of us for a strong sun followed by a good spring rain, they have thrown caution to the north wind and truly unfurled. Even that is not sign enough of spring for me….I’m waiting...waiting for the black flies. I know it is spring when they appear in clusters as I walk the dogs up the road. I don’t need the leash for my dogs but rather as a swatting tool. My ego embarrasses me by not letting me put on one of the head nets that I gave both Paul and Josh, I’m then embarrassed by my embarrassment. There seems to be one day that acts as “hatch-day.” Tuesday, no black flies, Wednesday, all in. No need for any extra sources of protein when you swallow multiple black flies daily.

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For us, other rites of spring are orchestra auditions and our student recital. Although very separate endeavors, preparation for both brings forth one common emotion; fear.

They say that you can smell fear, taste fear and we know that we can see fear, but musicians can also hear fear. The moment I mention the “R” word it begins. Everyone in the studio chooses a piece of music months in advance and begins preparing for recital. This season I have a few new students that, while not new to the cello, are relatively new to the recital experience.

Fear = Insecurity. While perhaps not algebraic, it is a truth. Another truth is Fear = Carefulness so, looking at this further, perhaps Fear = Insecurity + Carefulness, which would be closer to algebraic. Fear shows itself in so many ways; playing with a tuner on, checking each note against an open string (you know someone is really afraid when, in the middle of a piece, he is checking a note against an open string and it is a note that doesn’t have an open string….) and maybe most prevalent, playing quietly and playing quickly. It seems reasonable that, when feeling afraid, a player would play quietly - not calling attention to themselves, avoiding risky runs and high positions. Interestingly however, the act of suddenly playing quietly only serves to make me pay more attention to what a player is doing. I try hard to avoid cupping one ear and shrieking “eh?” to get my point across.

What also happens when someone is feeling insecure is that they push the tempo. Nothing screams “help me” like someone playing sixteenth notes in double time. Unless, of course, they are playing those same sixteenth notes in fourth position or higher…

I believe that people come to the cello for a reason. After they have been studying for a while, that reason becomes apparent. For some it is to find a way to express or acknowledge deep-felt emotions, to find that other language to speak in, for others it is to connect to something meaningful outside of their day-to-day lives. But almost always people are looking for something. One of the great joys of teaching is helping people excavate. Often what I find on this journey together is that people are tired of feeling afraid. It’s easier, safer, but ultimately exhausting. They are relieved to take hold of the rope thrown to them and as we work together I can feel them begin to tug on the rope- asking me to let them pull themselves to shore. Not only can I feel that, I can see it and I can hear it. Moving forward, away from fear people develop a “what the heck” attitude. They are able to realize that making a mistake is not only inevitable but invited in any learning process worth something, and that it’s always better to make a big mistake than to be careful.

Careful sounds careful.

It’s spring- confidence is a beautiful thing to watch grow, like tulips- and clouds of black flies.


Melissa Perley

Moms

Paul and I have just returned from eleven days in England. England at the end of April can be showery but, you don’t have to shovel it and you don’t get stuck in it so it seemed perfect to us.

The hotel that we were staying in while in the Cotswold's had over one hundred acres of open farm land that they let a neighboring farmer graze his sheep on. Each evening after returning from traveling we would, carefully, cross the road into the field. You can take the girl out of the farm …

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We’d begin the trek up the path made by the wandering flock. Traversing the hill we trudged, heads down so that we could try to avoid the sticky black piles. As we neared the top and lifted our eyes, looking back at us with expressions of mixed curiosity and disdain were approximately seventy-five ewes with their bouncing babies. When I use the term “bouncing” I mean literal bouncing going on.

Paul and I stood quietly enough that the moms returned to their grazing. The lambs, like any self-respecting kid, took that as a green flag for playing to begin. One moment they would be looking at us quizzically, ears completely horizontal to their heads. The next second they would levitate from a full standing position. Their fuzz-covered, thick little legs propelling them upward with a spring that could only be compared to a jack-in-the-box. Off they would run as fast as they could, their mirror-image twin right beside them.

Clumps of them would congregate; little gangs we said. Sometimes a nibble of grass, often a head butt to a gang member for good measure.

If we took two steps too close, suddenly the mother’s heads would pop up and they would quickly glare at us while calling for their wayward youngsters.

Paul patiently stood on the hillside, thoughts of resuming our walk rapidly dwindling along with the daylight. I was transfixed by the scene. Somewhere primal I recognized those mother/child interactions: knowing the feeling of suddenly realizing that your child has drifted out of sight. You try to contain the panic in your voice as you bellow, “EEEEEETTTHHAN” for the tenth time. Ethan, in the meantime, is busy racing the other lambs to the rock. However, if the perceived danger gets one step too close, even Ethan bolts for mom.

What amazed me is how fast those moms and babes could reunite. Everybody was wearing wool yet, somehow, kids found moms and moms found kids - maternal magic I suppose.

One evening we were back and watching the scene, (“again,” Paul interjects as I write this) and the moms began the round-up on our approach. Fast, furious, fur-balls zipped to their mothers sides. When they would reach her they would both, literally, ram their heads toward her udder lifting her back legs up off the ground. Moms being moms, she would simply continue to chew the remaining grass in their mouths.

There was one ewe who was continuing to yell even after everyone had gathered. She would bleat once, look around a bit and then, with the same note (this was a musical trip, after all) bleat again.

No lamb.

This bothered me terribly. Paul, sensing a camp-out in his near future, assured me that mom and tot would soon reunite.

As we walked, reluctantly, down the hill in the twilight, I could hear her continuing to call, as I knew she would.

All but one of my own lambs live away from home now. They are all happy and healthy but, once in a while, I can’t help but stand on our hillside and bellow hopefully for them to come home.

To all of you fellow bellowers - Happy Mother’s Day.

Melissa

Time To Get Messy

I find myself running to the window if I happen to hear a car drive by. The curiosity not so much about the fact that there even is a car going by on our dead end road but rather: will that car actually turn around and come back past us or will it disappear into the Berlin Pond Triangle...made entirely of mud?

The fifth season of our year has descended upon us. We still have six foot snowbanks but the stream has broken free and there is also a constant rivulet racing down the road. Spring may be in the air..not so much on the ground.

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In our house we have stowed away all irrelevant footwear. Left standing is the trusty Muck boot. I was running errands in downtown Montpelier yesterday and made note of the fact that every single person I saw was wearing mud boots. Mud boots with work skirts, suits and ties, mud boots on babies who can’t even walk and one man passed me wearing shorts (dreamer), a wool jacket (realist) and….mud boots.

It is one of the reasons I love living here.

Like those who climb Everest, we are proud of our ability to survive mud season. In grocery stores and coffee shops you can overhear conversations about who has the worst mud on their road. Living on a dirt road gives you some bragging rights. If the mud on your road went half way up your tires... well on our road our car sunk to it’s floor boards! And so on...I kindly warn students coming to weekly lessons about the road conditions and suggest that they “think high” when choosing the vehicle. It becomes a form of entertainment for us to watch someone in a Prius (it’s mud season- we need entertainment)

I have friends who suffer from lack of sunlight during the long winters of the Northeast. We have had snow on the ground this year since mid November. Temperatures rarely reached freezing and were more likely found in the negative digits this winter. I understand why friends feel the four walls of their homes beginning to lean in on them. I write this in hushed tones, but I love winter, I love bundling up and walking the dogs, fires in the wood stove, wool blankets- all of it. But I admit, I have had to work through some of my challenges with mud.

When I am wiping dogs paws for the tenth time by eleven in the morning, it feels like I've reached breaking point. But it's like being out in the pouring rain- at some point you can't get any wetter and you begin to accept. I haul on the Muck boots, walk the wooden planks that Paul has carefully placed along the walkway to the front door, climb into the, unrecognizable as such, car, which smells like mud inside. I put Shostakovitch into the CD player (yes, CD player) and meander down the road. When the wheel first begins to yank to and fro as I hit the ruts I rail at the road, at the mud, at the neighbor’s dog who is just standing on the side of the road, but then something happens, I begin to realize that if I simply slow down (challenge for me), breathe and keep going I will get to my destination, I will get there. The ruts remain rutted but I will hit pavement eventually. The mud remains mucky but history tells me that it will dry up and the snowdrops will peek their little white heads out of the ground to see if it is safe to make a full appearance. My dogs will continue to race into the house before we have the chance to grab their foot towel but, if I breathe, I remember that this, too, shall pass and they will be racing into the house soaking wet from swimming.

And so I continue on this journey, much like the journey with the cello, following my rutted path. It is, after all, mud season, the perfect time to be messy.


Melissa Perley

Muscling

The calendar flipped to the month of Spring a few days ago. Today I was out walking the dogs down the still frozen dirt road, still frozen and icy dirt road. As I trudged uphill I could hear the chickadees chattering in the bare trees- flitting back and forth to my neighbor’s feeder then tucking themselves into the conifers to sit, split seeds and watch over the dogs carefully. It was the only sign of spring visible as I neared the crest of the road and the northern wind found me. My being without a hat, a nod to “spring”, frozen ears, a nod to winter.

I’d spent some of my morning in conversation with a string-player friend who was struggling with tendinitis, a common injury among us. It is an ailment that can be brought on/aggravated by frequent use or, especially in early players, by working too hard.

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What is infrequent is the number of times you’ll hear an instructor tell you not to work too hard. However, at the very center of playing a stringed instrument is the question, “how much muscle is too much?” This issue comes up the first time you put a cello (let’s say) into your hands. Once you have been green lighted for using a bow vs pizzicato, there is the great temptation to play twenty three out of twenty four hours a day. You run to your instrument first thing in the morning, play for a while, get up, do some work, walk past the cello and suddenly you are seduced by all of that beautiful flame...so you sit down, play again for a bit...but, because you are new at holding the bow (not like your fork, your pen, your paintbrush, screwdriver, steering wheel….) your hand decides the only way to make this thing do what you want is to grab it but good, herein after known as the “club grip.” That grip, in itself, causes tension on your elbow because of the position it bends your wrist into. So, using that incorrect club grip twenty three out of twenty four hours per days adds up to that elbow seeing a lot of unwarranted action. You find that while writing a check, the simple act of using the pen causes you pain as if writing the check itself is not pain enough it seems.

Your instructor continues to have you hover your right hand over the bow, take a deep, cleansing breath and, very zen-like, release the hand down onto the bow then slide it into the long-explained (herein after known as hated) position. Watching yourself in a mirror, every time you see your hand sneak back into the more comfortable, easy and incorrect position...you stop that sweet business and begin again.

And you progress.

Now you are able to use your bow regularly with the correct grip. You work, feed your family and get dressed as well as play the cello. You begin to play pieces and find that once in a while you recognize them as such. However, in that same practice mirror, the Evil Queen looks back at you as you play and chastises “That right elbow IS always bent….you DO look like a pirate hoisting a mug!” “There is so much going on,” you retort, “sixteenth notes, dotted rhythms, staccato, legato- who can open their elbow while bowing at the same time as trying to read that micro-printed music?” So your brain focuses so hard on reading and your still pirate-y right arm reacts by mirroring that effort- pushing even harder to hoist that mug.

The next day you find that trying to lift your dog into the bathtub, because of the freakishly early mud season in February, is not only painful in your elbow but now your shoulder is belly-aching as well.

Time off the instrument takes heat off the joints...for a while.

And you progress.

After a long period of studying you find that you are able to use your bow with much greater relaxation. There is even a glimmer of flex in your right wrist. This all works very well as long as you are playing pieces that are familiar or well within your ability range. But the mountain of progress only goes in one direction...up. New pieces with new challenges are placed on your music stand. You find that you have to use crampons to climb this mountain. Your instructor notices that both right and left hands are, indeed, working in tandem...working together at literally pushing this boulder up the mountain! You give a little “oomph” of effort while putting down the notes with your left hand and a little “arrrgh” of effort as you push the bow up. (Casals did it, right?)

Your instructor notes that it is winter and the strings are actually almost touching the fingerboard...can it really take that much effort to put them down.

The effort...the effort. It seems that in almost every other endeavor extra effort is rewarded. In bike racing it is what wins the Tour De France.

In playing the cello, I like to call muscling the “anti-cello.” The still fascinating thing to me is what that requires of us. Recently music that I was working up for a performance had some super fast runs that were apparently written for a player with bionic fingers...but I persevered. I practiced them slowly, I broke the runs apart, I named the notes and intervals in my mind and I swore. At the end of my practice sessions I noticed my right elbow was cranky and it struck me; the exertion of my brain was directly proportionate to the exertion in my right arm/hand. When I sat down again I took a moment to focus my brain, to let the notes come to me slowly, no matter how fast I was playing and I took note that the bow had begun to drop into my hand vs my trying to manipulate it. Suddenly things were much easier to manage.

Part of learning to play this instrument, perhaps all instruments, is learning to center ourselves. Performance, especially, requires us to be still within ourselves in the midst of chaos. Our brains have to delegate responsibility to our right and left hands and then leave them alone, trusting that they can do the job without too much interference. After all, isn't delegation at the very heart of all success?

Homing From Work

It was one of those perfect winter days in Vermont; the snow had been falling all night and was continuing into the morning, the flakes coming down so hard it looked like a scrim passing over the landscape. I looked out at the thermometer which read ten degrees. Our picnic table bore a bowler hat of white. When I say it was one of those perfect days it was, in part, because we didn’t have to drive to work in the storm. I sat at the counter in our kitchen with a cup of peppermint tea and watched it unfold. Warm next to the wood stove, our dogs splayed at my slippered feet, I let it be.

When we kiss each other “goodbye” in the morning Paul's commute is about 30 yards to the cello shop while mine is a no-boot-required 20 feet to the studio.

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I have friends and family on both sides- those who work in an office-type setting and those who work from home. Not that long ago the only people who worked from home were moms and/or artists. Finally the workplace is beginning to catch up, realizing that there are many ways to get things done and many spaces that people can get work done from. The benefits of a happy worker are becoming more and more apparent to companies. Now people work from their computers at home. I know several people whose home office is a plane ride away. For a weekly online meeting the top half of them is in presentable office- fashion while their bottom half sits comfortably in baggy sweats and all is well. On the other hand they not only don't share lunch with their co-workers, they often don't even know what their co-workers look like.

When you work solely for yourself you not only dictate the hours of your business but you also dictate the philosophy and the execution of it. When someone calls Paul Perley Cellos they always speak with one of the owners of the company - someone invested in its success which means someone invested in the satisfaction of that customer. Now, like with the weekly online meeting attire, the fact that we are in our kitchen means that you might be talking cellos with me while I'm washing dishes in my pajamas.

This, of course, is the double edge of the sword. Working for yourself you are the sole provider of your income. There is no 401K plan, no vacation or sick time, no dental plan, heck, no insurance and... no set hours. I might decide not to begin working until noon on a certain day that I have a dental or car appointment but I don't get paid for the hours that I don't work and I have to make up for it somewhere which means when people are sent home from work because of that snowstorm we talked about, their day is done. Mine is not. If there are students needing help via email, my practice, or phone calls at 8pm- I'm working. In my pajamas again, but I am working. If we get a call from someone who would like to look at an instrument and can only come on a Sunday...odds are good that we'll make that happen because we won't get that sale unless we work when there is work. We believe in the farming adage 'making hay while the sun shines.'

Flip it again though and we see that while there are no retirement accounts, sick or vacation days, there is also nobody who will downsize our business unless it is one of us. If one of our kids was sick when they were in school, there were no daycare hassles and we made every basketball game. If it has been raining all week and the sun suddenly comes out - so do the bikes. In the summer we might be talking shop but our feet are in sand, our mouths full of crackers and cheese.

The bottom line is that the people we have to trust are us. When you choose to work for yourselves there has to be confidence in your ability to take care of things because we are the bottom line. Fortunately that is our strong suit (and the only suit you will see us in): Paul and I have faith in us. We share the philosophy that a good business is built on the trust between the customer and the shop.

Cello Blogs

I know it is a rare thing for a happily married couple to also be happily married business partners. So many of my friends choke on their salads at the idea of working with their partners. It does give a whole new meaning to Yin and Yang. It works for us because we really do enjoy being together- but we also recognize that we bring very different things to the table. Paul is a wonderful negotiator, he is fair, kind and is able to see all sides. I can run out of patience more easily (I can hear you kids…): if I'm not doing well in Backgammon, I tend to tip the board over. However, if someone has “forgotten” to pay us rent on an instrument or needs to be “reminded” that they owe us for a repair...I'm your gal!! Yin and Yang.

In the end we realize that, as my sister so aptly puts it, “we only get one spin at the dance.” We get one chance at following our true passions and creating our own destiny. When someone says “I'd love to work for myself, but what about security?” We’ve seen too often that security is a myth. Every day we hear of companies laying off employees who have dedicated their entire adult working lives to that company. Years of retirement savings stolen from people just when they need them the most. My boss, while hard on me, is also fair and kind to me because my boss is me.

You can keep your gold watch and dental plans. We will probably always have to work, but the bonuses - all of them - really belong to us.

Melissa Perley

Competition

As I write this I am watching the snow pile up outside the studio door. The picnic table that houses a big bucket of geraniums in the summer wears a cap of white. Sam begs at the door to go outside only to turn around and, within minutes, push against the door to come right back in to lie on his side next to the woodstove. it was a good effort though.

Cello Blogs

A peaceful moment in an otherwise chaotic season. As we finish packing away the holiday lights and vacuuming the needles there is more than piles of snow at the studio door, the music competitions stand just outside waiting for our attention.

It is a challenging time of year for music students (and their teachers). For my studio there begins the preparation for the regional festivals, both middle and high school, as well as the All-State and New England music festivals which require auditions. Adding to it I have a winter recital. So it seems students are required to be All-Everythings.

I have a unique vantage point from both sides of these competitive auditions. I have to prepare students for them as well as being an adjudicator for one of them, A bit of a two-hat situation.

Preparation takes months. We begin working on audition scales in the fall so the work doesn’t all come crashing down just before the holidays. For some auditions you choose a piece from the list provided and for others you have to be prepared for a required piece or pieces.

I let the students make their own decision about competing. I am of two minds (which works well with two hats) about it all. On one hand just being part of music competitions and festivals looks wonderful on college applications. Also I believe that preparation of anything helps all of us learn how to bring out the very best in ourselves and to strive for excellence (thus my recitals). There really is no better reason that requires us to narrow down our focus on the details of playing. That said, I understand the difficulty in both the preparation as well as the actuality of auditioning; I have watched the bow of many capable cellists almost bounce off the strings in response to their extreme anxiety about the process.

Making music is an inherent part in teaching someone to play their instrument. As soon as possible I begin finishing a lesson with duets so that students feel the wonder of playing with another person. As a player progresses we weave musicality between layers of technique - never forgetting to express rather than simply mimic. So it has been challenging for me to present these ideologies in my studio while simultaneously asking them to come to a place where most of what matters is “winning.”

For the New England auditions there are only twelve cellists chosen. It seems to me that perhaps the most important part of the preparation process belongs to the teachers and parents of the auditioners. How to we respond if our student/child is not one of the twelve chosen? In the hours spent driving to lessons, listening to scales, being human metronomes, carrying around bags of pre-lesson snacks, how much of ourselves become entwined in the success of the student?

As teachers it is a great resume builder to have our cellists get into the events they audition for but how much time do we spend assuring our students that not only is it not imperative that they “make it” but they really don’t even have to audition if they would rather not.

This is a hard world in which to be a child. What kids need to succeed is a sense of self esteem that will help them believe that they are capable and worthy not only as little-leaguers, soccer stars or concert musicians but simply as people. It is here where we, as parents and educators need to focus our time and attention.

Maybe our musician is completely contented in concertizing for the stuffed animals in her bedroom.
Success can have many definitions.


Melissa Perley

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.

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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

Bonus

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.)

Susan/Suzette

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

Balance

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

Bittersweet

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.

Melissa

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

Gypsy

Sitting on the stage during the sound check I shield my eyes and look out into the lights to see where Paul and Josh are sitting. I laugh with Tom, the clarinetist, questioning the likelihood of good intonation from a silver flute resting on the cold floor under his chair.

I’m not really concerned about the fact that I’m tethered to my amp by the tiny microphone stuffed between my strings. My concern really lies in the relationship of the feet of my bench to the edge of the small stage. There seems to be a real possibility that I could be moving with the music and simply disappear off the side of the platform. This thought takes up so much of my attention that, in deciding to make that one last trip to the bathroom, I stand, cello in hand, and begin to step down from the stage, turning first directly toward my amp. The feedback is fast and furious. Think high pitched car alarm.

My first performance as a gypsy cellist begins with shouts of “Melissa, sit down!!”

Fortunately the rest goes much better. We start the set and the amplification of the cello is perfect. The audience is able to hear the cello lines and, better still, so am I. It is the first time I have been miked for performance. I was quite uncertain of how I’d feel about it all but even in testing the amp in the store I realized the positive benefit was how really hearing yourself helps with everything from pitch to vibration. Small details are much easier to pick up (pardon the pun): I find myself wondering how the Arensky piano trio would sound amplified….

It was/is new territory for me as a strictly classically trained cellist. I think I was so nervous about anything improvisational that I wasn’t able to fully see/hear the possibilities for true learning and growth.

Playing that night, it was clear to me that what I had been learning was much more about listening than about improvising or adapting to a new style of music.

As we wove the melodies around each other I felt that being out of what I perceived as my element made me more conscious of how my part fit with the other musicians’ and I was able to enjoy “playing” in a completely new way. Reminding me that real growth is only possible through struggle, and with the risk of failure and falling off the stage present.

 

Melissa Perley

Metronome

Sitting down to practice I look at my music and can hear the notes in my head, I bring the bow to the strings and begin- only to find that, while the notes in my head are correct, the rhythm is squiffy. septuplets and sixteenths and duplets and triplets...these are a few of my favorite things….I need the Doctor. Dr. Beat that is, my metronome.

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When you are beginning to study an instrument the introduction of the metronome is both a benchmark and a catastrophe. It’s seemingly simple to clap along to quarter notes that aren’t moving too quickly- we do it at concerts with our hands AND feet. Yet being metronomic, by definition, is being exact. As we try to clap precisely with a downbeat we often find ourselves lagging...or speeding. I very clearly remember being at lessons as a child, watching the triangular wooden metronome sitting atop the piano. Hearing that distinct click with the added necessity of winding every so often. My teacher also had a ticking clock that often fell on the off beats of my metronome pulse making things even more confusing. Trying to clap to two separate rhythm sources while watching the clock for the lesson to be over was nearly impossible.

In making introductions between metronome and students I remind them that we are all hard wired for music; we live surrounded by pitches and day-to-day rhythms. The most consistent pulse of all being our own heartbeat. As important as logical thinking is, I ask that this is one area that you ‘feel’ rather than work through.

I find that the consistent sound can be rather meditative. I took a Eurythmic class and the instructor and I spent a lot of time sitting, eyes closed letting the steady pulses wash over us. After a time we would begin softly clapping- the task seemed so much easier after quietly “feeling” the beat.

Once someone is ready to begin metronome work I will assign a piece that is very simple, rhythm and note wise so that all that is required of the brain is to feel the pulse. I ask that each session begin with clapping of the rhythm, no bow or cello in hand. In dissecting music you are getting ready to play- notes and rhythm are of equal importance. Even if you have no idea what the piece in front of you sounds like- if you can clap it- you can play it.

For a while, once out of the studio, this clapping stuff is confusing. You are trying to clap eighth notes but they seem to be coming sooner than needed...and forget those sixteenths. Perhaps it would be easiest to practice without that thing for one more week?

The metronome is why I have tissues in the studio.

But once understanding kicks in...oh how things change. Suddenly everything is untangled by the metronome- he is consistent and never lies to you- he really is your friend! So now perhaps it would be easiest to practice with the metronome on for everything?

I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be to have a “life metronome” - a little black box that could hang around your neck- it’s sole function to explain and untangle everything.

Bet they’d sell it on Amazon.

Melissa