Having started playing the cello at the age of 11, I had used a school rental, a rental that had clearly seen better days. Not only was it cosmetically compromised, but its tone was swallowed, trapped, unable to give full scope to the incredible sounds a cello is capable of producing. I myself felt swallowed, trapped, and unable to give my full scope of emotions to this lacking specimen of a cello.
One day, my dad came home and virtually bounded through the door, catching me in a hug and announcing, "I found you a cello. You'll love this guy's studio. Simon's studio. You'll just love it!" The day for us to "meet" my cello donned gray and chilly, a pearl-white sky the backdrop as we wended our way behind buildings to reach the upstairs studio of Simon. We knocked. He answered. What I remember most is the smell. It reminded me vaguely of a sauna--of heated wood--and of sawdust, too, but just a hint. One side of the studio was a wall of windows, so the white winter light poured in from outside, illuminating the wooden floors, and the panorama of objects strewn all over the place. Like some mad scientist building a Frankenstein, Simon's studio was hung and littered with pieces of violins, pieces of cellos, strings, bows, and tools. And there, in Simon's hand, was the neck of my cello. Mine.
I was afraid to touch it. Afraid that it was too beautiful, and that my nerves would cause me to produce a sound that wasn't beautiful. That maybe Simon would say, "Nein..." and take it away from me. But he held it out to me, persisting until finally, with a timid glance at my dad, I took its neck in my hands, and sat down. I nestled its beautiful shape in between my knees and dared to touch the bow to the strings, willing myself not to shake. That first sound surprised me so much I almost dropped my bow. It leapt from the belly of the cello. The cello absolutely sang. And then I was unaware of Simon or my dad or the instrument-massacre lying in parts around me. I played, and instead of the sound stopping at my fingertips, I was filling the room with it, and it surrounded me and held me, suspended, until I lifted the bow from the strings, and the spell was broken. It was meant to be mine, like meeting a person who was somehow always your friend, even before you knew them.
The next order of business was to find a teacher. We had high hopes in this department, considering that we were in Europe, the proverbial cradle of elite musical instruction. Alas, we met with unexpected dead ends--teachers too far away, teachers too expensive, and teachers who were not accepting new students. But finally, we found Eleanor Gould.
"She sounds interesting," my mother said encouragingly. "She requested that she have the first lesson here, at our house, so she can see if she'll be able to teach you." I was intimidated. "Be able to teach me?" What did that mean? That if I squeaked a little while dragging my bow across my A-string, I'd be fired? Nervously I waited for her to arrive, and shortly, the doorbell rang.
She was tall. While I am short, and most everyone else is taller than me, Eleanor was TALL. She had on a strange, shaggy, fur coat, which was wet from the rain outside. My mom took it for her, saying something like, "This is an interesting coat. I'm sorry it got wet." Eleanor responded that it probably smelled like wet dog [it did], and then said, "Interestingly, it IS dog. Dog fur. I had it made after my dog died."
She was completely serious. To my mom's credit, she maintained a placid smile and said, "Oh! How interesting."
Eleanor's hair was black and long, and on her eyelids were swatches of thick, pale blue eyeshadow. Her voice was deep and rich, and she wore red lipstick. One of her eyelids drooped slightly more than the other, which I later learned was due to MS, something she didn't disclose until several lessons in, and only when pressed.
She came to sit down on a stool next to me, and when she sat, out of her mouth came a whoosh of air, "OOOoooofff...." I caught my mother's eye and bit my lip, hastily stifling the wells of laughter that threatened to bubble forth at any moment. When I played my cello, she rocked back and forth in time with the music, conducting me with one hand. She was business-like and straightforward, and the entire time I was worried that I wouldn't pass the supposed test. But at the end of the lesson, she declared me qualified, scheduled my first lesson, and rose from the stool with the same "OOOoooofff" as before.
She was strange, to say the least, and often abrasive in her teaching style. Furthermore, she taught me viola technique for my bow hold, which caused my next teacher some frustration, to say the least. But her area of expertise was viola, and we knew that when we started, and I had a two-year period in Belgium where I didn't take lessons and hardly practiced, which I believe caused my teacher in Georgia far more grief than a bow-hold incorrectly taught. It should also be noted that I was typically a bit of a basket case during my lessons, and she bore me well.
As our lessons progressed, the stranger aspects of Eleanor's personality were overshadowed by an increased desire on our parts to know her better. We asked her more questions. We inquired after her well-being more consistently. In short, we actively loved her.
During one lesson, I had a headache. She asked me to point out the spot on my head where it hurt most, and then said, "Hold on." She disappeared into her small kitchen for a moment, and then came back with something in her hands. She instructed me to be still--I wondered for a second what on earth she was about to do--and then she gently rubbed peppermint oil onto the spot where my head ached most.
Some little knot within--some hard little spot where I had harbored judgment or mockery or frustration--loosened. I found my eyes welling up with tears at her unexpected tenderness. Very quickly she was back to business-mode, but I didn't forget, and I won't forget.
Months into our lessons, she called me at home and said, "Would you like to come on an outing with me? To the orchestra?" I felt panicked. An outing? With my cello teacher? Just me? But I remembered the peppermint oil, remembered the loneliness of her tiny apartment, the blue eyeshadow on her tired eyelids, and found myself saying yes. When the night came to go, I was resolved to enjoy myself, whether it was going to be easy or not. I wore a nice outfit, and I smiled when I answered the door to find Eleanor standing there, in all her tallness. She was different, somehow. Relaxed, perhaps. We chatted on the way to the concert hall, and I realized finally how she was different on this night.
She was vulnerable. She asked me to come with her, extended herself and put herself on the line with the risk of asking a silly little 13-year-old girl to attend the orchestra with her. I don't remember what music they played. I don't remember the name of those who played. I know that I was lost in the music, and unaware of the rapture on my face until I turned to find Eleanor quietly smiling at me, knowing what I was feeling. And in her face I saw peaceful triumph, her happiness that the music had touched me.
Afterwards in the car, on the way home, she even laughed some. It was as if the actual atmosphere around us had changed. When she offered to stop somewhere for pizza, I agreed, wanting to suspend the strange magic. "Real pizza, though. Not your silly Pizza Hut. Authentic Italian pizza," she said. I asked, "Is there a difference?" She laughed loudly and stated emphatically that this was a travesty, my not knowing the difference between Pizza Hut and authentic Italian pizza. So we made our way to a pizzeria, where I learned that there is, indeed, a huge difference between the two. [Authentic pizza is out-of-this-world better.]
When she dropped me off that night, I felt an inexplicable sadness, one that had nothing to do with saying goodbye for the night. I felt sadness for her going home to a silent apartment. Sadness that I had not sooner allowed myself to be taught. Not cello, but compassion. Vulnerability. Loyalty, empathy and the kind of musicality that spills into all corners of our lives.
It is true that the stranger points of her personality are unforgettable, and yes, I still laugh to remember. But the poignant aspects of our time together, and her heart of gold, have left a far more indelible impression on me.
If you are wondering, yes, this is the cello created for me by Simon. She sounds even better these days.
Post-script: Eleanor Gould is an accomplished musician, which her long string of credits belies. While she may not have been the best cello teacher I had, I am certain she was someone's best viola teacher, and obviously she taught me plenty of important things.