Saturday, November 19, 2011

End of the cello (June 20, 2008)

Current mood: sad

On Monday, I turn back in the cello our family has rented for several years. My son began playing it in school back in third grade, and now that he's graduated and moved on to other things, this marks the end of an era. I'm sad.

I clearly remember how the cello came to be. All the third graders who showed some sort of musical promise were given a chance to try out several different instruments, both stringed and wind. He said he liked the cello because when he played it, the vibrations made his ear buzz.

There was, however, more to the story. It all started with Harry Chapin.

For those too young to remember, Harry Chapin was a singer-songwriter. His heyday was the 1970s, but his songs are timeless. While he only had a couple of Top 40 hits, most notably "Cat's in the Cradle", anyone who got to know some of the stories he sang on his records – that's what they were, stories – knows that there was something special going on there that no mere words such as mine can hope to describe with any trueness of feeling. You don't listen to a Harry Chapin story, you live it, and what helps drive that message home is that omnipresent cello.

"Taxi" was the song I was playing the week my son tried on a cello for size. When I say playing I mean it three ways: (a) Yes, I was playing the record on the turntable; (b) I was trying to figure out the lead guitar part, a slightly intricate finger pick; but most importantly (c) I was playing "air cello", like some people like to play air guitar. I played violin in orchestra back in school days, but never cello. This, however, has never prevented me from playing air cello.

In "Taxi", the emotion carried forth by that cello part is what makes the song. The words tell the story, but it's the cello that brings the longing to your soul, the anger to your heart, and the tears to your eyes. Take seven minutes, find a quiet room, and play the recording, wherever you can find it, and you'll hear what I mean. (Having the lyrics also helps.)

In any event, my little eight year old evidently thought highly of the instrument that was almost as big as he was, and so, for the last ten years, we've had a cello in the house. In recent years, though, the cello rarely came out. He played it in school, but getting him to practice at home was like pulling teeth. He sounded wonderful if we could get him to play, but it gathered dust. Months would go by while it sat, untouched, waiting for the next school concert. He had a different one to play in school, since cellos and full school buses are mutually incompatible.

The last glory of the cello was his playing in a string quartet a month or so ago. A local Girl Scout in his high school orchestra took it upon herself to form the quartet as part of her Gold Award project, the Girl Scouts of America's equivalent to Eagle Scout for the boys. She had the quartet practice for many weekends, going back to when the snow was thick and fierce. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, the quartet played a little concert at a half dozen or more area nursing homes. To call it very nice would be a gross understatement.

I considered buying the thing anyway, since I've never stopped playing air cello. I think a cello would be a beautiful addition to any church's praise band, especially with the addition of an electric pickup. But, as with anything, money is an issue. We're looking at four digits a couple times over, and, well, sorry, but if I had that kind of scratch available, it would be spent on several other things before I got something that, more likely than not, is going to sit unused 360 days out of any given year. My wife disagrees, saying that we've built up over a grand in rental-towards-purchase credits, but even with that, we're still out nearly two grand. It just ain't there. Even if it was, we're still going to be short almost ten grand in school and other expenses in the next year, just for him, and there are three other people in the house. Even if I got a job (right now there are a couple of serious possibilities in the wings), I'd almost certainly need a second car, and that's going to eat the first few months' paychecks before that ten grand (and then some) gets spent, so, still, just never mind. Can't do it. Just can't.

So, goodbye, big beautiful brown box with strings. I will remember you fondly. I hope my son does, too.


bus15237 said...

Sometimes, tough decisions need to be made. This was one of those times.

bus15237 said...

Comments on the original 2008 post:

Stuart Strickland
I found a couple of YouTube videos of Harry Chapin's "Taxi": is a video of a live performance.

The studio recording ( features the sound of the cello better, but the first video actually shows the cello being played.

That final note in the song is a high F-sharp, an octave and a sixth above the highest string, held for several beats.

Harry died in July 1981, two short months after being the SUNY Geneseo Class of 1981 (i.e., my) commencement speaker.

Stuart Strickland
Decision pending: We may buy it anyway.

Turns out it's $1,600 or so, not $2,800 as I feared, so that grand-plus in credits puts it in range. That, and we're getting a couple hundred more in Uncle Sam tax-incentive money than I'd planned, so we're really out only a fairly small amount. Also, if we really get stuck, we could probably sell it for more than out-of-pocket money.

The nice thing, though, is that we'll own it outright, it'll be brand new, and we can all play it if we get the notion to do so. Add that to the piano, the clarinet, the oboe, guitars and ukuleles we have around the place, and we can put together a real band if we wanted to!

Stuart Strickland
Now it's looking again like we will not. The rental is gone, and while we still have a couple of weeks to make the decision, there's still a $700 gap just to get to a low-end model, and a gargantuan $1,400 between us and the mid-range model.

Meanwhile, I found another very emotive cello song from a recent (OK, 1976) popular music LP: "Windsong", by John Denver.

In the Southmoreland School District children have the option to start playing an instrument in 5th grade. Now I've always wanted to play piccolo because 1) It's pretty sounding when played right, 2) it had an Itialan name and I wanted to honor my heritage and 3) it seemed to me to take the most air to play it. In saying all of that I had to learn how to play the flute. (Oh joy not what i wanted but hey I'll take it.) I started off in 6th grade and continued to play until 9th grade when it wasn't feasible for me to due to health reasons. It might surprise you to know that during those 3-4 yrs I was also in Southmoreland's Marching Band (8 grade only) earning myself a varsity letter and also getting to play at commencement (9th grade class of 98) I was fortunate enough to have one of my parents friends give me their daughters' brand new flute because she had changed her mind and went to play another instrument. That is a lot of money to pay to play an instrument but I hope that your son enjoyed his time playing and hopefully continues the tradition of music in your family. It's a lost art in schools anymore and that to me is sad.