The 'Elephant' in the hotel room

Saint-Saëns and the sensual, curvaceous, exquisitely crafted creature that is her cello have restored Deborah Bowman's love of learning

October 8, 2009

The man who brought the jet lag-relieving sandwich to my room at the hotel in Chicago lingered a little longer than might have been expected. I had already performed the peculiarly awkward ritual of an insecure English woman trying to tip an American working in the hospitality industry. What had I overlooked? Had my hasty calculation of an appropriate gratuity been excessively generous or, worse still, embarrassingly stingy? I followed his gaze to the corner of my room.

"You play the cello?"

Ah, the cello. Most guests did not have a cello, a music stand and rosin in their rooms. I blushed.

"Well, sort of. I mean, I do play, a little bit. I'm not very good though. Actually, I'm hopeless really."

"I am sure you are being modest, Dr Bowman. To have a cello in your room - you must be serious about your music. Would you play for me?"

Cue a more clear statement of my abilities.

"No, no, honestly, you wouldn't want to hear me play. Actually, I don't much like hearing myself play. Truly, I haven't been playing very long."

Reluctantly, the man took his leave, still wondering if he had stumbled upon a modest virtuoso needing room service.

After a healthy supper of sandwiches, sauvignon blanc and melatonin, I picked up the cello that I had asked the hotel to hire for me. Out came the Saint-Saens sheet music that was buried beneath conference registration instructions, notes for my paper and maps of downtown Chicago. Ah, Saint-Saens - the composer whose The Swan, along with Elgar's Cello Concerto, had initially seduced me and inspired my love of the cello.

I duly coated the bow with rosin, and as my spine slowly unrolled from a stoop acquired as a result of too much time spent hunched on an aeroplane over books and a keyboard, I flexed my fingers and I tentatively began to play ... but I was not playing that famous and wonderful 13th movement of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals. Instead, I stumbled and, appropriately enough, plodded my way through The Elephant, a humorous but far from soulful miniature from Carnival that had been rearranged for the cello. I continued to bumble through the piece, bar by bar, as the lights came on and then went out all over Chicago. Finally, it was sufficiently late to go to bed without risking the torture of being wide awake at 3am only to flag in a lunchtime plenary session at the conference the following day.

What strange magic does the cello exert that leads me to make complicated hire arrangements wherever I travel in the world? While the hotel employee was unquestionably wrong in his conclusion that I was being modest about my musical abilities, he was right to suggest that I am serious about playing the cello. I am not good, I am certainly not talented, but I am serious. My literal and metaphorical travels with my cello have been revelatory and proved just the thing for an academic becoming a little worn down by the infinite demands of research, writing, teaching and administration.

My experiments with the instrument began while I was in a state of feverish disorientation. A trip to Pertisau for Christmas celebrations had been blighted by contracting pneumonia, which led me to some unplanned participant-observer fieldwork in the Austrian healthcare system. In a pyrexic and somewhat pathetic state, I announced that I would be learning the cello when I had recovered and returned to the UK. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my sudden musical ambitions were dismissed by those who remembered earlier short-lived experiments with ballroom dancing, modern art, tennis and amateur dramatics as the ramblings of a deliriously sick woman with a poor track record of commitment in her leisure pursuits. In reply, I defiantly redoubled my resolve to make the coming year the one in which I became acquainted with the most soulful of string instruments.

Initially, I took a classically academic approach: the first step was to conduct research. Large online music stores sell cheap cellos complete with sparsely haired bows and cases that seem to be made for an entirely different instrument in a range of colours. Such frivolous, colourful instruments were to be instantly rejected, according to the cello forum I had joined. A pink cello may look pretty (and I am not at all convinced it does) but painting wood sabotages the sound. Apparently, according to the cello-playing internet community, I needed to find a luthier.

Luthiers, I discovered, had beautiful websites showing exquisitely fashioned instruments made centuries ago by European craftsmen. I also learnt that prices are rarely, if ever, listed for these aged beauties. When I telephoned one luthier to inquire about a particularly divine example of 18th-century German craftsmanship, I discovered that the unlisted prices were frequently the sorts of figures I was used to seeing attached to houses and luxury cars. Being on an academic salary, it was back to the wisdom of the cello crowds. Apparently as an adult learner, I did not really warrant the attention of a luthier after all, at least not at this stage in my nascent cello-playing career. Instead a trip to a well-respected, independent music shop with a specialist in string instruments would suffice. So it was as a coughing, still slightly feverish customer that I made my way to Chappell of Bond Street, where the shop assistant barely showed his anxiety about the respiratory germs I was carrying and ensured that I departed not only with my pneumonia-inducing mycoplasma but also a perfect cello.

With a cello at home, it was time to read about what I should do with this new addition to my world. Once again, I remained true to my academic roots and I immediately bought every book available on Amazon that contained the word "cello" in its title. My reading included novels involving cellist characters that doubled as detectives, murderers and spies, biographies of great cellists that revealed beautiful music was often made by less than beautiful people and endless how-to books from the dense translations of classic Germanic theory texts to rough guides for self-identified idiots and dummies. Amid the overwhelming bibliography of cello-related texts were two titles that inspired me. The first of these was Cornelia Watkins' Rosindust: Teaching, Learning and Life from a Cellist's Perspective and the second was the seductively titled Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story, by John Holt. I devoured these two volumes' practical wisdom and warm encouragement tempered with constructive realism. And what became clear was that to learn the cello I needed a teacher above all else. No amount of wistful watching of performances on YouTube - ranging from the classical romanticism of Jacqueline du Pre to the chaotic modernism of Melo-M and the hard-rock angst of Rasputina - would substitute for an effective teacher.

I felt like a musical version of Goldilocks as I met an eclectic cast of cello teachers. There was the terrifyingly accomplished cellist who barked at me for 30 minutes deploring my inability to hold the bow correctly. There was the timid music student who couldn't make eye contact and whose hands shook when she played for me. There was the jaded teacher who announced that "adult learners are a nightmare" and then charged me £30 for the "consultation". There was the gifted professional cellist with a thriving teaching business who stunned me into silence with her casual racist remarks and right-wing political views. And then, finally, there was the one who was "just right".

As I progressed slowly but surely with Ms Just-Right, I learnt much more than music. I remembered, probably for the first time in 20 years, what it is like to be ignorant, to struggle, to be vulnerable, to be frustrated by an elusive skill or concept, to experience short-lived triumph at the most minor achievement, to persist in the face of poor or absent progress, to be honest about one's abilities, to depend on an expert to lead the way, to need encouragement and to have faith in a process that is unfamiliar and unknown. In short, I was reminded what each and every student feels at some point. The difference my cello teacher made was not merely helpful, it was crucial. Her skill at both playing and teaching could turn discouragement to confidence, superficial flourish to solid technical mastery and frustration to determination.

Two lessons a week with Ms Just-Right are a more effective stress reliever than sauvignon blanc. Whatever state of tension lands on her doorstep, within moments both my cello and my mood have been fine-tuned and rendered harmonious. When a break from writing, marking or emailing beckons, it is the cello to which I turn: that sensual, curvaceous, exquisitely crafted creature who calls siren-like from the corner of the room. Scales, arpeggios, experimental shifts, harmonics and thumb-positioning absorb a busy, preoccupied mind. Playing is experienced not just through my ears and hands, but in my entire body as wood and string yield and resonate. It is impossible to maintain frustration at the latest encounter with peer review while simultaneously concentrating on vibrato and legato. The sound I make may not be sublime, but it is soothing.

The nature of my passion for the cello has prompted me to ponder the purpose of learning. Such is my antipathy to performance that I struggle to practise not only when there are other people in my house, but when there is the possibility of my neighbours being at home. I have no intention of taking examinations or seeking any external appraisal of my abilities. I was briefly tempted by the idea of an adult string quartet, but almost immediately rejected the invitation. Why learn music if I am not to share it with others? It could be, of course, that not sharing my playing is an act of charity to those around me, but I think it is more fundamental than mere embarrassment, kindness to others or bashful reticence. I have finally understood that learning can be inherently valuable and enjoyable if it is motivated by passion and enthusiasm. One need not have talent, skill or aptitude. No one need ever assess or evaluate learning. Credentials need not be sought nor obtained. The gap between expert and novice can remain vast and unbridgeable. In the absence of the architecture and assumptions that underpin my daily working life in higher education, learning can flourish, be worthwhile and enduring.

On my last night in Chicago, I had a date with Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I settled into my carefully chosen seat, positioned in direct view of the cellists, and watched them absorbed in frantic fingering, soulful bowing and musical precision that was entirely mesmerising. I recalled the room-service waiter's comment - "you must be serious about your music, Dr Bowman". If "serious" is a synonym for accomplished, the really serious cellists in Chicago were in front of me and I would never be among their number. However, if "serious" means captivated, passionate, committed and devoted, then that hotel employee was absolutely spot on.

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