by Rebecca L. Hein
American Reporter Correspondent
November 23, 2008
RECORDING THE VIRTUES OF CELLO PLAYING
CASPER, Wyo. -- Technology has given us practically everything, so why can't it provide a heat sensor for your phone line? Then, when you start breathing fire at the vendor you're trying to reach, someone at that company will get a clue that their automatic routing system is provoking you past all reasonable limits.
Relief from aggravation is a must in the Digital Age, and an old-fashioned remedy is best. How about cello playing? It acts slowly, delivers what it promises and resonates with history.
When I practice the unaccompanied suites of J. S. Bach, I'm linking myself to a tradition of more than 300 years, to a time when nobody expected things to happen in a flash. In 1685, when Bach was born, manuscripts were copied by hand; years were required to craft a violin; and human energy alone provided the music for church and village square.
Without sighing over the good old days when women had to wash clothes by hand and servants were the rich man's fossil fuel, furnishing heat, light and food by their work, it's still possible to see the value of an era when machinery could not substitute for people.
What began as clever innovation has led us to the annoyance of tackling a simple problem, and then watching it mushroom into a fiasco whose central feature is your wasted time and attention.
My recent call to Qwest, my phone provider for local service, was so important that a recorded voice assured me of this over and over again. Eventually I spoke to a person, but the intervening time was a loss because I failed to equip myself with a glass of water plus my checkbook and calculator before I dialed.
Perhaps I wouldn't be so far behind on my household chores if phone calls didn't take five times as long as they used to. No doubt I've failed to adjust, but with technology forcing changes at the speed of DSL, I can't keep up. Last time I called the phone company, it wasn't like talking to the IRS where delays and frustrations are part of the process.
Therefore, when Qwest used up my time, assured me they'd fix my problem, then failed to do so, I fumed. This reaction hit me in the middle of the night, and spiraled into a full-blown tailspin as I realized that I'd have to spend another 45 minutes the next day slogging through their automated procedures, again explaining my problem, and still with no assurance that I'd get results.
Sure enough, they shunted me around, put me on hold and cut me off. Since I expected this I was less frustrated but was still waiting to see if the voicemail greeting on our business line would be restored before the end of the day, just as they'd promised 24 hours ago. At the end of this second attempt I was still smoldering, and decided to talk to a supervisor.
"I'm sorry," said the polite human voice on the other end of the line. "it'll be a 24 to 48 hour wait before someone can call you back."
I began to laugh. Perhaps this reaction helped me think better, because next I realized that if I tried customer service again I'd get a different call center. Maybe I could snag a supervisor that way.
It worked. "Next time you attend one of your managers' meetings," I stated tersely, "tell your bosses that your company's hold-button recording is a mistake. I don't need you telling me how valuable my time is when you're wasting it by the hour, and not even fixing my voicemail as promised."
When I paused for breath this person replied, "I can assure you that at least your voicemail will be working by the end of the day." His tone implied that the other problems I'd complained about were beyond fixing.
Companies can't reverse their own decisions about the content of their hold-button messages? I pondered this irony as I waited for Qwest to do their job.
Several weeks later I offered Qwest the chance to comment on this debacle. Beyond an apology for the two-day delay in restoring service, the supervisor I spoke to had no other comment. It was clear that nothing would be done about the deeper problem, and indeed, what can one person do?
I felt like a character in a science-fiction story from 40 years ago when the computer has just taken over the spaceship, Mars colony, or home. Yet my quick switch from irritation to laughter had saved me, and the reason soon became clear.
Cello playing has grounded me in a process that never lies. There's no mistaking scratchy sound or bad rhythm: you can't just push a button to get rid of these problems. And where the left hand of technology gives us time while the right snatches it away, progress on a musical instrument is so slow that you have ample time to cope with frustration.
A single skill such as playing in tune requires years of diligence before you achieve even partial success. I can remember one practice session during my sophomore year in college when I decided I wasn't going to waste any more time just trying to play well. I was going to stop and correct the first sour note I heard. So I played two pitches: my open C string, which needs no fingers, and D, the first note above it, which has a precise location on the fingerboard.
If I were an archer, the spectator would have seen me loose an arrow, watch it land, put down my bow, walk over to the target, pull out the arrow, walk back to my bow and pick it up, nock the arrow, aim and fire again. After several hours of this, any sane person might conclude I was crazy.
The D of my C major scale was no better the next day nor the day after that. Even at 19, I was experienced enough not to expect this, but when this pattern began to repeat itself in larger loops of frustration, I knew I'd chosen one of the most demanding activities on earth.
Fifteen years later I paused again in practicing, this time to seek a perfect sensation while playing a whole phrase. I was preparing an audition; the music was too hard; and I didn't want to just beat it up to tempo as I'd been doing for so long with other pieces. I knew that every phrase should feel as easy as my C major scale.
So I stopped as soon as I felt my muscles getting tight. I was searching for a sense of release in my lower back, and after less than one measure this always slipped away. Next I put the cello down, stood up, stretched, bent over, tried to touch my toes and gradually straightened up.
For every few measures I played, I spent five or 10 minutes on these calisthenics. I soon realized that it would be impossible to play the audition because I wasn't spending enough time learning the notes. As I watched my priorities shift from this career goal to a deeper search for excellence, I felt more settled in my work than ever before.
This in turn produced a new sense of leisure and space. I became even more alert to the slightest hint of forced motion, arresting my playing after a few notes instead of a few measures. Thus I suspended myself in a shimmering bubble of excitement and discovery where time stopped and all was quiet.
With moments like this glowing in my past, stress today has less pulling power than if I'd spent my life racing cars. Although I'm often deceived by the illusion of convenience, especially the lure of quick information, the counterweight of cello practice anchors me in reality. It's a far more soothing experience than trying to balance your checkbook while stuffing the rags of your attention into the phone receiver.
If you loathe what technology is doing to your days, try the cello. To set a reasonable goal, add up all the hours you've spent on hold or being harangued by recorded voices in the last five years, quadruple this figure, and hope to be able to play one beautiful melody by the end of that time.
Rebecca L. Hein holds a Master's degree in cello performance from Northwestern University. She is the author of "A Case of Brilliance." Contact her at www.rebeccahein.com