Back when Brendan started playing the cello we weren’t sure if it was going to last. He’d been involved in activities before that he’d been really excited about, and then one day he’d just lose interest and be ready to move onto another activity. The whole orchestra thing came out of left field for us anyway. They sent home an interest/permission form at the end of third grade but of course my little scatter brain never brought it home.
He told us of his interest in orchestra the night before the school was having an open house to pick and rent the instruments. It had been a while since he’d been enrolled in an activity and we saw no reason why he shouldn’t be involved in the orchestra. Brendan had many questions about orchestra and so did we as neither Matt nor I had ever played in the orchestra. We’d both been band geeks.
Our main concern with Brendan playing a strings instrument was the low dexterity in his fingers. We weren’t sure if that would hinder his ability to finger the strings properly, but his orchestra teacher assured us that would not be a problem. We talked through the instrument choices with his teacher (again having no experience with any of them) and had tentatively gotten Brendan settled on playing the viola. He didn’t seem 100% sold, but we couldn’t get out of him anything else that he wanted so we went into the gym to look at renting an instrument.
The people from the music shop at the first booth showed Brendan a viola and talked him through all the parts and pieces. He listened and seemed interested, but still not like I’d seen him latch onto other activities. I chalked it up to his interest in orchestra being a short lived experiment. However as we walked away from the table he saw one of the girls in his class carrying a cello that her parents had just rented for her. He went and talked to her and lifted up her new cello to see how heavy it was. Once he’d done that he was sold. Cello was the instrument he wanted to play.
We had to go back to his teacher and find out what size cello he’d need and then back to the gym to rent it. But now I was seeing the Brendan that was really excited to start on a new adventure. The cello came with a few basic rules. 1) he had to give it a month. New things are hard and we wanted to make sure he gave it a fair shot before calling it quits. 2) he had to practice. If we were going to pay for the instrument then he had to actually use it. 3) He could not fall behind in school. Orchestra was still technically an extra curricular activity, even if he was doing it during school hours. His schoolwork had to be the priority. 4) if he lost interest after that first month all he had to do was tell us and we would help him drop out. We made sure he understood that we would stand behind his decision 100% no matter what.
The first month or so was a bit of a struggle for him. I think it was a good 3 weeks before they were even allowed to get their bows out and actually play their instruments. They learned all about the different parts and learned the sounds of the strings through plucking with their fingers. I’m glad we’d put in the caveat that he had to stick with it for a bit or he may not have during that period. After that though, it was smooth sailing and he came home week after week bubbling over with information about what new things he learned.
My biggest surprise was listening to him practice. He was no Mozart to be sure, but he squeaked and squaked on the instrument way less than I was expecting for a beginner. I remember my band days and wonder why my parents didn’t buy stock in ear plugs. At the end of the semester he had his first concert and he was so proud of what he was doing that he invited pretty much anyone and everyone he could think of.
We began to realize his love of the instrument over winter break. We’d never had any struggle getting him to practice, and the once or twice he’d had to skip practicing because there just wasn’t time in the day he’d insist on making up the time the next day or two. During the first week of winter break he was practicing his cello when one of his strings snapped. Not only did it scare the crap out of him, he was upset because it meant he couldn’t practice properly. He may have still been able to get through but a couple of days later another string came loose.
His teacher had always told us to bring the instrument to her before taking it in for repairs because she could handle most of them. So we had him pack away the cello for the second week of winter break. I couldn’t believe how much it upset him that he wasn’t able to practice.
Then it went even further. In February Brendan asked to attend an all day Saturday camp that his orchestra teacher was offering. Of course we let him go, and he had a blast. We thought it might have been the packaging of the event since they called it “fiddle fest” but it wasn’t because in April he had the chance to take a private lesson with a high school student and he was just as excited for that. After the private lesson we began to realize just how much he loved his cello.
It started with him writing his own music. He’d spend hours in his room drawing musical staffs on notebook paper and creating melodies then playing them during his practice time. Then came the Star Spangled Banner. In his school the 5th graders get to learn the Star Spangled Banner and this year a handful of 5th graders had the opportunity to play it at a local baseball game. When Brendan heard that he was determined to be one of those 5th graders the following year.
Even before he had the music to it he began to hum the melody and soon could play bits and pieces of it on his cello. Then when he finally got the music on his last day of orchestra for the school year he became obsessed. That first day he had the music he got out his cello 4 separate times to practice. He played his instrument well over two hours that day. And what amazed us was how well he played the song since he’d had the music less than 24 hours. Admittedly it wasn’t professional quality, but for a 10 year old to play through the whole song and have it be recognizable that quickly was pretty impressive.
There was only one hiccup in the whole thing. The day after he’d practiced his song so hard Brendan came to me and said that he didn’t want to play the Star Spangled Banner at the baseball game next spring. I asked him why and he said it was because he wasn’t very good at it and he didn’t think he’d be picked for the opportunity. My jaw dropped. Not very good at it? He was probably playing the song better, after 24 hours, than some kids who had been practicing it for the past year. But I kept calm and explained to him that he hadn’t had the song for very long and that he’d have plenty of opportunity to practice before then.
He took me at my word and his enthusiasm for the song returned. That was enough for us. When he’d had his private lesson in April the student had given Brendan his card in case he wanted to continue taking private lessons over the summer. Matt and I knew how expensive private lessons could be, but those few days with the Star Spangled Banner were enough to convince us we had to do everything we could to get him into private lessons. We called the number on the card and arranged for him to meet with the high school student once a week.
We know if he continues to be as zealous about this as he is today we will need to look into professional lessons, but for now we are able to feed his cello habit without completely breaking the bank, and we are confident that there’s a lot he can learn just from sitting with someone who’s been playing the instrument 5 years longer than he has.