From ECO Principal Cellist Ruth Ann Scanzillo
Today was the warmest one yet. The kind that made us all sure we’d really survived another killer winter. And, sunny? Many thought God had a special place in his heart for the Young Peoples’ Chorus of Erie, especially those in attendance at their spring concert. They were sure he’d provided such beautiful weather just for the children.
And, this being my third stint as guest obligato cello soloist for these beautifully trained young voices, I was glad to be sitting in the shade of their shining day.
I’d followed my usual routine, eating pasta primavera at precisely two and a half hours out, setting the hair, running the tough licks once more, and arriving at call to watch the wall clock carefully until it hit exactly one hour from my tune’s downbeat. For the propranolol, ten milligrams, because a racing heart meant a bobbling bow and vibrato out the wazoo, and all the seasoned players knew how to calculate fear out of the equation because this is how we all rolled.
Today, I sat in my assigned spot off to the side of the Lutheran sanctuary, left hand gloved, program beside me on the carved straight backed bench two feet from the cross on the pole and two more from the velvet prayer altar.
The total body experience of live performance really can’t be described fully. It’s kind of a time warp beholden to opposing forces. Fifty percent intense desire; fifty resistance. Wanting, so, to make something beautiful; needing to run and do anything but this, anything else, oven cleaning. Years of archaic indoctrination running headlong into the quest for the ideal; producing a perfect, even transcendent, rendition of somebody else’s music.
From childhood, I’d been what they called a “natural.” Dad’s inborn talent manifest in me tenfold. Rarely a day went by that I did not spend, compulsively, hours at a time, playing the piano and singing. Later, the cello – the master, the lover, the second skin of my soul.
But, traditional training never knew anything but demand. Getting it right. Matching the composer’s intent. Reading the notes on the page. What a curiosity, notation, really. At once a mathematical template and a symbolic language for the aural definition of beauty. Playing “by ear” was what Dad did, and what we all did in our family; but, reading and interpreting the written version of what we loved happened someplace else in the brain and, unlike my father before me, I’d learned to know the difference.
This year’s choral selection featuring cello came with its part written entirely in treble clef. I’d taken one look at the music, and chosen to waste no time rewriting it in bass and tenor. And, I’d used whatever makeshift printer paper I had on hand; invariably, standard drug store white got the job.
Sitting on the carved bench as the children began their program, my gloved hand felt hot in the warming room and I felt the familiar OCD starting to creep. Fairly new at the medicating routine, I’d noticed this phenomenon coming off the migraine drug, as well, a pill I’d been forced to take earlier that day. But, years of perfectionism raged; I must not look at the music before the performance. I must not fixate on the descending shift, lest it jump at me from the page en route. This, I’d learned the hard way, could sabotage even the most diligently prepared passagework. And, the children had come ready to sing. They deserved the best.
And, the sound of them. Their Anglo-Saxon tonal purity rivaled the heavenlies. They belonged in Westminster Abbey. I simply must match their offering. The perfect spring day required it.
I’d been raised on prayer. Prayer on the knees, before bed. Prayer over every meal. Prayer before every trip on the highway. Maybe it was the velvet prayer altar, or the cross on the pole. But, I prayed. And this time, I asked God to just play the music for me.
And, then, I was up.
Dead center they’d placed me this year, right under the director’s eye. I sat down, positioned my two sheets of hand-written music on the stand, chirped my strings one last time, and nodded to the director.
The piece, “In The Night We Shall Go In”, by Imant Raminsh, began with the lone voice of the cello, stating the motif. And, then elaborating that motif, through repetition and a modal contour that resolved in sustain, setting the tonal stage for the young peoples’ vocal cue.
But, something else was making an entrance.
I hadn’t even reached the second motive statement before noticing it. The music. The top left corner of the page began to flutter, as if in a breeze. Yet, the church was packed; there was no air moving, anywhere.
In nearly thirty years of live performance, I’d sung in a pop band, played in church – for services, weddings, full orchestral concerts, funerals. Been a regular fixture in the throng on the Warner stage. But, what happened next I may never be able to explain.
The corner of the music continued to gently puff away. Then, just as I headed into the contour of the line, the page lifted itself entirely from the stand and flew to the floor.
I looked up at the director, Gabrielle, whose eyes only faintly delivered recognition, whose mouth only slightly turned its corners, whose face rightly sought the childrens’ undivided attention. A young girl sitting in the second pew entered my field. But, she didn’t move. Nobody moved. “The show must go on”. The director kept phrasing the beat, and the children kept singing.
And, I kept playing.
Or, my bow kept moving. And, my fingers followed.
And, the verse played out.
No small marvel, this. Not only that the room was devoid of noticeable air flow, that the music had begun to move, and then the float to the floor, but that I.kept.playing.
And, then, it happened again.
On page two. Only this time, my bow suspended on the B – natural fermata, alone on the precipice, choir tacet, just ahead of the descending octave shift to recapitulation. Up went page two. And, down. Paper, face to the floor.
I played the entire theme.
* * * *
A piece about omens had come to me the other day, and I’d closed it asking the Almighty for the kind of sign that would stop me cold.
I think I got one.
And, it knocked the wind right out of me. Right on the wings of the sunniest day of spring.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
5/3/15 all rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line.