Saturday, December 13, 2008


Here's one of the pieces my mother (cello) and I (piano) are practicing. It's the one that I most wanted to record with her, while I still can. Click to view and hear -- not us, some two guys.

I think the pianist in this video doesn't really "feel" the music. The cellist does. When I play it, and when we play it together, I feel it so hard I feel tension and emotion, almost tears, ebb and flow through my whole body. However, the pianist in the video is more skillful than I am in a technical way. He doesn't miss any notes, he hits no wrong ones. For one thing, he's a man, and his hands are large enough to reach some of the spreads that are a stretch for me. Sometimes I miss just because I didn't reach far enough. I notice that only his fingers move on the keys: I have to roll my arms from the elbows and my hands from the wrists to reach some of the extensions.

Anyone who is a string player will understand this next comment: Towards the end of the piece, the climax note is a loooong, high cello note. It's six beats, starting at pp ("double soft") and increasing on a crescendo (louder and louder.) If you listen carefully, and watch, you can see that the cellist doesn't make the whole 6 beats and changes the bow (from "down" -- pulling back -- to "up" -- pushing forward.) To accomplish the crescendo, the cellist must start with light bow pressure not moving very fast, to heavier pressure moving faster and faster, and he runs out of bow and has to start going the other direction.

My mother says Saint-Saens made a mistake here on this note, didn't recognize that it's next to impossible to play the six beats continuously on a crescendo on one bow, and she's never heard it done, but it's the climax of the composition and changing the bow interrupts the smoothness and continuity and impact of that climax. She worked on it for months and months as a young cellist, trying to figure out a way. Finally she changed her bowing several measures in advance, and began the long climax note on an UP bow (pushing forward) which gave more control, and voila!! She'd found the way to do it all on one bow.

My mother, who's now 87, says she's never heard another cellist, live or recorded, do it on one bow. To her knowledge, it's never been done. But she does it. Whenever she hears this piece of music, she listens closely to hear a bow change, and it's always there. She has NEVER heard another cellist do it on one bow; possibly, no one has even thought of it or perceived, or felt, that it would be more powerful on a single bow stroke.

I believe that, in her day, my mother may have been, probably without realizing it, one of the greatest cellists in the world. But she was with the symphony (Baltimore, Washington National, also New York Philharmonic Orchestra) and never got to shine as the great soloist that she was. She quit the symphony to have a baby (me) and from then on her musical career was reduced to giving cello and piano (and now, at age 87, country fiddle) lessons in the living room, and teaching public school music.
I never heard her play professionally until I was probably 40. I'd heard the lessons, and I'd heard her playing with my visiting grandmother on the piano, and she and I played together at home for pleasure when I was in my teens. But later, she was invited by a local arts festival to give a concert. She had a professional piano accompanist and gave a truly professional concert. Attending, listening, watching, I was thunderstruck. This was MAJOR LEAGUE. This was an artist. This was exceptional. And I was 40 and had NEVER HEARD MY MOTHER DO THAT. Just listening to this cellist on the stage, never mind that she was my mother, I was mesmerized, paralyzed, transported..... I don't know when I have ever heard such a cellist.

Ellinor Learned Benedict. The world never heard of her.

She quit to have a baby. Me.

Here are the other pieces we're recording together:
Schubert Ave Maria (they do it a little more slowly; I think it drags a little)
Bach-Gounod Ave Maria (this one's done well, very sensitively)
And one with violin/fiddle (Mom) and guitar (me): Ashokan Farewell

She first picked up a fiddle and learned to play country-bluegrass at age 65.


Jade Lady said...

Thank you for sharing this story. It's amazing what we learn from our mothers, at 40+.

ShirleyPerly said...

What a surprise that must have been to see your mom shine like that. I wish I could listen to the videos but my Internet connection is too slow here in Hawaii. I'll try again when I get back to the mainland.

From Here to There said...

What a fabulous post. I'm so proud of your Mom for figuring out the way to bow the note as it was intended!

I'm sure it's going to sound fantastic, and hope that you will post a link to the recordings, or offer them up for purchase (the youtube video route might not be a bad idea either!).

I miss hearing Saint-Saens. It was a staple in the house when KT was in school, she hasn't played in a few years, too busy with life and her degree, but she will get back to it, no doubt about it!

Anonymous said...

I've had no time to read blogs in the past few weeks...

What a precious post. Fascinating about her figuring out the bowing that works! I hope that you will have the perfect recording session on the 27th. Maybe by then he'll have figured out how to get around the hum so the mic and power both can be directly plugged in. What about doing a video? Youtube??

Best wishes on this - it would be treasured by your entire family.