cello is good for my soul…and my chronic illness

My hands are getting stronger!  I was able to play my cello for hours tonight, it was glorious!

I have extensive hand injuries, several destroyed ligaments, EDS making the ligaments too lose, and permanent joint scaring. When I take on a new hand-oriented thing (like rowing or cello) I have to go verrrry slowly, with PT weight lifting to make sure the muscles of my fingers are strong enough to stabilize the lack of ligament stability in my wrists.

When I ordered the cello, I immediately began doing wrist exercises, because I knew it was going to be challenging to go back to playing after so many years. When the cello arrived I was able to play for only five minutes at a time – yikes 😀  After having the cello & bow for about a week, I contacted the store and asked them to send me several different bows on trial.  I needed a different bow – one that drew sound more easily from the cello without as much work from my hand; the better the bow is, the more resonant it is – the more resonant the bow, the more it helps the string vibrate, the less work your hand has to do.

I also wanted a bow which complimented this cello’s particular mellow rich timbre. Matching the acoustic qualities of a bow and cello is unique to each of them, and I was concerned that finding a bow that both worked with the cello and was easy on my hand would take a lot of shipping bows back and forth across the country!  But the woman who had sold me the cello and matched the initial bow, had a pretty good sense of what type of bow would  best compliment the sound and character of the instrument.

Several days later, bows arrived carefully packed in a sturdy tube (it kinda freaks me out that we ship these thousands and thousands of dollars of music stuffs across the country in cardboard and carrying cases! LOL)  I pulled out all the bows and started working with them one by one.  Right away one stood out miles ahead of the others!  Is without a doubt the best bow I have played with – whether mine, a store’s, my teacher’s, other cello friends – I mean, what fantastic luck!  I have to use hardly any strength or pressure with this bow to get complex, smooth, powerful sound.  In fact the more relaxed my hand and arm are, the better the sound becomes (which is as it should be, but I’m talking really relaxed lol).  It is the first to bow I have used where the adage ‘you don’t need pressure, you only need technique!’ is actually true. I can use minimal leverage through each joint, put almost no stress on my wrist, and if my technique is pure the sound is glorious.

Even so, I still had to build up hand and wrist strength. I mean, it’s not like anything else I do is similar!!  Washing dishes?  No.  Folding laundry?  No.  Throwing a ball for the dog?  No.  Making the bed, stretching fitted sheets?  Surprisingly that’s a wrist-cruncher!  But no.  For a normal, undamaged hand starting on a bowed instrument might create mild soreness…but my hand is all kinds of not normal 😀  So I have carrreufullly built up my strength over many weeks, and tonight I was able to play for nearly an hour – woooo!  Now, it was a bit much and my right hand is a bit sore, but I was getting beautiful sound, plus without having to focus on thinking about it so much (yay, getting back on the bike isn’t so hard!).  It is a wonderful feeling to have all I remember, all that old muscle memory, and all the new things I am learning come together, making the cello feel familiar and easy in my hands much sooner then I would have imagined.  …of course this does mean I’m more likely to play for too long 😀

If you’re going about this carefully, you pretty much spend several months pulling open strings.  No left hand fingering, no melody, just bow and strings – focus on posture, shoulder, elbow, wrist, finger angles, speed, pressure and how sound responds to each of these things.  It is surprisingly complicated!  And of course the more you focus, the more likely you are to use tighten up!  This is not something to rush. This is something to spend weeks and weeks doing, so that good bow technique enters muscle memory and when you add left hand your technique doesn’t fall apart 🙂  So I spend every practice focusing on the sequence of movements to pull the bow on the bottom half, the sequence of movements to pull the bow on the upper half, the angle of the bow to the strings, the pressure and speed of attack at the bottom of the bow, then the changes as you pull out toward the tip.  It sounds boring, yes?  Sounds like it shouldn’t be fun or satisfying or fulfilling or beautiful…but that is the magic of the cello – even these fundamental exercises are musical and beautiful and soaring.  This is why I started, and this is what drew me back.

After playing the cello, I am so soothed and centered and joyful and calm that it is easy and beautiful to do other things that have been feeling overwhelming, like exercise, or editing audio, or cleaning the living room.  It’s as if joy gives back some spoons, giving someone with chronic illness just a bit more energy and focus 🙂

How often it is, that something that looks like indulgence: art of every kind; drawing; writing; audio book creation; podcast recording; video making; youtube-ing; and, yes learning a musical instrument….how often do you hear about the uselessness of art?  It takes up valuable time that could be used for Something Productive! We have fantastic misconceptions of how human beings become themselves, and what that means for human happiness (and hey – productivity, if ya wanna be mercenary about it pfff). 

Art is not frivolous, art is not self indulgent, art is not an unnecessary decorative luxury. Art is foundational, fundamental to what makes us human. 

The drive to create is central to everything humanity has ever accomplished.  Never doubt it.

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