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Emily Grossman


January 28, 2008 at 9:35 AM

In Anchorage, I prepare for the upcoming January concert. The Beethoven symphony that we will perform (his first, I believe) makes me feel like running through the mountains, but the wind chill is minus fifteen, and I seem to have forgotten my longjohns. Besides, the mountains are too far to reach by foot from my hotel, and I have no car. So instead of taking him literally, I lace up my running shoes and alternate my practice sessions with bouts on the treadmill at the top of the hotel. (With no one familiar to distract me, I’m left to my own whims.)

Beethoven can be tricky, but if you enslave yourself to a metronome and some simple speed drills, his music becomes accessible and allows for the imagination to take over from there. With a chuckle, I discover that it actually helps to envision small scurrying animals when playing the scales in the finale. Before I know it, another hour has passed and it’s time to hit the treadmill.

I’m just warming up when Alisa Weilerstein, the featured cellist for the Dvorak concerto, enters and takes the neighboring treadmill. What an opportunity! Now is my chance to say something. I want to tell her that I stay in the room next to hers. I want to tell her that I look forward to the long measures of rests in the second movement because that’s when I can finally get lost in her playing, which at times has such a voice-like quality that it leaves me breathless. I want to thank her for bringing music to life and speaking to my soul.

But then I’d have to admit to all of those scratching sounds next door.

In each passing moment, the silence steadily builds an impenetrable concrete wall. I bury myself in my book that I bought at the airport terminal, where travelers buy things to help them get lost in something else that makes them feel a little more understood and a little less alone. She picks up a jog. For maybe two miles, she runs. During this time, my thoughts go back to Beethoven, and mountains, and how she will finish her two miles and cool down, and maybe someday I will run across a mountain ridge and never stop.

I wonder, does she ever feel that way too?

We don’t ever speak. We just go back to our rooms to practice.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 28, 2008 at 2:02 PM
Oh, you said it so well. : )

And I'll bet her mind was whirring too, but mostly it was "Oh, I hope this person leaves me to my peace and doesn't strike up a chatty conversation, because I just don't have it in me right now... oh good, she's engrossed into her book and dang, I wish I'd gotten a second book at the airport because I'm almost done with the one I got and then I'll be alone with my thoughts and that's a scary place indeed and oh boy, time to ramp up the angle of this jogging machine more because here come the thoughts right now, and maybe I can outrun them, and boy, this silence in the room is nice and thank goodness this didn't turn into a chat-fest where I might have to explain just why it is I'm there and why I chose to play the cello and not the violin..."

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 28, 2008 at 3:00 PM
In that sort of situation I would always try to talk with someone. You can very quickly tell if the person is open to talking or not. The alternative would have been to introduce yourself at the end and ask if she wanted to have a drink and/or go out for dinner. That would allow her to choose whether she feels social and has time.
From Keith Laurie
Posted on January 28, 2008 at 3:20 PM
I think you should have said "Hi" and introduced yourself. Being on the road, celebrated cellist or not, is a lonely life with few opportunities for any real human contact (other than airline staff, cab drivers, hotel clerks, concert staff, and the like - mostly people just doing their jobs). Spending an hour or so in a hotel exercise room with someone with similar interests and passions would most likely be a welcome break. At the worst, she would have been polite but maybe distant; more likely you'd have ended up meeting her for coffee or lunch later.

Great concert, by the way. It was well worth the long drive from Kasilof. And Alisa's Dvorak was fantastic. I like that it so fully involves the orchestra, yet still allows the cello to soar.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 28, 2008 at 3:36 PM
Something similar has happened to me at scientific meetings and conferences: I'm at the hotel gym (or in the hot tub) and I'll hear someone else talking about NMDA receptors or they're wearing a faded T-shirt with a molecular biology reagent supplier logo on it, and I'll think, oh, another neuroscientist (or, as an old friend once put it, "nerdo-scientist"). I have never regretted it when I have worked up the courage to introduce myself and say something; usually it's just a nice, short chat among colleagues and doesn't lead to anything more, but it can make the gym time more pleasant and makes you feel less alone and far from home in a strange city.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on January 28, 2008 at 6:27 PM
So you were side by side for an hour and neither of you said a word. Good thing neither of you made a sudden move, or you'd have both started screaming.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 28, 2008 at 9:24 PM
Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words. And it is really neat in a odd sort of way you think about it afterwards that so much you didn’t (and probably needn't)say!
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 8:16 AM
What a beautiful story...thank you for sharing. Everyone here has said the right things, and I wonder if situations like these are situations during which one should trust one's instincts, to get a feel for the person to be approached...
From David Russell
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 2:39 PM
I remember reading a story about a student at Princeton who happened upon Albert Einstein standing on a bridge looking at some fish in the water. His mind was full of deeply profound things he wanted to say to Einstein... he imagined the conversation they might have about the nature of all things... So he worked up his courage and walked over and stood next to him. Staring down at the water, he could only manage to say: "Fish!" To which Einstein replied: "Fisch, Ja!" Still, a special moment!


From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 6:20 PM
David, I love your story!
From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 1:18 AM
That is a great story. It's funny, but I think I would actually be content to hold a conversation like that with Einstein.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 1:42 AM
There are lots of things people say to break the ice to strangers. The most common one is "Can you give me a dollar?"
From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 2:06 AM
Or "Got a metronome?"
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 5:43 AM
You could have spun it into a compliment. Instead of worrying about letting her know you were the one scratching next door, say "I'm the one scratching next door." She would say "Oh no, that's lovely. I've been enjoying it." Then you could have blogged "Alicia Wellerstein says my playing is lovely." But noooo.
From Mark von Delft
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 7:25 AM
This is such a beautiful thread. I'm not so sure what to say, apart from admitting that my practising also sounds scratchy to me (I wouldn't want to be accused of just *playing* the easy bits ^_^ ).

So I say nothing for a long while, and just re-read Emily's post, feeling ever lonelier as that impossible gap between the two musicians gets wider and wider. And there's so much I want to say to them both, as I so recognise myself and many others in their impossibly beautiful, impossibly human predicament.

And what if she'd said something? Every moment is a death of all the unchosen choices. Instead of a sad post, there might have been a funny story about an embarrassing moment in the gym at the top of a hotel. (Or the obituary of a distracted concert cellist in a freak treadmill-accident. ^_^ )

If I have to say anything, I think I'll go with a hesitant "Fish."

Thanks Emily

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