I have always loved the rich and luscious sound of the cello. I would go to concerts and wonder what it would feel like to hold a cello and make such glorious music. But, as a young journalist in New York in the late 1970s, I never imagined that I could play one.
One day, while dashing between assignments, I mistakenly knocked on the wrong door in an office building. An elderly man with a shock of white hair opened the door, and there, behind him, was a serene tableau: a dark cello and a wooden chair with the design of a lyre on it.
For a moment, I forgot what I was looking for. I asked, “Do you play the cello?”
“Yes,” he said. “Do you want to become one of my students?”
“Yes,” I responded, almost without thinking.
When I arrived for my first lesson a few days later, I told the teacher, whose name was Heinrich Joachim, that I had answered yes on impulse and I didn’t know if I could learn. “I’m not sure I am a musician,” I said. Mr. J assured me that with practice and devotion to the instrument, I could become one.
I told him that I’d once had a beautiful voice. I sang solos in my synagogue and dreamed of being a cantor. But I lost the voice during puberty. “The cello,” Mr. J promised, “will give you back your voice.”
I bought a cello and began to go for weekly lessons. Much to my surprise, the lessons did not start with music. They began with a cup of tea. “How is my Ari?” Mr. J would ask. He wanted to know about my job, my interests, and my ambitions.
Once we got to the cello, it was not just an encounter with an instrument. “Embrace your cello like you would a beautiful woman,” he told me. I put my arms around the neck and my legs around the body of the instrument. “Now play,” he said. “Don’t just listen to the sound. Feel the sound. Feel the vibrations in your hands, thighs, and chest.”
I made steady progress. Along with cello techniques, Mr. J taught me about scales, timbre, melody, and harmony. I got good enough at the cello to play with an adult trio and later with an amateur orchestra.
“Don’t play for me,” Mr. J would always say. “Play for the people across the street. Project. Project.”
Mr. J was born in Germany in 1910 and, at the age of 11, renounced his toys for the cello. He studied at a music conservatory in Berlin and later joined a government-sponsored chamber orchestra. When members of the orchestra were told that they would have to sign allegiance to Hitler, Mr. J, who was half-Jewish, fled to Guatemala. He eventually made his way to New York, where he married, raised a family, and played with major orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein.
I was a reporter who covered politics, schools, and transportation. During our lessons, I would occasionally bring him my articles, none of which had anything to do with music. He’d critique those too. “More feeling,” he’d demand.
I studied with him for seven years, until I got married and began to raise a family. I stopped the lessons, but we stayed in touch.
When Mr. J died in 2002, I remained close with his children. And when I returned to the cello in middle age, I remembered Mr. J saying, “Embrace it like you would a beautiful woman.”
Mr. J’s eldest son, Andrew, died in 2014. Soon after, I got a call from Andrew’s widow, Sallie, who said she had a special gift for me. A large box arrived a few days later, and inside was Mr. J’s “cello chair,” the wooden one with the lyre on the back.
I sit in Mr. J’s chair often. I know I can never match his musical sound, but I keep the tea on.