Strange music

By Mir
September 27, 2005

It’s time for a little-known factoid about Mir. Why? Don’t ask why. Hush up. Here, have a cookie. (They are store-brand mint-creme-filled not-Oreos. Gross, but delicious!)

I used to play the cello. I use the term “play” loosely. I loved the cello. I still love the cello; any time Yo-Yo Ma wants to come put on a private concert for me, I’d totally be down for that. Even if he wouldn’t let me lick him. But if he DID let me lick him, that’d be even better. What was I talking about…?

Oh, right. So. I took up the cello when I was 11. Within the first week of my lessons, I set my loaner cello back into the cabinet improperly and it fell out. The bridge shattered. I had to pay for it. Amazingly enough, the music teacher let me continue with lessons.

So, I don’t know. Maybe I started lessons too late. I definitely didn’t practice enough. You know, when you’re playing cello in an orchestra–as opposed to a smaller group, or a solo–the parts tend to be… uhhh… boring. I mean, yes, sure, the cello adds a richness and depth of tone and all that. Totally necessary! But in terms of sitting in your room at home to practice? Not exactly interesting or pleasing, when half the time your part consists of plucking the same note over and over every few bars.

Plus, who wants to lug a cello back and forth on the school bus? I’d already broken one, you know.

Nonetheless, I kept at it. In our little middle school orchestra, we had, I dunno, probably eight cellists. I started as very last chair, in sixth grade. By the time I reached eighth grade, I’d made it all the way up to… next-to-last chair. Woo! I don’t mean to brag, but I’d gotten really good at rosining my bow, by then.

But my position in the orchestra was not important. What was important was that in my last year of middle school–while trying not to be bothered by the fact that I’d only advanced one row in three years–the director arranged a big orchestra exchange trip. To CANADA! I’d never been out of the country! And we were going all the way to OTTAWA! Without parents! And we got to spend an entire weekend, and all we had to do was show up and play a few pieces somewhere. And then later, some Canadian kids would come play for us, I guess. Funny, I don’t remember when they came to us.

The day came, and we all piled into a big charter bus and did Mad Libs and ate chips and listened to cassette tapes of Culture Club on our walkmans and rode for six or seven weeks and then arrived in Canada. We were ushered into a gym (a Canadian gym!) at a school where mayhem promptly commenced. There were people with clipboards and lists and we kids were told to JUST STAND OVER THERE while they all sorted out who was going where and with whom.

One by one, all members of the American orchestra were paired off with Canadian host families and taken home for dinner. All except me, and one other girl. Our host family had apparently backed out at the last minute; something about their daughter (a flautist, I believe… I remember thinking that extra, pretentious A was probably the culprit) having come down with the flu. There was shuffling and whispering and eventually the two of us were brought to an older woman with a thick French accent. “You come with me,” she said. We went with her. I don’t think she ever told us her name.

She lived in a tiny apartment, alone. Next to her bedroom was a second, smaller bedroom that smelled as if the the linens had been washed and set on the beds twenty years ago, the door closed, and now our intrusion was the first fresh air the room had seen since. She opened the bedroom door and gestured for us to enter, then disappeared into the kitchen. The other girl and I looked at each other and then at the bunk beds with cowboy sheets. There were matching cowboy curtains, too. Hundreds of tiny cowboys held on to hundreds of bucking broncos for dear life, with one hand, while triumphantly waving their hundreds of cowboy hats in the air with the other hand. “Yee-ha,” I whispered to the other girl. We giggled nervously. She chose the bottom bunk, and I took the top.

When we’d spent as much time standing there and fiddling with our suitcases as it seemed like we could get away with, we went back out in to the kitchen. Two bowls of nondescript stew had been set out for us. The woman had disappeared. We ate quickly, almost furtively, then washed our dishes and retreated to the bedroom. We discussed whether either of us knew when to get up or where we were supposed to go. Finally we went to sleep.

Our “host mother” called to us in the morning, and set out several boxes of cereal and a pitcher of milk on the table. The milk was in a bag, the bag inside a pitcher. Those crazy Canadians! The bag of milk, it was the pinnacle of hilarity to us. We snickered through breakfast. The amazing disappearing host lady reappeared to announce, “We go,” and drove us back to the school. She dropped us off and we rejoined our group for the day. We went sightseeing, then played that evening as part of a concert right there in the gym of Ye Olde Generic Canadian School.

Once again, our host reappeared to take us back to her apartment. She disappeared as soon as we got back.

That night we lay in the dark on the narrow bunkbeds and whispered hypotheses back and forth. She was a teacher at the school, with children grown and gone. She was a strange, music-loving widow, whose two sons and husband were all killed in a tragic car wreck. She wasn’t connected to the school in any way, nor had she ever had children, but she’d shown up at the gym and they had nowhere else to put us, and after we fell asleep she’d butcher us for the next batch of stew!

The next morning, we had more cereal and bagged milk (ha!), and sat in silence for the drive back to the school for drop-off. As she pulled up to the front doors, the other girl poked me with her elbow. I cleared my throat. “Um, thank you, for uh, having us.”

“Yeah, thank you,” my cohort echoed.

The woman turned slowly around in her seat and surveyed us both through narrowed eyes. She nodded. “You… good girls,” she said. We grabbed our bags and fairly leapt from the car, joining our classmates as they lined up for the bus.

Then we were headed home. As the music director walked up and down the bus aisle–telling kids to settle down, taking a head count–he congratulated us all on a job well-done. “You’ll remember this trip your whole lives,” he said. “This is an incredible opportunity that we were very lucky to have had. I hope you realize that. Don’t forget to write a thank-you to your host family when we get back.”

My weekend roommate and I locked glances across the aisle. We didn’t even know her name. Neither of us had thought to get her address.

For weeks afterwards, I dreamt of herds of little cartoon cowboys, galloping in circles to a neverending soundtrack of the William Tell Overture.

[I played cello for one more year, then gave it up in high school when it became clear that 1) I wasn’t getting any better, 2) the director would’ve placed my chair OUT IN THE HALLWAY if at all possible, and 3) I was more interested in boys than proper bowing technique.]


  1. buffi

    I played the violin thru the eighth grade, but we never got to go anywhere. In high school I stuck with choir. We got to go on lots of trips. PLUS! No instrument to carry home!

  2. JuJuBee

    Now I wish I knew her name! I’m sure it still bugs you that you don’t…I love the sound of the cello and wish I had learned to play something feminine…I played drums.

  3. Aimee

    I was a flutist, not a flautist. It’s funny — I have a memory of two nights spent with a host family, too. I think it was for District, the one year that I actually made it. I was with another girl from my high school, a singer, and we stayed with an older couple who were just! so! happy! to have us there. I don’t remember their names, though.

  4. ben

    Yo Yo Ma!

    I know next to nothing about cello, but I love this cat’s name.

    Yo Yo Ma!

  5. confused canadian

    Your milk doesn’t come in bags too? Ours comes in litre jugs or cartons, but if you want more then 2L at a time they come in bags.

    You crazy Americans :)

  6. Em

    Wait. You want to LICK Yo Yo Ma? I wonder if its the same guy I’m picturing. I DO NOT want to lick Yo Yo Ma so you can count me out of the any competition you may have for this licking …um…endeavor.

  7. chanster

    I played the cello through high school. The best part was lugging it on the city bus to get to rehearsals across town. It was so big I had to sit in the front of the bus with all the crazy people – woo! Then there was the trip to some festival in Oregon where one of the bassists was smoking pot in the bus bathroom then threw his paraphenalia out the window where it flew through the air in plain view of everyone. Very sly.

  8. Big-Bad-Ex

    Best Arthur episode ever: Yo Yo Ma and Joshua Redman jamming together.

    big bad

  9. Bob

    I started playing trumpet in the 6th grade. I was okay at it – no Herb Alpert, but okay. I stuck with it and branched into other brass instruments as I got older and involved in more groups (tuba one year for concert band, flugelhorn in jazz band, french horn for symphonic band and later in college brass choir & orchestra). But my most memorable experience was marching in a Mardi Gras parade when I was a junior. We too traveled for weeks to New Orleans, but instead of parents to stay with, we camped out in an aircraft hanger on a national guard base – slept on concrete! As an added bonus, the showers had no hot water – IN FEBRUARY! In spite of that we had a great time marching in the Krewe of Thoth parade. Lots of beads were thrown at us and the best part was that when we would stop, someone in the crowd would invariably pass us drinks. Needless to say, we stopped as much as we could get away with.

  10. Snow

    I love cello, too, although I’m more of a pianist. Did I ever tell you I majored in music at UCLA? Yeah, I use that degree a whole lot in the paperwork mines. :-/

  11. madness

    Shoot, I’d lick that YoYo.

    I heard an interview with James Galway once and they asked, “Are you a flutist or a flautist?” He said in the deep irish accent, “I’m a floooot playa.”

    P.S. I cry every time I hear the cello. Can’t help it; waterworks every time.

  12. Amy-GO

    I found this disturbing. Who WAS this woman? Why did no one explain that to you? Where did she keep disappearing to? Why did she have a room decorated with cowboys? What was in that stew? For the love of pete, WHY WAS THE MILK IN A BAG? I may not be able to sleep tonight worrying about these things.
    I know. I need to get a life.

  13. Lulu

    Milk in a bag — as nature intended it. Where does milk originally come from? No, not just the grocery store. Yes. From a cow’s/goat’s/sheep’s baggy udder *beats the puns back with a stick*.

    And we have bagged milk in the States too. Those milk dispensers in cafeterias & restaurants? Look inside. Milk in a bag.

  14. The Other Dawn

    Okay. I’m coming out. I confess. I AM CANADIAN. I suspect your host didn’t talk to you much because her English was bad. Or she could just have been crazy. At least you didn’t end up in the stew.

    Bagged milk. Who can explain it? More environmentally friendly? But we have cartons and plastic jugs, too. We’re an equal opportunity packaging country.

    I played glockenspiel in the middle school band. Until Christmas. When another school borrowed my glockenspeil for a concert and NEVER GAVE IT BACK. So the main lesson I learned from middle school band was – never, EVER loan anything to anyone anytime.

    But I do love cello. I can understand how boring it can be in an orchestral setting though, as I sing alto in a choir and sometimes it’s kind of the same deal. The sopranos get all the cool melody stuff (and the glass-breaking notes) and we sing the equivalent of the cello part.

  15. Heather

    I’ve always wanted to play the cello…do you think 21 is too late to start? ;) Though I’m already musically inclined; I play piano, guitar and about as much clarinet as you play cello. Think it’d work? Knowing me I’d accidentally break it on the firs day.

  16. carolyn

    I kinda have a thing for Yo too.

  17. Rosie Bonner

    not-Oreos with green mint filling! those are my daughter’s favorite! we get ours at Shaw’s. yes, yes, yes, gross and delicious.

  18. Shari

    I’m Canadian. I haven’t seen milk in a bag since, well… since I lived in Ontario, which is where Ottawa is. LOL It’s funny, because when I was living in Calgary I visited a friend in Michigan for several weeks and they had… milk in a bag. Which I’d never liked, and found hilarious that I’d come all that way and there it was. Maybe it’s a “back east” thing.

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