They Call Me Yo-Yo Ma

Most people don’t know this about me, but I used to play the piano. More surprisingly, I also played the cello. All they know is that I played football, basketball and baseball. The truth is, I had two brief, anonymous musical careers. Sadly, like Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, I flamed out early both times. Only difference is that I’m still here to tell you about it.

A recent photo of my grandson playing the violin triggered some memories. My mom was a piano teacher. She loved classical music and was a gifted pianist herself. When your mom is a piano teacher, you automatically get enrolled in lessons. And, hey. No charge! At the age of five, I was conscripted into my mom’s growing army of students, against my will I might add. Apparently, she recognized some talent in her recalcitrant son. I had a good ear for rhythm. I could read music. My posture on the bench was ramrod straight. My fingering technique was impeccable. I was a natural. By the time I was seven years old, I could play easy four-part hymns from the Lutheran Hymnary, the ones without a lot of flats and sharps. I think my mom thought I might be the next Victor Borge. (Look him up on YouTube.)


There was only one problem. I hated practicing. Each of my siblings and I had to practice 30 minutes a day. During the summer months when all the kids in the neighborhood were outside playing, those 30 minutes of practice after supper were a special form of torture.


Being the strong-willed child that God created, I finally had enough. One night, at the ripe old age of nine, I quit. “Mom,” I said, “I’m not going to take piano lessons anymore.” At the time, I don’t think she thought that a nine-year-old could make that decision, but I was serious.


With tears in her eyes she said, “Oh, Daniel. You’re going to regret this someday.”


Oddly enough, I never did. I was finally free to play outside with my friends and pursue the activities that really interested me: football, basketball and baseball. I was the only of her children that rebelled. Thank goodness my siblings continued under her tutelage, which made her happy. Three of them became outstanding musicians.


The summer before my freshman year in high school, my mom’s mom passed away. When her small estate was settled, mom inherited three beautiful musical instruments – two violins and a cello. She had them restored and tuned and then announced to me and my sister that we were going to learn how to play stringed instruments. Given my abdication of the piano bench five years earlier, you might be surprised to hear that I was intrigued. I looked at my mom and said, “I’ll do this on one condition. You can’t tell any of my friends!”


My sister gravitated toward the violin and I got the cello. We both started taking lessons from a woman that lived 20 minutes from our house. We went once a week for an hour and I promised to practice three times a week for 30 minutes each.


In all honesty, I enjoyed learning how to play. It was a fun challenge. I was no Yo-Yo Ma, but I was competent. I practiced alone up in my bedroom three nights a week, and my repertoire grew. The first song I learned to play was Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star was. Before long, I had graduated to some well-known classics like Happy Birthday and Amazing Grace. While I practiced in my bedroom, my sister practiced downstairs. As far as I know, nobody in our family suffered any hearing loss listening to all the squeaks and groans that we produced.


Most importantly, I had been able to keep this a secret from my buddies at school. I could only imagine the ridicule I would face if they found out that the starting running back and middle linebacker on the football team was also a cellist.


Six weeks into my freshman year of high school, I was sitting in class minding my own business. The class was American Literature and was taught by Pastor Roger Fleming. He was a good teacher, and on this particular day he mixed some homespun advice into his lecture notes. During this class, which included all 109 members of our freshman class, Pastor Fleming encouraged us to take chances and try new things.


“Take, for example, Dan Madson,” he said. “Dan Madson has been learning how to play the cello. What a great challenge and what a great new experience!”


I looked up from my notebook, eyes wide with surprise, mouth open. I could feel my face turning beet red, and my body temperature rose to 102°. I was mortified. I could feel the stares from my buddies that were sitting all around me. I think they were as surprised as I was to hear this interesting nugget of information. The entire freshman class had just been informed that I was learning how to play the cello.


Predictably, a couple of my buddies started ribbing me after class. One started laughing out loud. Why I let this bother me, I’ll never know, but that night I went home and told my mom I was quitting the cello. For the second time, I broke her heart. I was resolute, however, and I never played another note.


Turns out my sister had shared this information with my teacher, a gaffe that took me a long time to forgive.


After six decades of living, I’m ready to admit that my mom was right. I do regret that I didn’t pursue my musical talents. I would love to be able to sit down and play the piano or the cello. I just don’t want to practice!



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