“ARE YOU PLAYING THE RIGHT INSTRUMENT?”
I’ve long since forgiven Mrs. O’Brien.
As the sixth grade orchestra teacher, it was her job to recruit a full complement of string instrument players for the Cedar Manor Elementary School Orchestra.
And a fine job she was doing too, with the exception of cello. Try as she might, each one-on-one conference with the 12-year-old students in our class left her with yet another violinist. A few had chosen viola. Two of the cooler kids had picked bass. By the time she got to me, she was desperately twisting arms for cello.
I went down like a music stand pushed into an orchestra pit.
Never mind that the instrument was taller than I was. Never mind that I was a “walker” and would have to carry the thing nine blocks home and back every weekend. The only thing that mattered was I hadn’t yet decided which instrument I wanted to play and Mrs. O’Brien was going to help me make the choice.
Cedar Manor got their cellist.
Six years later, after hating the instrument for all but the first five minutes, I finally hung up my last rosined bow.
Had I given the matter any thought, I would’ve chosen guitar or banjo or even harmonica. Something that was more portable, with a wider range of entertainment possibilities. Something I would use my entire life. But with the passage of each year, it was harder and harder to quit that cello. All that time invested! You don’t want to waste all that time you’ve already spent do you?
Looking back on it now, Mrs. O’Brien looks pretty darn self-centered pushing a four foot kid into a five foot instrument. She had me by authority, by age, by experience, and by size.
But even so, knowing what I wanted would’ve been the only defense I’d have needed to prevent accepting what I didn’t want. Knowing nothing, I took anything. And hung on.
She may have severely miscast me in my string assignment. And she certainly failed in her efforts to make me an accomplished cellist. But she did succeed famously in an area she’d never intended.
Six years of dragging that cello around helped crystallize knowledge that was useful for the rest of my life: If we’re not clearly focused on our own goals, we’re easy prey for others eager to recruit us for theirs.
Years later, it’s easy to recognize Mrs. O’Briens everywhere. They’re in employers. In friends. In family. They may mean well when they push us to do this and that, but anyone who pushes isn’t really interested in what we want. They’re using us to get what they want.
And when we find ourselves face to face with them, we have but one defense – (short of hitting them with a cello) and that’s having a clear vision of what WE want. Once we’ve tuned our ear to that melody, the Mrs. O’Briens lose their power over us.
25 years later, it turns out that Mrs. O’Brien did succeed with her music lessons. Not through offering an instrument – but by becoming one. She became the instrument through which I would learn one of life’s greatest truths: The only music worth playing is the music that plays in our hearts.
Everything else is just a cello.
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Robin Leonard Trower is an English rock guitarist and vocalist who achieved success with Procol Harum during the 1960s, and then again as the bandleader of his own power trio. Trower was born in Catford, London but grew up in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. Playing the “Right Instrument”!