Coming Home to the Music

Something is brewing inside.  I need to pull the bow across the strings of the cello.  I need to feel the notes vibrating.  I need to sit on a bench in Park Sluizeken and send my melodies to the Oudburg, a few metres away.

I received an e-mail yesterday from Arpeggio Music:

“Dear Bruce,

We have already a rental cello available for you. You can collect the instrument in our shop.”

So there we have it. I begin. I walked over to Arpeggio today and there was my instrument. I bought a stand to store the cello, a little light to hang on the music stand, and a wooden plate with a hole for the cello’s spike.

The cello was embraced by a fabric case. Sixty years ago such a case had a handle that allowed me to carry the cello on my hip. Today that handle was missing.

Instead there were straps for me to carry it like a backpack. I felt centered, balanced, with future melodies touching me from behind.

As I strolled home from Arpeggio, I felt young. Young enough for a cool fantasy trip. I imagined that all and sundry were looking my way, seeing a man with white hair. He was clearly a professional cellist, wise in the way of symphonies, probably walking to his concert. He was easy in the fingerings, at home in the riffs of notes and the soaring melodies.

Or … he was some Canadian guy who hadn’t played for a very long time, a fellow who has much to learn. The first story was more fun.

I picked my route home, allowing to pass by the marvelous jewelry shop called Garderobe, hosted by my friend Lucrece. She smiled to see the cello attached to my back. Lucrece cheered me on as I winged across the Atlantic from Canada to Belgium.

And now to home …

My cello and me. Perhaps I’ll name her. Tomorrow I will play her.

Cello Again

Now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?


Back in Ghent, I walked into Arpeggio Music. I talked to Harm, the store’s resident cellist. I told my story. He smiled. After a few minutes, he ushered me to a chair and placed a cello between my knees. So familiar. There followed coaching about proper position of the instrument so that the fingers of my left hand could easily press the strings.

I began, sweeping the bow across the strings, then placing my fingers in what they remembered was first position. The tone of notes was revealed, more or less in tune. Now adding the vibrato, the moving of a finger on a string to create a depth of sound, a pulsing of the note that is so sweet.

My eyes widened. There was a 16-year-old in that chair, sitting on the stage of Lawrence Park Collegiate with everyone else during an after-school rehearsal. I knew immediately that this was the right place for me in 2023. I will rent a cello from Arpeggio as soon as one is available, mostly likely within a month. Harm pointed out the front window to a building up the street, known as Kunstacademie De Poel, or in English the Academy of Music, Drama and Dance. “Your future could be there.” Their program starts again in September, and includes cello lessons plus classes in music theory and history.

Harm mentioned that there is an amateur string orchestra in Ghent called Da Capo. Someday, if I practice diligently, I may be able to play with them. They have a concert in nearby Merelbeke on March 11. I’m going … to hear the music and hopefully talk to orchestra members.

I walked into De Poel and talked to a fellow who co-ordinates the rental of instruments there. He said to come back at the end of May if I’m interested and register for the 2023-2024 academic session. I’m interested.

So what will become of my cellist life? Stay tuned.

How Much Is That Cello in the Window?

When I was twelve, a teacher asked me if I’d like to learn a musical instrument. The school was starting an orchestra. I said yes.

So began six years of playing the cello. Rides after school on Fridays to lessons with Mr. Sturm, who played cello in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. High school concerts featuring symphonies, such as those written by Antonin Dvorak and Ludwig van Beethoven. Playing in the All-City Orchestra for the opening of Toronto’s New City Hall in 1967. And especially feeling a part of the high school orchestra family – strings, winds, brass and percussion.

My self-esteem, mired in the depths of wild acne, was saved by the music. Alas though, when high school graduation loomed and I thought about joining the University of Toronto Orchestra … I said no. “I’m not good enough.” And so the music died.

When I was about 35, someone who knew my history sat me in front of a cello. My heart wasn’t in it, and after ten minutes I stopped. Other than that moment, there was no cello playing or even reminiscing about the orchestra times for 56 years.

Then four months ago weird thoughts began intruding into my normal life. “I’d like to play again.” (Huh! Where’d that come from?) I found myself looking on YouTube for Yo Yo Ma’s playing of a cello classic – The Swan. I was back and forth between Canada and Belgium in the middle of visa challenges but the inklings towards playing still found their way into my soul.

Four weeks ago, the Belgian Government approved my visa! I had to return to Canada for twelve days as the Consulate in Montreal affixed the visa to my passport. I asked myself what I wanted to do with the time. One answer that bubbled up was seeing a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert. Lo and behold, the only available one had a soloist – a cellist. I leaned over the balcony and felt into the sweet playing of a young man from the UK. Enthralling.

Back in Ghent, I walked into Arpeggio Music. I talked to …


Time Out


My friend Sarah is visiting from the UK. I got partway through my cello post when hunger drove us to Uncle Babe’s – a hamburger place. We hadn’t eaten for many hours. My hamburger was huge, adorned with mushrooms, and delicious. I made a mistake which has become all too familiar. My ravenous mouth took big bites. Something felt wedged in my throat. I reached for my glass of water and drew enough in to clear the problem. Except it didn’t. I vomited up the water and the blockage was still there. I couldn’t breathe. I made some gagging sound, verging on stunned silence. Without my brain attached, I threw myself up from the table and lurched towards the bar. An employee was yelling at me in Flemish. My hands were on the bar and I was leaning way forward. No air. And the thought: “I’m dying.”

I didn’t die. After I don’t know how long, I felt some air go through. I was drooling on the bar. Eventually a few words. The Flemish man said something in English. “I’m glad you’re alive.” What came out of my mouth was “It’s a really good burger.”

What terror. What embarrassment. I apologized to everyone, including two women sitting at the bar, for scaring them. Of course I had nothing to apologize for, other than a severe lack of judgment.

An hour later, here I am, shaken by it all. It was so clear that I was dying … and then I didn’t.


The cello can keep until tomorrow.

The Cello

In my work with the Evolutionary Collective, I use the timer on my phone a lot.  When we’re done a practice, here comes the sweet melody of a cello, soaring in the air.  Samsung says it’s called “Schumann Fantasy”.  It brings me back.

I played cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13.  How I was picked at age 11 for semi-private, after school lessons was beyond me.  Our teacher was Mr. Sturm.  He played cello in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra!  I felt so important.  Each Friday after school, four of us were passengers in Mr. Sturm’s car as we headed downtown to some rehearsal space.  I remember gawking out the back window, making faces at the driver behind.

Over the years, I came to love my instrument (which really wasn’t mine).  I loved the whole idea of “orchestra”, which I discovered in Grade 9 on entering high school.  At Lawrence Park Collegiate, there were about 80 of us string, brass and woodwind players recreating symphonies from Mozart and Dvorak.  I had tried out for the football team, and flopped.  Playing in the orchestra gave me the family feeling I wanted.  I was often in awe as I gazed at all those musicians giving their all during a piece, while I diligently played my part.

In Grade 11, I was selected to be a member of Toronto’s All-City Orchestra, composed of the best players from local high schools.  I still remember our concert on Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto’s shining New City Hall.  I was near the front of the cellos and watched the wavering path of Sir Ernest MacMillan as he walked to the podium.  At age 72, he led us in a rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory”, a stirring melody accompanied by rich harmonies.  He died eight years later.

Summer, 1967.  In the fall, I would be heading to the University of Toronto.  There was the question of whether to audition for U of T’s orchestra.  My response to this possibility still saddens me:

I’m not good enough

Just like that, my cello life ended.

Over the decades, I’ve thought of resurrecting my playing.  The cello has deep, rich tones.  In the hands of a virtuoso, such as Yo Yo Ma, it sings.  Just listen to him play The Swan.  I, Bruce Kerr, could make beautiful music again.  Nowhere near professional, but nearby London has a community orchestra which no doubt will return after Covid is done.

I feel the spark.  I feel my youth.  I feel the camaraderie of the Lawrence Park Orchestra.  Still, I think the answer is “no”.  I am plowing new fields.  I’m hearing the melodies of the human spirit, and playing in that collective.  What was important to that teenaged musician was to express beauty with my fingers and bow.  What’s important to this gently aging fellow is to do the same with my eyes and heart.

Play on …