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.

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 …



Well … here I am. After three hours stuck in 401 traffic on the way to Toronto, I’m sitting dead centre in the front row of Koerner Hall, waiting for the appearance of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. The musicians are all enrolled in the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory. They’re on their way to professional careers.

Oops. Here they come, all decked out in black dresses and suits.


And now it’s intermission. The cello soloist plunked himself down about ten feet from me. He proceeded to throw his music into the hall, with a flourish of intense bow strokes, incredibly fast runs, and then the softest of tones misting down on us. I watched his fingernails shine as the notes climbed the fingerboard. His face contracted and released. His eyes rose to the heavens, dropped to his instrument and then closed. Sweat poured on his brow. His body swayed left and right.

We the audience were entranced. We stood at the end.

I remembered a young Bruce, the one who played the cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13. In my better moments, I had the same passion as tonight’s artist, but with far less skill. I loved being in the high school orchestra. It was the only “team” I ever played for, and we loved streaming through some classic symphonies together.

My body also swayed. My eyes also closed. At that age, I didn’t know much about making love, but that’s what I was doing with my cello. We soared.

I let go of being a cellist after high school. I was good enough to continue into university but I didn’t know that. Now it’s 52 years later. A wee bit of me dreams of playing again but really I don’t want to. I’ve passed through other chapters and today is a fresh adventure. Still I was with the young man tonight as he both caressed and attacked the strings. Well done, both of us.

Love in the Front Row

Tonight I get to experience the Royal Conservatory Orchestra from the middle of the front row. I’m jumping inside. What’s possible?

Will there be the joy of creation shared between the players? Will the word “orchestra” explode into a heart-stopping epiphany of union – all these parts blossoming into an unfathomable whole?

I’m feeling a fierceness inside that flies so beyond any worries about how you’ll respond to the language of those two questions. It truly doesn’t matter. I am open to an outrageous evening … part of which is what I’ll bring to the front row seat and the musicians nearby. For we the audience flow out to the violinists, cellists, trumpeters and flutists. They aren’t inert lumps of virtuoso mud. Our energy touches them. So how about ecstasy for all tonight?


I just walked into the foyer of Koerner Hall, seeking a spot where I could take off my walking boots and put on my dress shoes. Ah ha. There’s a bench with lots of people and a space for me! I sit down and smile at the woman to my right. I’m not sure what her face did in reply. After a minute of me fiddling with laces, she says “Are you here for a rush seat?” > “No, I have my ticket.” > “You’re awfully early for the concert.” > “Well, a few music students are doing a pre-concert at 6:45” …

And then it hit me. I’d plunked myself down in a lineup for rush seats. I laughed and laughed. The woman smiled (a really genuine one).


Speaking of the pre-concert, it just ended. My chosen spot is dwarfed by the Steinway grand looming above. I get to be under a piano! A young oriental woman walks onstage and bows. Once she’s settled on the piano chair, all I see is her lower body. Fingers to keys … and the notes vibrate in a way that’s absolutely new. The tender passages seem to waft out from the underside of the instrument and make their way into my pores. My heart is nearby. And when she plays frantically, her right foot smashes onto the pedal, her thighs bounce and her bum elevates at regular intervals. Once in awhile, the pianist arches back and I catch a glimpse of her black hair shining, but never her face. And that was just fine.

Next up is a young violinist wearing a shimmering shirt. Swaths of green and red shone like a Christmas tree. I watched his body flow and erupt, but again there was no face. It was hidden behind his music stand. I felt in the presence of Everyman.

Mr. Unknown was accompanied by a young woman who wore a long black skirt and high heels. Between were her bare feet. As she worked the pedals, I was fascinated by the pulsing bones of her right foot. So, sitting in the Underworld, I beheld sights and sounds unknown to folks occupying the 30th row.


Now another pianist, leading the orchestra through a piece by Tchaikovsky. She wore a gorgeous green dress and took turns caressing and then slapping the keys. During the fast stretches, I saw the muscles of her upper right arm vibrate, and her right earring flew into view. Then there was the end of the movement, with her hand held high, the fingers curling.

Linda Ruan stood, all smiles, receiving our applause. Then she turned to the musicians, and they all joyed together, the orchestra stomping its collective feet. On her way off the stage, she touched the shoulder of the very last violinist.


For the final number before intermission, no piano was needed. So my world widened to include actual faces – some vibrant, some meditative. The principal violist smiled a lot at her stand mate. A first violinist was the tallest blond fellow and he twisted his body every which way in his passion for the melody.

There were moments when the full orchestra swelled and the timpani player sounded the depths of his drum. The energy flooded me, and I felt mine arc back to the players, willing them on to excellence. They gave. We gave. We all received.


Now it’s intermission. I’m happy, ready once more to live inside the music. The time is coming for passion to reappear, and we are all the better for it. Thank you, dear players of instruments large and small; high and low; string, brass and woodwind.

The Musicians of Orchestra London

I went to a concert tonight – 25 musicians playing classical music brilliantly in an old church with a wraparound balcony.  Up until a few months ago, these folks were the core of Orchestra London.  Then city council cut their funding and now the orchestra is virtually bankrupt.  How sad that our city of 350,000 no longer has funded classical music.

These players have a motto: “We Play On.”  And they most certainly do.  When we gave them a prolonged standing ovation at the end of the evening, there were tears in my eyes, and in those of several musicians.  Plus smiles all around.  We lightened their hearts, I do believe.

I sat in the third row, right in the centre, and I saw wondrous things.  The concertmaster (that is the violinist who sits close to the conductor and plays lots of solos) was a ball of passion.  He rocked forward and back.  He closed his eyes.  His notes, full of vibrato, were wondrous to behold.  At times, it looked like he was kissing someone.  At others, he seemed to be making love to his instrument.  The flautist was just as expressive.  Her head would dip and sway as she played her solo line.  And her long silver flute, usually held horizontally, would dip and sway as well.  It was all a dance.

The violinist closest to me had the most expressive eyes.  I was behind her and to the left so I could see her eyelashes move.  She would glance at her music, and then her eyelashes would rise as she looked at the conductor, keeping to the beat of his baton.  It was lovely to see.

I played cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13.  Why, oh why, did I give it up?  Tonight I watched the cello section intently.  When the cellist dips and sways, it’s a big instrument that moves around.

All these heads in motion.  All these eyes closing and opening again.  I couldn’t think of another profession where such expression is normal.  The average teacher doesn’t move like that.  Nor doctors, executives or plumbers.  It must be so cool.

We heard pieces from Mozart (composed when he was 17!), Wagner, Bartok and Haydn – different styles but the passion remained.  At one point, one of the musicians spoke to the audience.  She talked about classical music being “transformational”, beyond words.  Yes.  I was transported tonight to a land of tone and movement.  I’m glad I was there.