You’ll remember from last week’s thrilling blog post about my first two cellos, we left off with me beginning my sophomore year of high school, having spent most of my freshman year forgetting everything I’d learned in middle school and having yet to take a private cello lesson…

My sophomore year of high school – the pivot point.  I still can’t remember exactly how or why I began taking private cello lessons with Sally Ross this year.  Perhaps I showed some natural ability on the instrument, perhaps my love of music had grown to the point that I needed an outlet…it isn’t clear.  One memory I have from this year is sitting in the principal’s office at the beginning of the year (perhaps I was there because I’d done the prior year internationally?  Who knows).  Smiling at the size of me, he asked, “So which position do you want to play on our football team?”  Smiling back, I said, “cello”.

Because it comes to play a big part in these stories, it’s worth noting that this is the year I also met Kurt Widenhouse.  Upon its return from being overseas, Kurt is who put my “Popper” cello back together and in good adjustment.

All I remember clearly is taking weekly lessons with Sally and, at some point, realizing I needed a better cello.  I was fortunate in three ways – I had Sally’s guidance, my family had financial resources, and I had access to a good shop just 2 1/2 hours away.  While I had at least one cello shipped to me on trial, I ended up focusing my search at John Montgomery Violins in Raleigh, NC.  Given my budget and goals, I ended up with a cello by Lawrence LaMay of Lexington, KY, made in 1976 (if memory serves).  A bow by B.A. Poulsen and a Jaeger clamshell case rounded out the outfit that would take me through the next few years.  My “gearhead” tendencies were already showing – I asked for a different set of pegs to be installed along with a Stalhammer endpin.  Every few months I would take the cello back to John for a “clean and touchup” as I always put it.  It would be fascinating to know what he thought of the geeky, innocently intense kid that kept coming to his shop.  Being on the other side of things now, I figure he was content that we spent money there and that I wasn’t unreasonably demanding. This cello and bow combo was a huge step up from what I had before and allowed me to explore an entire world of tone that wasn’t available before.  Years of listening to cello recordings paid off as I attempted to recreate the sounds I heard from the great cellists.  Sally’s instruction, this cello/bow combo, and whatever work I accomplished secured me a place at the Governor’s School of North Carolina the following summer, another major pivot point.  Before that summer program, cello was something I did.  After that summer, the idea took hold that I wanted to become a professional cellist.  I used the LaMay/Poulsen combo my entire junior year of high school as I prepared to attend the Interlochen Arts Camp the following summer.

It served me all summer at Interlochen, but I was already becoming fascinated by modern makers and the instruments they created.  I had been taking “The Strad” magazine at home for the past several years.  When the Emerson String Quartet visited Interlochen, I knew the cellist David Finkel had a cello by Brooklyn maker Sam Zygmuntowicz.  I made my way backstage after the concert and unabashedly asked if I could play his cello.  This led to a series of phone calls with Sam that almost led to a commission.  Whatever that commission might have accomplished, it would have been a FANTASTIC financial move.  Sam was charging $30,000 for a cello at that point – a princely sum at the time.  However, all one needs to do is look at Sam’s recent auction sales to realize that would have been money well spent.

While the commission with Sam didn’t work out, it set the stage for what was to come next.