Professional cellist and best-selling author Edward Kelsey Moore.
Feb. 03, 2015
With visions of a futon bed dancing in my head, I entered my workplace’s annual employee talent show, in hopes of winning the $200 cash prize. After a contentious debate between the judges, my performance of the Prelude of the C Major Suite was awarded the grand prize, which was just enough money to purchase a bed. The second place competitor, and the favorite of an extremely vocal minority of the judges, was a heavyset, hirsute man who performed a very athletic and surprisingly precise impersonation of Rhythm Nation-era Janet Jackson. (He turned out to be a frighteningly sore loser, but that's a story for another day.)
I was still a year away from making my living entirely as a cellist when I won that rather surreal contest, and it marked a change in the way that I saw playing the cello. Having my earnings as a musician literally keep me from sleeping on the floor marked a significant step toward adulthood. When I gave away that futon a few years later to another broke musician who had just moved to town, I described it to him as “the futon that the C Major Suite paid for.”
The other story involving the C Major Suite is just as pivotal, but it isn’t one that I often tell.
Around the same time that I bought that futon, I was stopped by the police in my hometown, Indianapolis, Indiana one night. The reason for the traffic stop was never made clear to me. The officers directed me to pull over into an alleyway. And after handing over my license and registration, I was immediately accused of having stolen the cello in the back seat.
My assertion that the cello belonged to me was greeted with laughter, and I was given the option of being placed under arrest or proving that the cello was mine by playing it for them. I chose the latter option and played the opening phrases of the C Major Suite for an audience of two policemen in an alley in Indianapolis.
I wasn't arrested. And the two policemen appeared to find the notion that I could actually play the cello nearly as amusing as they'd found my earlier claim that the instrument was mine. At the end of the encounter, I was given a good-natured slap on the back and told to, “Have a good day," as if the three of us had all shared a joke.
Some of my friends who’ve been poor have stories like my story of obtaining my futon, although most of those anecdotes don’t include a big, hairy Janet Jackson impersonator. However, only a few of my colleagues have had experiences like the one I had playing Bach in an Indiana alley. Together, the two stories tell a lot about my experience as a cellist and, in particular, my experience as a black cellist. Playing the cello has provided for me both physically and emotionally. But I'm also someone for whom a wonderful piece of music is permanently connected to one of those moments of casual humiliation that sometimes happen to people who look like me.
Just as it wouldn't do for me to disregard the wonderful things that playing the cello has brought into my life, it also wouldn’t make sense for me to forget playing Bach in that alley. Understanding such things is essential to my survival. After all, that impromptu performance helped provide context for the two later traffic stops during which policemen approached me with drawn guns and no apparent desire to hear cello music.
Like everyone, the extremes of my personal history have handed me challenges and prizes. One of the challenges for me has been to recognize certain realities without becoming bitter, prejudiced, or self-pitying. The grand prize has come through accepting those challenges, but choosing to allow nothing to dilute my enjoyment of Bach’s C Major Suite.