Several years ago, I was hired to play in an orchestra for a Christmas program at a local mega-church. The evening's entertainment was a retelling of the nativity, featuring new music by a composer who was known for writing feel-good, up-tempo, contemporary gospel music. Unfortunately, for this occasion, the composer eschewed his customary peppy tunes in favor of two-dozen mournful songs, each of which seemed more agonizingly slow than the last. The show turned out to be a three-and-a-half hour horror that, due to a nasty snowstorm and a long-winded introduction by the church's pastor, started two hours late.
Being a cellist is a great job, and I am keenly aware of how fortunate I am to be able to work in a career that brings me so much joy. But, like any job, there are moments, even days and weeks of frustration. That torturous Christmas gig was good for one thing, though. It provided me with a phrase that I still use, a decade later, to express my relief upon reaching the end of a bumpy stretch in my life, musical or non-musical.
By the time Mary and Joseph hit Bethlehem, it was well past midnight and half of the audience had left to shovel out their cars and slog back to their homes. But those early escapees missed the one line of the show that brought the remaining audience to its feet. Just before singing a 10-minute-long lament begging the innkeeper for a room, Mary wearily shuffled to the center of the stage. To explosive applause and laughter, the Blessed Virgin rubbed her backside and shouted, "Lord, I sure am glad to get off of that donkey!"
When I finally dragged my own sore rear end home in the early hours of that next morning, I knew that I'd been equipped with the perfect sentence to give voice to my feelings.
That line was just the thing to describe how I felt the next summer as I stripped off my wool tuxedo after escaping an outdoor wedding gig in 90-degree heat. At a later time, I thought about how good it felt to be off of the donkey as I walked away from an arduous rehearsal during which a notoriously difficult conductor had publicly berated a colleague to the point of tears.
Through a combination of very fortunate circumstances, I recently became the author of an international bestselling novel. Playing the cello became my second job. Suddenly I was able to say goodbye to the exhausting and mind-numbing gigs that had made me wonder why I'd plunged myself into debt to go to music school. I thought, "Lord, I sure am glad to get off of that donkey!"
But now, after a book tour that lasted nearly two years, I see things a bit differently. It has been two years since I last made music with gifted friends I worked with for decades. I've had many months of missing the mental sharpness and complete focus that only come to me when I'm playing a difficult piece that requires my full concentration. And I've gone a couple of years without feeling the electricity that crackles in the air between colleagues during a show, making me forget about the hours of stress that preceded it.
So this fall I'm going to be a cellist again. While writing a follow-up to the novel that took me away from music, I'm going to play a gloomy contemporary opera, perform some challenging warhorses of the orchestral repertoire, and learn a rather tricky ballet that will require many hours of slow practice with my metronome. That's the first month.
After two years of inconsistent practicing, my hands and lower back are already complaining about the workout. The same periodically difficult circumstances and the same occasionally temperamental people will be there when I return. But I get to play music with my friends again, and I get to write. I even get to write about playing again. All I can think of is how lucky I am … and that I just can't wait to climb back onto that donkey.
Edward Kelsey Moore lives and writes in Chicago, where he also enjoys a career as a professional cellist. Edward's short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has been performed on National Public Radio. A New York Times bestseller, The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat, is Edward Kelsey Moore's first novel.