The Rehabilitation of a Fallen-Away Cellist

The author beholds a CD cover featuring world-class cellist Zuill Bailey, who plays the cello as if he is square dancing with a nimble, lithe, young partner.



by Jock Lauterer

During my summer fellowship at National Geographic Magazine in 1998, I met the great Zen photographer Sam Abel who taught me his mindful mantra of “Stay, This Moment” — a photographer’s recognition of the ephemeral nature of time and the preciousness of some moments that are so perfect, you want to hang onto and re-live them.

I had one of those golden moments recently at the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival following the spectacular performance by my Baroque music Yoda and world-class cellist Zuill Bailey.  

Eschewing the prim formality of some classical cellists, Zuill plays the cello as if he is square dancing with a nimble, lithe, young partner. Not as well-known as Yo-Yo Ma, but in my mind, every bit a good, Zuill had just wowed the audience with a physical performance that demanded a spontaneous standing ovation.      

Later, during intermission, standing out on the terrace with other concert-goers enjoying a glass of wine, I heard my wife, Lynne, whisper breathlessly, “There he is!”    

I turned, and there, just three feet away, chatting with a music fan, was the great one himself, too close to ignore or avoid. The opportunity was just too great.  In that instant of terror, i knew I had to speak one-on-one to my hero.  

And so it came to pass, that I, standing there with my hiking pole planted resolutely before me, became next to be given an audience — and thus, the beneficiary of his full attention, which felt something like a spiritual fire hose.  

By the grace of the gods of cello, I found my words, the elevator speech — how I loved his style and studied his recordings, how i took up the cello in retirement three years ago, then had to give it up because of lower back issues, but that now, sir, hearing YOU today, you have inspired me to start again, to return to my long-ignored cello.        

To which the master, leaning in, taking my hand, giving me the full bore of his warm tanned face and dark intense eyes, with a voice like a warm bath, said, “Yes! Just start again. go slowly, don’t give up, the cello is such a wonderful instrument, you wrap your legs around it, embrace it, it just feels so good and natural! But don’t rush it. Take it easy. You can do it!”      

Zuill, 50, is a big man, 6’3″ I’d guess, broad-shouldered like a linebacker,  with longish jet black hair that, when he leaned forward toward me for intimacy, fell forward like two shutters giving us privacy.    

How I wish I could remember more his exact quotes — but no matter; I will never forget the totality of the circumstance — the kindness, respect, acceptance, validation and sincere delight coupled with encouragement of one who has been there. Indelible in the memory of this old cello hacker’s life is the aura of connection with my sensei.      

I’m sure this little encounter lasted no more than several minutes, there on the veranda outside the concert hall surrounded by chatting happy concert goers — who all seemed to vanish — as if beamed up and away, leaving only me and Zuill, face to face, heart to heart, cellist to cellist, master and student, old friends now.      

Floating a couple of feet off the ground as I left Zuill, I made a silent vow to myself: to return to the music festival next summer and find Zuill to tell him: “Thank you, sir, I did it.”   

Stay, this moment.

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