One of S. Shade Zajac’s favorite cellists starts every morning by playing a selection from Johann Sebastian Bach’s "Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello." This morning routine is basically a form of prayer for the cellist, and one that Shade, a fellow cellist, can identify with.
"I don’t play every morning. I’m not a morning person, but as far as Bach goes, I do think I’m playing to God," he said.
Sixteen-year-old Shade also plays to the parishioners of Holy Cross Parish in Ovid each Christmas, and on other holidays as well. He grew up in Holy Cross, where his grandmother, Ronnie Fairclough, works in the parish office and where he’s been playing the cello during liturgies since he was in third grade. Parishioners, for their part, appreciate his efforts so much that they recently nominated him for a diocesan award for pastoral musicians.
Shade, who grew up in a family full of musicians and music teachers, was in kindergarten when he started taking cello lessons at Ithaca Talent Education School, and he still takes lessons there. Along the way he also learned to play percussion and in seventh grade began composing his own music. But the cello has always been his first musical love, he said, largely because of Bach’s cello suites.
"They are just kind of like the cellist’s Bible, so to speak. It’s kind of that feeling that it’s a never-ending journey for a cellist. It’s always evolving," Shade said.
The suites feel and sound just a little bit different each time he plays them, he added.
"For myself as a musician, it’s kind of like finding myself when I play Bach, and it’s kind of a lifelong journey," he said.
It’s that passion that drives Shade to try to spend time with music every single day, either by practicing or playing around on the cello or the drums, or composing music. This is a passion that his peers sometimes find difficult to understand, especially if they’re not driven by a similar passion for something in their own lives.
"I think it’s kind of hard to understand why I want to go home and practice for an hour and a half instead of going somewhere else," Shade said. "With the people I’m not really close with, they don’t really get it. Why would you want to go and sit in a room by yourself and play for hours?"
Most of Shade’s friends can understand his passion, at least to a certain degree. Teens who don’t know him as well, however, sometimes don’t realize there are other facets to Shade’s personality, he said.
"I like going to football games and basketball games and playing in a rock band," he noted.
The rock band, called The Third Half, formed when Shade was in seventh grade. The band’s first performance was at a school talent show, where they won first place for performing Green Day’s "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Shade is the band’s drummer, and said the group has already put together a demo and hopes to record an album soon.
As much as he enjoys playing Bach and the music of other composers, writing his own music has opened up a whole new way for Shade to express himself. When a musician plays the work of another composer, he or she is trying to express what the composer was trying to communicate through the song, but it’s a whole different story when Shade plays compositions that he wrote.
"I’m expressing what I want and what was going through my head at that period of time," he explained.
Shade said he usually starts off with a simple melody and then plays around with that melody on the piano until he’s happy with what evolves. One of his favorite pieces is based on Mark Twain’s classic characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
"It was kind of my interpretation, musically, of the characters and their adventures," Shade said. "That’s kind of cool, too. You can express what you think of a book or a painting via music."
Currently a high-school senior, Shade plans to attend college next year and major in music education. He eventually hopes to become a music teacher, and plans to continue performing and composing on the side. He believes his course of study will be a good fit because music-education majors learn about all of the major instruments, which will help him write stronger compositions.
"It’s going to be a useful tool to have that knowledge and then go back and compose," he said.
Shade said he’s recently become interested in sacred music as well, and has started working on a requiem as well as a "Gloria."
"(Sacred music) is really cool, because it can be written so beautifully and you can get so much out of it," Shade remarked.