Volume 74, Number 45 | March 16 - 22, 2005


Bowling strikes a chord with Roger Shell.

Sound of crashing bowling pins is music to his ears

By Judith Stiles

Playing the cello for 20-plus years, every day, on average 10 hours a day, can actually cause the pinky finger on the left hand to develop a crook, where the shape of the finger changes and adapts to being in that curved playing position for so many years. This is what happened to master cellist Roger Shell, who is not one of those neurotic musicians who treats his hands like they are made of glass, worrying about every bump or bruise. On the contrary, when he is not playing the cello with the orchestra for “La Boheme” or the new Broadway show “Spelling Bee,” he is plunging his fingers into a custom-made bowling ball, called

“Inferno,” pursuing his other passion — bowling.

Shell practices and competes at a very high level, currently in a league at Chelsea Piers, as well as in Hackensack, N.J., often traveling to a match with eight custom-made balls in tow. At this serious level of bowling, master bowlers often record their every move in every match, on a Palm Pilot, for ongoing review and analysis of their game. Shell enthusiastically whips out his Palm Pilot to explain a recent spare, and how his strategy for knocking down the remaining pins was successful. He pauses to compare his work as a musician and says with a sense of relief, “Bowling has an end result. Either you knock the pins down, or you don’t.”

As with many professional musicians, the end result of a concert performance is often measured by the merciless whims of the critics, but with bowling, the success of a game comes down to one number, a score. “There are many parallels between bowling and playing the cello,” Shell points out with sparkling eyes and exuding a clear sense of passion for both. He adds, “both involve rhythm, timing, body awareness and muscle memory.”

Muscle memory is the training of hands, feet or any muscle to repeat an action consistently without having to think. Shell has no Palm Pilot to analyze his work on the cello. However, he doesn’t seem to need one, as his intense love for music has created all the muscle memory he needs. He has worked nonstop as a cellist in the commercial and artistic world for many years, and it is exhausting to listen to his whirlwind schedule for any given week. A typical week might include zipping up to Bard College to play in the American Symphony lecture series, rehearsing for “Spelling Bee,” performing at Symphony Space in “Wall to Wall Sondheim,” as well as learning new music for other upcoming performances. He manages to slip in “S.B.L.,” Sunday Bowling League, games at Chelsea Piers with his three teammates, in which 24 teams compete for over 30 straight weeks. On Monday nights, he trots off to the highly competitive Hackensack League, and somehow squeezes in some individual coaching session with master bowler Rocky Magnotta, who runs the first-rate pro shop at Chelsea Piers.

Magnotta, known by everyone as Rocky, warmly says of his student, “When Roger decides he wants to do something, he will single-mindedly do it the best he possibly can.”

However, Shell says his achievements in bowling are not just about hard work and practice; rather, he attributes much of his success to the excellent instruction given to him by veteran bowler Magnotta. Palm Pilots and books can’t pass down the bowling knowledge Magnotta has acquired over the years. Like a pot of gold, Magnotta holds an oral history of bowling tips, which he learned from his great uncle Salvatore DeAngelo, better known as “Shadow,” a Hall of Fame bowler in his own day.

What about the art of reading the oil pattern on the lane? How do you predict pin reaction or pin deflection? Did you know that the lanes are washed and oiled twice a day, and that there are over 30 computer programs that will vary the patterns of oiling? How does Magnotta suggest you factor that into your game? Who would have guessed that the last 15 ft. on the lane have no applied oil, which can alter the direction and speed of the ball? Ask Magnotta for the answers, and you will get a glimpse into this precious body of information that will keep your ball out of the gutter and on target.

Also found in Coach Rocky’s oral encyclopedia of bowling knowledge is chapter and verse on custom drilling the holes in the balls. People who bowl at a high level will tell you proper drilling is everything, and that is why Magnotta has a plaster mold of Shell’s thumb, to create an exact fit in the perfect ball, not so different from a perfectly tuned cello. Shell will be the first to say that a good performance on the cello requires a well-tuned instrument; likewise, using a rental ball with standard holes would be similar to performing on an out-of-tune cello. The sounds would be hideous.

The music of bowling? A master cellist with ears sharply attuned to perfect pitch might bristle at the loud sound of pins crashing, frame after frame. When asked how he feels about the sounds associated with bowling, Shell leans forward and with a big grin and says, “There is nothing prettier than the sound of a perfect strike!” It is music to his ears.

For more info on bowling leagues, visit: www.chelseapierslanes.amfcenters.com.

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