Now and again I get a call for lessons from an adult who has decided to try learning the cello. Several of my adult beginners have stuck with it for two or three years, making slow but steady progress. Others have bailed out after only a few lessons.
There can be many reasons for their changing their minds. We all have too many demands on our time! But I’m pretty sure a core reason why beginners don’t continue is because playing the cello is a lot harder than they expect. They see Yo-Yo Ma doing it on television, and he makes it look easy! But that’s an illusion.
Frankly, if I were an adult beginner, I don’t know if I’d have the courage to try learning the cello, or the tenacity to stick with it. So I certainly don’t attach any blame when folks revise their priorities away from lessons.
Beginning cellists face several physical challenges.
First, to produce a tone, you have to draw the bow across a string in a smooth, even manner, applying just the right amount of pressure and not brushing any of the other strings. If you fail to do this, your tone will be squeaky, muffled, scratchy, cluttered, or just plain bad.
Second, you have to figure out where to put your fingers on the fingerboard so as to play in tune. The cello has no frets, so the number of bad places to put your fingers far exceeds the number of good places.
To do those things well, both the left and right hand have to assume particular shapes and move in particular ways. I give students some advice and some exercises to help them train their hands, but I don’t have a magic wand. Some adults, I’ve come to feel, are more adept than others at guiding their hands into the necessary motions.
And of course all that is anterior to reading the notes, counting the rhythms, and so on. The latter skills are more intellectual, and thus more easily learned. It’s the physical side of playing, the technique, that’s the stumbling block.
Watching my students grapple with these issues has given me a humbling sense of how lucky I am to be able to play the instrument. I learned it as a kid, then stopped for more than 20 years, then picked it up again. Because my hands had learned the techniques when I was young, they re-learned everything quite efficiently within a couple of years. Unless I’m trying to learn a complex passage, I don’t have to think about it — I just play the notes.
The capacity of the human brain to learn intricate physical motions is awe-inspiring. One of the reasons to learn to play a musical instrument is so you can amaze yourself. And if you stick with it, you will!