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!

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2 thoughts on “Easy It Ain’t

  1. Without being too immodest, I’d like to suggest that beginning adult cellist get my book, “Cello Playing for Music Lovers.” It has consistently received five out of a possible top score of five from all readers, and high praise from some famous professional cellists and cello teachers.

    Not that I disagree. Learning the cello takes lots of practice and patience. It’s a personal choice.

    Yours,
    Vera Jiji

  2. I haven’t read your book, Vera, but I’m okay with a product mention. Glancing at your website, it seems to be a good book.

    My only issue with it is the idea that reading a book will somehow substitute for private lessons. Here’s what it says on your site: “This comprehensive, clearly written 212 page book provides all essential instructions from basics to Bach….” I understand that you’re trying to promote sales of your book by making it seem valuable, and I’m sure it is valuable.

    That said, my experience with how students hold the bow (perhaps the most difficult challenge they face) is that even after I explain it patiently, week after week, and encourage them to do easy exercises that will help their hand assume the right shape, many of them still revert to bad habits that inhibit their tone and lead to fatigue. Expecting anybody to learn bowing just by reading a book, or even viewing a video — no. Not gonna happen.

    Maybe one student in a thousand could master bowing technique by reading a book — and that one student would have such talent and drive that he or she would naturally WANT to study with a teacher!

    Working with a teacher is valuable for ten or twelve fundamental reasons, above and beyond having the teacher nag you about how you’re holding the bow. So yes, I’d love to have any of my students read your book. But I do hope none of them is fooled into thinking that if they read a book, they don’t need a teacher.

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