Cello Lessons

I’ve been posting an ad for my cello teaching business on the local craigslist. Another fellow, Peter Metcalf, is also advertising cello lessons. He may be a wonderful teacher and a fine musician; I’ve never met him or watched him teach. But his ad leaves me a little uneasy. Since craigslist is not really the place for a critique or a dialog, I figured I’d comment on his ad here. All of the quotes below are verbatim.

Here’s how his ad starts: “For the professional, child, adult, or…musical newborn!” Personally, I’m not charmed by the image of the musical newborn — it makes me think of spitting up, drooling, diapers, and a total inability to understand simple verbal instructions. But perhaps that’s just me. On the other hand, that may be the sort of student Metcalf is angling for. The most likely explanation is that he’s trying to say, “No prior training is necessary,” and is just doing a really clumsy job of it.

“I provide for my students the tools for realizing swift musical growth.” All good teachers do that. But in my experience, the swiftness with which a student progresses depends primarily on how much time the student spends practicing and on their innate talent. Metcalf is making, implicitly, a claim of some sort here about the swiftness with which his students can expect to learn — a claim that, if he were to articulate it more carefully, might be tricky for him to back up. Some students learn quickly, some don’t.

“And, I offer video recordings of lessons for help with home practice.” Great idea. I wish I was set up to do it!

“As will be apparent in our consultation or first lesson, all this is integrated with a holistic, creative, and (non-sectarian) spiritual approach.” I have no idea what this means, but perhaps it will appeal to drooling musical newborns. When I tell a student (as I often need to do), “You need to arch your fingers,” is that a spiritual approach? I doubt it. Certainly, I do my best to encourage my students to approach music creatively, but if they have a creative approach and can’t manage to arch their fingers, they’re in for some rough sledding. First things first.

I always try to be supportive and encouraging. I make a point of mentioning the things the student is doing right, and I never, ever use the words “bad” and “wrong.” What I like to say is, “Here’s something you need to work on.” Is that spiritual? Perhaps it is, but I cringe at the thought of describing it that way.

Metcalf goes on to explain that he offers discounts for students who are in difficult financial situations — arguably a good thing to do, though fraught with difficulties. And then we get to this charming concept:

“In regard to lessons for children: I prefer teaching very young children simultaneously with an older family member.” This is how Suzuki teachers do it. I doubt Metcalf is a Suzuki teacher; if he were, I’m sure he’d say so. The Suzuki method, be it noted, is anything but creative or spiritual. It’s a method for cranking out little robots who can play the violin or cello. But that’s an aside, because he’s not a Suzuki teacher.

“In addition to providing parents or siblings an exceptional and unique opportunity for nurturing a youngster’s maturation and love, this supports rapid musical progress. The parent or older sibling needn’t study the same instrument – I can teach any of the strings simultaneously, including cello and bass. Of course, the joy of playing chamber music with your family may be an additional incentive to taking this approach.”

Joy of family chamber music is a wonderful thing. And I’m sure that playing with others can support rapid musical progress. But trying to teach two kids, or a kid and a parent, different instruments at the same time, strikes me as a very bad idea. I currently teach one shared lesson — two adults, both cellists. The room is barely big enough for three cellists, but that’s only a detail. More to the point, each of them gets only half of my attention, but at least they can pick up pointers from the stuff I’m telling the other one. If one was playing a violin and the other a bass, and if one was 35 years old while the other was 5 … the mind boggles.

As I read that passage more closely, it starts to feel spongy to me. In what sense, if any, can we consider music lessons “an exceptional and unique opportunity for nurturing a youngster’s maturation and love”? I’ve known parents of students who seemed to be more interested in controlling the kid than in dishing out love. I prefer not to have parents of that sort sitting in during lessons, though of course they write the checks, so they get to do what they like.

I don’t think it’s the cello teacher’s business to help parents nurture love in their children. I think offering to do that is crossing a boundary in a really messy way. I would speculate that the results may be confusing for the kid. And I’m pretty sure the messy goo-goo stuff, if actually present in the lesson, will get in the way of the student’s actually learning to play the cello. Playing the cello is difficult enough, without we clutter up the learning process with a lot of new age mumbo-jumbo.

I hope Peter Metcalf’s students learn to play the cello. Playing the cello is a wonderful thing. Based strictly on his ad, though, I’d have to say that even if my schedule were full, I wouldn’t steer any students to him.

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10 Responses to Cello Lessons

  1. textfilesdotcom says:

    Wow, Jim. I don’t think I could have constructed a weblog entry that comes off as “jealous, snipey sour grapes” if I used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for a month. It smacks of the good old days when a used car dealer would tell you “Now, nobody’s ever been murdered in one of OUR cars and you NEVER have to worry about infestations with these sleek machines”. I mean, dude…. creepy.

  2. midiguru says:

    Thanks for your compliment on my skill as a writer. I hope you have a lot of fun with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, whatever that is.

    In my own defense, if this guy were posting a standard, professional-looking ad, I would have no problem with it, and would feel no need to comment. If he were taking students away from me because he’s good at what he does, then I’d be jealous, you bet, but I’d have no reason to snipe at him.

    So am I being jealous? Is this blog entry sour grapes? I don’t see it. What I was responding to was the goofy idea that cello lessons can be “spiritual” or have anything to do with “nurturing love.” Teach cello, dude. Spare me the new age psycho-babble.

  3. Guanaco says:

    I have to agree that the ad seems to be blatantly attempting to lure in new parents by appealing to some elevated ideal of proper parenting that seems all the rage among many young parents today – especially in your particular corner of the country. It uses all the right key words designed to appeal to those sensitivities…

    Still, as an adult student of the cello I must defend the Suzuki method. Although the only cello teacher within 150 miles of where I live only teaches Suzuki – in other words I didn’t have any real choice in the matter – I am pretty comfortable with my progress after 3 years with this method, and I look forward to continuing on this track. And, I AM NOT A ROBOT! – at least I don’t think I am… 🙂

  4. midiguru says:

    I’m not familiar with the idea of teaching adults using the Suzuki method. My understanding is that it’s primarily about teaching young children, and involves the direct participation of the parent on a daily basis.

    One of the main criticisms of Suzuki mentioned in the Wikipedia article is, “A tendency towards rote learning and ‘robotic’ group performance at the expense of individual musicianship.” So I don’t think I’m alone in having reservations about the Suzuki method.

    I use the Suzuki cello books with all of my beginners, because they’re very good books, but I don’t teach the Suzuki method.

  5. Nadia says:

    Hello. I know I’m commenting on a three month old blog entry, but I ran across it, read the comments, and was surprised at the other commenters’ criticisms. I am an adult beginner on the cello, with no previous musical background. If I read such an ad, I would think, “New Age,” and keep searching. I want nuts and bolts at this stage (and for many stages to come, I’m sure). I want to know how to hold the bow, how to move it evenly across the strings, how to count the rhythms, how to read the notes, and so on. Right now, there’s nothing “spiritual” about this. It’s all very technical to me, and I want specifics. I also agree that there is no benefit to teaching two people two different instruments at the same time. I pay for my teacher’s attention, and I want all of it. The only benefit to shared parent and child lessons would likely be to the child, but the same benefit could be had simply by having the parent sit in on the child’s lesson.

    “Musical newborn” I’ll let pass; I know what he means, although I prefer the word “novice.”

  6. string player says:

    I’ve played with said cellist and he’s just plain weird; would not want my kids or anyone I know taking lessons from him.

  7. Mikhail says:

    Hi “MidigurO”,

    I really wonder about your “wonder” that is sitting inside your chest! Are you ever aware of concepts of Heart and/or Love? Behind your over-abstruse criticism of that teacher I could see neither jealousy nor hatred but rather stupidity of that who, having extra life time, could not find more worthy activity than throwing mud to the heads of those around… I am so pitty of you.

    After that post I would never send my kids to you for teaching. Very bad self-ads!


    • midiguru says:

      You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, Mikhail. I was probably being too hard on Mr. Metcalf; I have days when I’m feeling crabby, and this looks to have been one of them. Why you would bother commenting on a blog entry that’s five years old … well, I’m sure you must have a reason. Your difficulty expressing yourself in coherent English sentences makes it difficult for me to know how to respond in a substantive way, so I won’t try.

      • Mikhail says:

        Thank you for the answer, Jim. You’re right; it IS difficult for me to properly express my feelings in second language such as English for me. I have not yet managed to learn myriads of native idioms and terms. Sorry for that.
        But you, as I guess, native one in English surely could try to “respond in a substantive way”.
        In the last post addressing you, I deliberately changed the ending of the word “midiguru” with “O”. In Sanskrit language from which you borrowed the name “guru”, there is a rule to change ending of nouns and in the form of addressing person “u”-ended word transformed into “o”-ended. Here you are – “gurO” (like in the phrase “Hey Guro”).
        If you are really claim to be “Guru” in your immodesty, you definitely have to thoroughly revise your attitude to people around and the world. The word “Guru” means a one who dispels darkness of ignorance in their disciple and leads other to the highest realization of God’s Love.
        Take care, man. Ok? 😉

      • midiguru says:

        Thanks for the reply, Mikhail. Perhaps you’re not aware that in day-to-day usage, “guru” in English can refer to anyone who is an expert and shares their expertise in any area — a gardening guru, for instance, could teach others how to garden. I happen to be an expert in MIDI and synthesizers, and have written extensively on these topics. That’s the basis for “midiguru.” It was never intended to be a serious statement about anything.

        If there is a God (which seems extremely unlikely), I’m happy to let everybody arrive at the highest realization of God’s love in their own time, in their own manner. Or the lowest realization, if that suits them. The notion that there is such a thing as “God’s love” really doesn’t concern me one way or the other.

        With respect to the original blog post, I’m very uncomfortable with the notion that teaching cello is a spiritual activity. I certainly try to be kind to my students, and if somebody thinks that’s spiritual that’s okay with me, but I would never waste a moment attempting to use cello lessons as a platform for helping anyone to attain spiritual growth. That was the point of my original blog post: It’s not about spiritual growth, it’s about how you hold the bow, and whether you’re playing in tune, and whether you’re learning how to count rests properly, and 20 other very concrete, non-spiritual things. I have one student who is a devout Muslim. I have others that I’m pretty sure are devout Christians. That’s none of my business. I’m an atheist, and that has no bearing whatever on my cello teaching. None.

        The reason I felt like jabbing poor Peter Metcalf with a stick was because, in his claim to have a spiritual approach, he seemed to be mixing oil and water. Also because he alleged that he could teach the parent and the child at the same time.

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