Starting from Scratch

Now and then I get a call from an adult who has conceived a desire to play the cello. Because I teach, I’m always happy to help them get started. But I’ve learned to give them a gentle warning up front.

What I tell them is this: I’ve had several adult students who started as beginners, stuck with it for several years, and made very considerable progress. But I’ve also seen several who started taking lessons but soon gave it up. I’m sure the main reason is because learning to play the cello turned out to be more of a challenge than they were prepared for.

When I get that initial call, I usually suggest that if the prospective student doesn’t already have a cello, they should find a nearby store that does monthly rentals with a rent-to-own option. A decent cello is expensive, and there’s no point in laying out a pile of cash until you’re sure you’re going to want to stick with it.

How expensive? Depends on what you mean by “decent.” I usually try to find good things to say about a student’s cello, but if you’re spending less than $2,500, you’re not going to enjoy playing as much, because the cello is simply not going to produce the kind of warm tone that probably inspired you to want to start taking lessons.

Once they’ve started lessons, I usually tell them this: When you watch a good cellist, he or she makes it look easy. Yo-Yo Ma is inspiring to watch, because he can do anything on the cello and make it look easy and natural. But in fact, the use of the arms, hands, and fingers is not easy or natural at all. Guiding the bow across a string at the correct angle, with the appropriate speed and pressure, takes hours of practice, and there are refinements that your teacher won’t mention for months.

Playing the piano is, in a certain sense, far easier. You can play a note on the piano with the tip of an umbrella, and it will sound exactly the same as if you had played it with your finger. Okay, you may need to play five or six notes at once. An umbrella can’t do that. Piano fingering can get quite interesting compared to cello fingering. So the piano is not easier than the cello when considered as a whole. But on the piano, tone production and playing with good intonation are as easy as falling off a log.

I find it inspiring that anybody would have the courage to take up the cello as an adult. I don’t think I would! I did take up the piano as an adult, and I’ve done all right with it. But the cello? I’d sooner take up landscape painting.

The other thing is, the cello is not an instrument that’s really meant to be played by itself. It’s meant to be played as part of a group. Kids get to play in their school orchestra (though in some states the budget for school orchestras has shriveled shamefully in recent years). Where can adult students go for the same kind of opportunity? I don’t know.

Now that I think about it … one of the adults who stuck with it for more than five years had inherited a good cello from her father. The emotional connection may have given her some added incentive. The other two who have stuck with it the longest are friends, and share a lesson. They play duets with one another. I probably need to emphasize the playing-with-others factor more strongly.

The other factor that may predict success for adult students is having played some other instrument fairly extensively in their younger years. If your brain knows how to build melodies out of whole-steps and half-steps, and knows how to map those melodies onto some kind of physical system, be it a keyboard or the holes in a flute, you’ll find it easier to take up the cello.

This month I’m finishing the work on a new book, Picture Yourself Playing Cello, which will be published this spring by Cengage. It will be nice to have a book with pictures and diagrams to offer to new students — and maybe being the author of a book will get me a few more calls for lessons. That would be good too. The reason I got the contract to do the book was not because I’m a writer, though I’m sure that fact didn’t hurt. It was because I’m actively teaching the subject matter. I see students wrestle with how to hold the bow and how to get their fingers onto the right spot on the fingerboard.

It’s not easy. If it was easy, everybody would do it!

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3 Responses to Starting from Scratch

  1. Hi, Jim,

    I agree with your comments. However, even “inexperienced” amateurs can find others to play with on their level through the Amateur Chamber Music Players organization.

    So go forth, fellow cellists!!

    Vera Jiji

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the support, Vera! I like your book a lot, and have recommended it enthusiastically to my students, several of whom have purchased copies. I’m also recommending it in my own upcoming book. The Louis Potter book is also excellent, though Potter is a bit old-school; modern students may find his book a struggle.

      My students turned me on to the Offenbach duets, which I had never encountered. The first few are good for beginners. I wish I knew of some trios; maybe I’ll have to write a couple.

  2. Ave says:

    Your example of trying to learn landscape painting in later life as an exercise in futility is illuminating: Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was in her 70s, and although it took her a while to develop her style she had a long and successful career!

    Just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying if you really want to! Research (cited by Dan Levitin and others) seems to indicate that everyone has to put in the same amount of time to learn how to play an instrument (or master any other difficult activity) to a specific degree of proficiency. “Prodigies” don’t seem to learn particularly faster than normal people – they just put in more serious practice time earlier in life.

    As for me, I didn’t learn to play an instrument until I was in high school, and I didn’t learn music theory until college, but I did end up studying music in graduate school, learned to conduct, compose, score read, sing and play multiple instruments (though not simultaneously for the most part) and ended up directing multiple ensembles. I also learned a lot about signal processing, waves, acoustics, and physical modeling, and read a bunch of your articles in Keyboard magazine… Learning to play an instrument seems to boil down to taking some lessons and spending a lot of time practicing, which can be frustrating but is also much more fun than about anything else. Anyway, I find the cello fascinating and might wish to take it up someday, even though it will be torture for my neighbors… 😉

    It’s true that pianos (and synthesizers with good presets) produce lovely sounding tones just by hitting a key. On the other hand, the unbelievable cacophony of my beginning piano class will probably stay with me forever… I find it amazing that my professor, a brilliant and talented musician, did not completely lose his mind. Actually, come to think of it…

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