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!