My singing voice is an embarrassment. It is undisciplined, narrow, pitchy, with a number of breaks that make carrying a tune something like driving a car with no second gear. It can be done, but to the obvious detriment of the mechanism and any bystanders. People look, but for the wrong reasons.
Still, for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to sing. In a band, in the car, in front of people, into a microphone, wherever. As a kid, I would sing and ask my mother how I sounded, and even she could not muster the fortitude to lie and describe the sound as pleasing. I got good at air guitar and real cello, but oh, how I always have wanted to sing, and sing well.
Sometime around 2003, I decided to take vocal lessons with a high profile “instructor to the stars”. Jeff was incredibly supportive and technical with me, giving specific advice that was scary as hell to follow. The breaks in my voice were not fixed points to get around, but rather like scar tissue in my habits- to be massaged away with uncomfortable corrective techniques. Some of these techniques were simply embarrassing, like singing through my nose to get used to moving the air in a more concentrated way without resorting to the fakery of head voice. Others were blessed relief, like his instruction to take sips of air instead of awkward gulps that would put pressure on all the wrong parts of my physiology and distort the pitch.
I dreaded every lesson, because he would always go right to where the problems were. I left each one feeling invincible, because he would always have answers for the problems. Perhaps the most meaningful lesson, one that I have reflected upon nearly every day since, revolved around the silent chorus of hateful people I like to bring to every situation where I have a real chance of failing at something that matters. The song I was working on has a series of large leaps that absolutely beg the voice to go to a place of weakness. Jeff kept pushing on me, correcting, encouraging, trying to make me laugh, and then I just stopped. I tried for another run through, but the tears were welling, and no sound came out. My voice is such shit. It’s bad. I’m bad, this is yet another symptom of my inherent badness, I deserve this bad voice because bad. Jeff said it sounded like I wasn’t really practicing much, and I told him I had no place to go where I couldn’t be heard. He said, “Practice in the car!” and I told him I was afraid people would laugh at me, even through windows.
“Bah. Don’t let the Soul Killers get you down. They don’t matter. And while you’re at it, be nice to Her.”
“Who?” I asked.
“That girl, the one who is trying to learn how to sing.” He paused. “The things you’re saying in your head right now, all that nasty stuff…would you ever think those of another person? Would you ever say them?”
I blanched. “No, of course not.”
“Then don’t let the Soul Killers say them to you. They’re only in your mind. Next time you’re in traffic, I want you to sing to someone in the car next to you. Sing with your whole heart, risking everything, holding nothing back. This is the only way to confront them, and to win. ”
I can’t tell you how many times since then I’ve encouraged my students this way, although I’ll admit that my own voice is harder to accept because its a part of me. Do not think I don’t see the magnitude of that caveat. Cello as proxy for self is a dangerous bargain. But the idea of confronting these voices is important, and worth practicing. Even if I don’t always triumph over the Soul Killers, they will never be as loud as they were that day in Jeff Allen’s studio. They may even win, but it will not be uncontested.
Sing with your head up
With your eyes closed;
Not because you love the song,
Because you love to sing
Because you love to sing.
War is seldom justified, and guaranteed to result in at least as much inhumanity as politico-branded triumph and righteousness. On this Veterans Day, I do not celebrate war, or the mechanisms that cause it, nor the facile arguments about it. It would be disingenuous to do so, as an American, sitting safely in a warm apartment with a refrigerator full of food. Today I contemplate peace, and hope it finds its way into the thinking of those who would see fit to mint another generation of veterans.
So I moved to Minneapolis. My heart is still sore from leaving my DC students and colleagues (heck, I still miss my LA folks every. single. day.) but I’m immersing myself in the business at hand until the ache is less acute. For now, that business is teaching some wonderful young musicians at the Blake School, cultivating a private studio, and getting down to the nuts and bolts of putting together a follow-up text to AMCM, How To Be a Lousy Cellist in 17 Easy Steps. A working title, but you get the drift- it’s a humorous takedown of the habits that can make the cello harder than it has to be.
Other than that, it’s been a lot of hiking and writing, bumming around coffee houses and waiting for it to get cold. Not a bad start. More soon.
The artistic endeavor seems like the kind of thing that should just flow. The story goes like this: big feels, inspiration strikes, she works late into the night in a torrent of creativity and as dawn breaks somewhere over the dimly-lit enclave …magical results.
For the most part, the actual process could not be more different. Creativity and success in art are usually the result of a maniacal (and frequently inconvenient) set of habits and structured time.
Here, read this: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. You’ll find that some of the most wildly creative and prolific people were downright regimented in the way they approached their work- and their study. Beethoven and his exactly 60 coffee beans, Maya Angelou in her hotel room with a 6:15am glass of fortified wine.
You can always tell when art is produced by someone who likes the idea of being an artist but has not meaningfully invested in the discipline of the thing. It’s crappy. Pretentious. Temporary. Toothless. Being an artist is like this insanely beautiful grief process, where you discover that you’re more holes than substance, there are so many people doing better work, and that the only certainty is mortality….
…so might as well AAAAA COMMIT TO LIVING IN THIS MOMENT THIS WILL BE THE MOST SINCERE AND WONDERFUL NOTE IF I DIE TRYING I WILL NEVER STOP PLAYING THIS NOTE THE PROCESS IS THE BEAUTY MY SOUL IS MADE OF LIGHT I NEED NOTHING I FEEL SOOOO ALIIIIIIIIVE
This is the torrent that gets branded as what artists are like, but it only comes after developing the structure and curiosity to form a point of view and a set of goals designed to realize that point of view. This kind of discipline is rare. My theory is that art resides in all of us, as a part of our humanity, and that what must be taught is the respect for the craft and discipline of the process. Artists are everywhere: the rare thing is the intestinal fortitude required to be a vehicle for art.
This installment of small change, big results is about structuring your practice, which is really about structuring your thinking. I’ve said it many times in any number of ways: having concrete goals is the only way to guarantee progress with regularity. You may improve just by throwing yourself at the thing and flailing around a bit, but without a framework, there’s no way to identify and repeat what works. If the task seems too big or the goals too broad, keep this in mind: you don’t have to come up with a genius level practice plan to benefit from having one. All you’re looking to do is scroll through variables and note what improves results and what doesn’t. Here’s an example of a mediocre structure that still gets the job done. Let’s assume you have about 40 minutes to practice.
Step 1: Choose a scale and two items.
Step 2: Slowly play through a passage that has some kind of problem. What’s a problem?
- notes that are out of tune or hard to hit
- sounds bad
- can’t get it up to speed
- has no emotional impact
- makes your guts clench for no obvious reason
Step 3: Slowly play through the problem section using this flowchart (or any other one that you like- the important thing is that there is a method to scroll through your variables). Make declarative statements about what’s going on:
- this sounds okay, but the quality of tone is not improving
- my hand hurts when I ____________________
- when I focus on my breathing and slow down, I get a result I like
- when I focus on my bow, the left hand suffers
- when I play pizzicato, the left hand problems vanish
Then take those statements and use them to assess what’s happening. The flowchart has these things built into them, and the answer is mostly “slow down”. Remember that when you work on one aspect of your playing, the other stuff is bound to suffer. Heck, go back and re-read this post about the physical approach to practice.
Step 4: After about 10 minutes (which is a LONG time, if you’re practicing slowly with careful attention), move to your scale, remembering what was bothering you in the previous passage. Let’s say your tone goes to hell when it speeds up. Examine the same phenomenon in a new context. Go back to what the physical basics should be. Does it happen in an easy scale? Or only in Q-flat double sharp Phrygian minor? What does this mean?
Well, in this instance, it means that your left hand has not adequately passed over the section at a slow pace to absolve your right hand of sympathetic freak out. The answer is nearly always slow down. Been teaching cello 20 years and it’s a universal truth.
Step 5: Pull out the last item. Maybe it’s another piece, an orchestra part, an étude, a different section of the same piece, whatever. Great. Take whatever kernel you’ve gleaned from the other two examples and scroll through the physical variables paying the most myopic attention to it. What does this look like in practice? If we’re using the “right hand freaks out when left hand is challenged” theme:
- turn on the recorder (that $%&#* is objective)
- play through at whatever speed you like
- play through at half that speed
- play through at half half speed
- what is the sound like? the experience? the feeling of being able to control things? tension?
Even if you end this session without an improved sound, the key is to walk away with insight and an awareness of your tendencies. This arms you to ask the right questions in lessons and gives you an axis about which to rotate the next time you practice.
Another thing to consider is the regularity with which you practice. It’s much better to touch the instrument frequently for a moderate amount of time than to have a whopper of a session twice a week. The connections are just so much easier to make when the habit of practice is woven into your life, not some ornament twinkling randomly on your calendar. Practice is not special, it is essential. It does not feed the ego, it is a meditation on humility and non attachment. It is not done to arrive at some random endpoint of “good”, it is done to search out frailty and make progress- note the differences in trajectory.
If you have to get up early four days a week and put three mutes on your cello to get in 20 minutes before work without waking the neighbors, then do that. If you have to practice in the parking structure at work, do that. If you have to barter for an hour of daycare so you can take a bath, practice, and meditate, then do that. Figure it out. There is no way to become a fine cellist without practicing regularly, with a sense of purpose and determination. Practice is the process, and the art gets made when you’re in the weeds, totally lost in the details of the craft. Students who feverishly look around and ask “are we there yet” never get there. Obsession with the idea of of being a cellist distracts many well-meaning people from the structured dirty work required to be one.
Don’t chase after adulation or recognition.
The path to being an artist is more like a walk alone so long that you stop being lonely because you have the moon to keep you company.
You have everything you need to be whole.
Don’t be haunted by old ideas and habits that have hurt you in the past.
Be practicing. Be a cellist. Be a vehicle for art.
What we’re really searching out is self-acceptance- an ongoing journey that others can walk with you, but not for you. It is an honor to be on the road together as imperfect, struggling musicians in the light of the lovely, lonely moon.
In the third installment of this series, I’m going to encourage you to do something fairly radical: pay much MUCH more attention to your bow during your practice. Favor it. Examine it. Look to it as the cause of 80% of your difficulties, even those of intonation. I am compelled to ask this of you because of the following truths:
1. The bow is harder than the left hand.
2. While the left hand has goals that can be accomplished by writing down numbers on a page and measuring pitch on a tuner, the right hand is the ultimate analogue: there are infinite options, and nearly all of them are not what you’re looking for right now.
3. The bow sets the tone literally and figuratively. It tends to reflect how you’re feeling, collect tension, do its own thing, and generally be an arse.
Dear colleague, I promise you this: if you shift the lion’s share of your emphasis to the bow side of the equation, the entire experience of playing will improve, including left hand stuff. It’s like the first time you get into the TARDIS. You’ll realize it’s bigger on the inside. Not sure if that analogy works, but I’m leaving it in.
Okay. So here’s the Tenth Doctor, who as far as I know is not a cellist, but you can just tell he feels your pain acutely. You’ve reached a point where maybe you’ve sounded good from time to time, but perhaps that was a dream, a fantasy, a lie. Maybe you sounded okay on that other song, but now this new one is taking you behind the woodshed and thrashing you every chance it gets. Maybe you want to put the cello down. Like all the way down.
Don’t do it! Remember the first rule: the bow is harder than the left hand. Your goal right now is to get just a little bit better, so let’s do it. Take a breath, maybe a sip of tea, and refresh your outlook. Let’s get back to fundamentals. Here are the main variables in terms of the bow on the string:
- placement between bridge and fingerboard
- amount of weight being delivered to the string
- angle of bow as compared to the string
- amount of hair on the string
There are others, and there are varying and equally valid philosophies for each. I’ll give you my take, but if your instructor has put forth something else, go with that.
- placement: every cello has a slightly different “sweet spot” (like a tennis racquet) where you get the best sound for the least effort. For most of us, it’s a 2-inch swath right between the bridge and the fingerboard. Play close to the fingerboard, and there isn’t enough tension on the string to vibrate evenly- it sounds nasal, muffled and can actually make your pitch inaccurate. Don’t do this. It takes unbelievable sensitivity and control to get a sound sul tasto. Playing too close to the bridge gives an awesome horror movie vibe, because the string has so much tension that it actually won’t vibrate at all, so it sounds like what it is: metal. Whee! I want you to see these areas as danger zones for your sound. Venture into them accidentally, and there’s only awfulness waiting for you. And maybe Cybermen, which have a real way of lousing up a practice session. Don’t invite the Cybermen. Be aware of the placement of your bow- it is perhaps the most important determiner of your sound quality.
- weight: you can call it pressure, but I like the idea that the bow is heavy on the string because your arm is super relaxed. Oh, and for the purposes of practice, I ask students to foster a medium-to-loud tone, even for things that will eventually be played softly. Get control of the notes and articulations and add dynamics last. I also have them cultivate a “consonant” sound on the initial attack of a note, a trick Ron Leonard taught me. So instead of a wishy-washy beginning, there is a slight “k” (said “kuh”) or “p” (said “puh”) sound to indicate that the bow is resting IN (not on) the string. Start when you want to, and don’t let the note begin without your full consent and agency. Realize ALSO that as your hand moves away from the point of contact, you have to do stuff in order for the sound to sustain- otherwise, physics says this is how to decrescendo.
- angle: by and large, play with a bow that is perpendicular to the string. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, I see Alisa Weilerstein. We are not those people. Let’s practice in a mirror and behold the absolute nightmarish optical illusion that makes a crooked bow look straight. Realign your compass so that you can see the top of your bridge and the bottom edge of the fingerboard as the true arbiters of angle, and then try to make the stick of your bow a parallel line between them. Drawing a straight bow prevents some of the crunching and scraping sounds that make practicing seem like a test of will.
- amount of hair: I am one of those “more hair is better” folks. There are other schools of thought that ask you to roll the stick towards the fingerboard nearly all the time. I see lots of incredible cellists doing it, so it can’t be truly sinister, but my thought is always: well, why have so much hair in the first place? I say, play loud and proud with the hair flat on the string, and then roll it to induce changes in tone color and dynamics. FYI: most students roll the stick naturally, creating a divot in the wrist that prevents the weight of the arm from transferring to the string. Whatever camp you’re in, don’t contort the wrist like this- unless you enjoy nerve pain and crap sound. And you don’t like those, do you, sweetie?
- speed: we talk about weight and speed separately, but they are so intimately intertwined that they should actually be called a single term. Weigeed. No. Speight. Spressure? This post is starting to get away from me, I can feel it. Anyway, pressure and speed relate in a kind of bell curve: within certain tolerances, you can add one or the other to gain effect, but outside of those tolerances, the string won’t react predictably. Some examples:
- very slow bow/very light weight: works! dolce!
- very slow bow/medium weight: works! richness.
- very slow bow/very heavy weight: nope. crunchy.
- medium speed bow/very light weight: works! ooh, transparent.
- medium speed bow/medium weight: works! full-bodied and flexible.
- medium speed bow/very heavy weight: works, mostly. don’t slow down, though.
- very fast bow/very light weight: nope. all skittery.
- very fast bow/medium weight: works, mostly. depends on what note shape you’re after.
- very fast bow/very heavy weight: works! who’s up for Berlioz?
- One last note about speed: the number one cause of awful sound at the beginning of the bow is hesitation. You know the sound. The throat-clearing, car skidding out, non-starting chainsaw sound. Relax from your shoulders down, take a slow breath in, let it out even slower, count yourself in (so in 4/4, I’ll do 3+4+) and start. Pick a speed and stick to it. You may get other gnarl in your sound, but you won’t get the Sputtering Clamor of Death™ if you don’t hesitate at the outset. It’s another example of how crucial speed and pressure are.
Although this can seem overwhelming, this list of variables is reassuringly finite. Even if you have absolutely no idea why you don’t like your sound or the way a passage feels, you can run down the checklist fairly easily and I can almost guarantee that you’ll unearth an issue.
So why do all of this? Why should you slow down and get into this meticulous soundcraft?
Because the essence of the cello is its sound. Without it, there is no music available to you, no matter how many notes you churn out.
Sound is produced by the bow, so that’s where the work, love, time, energy and attention should go. Remember also that the bow is an indicator of your approach. During a lesson, when I’m leaning on a student to do something difficult, the first thing that gives is bow speed. Even very advanced students will whizz through a bow and wonder what the hell happened. No matter what you’re working on, zooming thoughtlessly from frog to tip will diminish the quality of the end result. You’ll end up on the fingerboard, the tone will go all wibbly-wobbly and you won’t have enough timey-wimey to do what you need to do. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Dr. Who, this episode is one of the better places to get started.
Rushing through the bow deprives you of the one thing you need to make meaningful changes in your technique (which is what you’re doing when you’re practicing, right? Right? RIGHT?): time. When you get to the end of the bow before you’re really ready to be there, a sense of anxious haste takes over, making it impossible to calmly monitor, assess, or repeat the right stuff. Here’s the cool part, though: while the super fast bow is your mind influencing matter, you can also use the matter to influence and calm your mind. Physically slowing the entire gesture down, from picking the bow up, to readying your left hand, to the actual speed of the bow stroke has a calming and clearing effect on your mind. It’s the way I learned to take my manic bonkers brain and find a meditative space through practice. It may be the only thing keeping me from completely descending into the unkempt wildness of my mind. Not that any of you have experience with that.
So what have we learned today? Let’s recap:
1. The bow is everything because sound is everything.
2. Don’t let Cybermen into your practice by being careless with the bow.
3. Slow down, check the variables, give yourself time. Even your left hand will thank you.
See you soon! Happy practicing. I welcome and appreciate questions and requests.
If we think about the relationship between you and your instrument as a romance, practice can be seen as courtship. You’re getting to know about the cello, finding out about yourself, and making your intentions known. You want this…most ardently.
This part of the “small change, big results” series will use period drama pieces to illustrate (with English restraint) the next hallmark of excellent practice: being able to modulate between playing and actual practice.
Practice is no laughing matter. Look at Hugh Laurie’s reaction to the actress who played Umbridge in Harry Potter. This is how the cello sees you when you sit down to “practice” but all you do is play. It has no patience for your insolence, and it will go back to reading its newspaper while you faff about and waste time.
Practice and playing are qualitative terms. Neither happens because you declare yourself doing one or the other. Here are the differences:
When you play a passage:
- you run and repeat sections
- your mind’s eye may pinball around to a number of different things
- you are hearing yourself
- you may or may not stop when things get weird
- you may or may not slow down for more difficult sections
- you do not have a goal other than a wish to “sound good”
When you practice a passage:
- you have a specific goal that can be demonstrated, and is distilled down to the simplest technical element: So, not “I wanna sound good” but “Using the techniques described by my instructor, I will experiment with bow placement and pressure until the string crossing sounds smoother.” Not “I wanna play in tune” but “Using a tuner, I will pay the closest attention to my left hand technique, modifying the spaces between my fingers until they are more accurate.” If you don’t formulate these goals, what you’re doing is not practicing, but flailing. You may progress a bit, but only when luck is on your side. Luck is so rarely on our side. I did this for years, my friends. I feel your pain. In this next gif, I’m the Dowager Countess and you’re Lady Mary and we’re having a moment of solidarity. FEEL THE SOLIDARITY!
- you investigate, one at a time, aspects of your playing
- physical technique <—cough, cough COUGH
- tone quality
- rhythmic accuracy
- elements of finesse, such as even length notes and quality of attack
- relaxation and breathing
- phrasing, emoting, musicality
- you are running the passage at a speed at which you can actually play the notes. (if there is even one note that escapes you, the answer is NOT that you are a crappy cellist. It just means you need to slow the whole thing down until it’s in your hand.)
- your mind’s eye is focused on the quality of your efforts
- you are listening
Each of these bullet points could be a blog post in itself. In fact, if you search the archives of this site, I bet you’ll find that they already are. The most important thing to remember is that practice is an investigation, searching for weaknesses. You are not practicing if you are not actively seeking out problems and devising actionable solutions. The easiest way to enter practice mode is to simply slow down and use your inner freak-out detector to tell you how slow is slow enough. My recommendation is to play so slowly that you get the sense that no matter what happens, your blood pressure won’t go up. This is frequently glacial speed. Jurassic speed. Watching grass grow speed. Zen speed. Embrace it. It’s how I practice, and although I’m no Yo-Yo, I get around the cello pretty well. It works!
One quick note about playing. I’d like to advocate for your two modes to be practice and performance, skipping right over the mindlessness associated with playing. Performance has an entirely different set of characteristics to get good at:
- if you make a mistake, WHO CARES?! do not let errors contaminate the measures that come after them!
- you are playing along with what you hear in your head
- your mind’s eye is trained on your breathing and generating the emotive quality you’re after: as a beginner, that might just be “calm” or “solid”. Nothing wrong with that, young Jedi. You’ll get to full-blown Jane Austen level drama soon enough.
- yes I’m aware that I just ruined the continuity of the whole theme of this post with a Star Wars reference
- there is a spirit of freedom and fun- this is not the time to analyze
- this is an offering, and not about perfection. If we wanted to hear perfect music, we would listen to robots and computers drone on all day. The risk of playing an instrument is everything and nothing at all. As an amateur, no true harm can come of it, even if you ruined every note in front of every person who matters to you- unless you attach the significance of ego to it. Music is a gift, given freely. What a wonderful thing to share.
Keep practice and performance well separated! Then you can practice smarter, not longer or harder, without worrying about whether today will be the lucky day that something actually gets done. Now get out there, and practice! Really…really, really slowly. Possibly a thousand times.
The goal of this series is to provide you with several small changes in approach, presented one at a time, that will streamline and improve your practice process, while also reminding you that MXC* was perhaps the only worthwhile programming ever to air on SpikeTV.
Practicing can seem like an uphill battle. Even if you make progress one day, there seems to be no guarantee that it will be evident in your playing the next time you sit down to practice. Sometimes it feels like the more you play, the worse you sound.
You may even start asking questions like “Am I too lame to do this?”, “Are my hands just not able to physically play well?” and “Is my teacher asking me to do too much?” You can only fall flat on your face so many times before defeat sets in.
The first small change you can make in your practice is something I’ve talked about many times on this blog (here and here, for instance): paying attention to the physical aspects of your playing. This means focusing your mind’s eye on your hands, arms, breathing, posture, etc, instead of the jumble of finger numbers, pitch names and stock market ticker of manic nonsense that deprives you of any sense of peace while you play. Yes. That’s a guy in safari gear dancing with aliens and Godzilla. I’m telling you. It was an excellent show.
The other component of this shift in attention is clearly defining what should be physically happening. You may need to ask your instructor for specific advice here. Whatever they say, WRITE IT DOWN. These are the fundamentals, and the essence of technical facility on the instrument. Examples:
- shifting: arm generates the movement, thumb stays in line with the arm, hand stays compact/doesn’t extend, move with calm purpose, not urgency
- extending: fingers anchor through fingerboard, a sense of hanging or pulling backwards, no pronation of wrist, put the whole step between 1 and 2, don’t reach with 4, don’t grip with thumb or do that bizarre hitchhiker “look at my thumb 3 inches off the neck” business
- bow changes: movement comes from arm and flows through wrist and fingers…but wrist does NOT change the bow. breathing, playing in time, hold note full duration, even speed and pressure (unless change in dynamics is indicated), do not telegraph that a change is about to happen, shoulder neutral and relaxed, bow being drawn in a straight line, not at an angle.
Once you’ve delineated what should be happening, make sure you repeat the correct motion over and over again. When we get focused on hitting the note or getting an acceptable sound at all costs, we don’t perceive what we’re doing. Your attention tends to narrow and notice the what of playing: pitch, finger, bow direction, instead of the how. So sometimes you nail it. Other times it stinks. If you don’t know what your hands are doing, there’s no way to establish rules for what works and what doesn’t. In essence, you may be repeating notes, but your hands aren’t practicing anything. You effectively start fresh every repetition. Bleh.
Try to shift your approach to a more physical one for a while. The cello may seem like an academic pursuit, but don’t let your busy mind convince you it’s something done with the brain. Your body plays the cello. Best to pay attention to how that’s happening. Do that, and I bet your practice will…
*derived from Takeshi’s Castle!
Image: Carlos Serrao.
On a similar note to the previous post, I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who gets emails asking what people should do when they really want to play the cello but can’t afford a teacher. The Internet Cello Society is littered with these posts, and although my first inclination is to find the petitioner and smack them across the face with their own keyboard, I have to choose to believe that the question comes from a place of good intentions. Here’s what you need to know.
Why it is an insulting question to ask, especially of a community of professionals
The cello, like many wonderful and worthwhile pursuits, is very difficult to get good at. To attain even mildly crappy results, you have to work incredibly hard and spend the kind of time and money on the endeavor that makes you wonder if it’s even a legitimate goal. Playing the cello is like dancing en pointe in ballet. You can’t just buy a pair of Freeds and watch some videos of Misty Copeland- no matter how inspiring she is- and do anything except look a fool and break yourself.
The mechanics of the instrument are deceptively complicated. Natural human tendencies have to be curtailed and replaced with better instincts: hang instead of grip; breathe instead of gasp; slow instead of quick; qualitative instead of quantitative. Every self-taught student who enters my studio has a distorted pantomime of what the physicial act of playing the cello looks and feels like. A facile and sadly accurate axiom for these folks goes something like:
For every one self-taught week, six weeks of lessons are needed to unravel the habits and replace them with sustainable technique and approach.
It’s not like the piano or guitar, which can be self-taught injury-free with some reasonable expectation of success.
It’s an insulting question because:
- if there was a way to not bankrupt our parents on the way to becoming professionals, we would have really liked that
- if there was a way to do it without decades spent practicing, that would have been nice
- every professional cellist has had harrowing and difficult decisions to make in order to become successful
- getting good enough to teach the instrument requires sacrifice and discipline
- most professionals are humbled by the instrument and acknowledge that it is still very, very hard
So when someone rolls in and says “Yeah I love Bach but can’t afford lessons how can I self teach?” It takes some fairly profound restraint and a hefty dose of compassion not to reply:
- yeah, and I want to be an astronaut
- have fun sounding like a malfunctioning air compressor
- ooh! you found the shortcut! special you!
- do you have any idea who is reading this? how many cumulative hours of work you’re crapping on?
- go back to Reddit and stay there
- I hope I never see you in an alley, because I have worked my entire life at this. My body is held together by sinew, stitches, and Advil, and the cello tries to defeat me every day, but I persist, even though it would be wiser to give up this dream and enjoy the stability of nearly any other line of work. I do this because I have to, because it is in my soul, because it has inconveniently and permanently bent me into a shape they call cellist. I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to, and every day, the words of my teachers (and sometimes their teachers, too) echo in my head as I try to improve a little more, making myself a more suitable vessel for Bach, which I, too, love. You say you want to play the cello, but do you want to be a cellist? The experience of becoming one is not at all like what you have in mind. The bow takes years to feel like anything other than a clunky dead appendage, and the sound will punish and disappoint your ears. You will know the horror of a cello that costs less than $1000. You will become lightheaded when you realize a good set of strings costs a week’s pay, and that they will snap if you don’t install them just-so or betray you with false tone right out of the envelope. No refunds, of course. I’m not trying to discourage you, but rather give you some perspective so that you might have a chance to succeed. Becoming a cellist who can even attempt Bach is like anything else that requires insane physical and mental discipline. Think gymnast. Yogi. Ballet dancer. Formula 1 driver. Marksman. To even get marginally awful at these things asks so much of a person. And it asks that person to find another person to guide their progress. Casually asking a forum full of cellists how they can get to Bach without lessons is like asking an Olympic athlete how you can qualify for the games without a coach. It insults the people who have come before you, and it vastly underestimates the task.
You need a teacher. You have limited funds. I get it. Here are some ways to start the journey and not end up broke or broken.
Most of us got our start teaching early on. I would give lessons on campus for about 1/3 of what I charge now, on a sliding scale. The best part of taking from someone at this level is that they are right in the wheelhouse of their lesson-taking experience.
Call up your local college and ask if there’s a hot shot student who is interested in teaching or put an ad on the music department’s bulletin board. Don’t ask for free lessons- but you might get a pretty big discount.
I would totally barter for lessons right now. Massage therapists, dance or woodworking lessons, goods or other services. If you have something to offer, there may be a teacher who will work with you. It’s not going to be the high-end name-brand university professor, but you’d be surprised how many of my colleagues have some kind of arrangement like this for their students to partially or completely fund lessons. If you are respectful, your chances of success are much better.
My online lessons are certainly cheaper than in-studio, although it’s difficult as a beginner, because the quality of demonstration and correction are not as high as in-person. Also, latency in the connection makes it hard to play together. Feedback loops happen. C’est la vie. Still, it is SO MUCH better to have the input of an expert, even if for 15 minutes a week. If you go to Starbucks once or twice a week, those funds could likely buy two online lessons per month. Careful when you say you can’t afford lessons, Captain Lifestyle.
Services like TakeLessons
I’m not affiliated with them at all, but I know there are plenty of folks charging cheap rates for in-studio and online lessons. In DC, I’ve seen rates as low as $15 for a half an hour. Again: that’s two Starbucks runs. Make coffee at home, and you can afford some cello.
Enroll at Community College
Lessons are paid by the semester, and end up being a fraction of the cost that a weekly non-enrolled student would pay. To give you a sense of typical cost, I’ve seen small-town cellists asking as low as $30 per hour and big-city newcomers charging $45. You might find lower, but higher is definitely the general trend. Now look at what the semester costs and divide that figure by 12 (or however many weeks that school has).
Start strong, then do touch ups
This is what I recommend to my own beginners on a budget. Take a month or two of weekly lessons and then taper off to one or two a month. Practice is a rhythm, and excellent practice needs to be curated by a professional. If you can establish some of the foundation over the course of an intensive period of lessons and practice, you’re much more likely to succeed than if you try to get by on a trickle of information. Start strong, then do what you can, while still practicing and referring to lesson notes every time you sit down to play. No student ever masters what the instructor writes in the first month of notes during that first month. Those pages are like a well of goodness to drink from for years.
Go to camps if you can. Many of them offer scholarships (sometimes in exchange for working at the camp) or payment plans. These immersive experiences are like rocket fuel for your progress and focus. Sign up for SCOR!- which I am absolutely affiliated with- or other adult string geek-outs. There are more of them than you think, all over the US and abroad.
The real cost
Here is a lowball estimate of what my parents and I spent on my cello education, from ages 8-25:
a few cellos: $50,000
lessons, private: $75,000
extracurricular orchestras: $10,000
summer programs: $20,000
undergraduate education: $25,000
competitions, airfare: $5000
cello repairs (two broken necks, cracks, seams) and equipment (stands, strings, cases etc) : $20,000
sheet music: $5000
That’s $210,000, lowballing each and every figure. Note that private lessons are the single highest expense. This is because they are the single most important factor in succeeding as an instrumentalist. I’d rather have a not-great instrument and a great teacher than a million dollar cello and just average instruction.
Hope this helps. It’s tough love. Tough, yes. But love, too.
It can be argued that any reader/writer relationship revolves around a transaction. The writer offers an insight, or shares an experience, or somehow provides new context for something the reader is working through. The reader places value in what has been written. As a writer, I live for this transaction. Being useful is important to me. Maybe too important. I have been known to go beyond what is good for me to demonstrate my worth this way- staying in relationships too long, bending over backwards for an ungrateful employer, losing sight of my own true north from time to time.
For years, the Stark Raving Cello transaction was fairly reciprocal- an artifact of the post-and-comment format of blogging. I’d spend a day or two crafting a post based upon some cello-y success or failure (of my own, or from a lesson I’d taught), and then a day or two reading and responding to comments. Every SRCB post came from a deeply emotional place- even the technical posts about why your thumb is sore or how to nail a shift. This place was one of sublime empathy for the struggling adult student; it’s a source from which my lessons continue to draw today. Back then, I would frequently cite my own frailties and insecurities and feature some serious real talk about how professionals struggle with the same stuff students do- despite whatever their glamorous Facebook and Twitter feeds say.
The adult amateur musicians seemed to appreciate this perspective. I have over a thousand emails saved from people who have written to me saying everything from “Thanks for helping me- I can’t afford lessons and this was what I needed” to a few “I wanted to kill myself and what you said made me feel less alone.” It wasn’t all sunshine and cheer: I also received a few death threats, lots of gendered/misogynist/sexual commentary, and many condescending notes (including two YouTube diatribes) about how I have no business teaching the cello and that I am clearly not an expert.
This transaction is laden with expectation- some we don’t even know are there until they go unfulfilled.
I started this blog to be of service, but also to give myself a place to go to write about things that are meaningful to me. So I have posts about cats. Planes. Authenticity. Anxiety. Writing. The creative process.
And it seemed like everybody was fine so long as the vein I was opening offered some sort of useful takeaway. A moral to the story, a juicy tidbit, a sense of closure and satisfaction at the end of it all.
Everything changed when I started using this space to occasionally sort through the detritus of the last several years. People were resentful that the product was no longer helping them improve as musicians. Nevermind that the site has hundreds of posts and accompanying comments and downloadable resources. Nevermind that I’ve written multiple articles for teachers and students in Strings every month since 2008. SRCB has to be useful! Enough with this depressing self-indulgence.
The point has been made, and it strikes at the core of my insecurities. I figured that readers who had benefitted from my earlier posts would be there to catch me when I had nothing else to give, but it is demonstrable- there is no worth here unless I am somehow useful. This blog didn’t ascend to some pretty dizzying heights (one month in 2009 I had 60k visitors- not bad for an über niche no-ad site) because of my own humanity, but because the way I couched even my deepest fears somehow made readers feel better about themselves.
So I’ve all but stopped posting here. I changed the branding of the site to support my part-time writing efforts. I still live and breathe cello and teaching. It is my life’s work, and my calling. I’m still looking for substantive professorial work in the music world, but that, my friends, is a waiting game. Nobody retires any more. The pickings are slim- maybe because the work is just that good, maybe for slightly darker reasons, too.
This blog allowed me to build a base of support and travel the country doing what I love most in the world for several years. It’s astonishing, when you think about it. I am grateful to (nearly) every reader, especially those who stepped forward and helped me organize teaching tours and workshop appearances. It’s something I want to get back to, sooner than later. But this time, I will not kid myself about the nature of the transaction, and may adjust how far I go trying to demonstrate my value. It’s in that gesture, where actual worth, self worth, is proven.