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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.

Undergrad instruction

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. 

Bartering

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. 

Online lessons

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.