Q: I have never played a musical instrument before. Is the cello going to be extra hard for me?
A: Not in my experience. In fact, sometimes prior musical experience makes it harder initially. Expectations and preconceived notions are hard to get over. The cello is tough for everyone, but the payoff is immense if you stick with it no matter how little musical experience you have.
Q: I play guitar/piano, but I don’t read music. Do I have to learn to? Am I ever going to be able to play the cello?
A: Yes and Yes. The way to play the cello is to build a broad foundation of skills. We get those skills by learning and repeating various successions and combinations of notes, which are all written down. But don’t panic. Reading music is pretty simple. I find that every student I’ve had (from age 4 to 80) gets it in around 3 weeks, when one takes lessons every week and practices 4-6 times a week for 20 minutes or more. Sure, some people get it really quickly and others need a little more emphasis on the academics, but the nuts and bolts of note reading are simple. Practice is key.
Q: I have been told I am tone deaf and have no musical talent, but I really want to learn the cello! Is there any hope?
A: Certainly. The ear can be trained to recognize tones, and I include theory and more extensive ear training for the students who want/need it. As for talent, ZERO talent is required to get very, very good at any instrument. Hard work and absolute devotion are the most important aspects of character to consider.
Q: I’m an adult (don’t ask me my age!) and my friends and family are all laughing at my desire to take up the cello this late in life, and I’m beginning to think they’re right. Am I kidding myself?
A: It is common among adult beginners for their friends and family to ridicule their efforts. I’m no psychologist, but my feeling is that it stirs up strong reactions because it either does not conform to their prescribed, limited view of who you are and what you are capable of, or perhaps it’s simple jealousy. Instead of taking their jabs to heart, use the experience to practice mental toughness. Unkind words from people around you are nothing compared to what you will think up yourself during a bad practice session, an embarrassing lesson, or a week of ennui where you just don’t want to pick the cello up. It’s a theme of mine: Chop Wood, Carry Water. Just keep doing the task and do not worry about the nature of the work, or the impression you need to give off or the quality of the end result. You’ll get there if you just keep doing it.
Q: I am the parent of a cello student, and they just don’t seem to be enjoying it. Do I keep pushing? Let them be? Ask their teacher?
A: There are two camps of “no fun” cellists: Those who really hate it, and those who just don’t know how to practice. Definitely talk to the teacher without your child around. Candor is important here, as is an astute teacher. There are lots of teachers who don’t work with kids on how to practice, or acknowledge the mental component of playing. Although complicated, the physical aspects of cello playing are relatively simple in comparison to the depth of mental approach. A good teacher grooms both elements to make a complete player who is rewarded for their focus with an enjoyable playing experience. One more point: practicing the cello is not always fun. Most of the time, it should be edifying, but there are times when you just have to force yourself to practice. Doing this forges a deep relationship with the instrument and also builds maturity and discipline.
If your child just isn’t into the cello, don’t force it. I run into more unhappy, overextended kids these days who just want to do something else. Evaluate whether you put them in lessons because they repeatedly asked for it or if it was your dream of having a cellist in the family. It’s more common than you think. While not a sinister goal, it never works when a parent tries to live vicariously through their child. You’re old enough to know better. Also, don’t pick up the cello because you hope one of your kids will want to play it down the line. When have you ever met a kid who, at the age of 13, wants to be like mom or dad?
Q: I want to play rock, pop, or jazz on the cello. Do I have to learn classical first?
A: Yep. Not learning classical is like wanting to be a poet but not learning to spell. Jazz especially requires as much, if not more discipline than classical music. Playing alternative styles is harder, not easier. Learning the music that the cello was designed to play will broaden your ability and train your ear. Plus, there is no escaping the natural idiom of the cello, and the lineage of what we do: it descends from classical music. At first, people resist “Dead White Guy” music. I get it. But ask any jazz musician worth their salt and you’ll find they place JS Bach on the same altar with Ellington, Monk, and Mercer. The only people who can’t get into the old music are the people who don’t know anything about it.
Q: I’m finding that my right shoulder is sore after extended practice periods. Can I remedy my bow technique to relieve the pain?
A: There are a number of reasons a shoulder can be sore, and it is wise to be aware of this stuff. Playing should feel good, and good technique never causes pain. A few things to consider:
1) Are you shrugging your shoulder up towards your ear when you play? This is very common, and it happens unconsciously in many students. If you sit at the cello, in front of a mirror and let your arms hang down, your shoulders will be neutral. They should essentially remain in this low, flat position when you play, moving more front to back than up and down.
2) Is your bow position efficient? Technique is always a chain reaction. If you have a good bow grip, then your arm tends to follow suit, right up to your shoulder. The index finger should definitely lean on its inside edge. You know you’re leaning the right way if, as you take a long, slow down bow, your pinky wants to come off of the frog and rest on your ring finger. Also, if your thumb has any hyper extension or excess tension, it will telegraph that tension right up your arm. This is something that I did as a student, and only really corrected it when I began teaching as a teen. The change in my pain and improvement in sound was marked and a huge relief!
3) Is your elbow slightly higher than your wrist? This allows for suggestions 1 and 2 to be fully realized. When we make sure the elbow is just a centimeter or 2 above the wrist, it allows the full weight of the arm to rest on that crucial index finger. Otherwise, the shoulder is left in an artificially immobile state and the only pressure you can exert on the bow is from the wrist down. If this is happening, you are definitely working against yourself!
There are many causes of pain, and almost all of them can be traced back to technique. If I have not fully addressed your question, feel free to contact me again. I also welcome input from people who have experienced and resolved pain issues. I will post any pertinent information.
Q: What differentiates a “high-quality” Cello Vs. a “low-quality” Cello?
A: There are so many tiers of cellos. Let’s start in the real world and work our way up. You can get a cello outfit (which includes a bow and a case) for very cheap. I have seen them on eBay for as low as $200, but I can’t really recommend any cello from an individual seller online, because they are not accountable like a big company with a nice return policy. Shar is an online retailer most string players trust, and you can browse their bargain instruments with confidence. These instruments are usually stamped out by machines and are typically made out of a laminate. If you luck out, you might get a maple/spruce carved cello, which is preferable to the laminate top and back, and has been worked on by hand. They tend to be very shiny and are red or orange in color. Inexpensive cellos (you can also say celli) are easy on the pocketbook, but usually a little harder on the ear. They can be muffled or obnoxiously bright, depending on all sorts of things, like if they have a factory bridge (called a blank) or low quality strings. Chances are that you might also get cheap hardware, like fine tuners that aren’t very responsive, or pegs that are slippery or maybe refuse to move at all! If you’ve already purchased a cheapie, don’t despair: a new set of strings and a “setup” by your local string shop can work wonders, and will cost around $150.
The intermediate level ranges from about $3500-$10,000, and for that much money, you should get a lot of cello! It will be carved, probably not come as part of an outfit, and all bets are off as to appearance. Maybe shiny, maybe matte, with a more developed sound, thanks to the time a maker takes in the finishing of the cello. Even the varnish makes a difference in the sound! So for your moderately expensive, but still student-level instrument, you should get a sound that is more mature. Also, it should “speak” easily: it won’t be as hard to get a nice sound as, say, a $500 cello. You’ll get a hand-carved bridge, good hardware (a.k.a. pegs, tuners, endpin, tailpiece) and good strings. This cello should appreciate over time, where the super beginner cello tends to lost value, because the market is saturated with cheap cellos.
Then there’s the “sky’s the limit” range. Cellos can go as high as any other piece of collectible artifact, into the multi millions. There are even certain cellos that are classified as “priceless”! But let’s put our heads back on. Most professional cellists play on instruments in the $45,000- $100,000 range. They can be ancient examples from the 17th and 18th centuries, or modern masterpieces from the high-end shops on the coasts. Like the intermediate level cellos, they will be 100% hand carved and assembled, with the usual composition of maple, spruce, and cherry, but there is *magic* here. Some makers use very old wood, or have a special recipe varnish. No matter what their technique, the result is, an outstanding instrument that will be resonant, easy to play, and should appreciate in value if taken care of. In this price range, it is the player’s preference of dark or bright sound, and a cello is often chosen with the personal issues one faces while playing the advanced works of the repertoire. My instrument, for instance, has a narrow neck so it’s small in the left hand, a medium to bright sound, and it actually helps me overcome problems that I might suffer on another instrument. Any cellist who tells you that they have no strange idiosyncrasies in their technique is not being on the level with you!
There is a cello that is suitable for nearly every price range, and though the more expensive cellos do tend to be superior in sound, it’s always wise to play a number of instruments above and below your expected expenditure. I have gone into a shop more than once with a client who is willing to spend $7500, and walked out with one less than $5000!
Q: How can I learn to play faster?
A: Aah yes, the cellist in a hurry. Well, though it sounds like the long road, playing slower is a short cut. Most people speed up before the notes are truly under their fingers, so when they speed up, the wheels come off, resulting in a half-baked sound and usually a bit of anxiety and tension. As a professional, I am responsible not only to myself, but to the (sometimes 100+) players around me, too. So believe me, this is THE WAY to practice. Start at a speed at which you can truly play the passage (or scale, etc.) without any anxiety or mistakes. This might be a lot slower than you’re used to. You know you’re at the right speed when you’re getting mildly bored or yawny. Perfect. Go through the passage and remove the rhythms and the bowings. Play with very short, percussive bows, and make sure every note is accounted for, with an emphasis on shifts and position playing. Speed this process up over the next 10 minutes, working in small chunks…a couple of measures at a time. When you are relaxed with the notes, add the rhythm back in, and your metronome. The next day, do the same thing…no bowings, just rhythm and notes. We’re building competance here. There is no magical process, just brute force repetition. Add in the bowing the next time you sit down to play, and speed up from there, slowly.
You only have to learn a piece this way once. There are no backward steps or excuses this way. The more you go over a passage at a super slow speed, the more likely you are to nail it as you speed it up. Great question! Let me know how you progress.
Q: What’s the hardest piece you’ve ever played and what made it so hard?
A: Yikes! Well, I have played a lot of challenging literature, and though the usual suspects like Dvorak, Kodaly, and Prokoffiev definitely come to mind in terms of crazy fingering issues and nightmarish numbers of notes, the work that has always been tough for me are none other than Bach’s 6 Cello Suites. They are so transparent, and such a treasure to cellists, that to play them anything other than cleanly is unthinkable. Also, the fact that they were written for a 5 stringed instrument doesn’t hurt. As you get into the 5th and 6th Suites, it definitely tests the limits of our 4 strings. I approach these pieces with reverence. Perhaps I will record them when I am 60!
Q: I live in a small town and want to play in an orchestra, but there isn’t one here. I am an adult and would call myself a serious amateur. I am tired of playing by myself! Any thoughts?
A: There are a few things you can do, depending on your level of desire and commitment. The first thing I would try to do is form a chamber music ensemble. A string trio or quartet, a piano trio, etc. There is so much music out there at an intermediate level for these groupings of instruments. There must be one pianist and a violinist within 20 miles of you! ACMP aka The Chamber Music Network is a great resource, which has searchable databases and lots of advice for people just like you. You can also put an ad in the paper or local music rag and start calling churches/temples to see if they have a need for musicians. Try to attend summer festivals to meet similar folks, and then connect with them periodically to play concerts, etc. Lastly, you can travel to the next big town and participate in an amateur group there. It’s fun to get away for a day, and although it is a time hazard, it is so rewarding and you get to meet people you normally wouldn’t interact with.
If anybody else has a suggestion, please email me, and I will post it!
Q: Where did you study cello?
A: I went to Cal State Northridge, and took lessons from Andrew Cook and David Aks when I was there. Before that,. I took lessons from Ron Leonard in LA and my first cello teacher was Cathy Graff in Riverside. I also participated in seminars or master classes with Hans Jensen, Vic Sazer, Yo-Yo Ma, and Eleonore Schoenfeld.
Q: My son has developed stage fright, and it seems to be affecting his entire approach to the instrument. Any thoughts on how to get him around this obstacle? He used to really enjoy playing.
A: Stage fright can come from a number of sources, but the most common one is simple unpreparedness. Of course, there are people with medical pathologies, and for that, you need to talk to your physician about beta blockers. For the rest of us, there are a few things we can do to move us away from the terror sometimes associated with performance.
1) Be honest with yourself in your practice. Sometimes we get into a complacent frame of mind when we’re at home, practicing alone. It’s easy to let little mistakes go by and get repeated with little or no anxiety. I tell my students that the best you can ever expect from a performance is the average level of practice. So if you practice with a lot of tension, let difficulties go unexplored, and don’t address the real issues, you get what you put in: a performance filled with tension, mistakes, and fear. Only when you play in front of people, you hear yourself with a critical set of ears because you know someone’s listening. Those ears should be turned on all the time. Be honest with yourself.
2) When you practice, use good technique. Teachers don’t give you technical pointers in addition to showing you how to play the notes. Good technique is the only thing that will guarantee that you hit the notes reliably. Sound simple? It is. But it’s hard for people to believe sometimes.
3) Don’t overestimate the importance of your performance. Sure, we all want to sound good and do well in auditions and competitions. But if you completely wreck every single note, your bow snaps and your cello catches fire, what then? Nothing. The dude at McDonalds is still flipping burgers, the world continues to turn, and people will forget about it in a matter of minutes. Your only responsibility is to yourself. It is a mistake of ego to think anything more. Plus, it keeps your feet firmly on the ground and relieves a lot of stress.
4) Lastly, try to explore the power of positive thought. So many people have words floating in and out of their heads before they play. “Don’t screw this up” “I hope I don’t miss that shift” “What if I forget everything?”, etc. I used to do that as a kid. I remember there was someone at an ASTA competition I wanted to beat (she had pummeled me for 3 years in a row!) and her mom came over to me right before I went on and asked if I was nervous. I was, but I told her, “Actually, I am just excited. I can’t wait to play.” Then, inside my head, instead of words floating around, I began hearing the piece, slowly and confidently. I kept the piece in my head, and while I was playing, it was playing right along with me, keeping me steady and avoiding negative self-talk. The thing about saying awful things to yourself is it doesn’t prevent mistakes: it causes them. So lighten up, and put on your game face. Tell yourself that you are excited, and just keep breathing before, during, and after you play. Music is supposed to be fun, and it starts inside your head.
Q: Can I hire you to play my wedding?