Nearly everything about the cello is, upon initial inspection, prohibitive. It’s big. It’s low. It’s difficult. It’s expensive. It reads that clef you didn’t really master when you took piano lessons.

If you manage to get past all of those obstacles and move onto lessons, there are a few things you can do to make sure you get as much out of the process as you can.

1) If you’re reading this prior to beginning lessons, know this: the cello is like everything else in life, plus some. That means that it takes time and endless hours of practice. If you don’t have time in your schedule, and can’t see sacrificing one of your current pursuits, don’t bother. The love affair will end come time for your third lesson and you’ve been too busy to put in your 30 minutes a day that it takes to just about break even. It’s not that I begrudge my moms who have 4 kids and a busy social roster their lifestyle. It just may not be able to include progress on the cello. That being said, some of my best students have insane schedules and they look to their practice time as a much needed break from pleasing everybody else. Last on this subject, realize that even I have to make time for practice. I spend about 6 hours most days involved in teaching, but those are not hours of practice. I have to move plans, tell people to buzz off and not answer my phone: I carve out the space, which tends to be in short supply. Don’t expect happy cello time if you’re not willing to do the same.

2) Take regular lessons. Too many students get into an oscillation of a few weeks of practice and a few weeks without. They usually cancel the lessons on the low practice weeks, which only leads to less practice until the guilt takes over and they go at it again. Here’s what I say: either play the cello or don’t. You don’t have to take lessons if you don’t practice. But if you want to move forward in your playing with the help of a teacher, take at least 6 months of lessons and miss no more than 3. If you have a week of light practice, go to your lesson and then practice the following week. This is like a diet. Just because you had a pint of ice cream doesn’t mean you should feast on crap for the rest of the week. Instead, shake your head at your humanity, and order your egg whites and salad for lunch and keep going. There is no bargaining here. Just go to your lessons and practice as best you can. The more you do it, the easier it is. And like a diet, your sense of cello well-being will reward your hard work.

3) Make sure your teacher doesn’t suck. There is a difference between an inexperienced teacher who is finding his stride, and a complacent teacher who is bitter he’s not playing more and needs to “fall back” on teaching to make the ends meet. Check that their technique is sound. Do they play as they are asking you to play? Ask who their teacher was. It doesn’t need to be some big-name teacher, but there is much to be said for the rigors of a college education: a good teacher knows what it is like to be taught. Do they have other students? This is not necessarily an indicator of ability, but rather how long someone has been teaching. For example, it took me over 5 years to have consistently more than 5 students at a time.

4) Make sure you don’t suck. The #1 cause of aviation fatalities is pilot error. Look to yourself first to be the problem. I hold my students supremely accountable, and if they are faltering, I tell them this: Bad news is, it’s your fault. Good news is, it’s your fault, so you can change things. I would say the second most common issue for students who are skirting the line between success and failure (the first one being lack of practice) is that they don’t have quality practice. This was the case with me, for a long time. I would do my 45 minutes a day after school, and it felt like I was just throwing myself at the instrument, instead of dismantling technical issues. If you find that you’re doing what’s prescribed and still disheartened by lack of progress, ask your teacher to walk you through a practice session. This might double the length of a lesson, but it’s so worthwhile. When she wrote out that shifting exercise, and you performed it 20 times just as prescribed, did you also pay attention to technique? Did you apply all of the other rules and corrections from the very beginning of lessons? Or are you just going for the notes? Most students can hit the notes after a while. True practice is crafting the manner in which you hit those notes, so you can be consistent and technically sustainable. One style of practice leads to genuine success, the other, to frustration.

5) Boost your music theory skills. Nothing is worse than a cloud of mystery over the very notes you play. Clean up rhythmic knowledge. Know your key signatures and what they mean. (Sure, 5 sharps makes B major, but what does that mean for you? Think extensions, shifts, no open strings) If your teacher can’t go over this stuff with you, it may be time to look for another teacher.

6) Read your lesson notes, and take them to heart. “Push your bow towards the bridge” isn’t a suggestion. Go for it with aplomb and see what happens. Don’t take the advice just a little. From here on out, implement the changes. If it’s important enough to scrawl in your lesson book, then it must be a key element lacking in technique or approach. Teachers don’t offer notes for nothing. They want you to improve, and they know from their own experience what needs to be done. Take a leap and make changes and improvements every time you sit down to play.

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7 Responses

  1. Great post. I hit my one year mark in April and your guidance hits the mark 100%. For beginning adults, there is also a social aspect to learning / playing the cello. People question why you would do such a thing or they like to reinforce something that you already know – it is a tough instrument to learn and play. You have to be mentally strong and not let those comments distract you from continuing on. Cheers.

  2. As a fellow teacher, I’m always looking for another way to say the same thing. Your perspective was extremely helpful. I can’t agree enough. And don’t you hate it when people ask, “How do you have time for all that?” It’s all about making time for the stuff you want to do–including cello!

  3. Congrats on the 1 year mark, Muser! You have remind yourself to have sympathy for people who can’t resist backhanded compliments or patronizing questions. Think, “There, there, naysayer. You, too, will rediscover the learning process. And when you do, I will have so many more years of experience that perhaps I will answer your call or comment on your blog when you need cheering. This is very hard, you know.”

    Megan: Feel free to contact me and I’ll list your blog (if you have one) on my list. We teachers are woefully underrepresented in the blog world! Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂

  4. This post makes such a good argument on why music programs should be supported in the schools. Kids learn all these things at an age where it can make a big difference on how their lives will turn out. Having been a band member (very long ago now, on trombone), I know kids can have a motivational thing going on for practice that adult learners don’t. They don’t want to let the team down. They want to know their part, to shine in front of their peers, to be a competent part of the group. Little do they know the band or orchestra thing is all a ruse to teach them life skills and habits.

  5. Great post! It took me about 5 years into my studies to find a great teacher. It wasn’t that the other teachers weren’t good but in looking back, I think they all taught me like an adult hobbyist and had little hope of me going very far. I guess I am an adult hobbyist but being taught like one slowed down my progress. I adore my current teacher. He has taught me how to practice. Before..I was just playing through pieces repeatedly and getting really frustrated with the lack of progress. I now know the kind of practice it takes to master certain things. Doesn’t mean I do it(haha), but I now know the difference between practicing and just plain fooling around (fun, but not productive)

  6. Thanks for the great tips! Question: What is the best way to begin your daily practice? Are scales the most helpful? Is it better to have a routine of scales, etude, piece, etc or is does varying a routine every day keep you more loose and your mind more active?

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