Monday, May 16, 2016

The Cello Diaries (On the Triumphs and Challenges of Being an Adult Student)

Yesterday I played in my first recital as a cellist.

I sat in a row of kids aged Kindergarten to Sixth Grade.

I'm 45.

I started playing the cello 16 months ago, after rejecting the violin. I *wanted* the fiddle to be my instrument, but it wasn't. I just didn't feel connected, in my heart. And when I was honest with myself, I knew I wanted to play the cello all along, but it's such a big instrument, not nearly so convenient. I mean, if you travel by plane, you have to buy the cello it's own seat!

But that cello with all its depth and melancholy (O, C string, how I adore you!) was calling to me. I couldn't ignore it. So I dumped the fiddle and got myself fixed up with a cello rental kit. I called up the cellist who taught my son to play cello many moons ago, and I started meeting with him every week.

Aside: someone I met recently described the cello's sound as "chocolate." I love that!

I learned 2 things right away when I began taking cello lessons:

1. The cello is a very physical instrument. There are adjustments to be made to shoulder and elbow and wrist. Posture is important, how you hold the cello, and then there's the hands. Who knew there was so much to learn about hands?

2. Learning to play the cello is a practice. It's a relationship, much like writing is a relationship. Nothing is ever static. You think you've got it, and then you don't. One way of doing things works for a while, then you need to make adjustments.

I've struggled mightily as a cello player.

The first big thing was my bow hold. I just couldn't do it. If I rounded my thumb, I felt like the bow was falling from my fingers. It doesn't help that I am left-handed, and bowing is done with the right hand. What helped me the most was getting a little gadget called the cellophant. This allowed me to quit worrying so much about the bow hold and get excited about being able to get a sound out of the cello! After a few months I was able to play without the gadget.

But there's more to this bow hold adventure. Read on!

back side of recital program
String crossings are another beast for me. I had a big eureka moment when I realized it was all in the elbow. If I paid attention to where my elbow was, I was a lot less likely to bump other strings. Also, whenever I practiced by plucking (not bowing), it helped me gain confidence in my pitches, leaving me more available to focus on not hitting the other strings.

It really is difficult to do different things with each hand at the same time! And, to learn everything at once. What helps me to break it down and work on just one small thing at a time (right now: remembering to move my thumb when I shift to 2nd or 3rd position).

By the time I was in about a year, I was cruising along pretty well. I was feeling much more confident. Then we got to exercise 12 in the Schroeder book, where you are supposed to hinge from the wrist (instead of moving your whole arm) when performing those slurs and string crossings. I couldn't get it. My hand was so stiff, it completely inflexible.

Which brought me and my current very patient teacher back to my bow hold. She did this exercise with me where she asked me to hold a bottled water between finger and thumb, with a tilt (neck down) and be aware of how it felt in my hand. She said this is how the bow should feel. That I should really be holding it with thumb and finger -- and allow the strings to hold the weight of the bow.

Something about this exercise caused a mental shift. I understood now! But I still couldn't make my wrist do that hinge-y thing.

I talked to my husband about it, and he said it reminded him of what it's like to be an amateur golfer. He knows he's never going to hit the ball 300 yards. But he still plays the game. And maybe I just needed to work on accepting my limitations, and just do what I could do.

So I did. And I got so much relief! I didn't have to stop playing cello. But yeah, maybe I wasn't going to perform Carnegie Hall.

BUT. Even though my teacher said, let's move on, I couldn't stop piddling with that Schroeder #12.

One day I was sitting at my cello, talking on the phone. The bow was in my hand, and I realized I WAS DOING IT. My wrist was a hinge! My arm was still! I was hitting all the right strings!

I told my father I needed to call him back, and I repeated the move over and over. I looked at it in the mirror. It was true, I really was doing it!

The next morning, the first thing I did upon waking was sit at my cello and see if I could repeat it. Did I still have the move?


I can't tell you how much conquering that has meant to my cello practice. Way more, even, than getting through today's recital.

Which I did get through just fine. "Musette" by Bach, from Suzuki cello book 2. (Video below of someone else playing it -- I had hoped for video of myself... alas. Read on!) My mind was all over the place, but I'd practiced my piece so many times that my body knew what to do.

It wasn't perfect... I could hear some pitches out of tune, I should have slowed down... but I hit every note. I was there. I didn't hyperventilate. I DID IT.

Afterwards I congratulated all the other kids, and their parents. I hugged my husband and sons for coming to watch. I didn't freak out too much when they said they didn't remember to take a picture or video of me....

And then I came home and practiced some more.


And now, I'm excited to be working with other area cellists to create Birmingham Cello Project!  Our first Meetup is next week. Can't wait!!!


  1. So impressed with your tenacity!! Cello is a gorgeous instrument.

  2. Great post! So proud of you. What to hang in there. Wish I could "cello-brate" with you, friend.

  3. Great post! So proud of you. What to hang in there. Wish I could "cello-brate" with you, friend.

  4. Irene, you are an inspiration in so many ways.


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