The first question I’m usually asked when I tell a friend I’m learning the cello is “Are you taking lessons?” No, I’m not taking lessons at this point – meaning I don’t meet in person with a teacher. Some friends are troubled by that answer. It may be the fear that I’ll learn bad habits that will be difficult to un-learn later, and will limit my progress as a cellist. I can think of a few reasons I have put off lessons so far… 1) It’s logistically difficult, given my location and schedule. 2) I’m afraid it would be difficult for a teacher to deal with my independence, constant questions and strange ideas. 3) Maybe I really want to reach a certain level of skill and be able to say “I did it my way!”
I don’t mean to be arrogant. My friend Sam has a teacher and has made amazing progress in the past year. I have no doubts that the right teacher could be a big help to me as well, but it could take some effort to find the right teacher. In the mean time, there are abundant online resources for the DIY cellist. I especially like the video lessons by Hans Zentgraf (Cello Academy). Hans’ first lesson is worth watching just to hear him say “Hi, dear friends! This is our beloved cello.” You can find these and many more cello lesson videos on YouTube. There are also some wonderful videos of Yo-Yo Ma, Maisky, Rostropovich, du Pre and other great cellists performing. Sam actually learns to play serious pieces by watching YouTube!
Videos are very helpful because you can watch the cellist’s hands and see exactly what they are doing (if your eyes are quick!). But my most important teacher is Cello Playing for Music Lovers, by Vera Mattlin Jiji. “Music Lovers” is a euphemism for “older beginners” and this is definitely the method book for someone starting in over fifty, like me. Jiji’s book assumes no musical background, and unlike a lot of books that make that claim it actually delivers on the details, with excellent explanations of the basics of tuning, holding, and playing the cello. Jiji has chosen a fine selection of songs that are playable for the beginner yet still interesting. “Twinkle, Twinkle” isn’t in this book.
Jiji places great importance on playing with “alert relaxation” and she does a good job coaching toward that goal. For the first few weeks, I was completely tense – arching my back and holding my breath as I played – because of my concentration and fear of making a mistake. The result was so much back pain that I feared I would have to give up the cello altogether. For a few days, I even wore a back brace when I practiced and that helped, but it was not the right answer. Alert Relaxation is the right answer and following Jiji’s advice, I slowly learned to relax while playing and the back problems are gone. When I try to make no mistakes, I sound terrible. If I throw caution to the wind and play as though I was good at it, I sometimes sound great!