Christine's Blog

Musings and Thoughts about All Things Musical ...

How To Get Started …

Oct 20, 2020

As children, we’re constantly learning new things, but often as we get older, we are introduced to fewer and fewer new items and stick to the old, the familiar, the comfortable. Have you ever thought you’d like to learn an instrument, but don’t know where to start? Have you ever seen someone else playing an instrument and thought it must be a satisfying and exciting way to spend your time?

When you hear a cello, does it wake up a part of you that says, I’d like to do that? 

If so then playing cello might be the thing for you! And I can tell you how to get started!

The first thing you need to know is what instrument you’d like to play. Choose whatever one you feel drawn to, or not, sometimes the choice might surprise you.

When my mother first asked if I’d like to play an instrument, my answer was a resounding YES!  She told me I could go to the music store and choose whatever instrument that I wanted.  In the time that followed I got busy thinking of all my possibilities and I finally came to my decision.  So off to the store we went and I knew just what it was I wanted to play.  We got there and I finally had a chance to announce my choice. The harp! Imagine my surprise, when I was told that I was not to be going home with a harp, the reason being that they could not afford a new harp and a new car to transport said harp at the same time. 

Hmmm … Now what do I do?  Both my sisters at that time were playing violin, so I was familiar with the violin family, but of course, did not want to play the same instrument as my sisters.  In desperation I looked around and lo and behold there was a giant violin. I decided that was what I would play.  Yay! Decision made!  Unfortunately, I’d chosen the double bass and it was too big – same issue as the harp – not enough funds for an instrument of that size and a car in which to transport it. So a bit begrudgingly and not so enthusiastically I looked around for the next biggest thing. I saw the cello. I decided well, that will do. It was still BIGGER than what my sisters played, and it was different.  I was still somewhat unsatisfied, but happy to be coming home with something.  We picked up an instructional book, the cello, a bow, a case, some rosin, strings and off we went.

The next morning I excitedly woke up and thought I’d try my new instrument.  I went downstairs to the music room, pulled the cello out of its case, ready to give it a try!  I got out the book and looked at the pictures and sat on the chair like they showed.  I positioned the cello like they showed.  And finally, I pulled out the bow and positioned my hand just like they showed.  Now I was ready!  I placed the bow on the strings and WOW!! Was this sound really coming from me?!  I was truly impressed and amazed … it was so fun!

I’m sure I scratched away in total glory for a while and then got busy.  Mom got me a teacher, set up a lesson and we went to town.  I haven’t mentioned this before, but my mother was a piano teacher, so to say I was prepared for my first lesson was an understatement.  I went to my first lesson with four pieces learned.  Since I’ve been teaching I’ve realized that this was quite an achievement.  And truth be told, she (my Mom) guided me through many hours of practicing and learning new things.  Some sessions terrific, some we fought, which is generally the case in practicing together with a parent.  Although I must admit I was much better for her involvement than without!

I remember, an adult student of mine, started cello with her children already being very accomplished musicians.  Of course, she wanted to share this journey with her children and set about playing a piece together.  One day she emailed me a video called ‘The Perfect Practice’.  The video was so endearing to me because when I opened it, it was not ‘perfect’ at all.  It was fighting, telling people what to do and all in all a power struggle between 3 people ….. exactly what happens.  I must say I laughed so hard; it truly was too perfect!

This is what happens, though, time and time again as you learn – things don’t always go as you think they will, but in time you figure it out and it really gets better and better! It’s hard to remember that as an adult!

So all things being said, the first step in learning to play an instrument is picking one.  At this point you can truly start speaking the language of music.

Next step is getting an instrument. Do you rent or buy? In my case we bought the cello.  I think it was a good starter model and it was a good choice for our family. In my studio I do recommend that students rent to start.  A good cello for a beginner is more expensive than say a good guitar or a woodwind. Not all cellos are created equal and not every fantastic cello will be the right one for you. By renting, if the cello is not a good fit for you (instrumentally wise) you can always return the instrument and choose a different one.  Learning can be difficult and has its challenges, there are ups and downs. If you choose an instrument that doesn’t really speak to you the way you want it too, perhaps you need to go down a different path.  You will experience the challenges the same way, but on an instrument that tells you to just keep going! Color, sound, tone, size… these are all things that impact your choice of instrument and as a beginner, you’re not in the best place to evaluate them yet.

You can also buy acceptable beginner cellos at a reasonable cost at a lot more places these days, even on Amazon. The quality, sound and playability of these instruments is not close to a high end instrument, but they are acceptable for a beginner and are  around the same cost as renting for a year from a reputable shop.  This is not a bad option as you can upgrade in the future at a shop where you can try various cellos and choose one that suits you.  For this reason, I think buying a cheaper beginner cello is a good choice if you don’t like the idea of renting.

I have to say though, do absolutely get a shop to set up your instrument properly.  It will usually come with a factory bridge, meaning that it still needs to be carved to fit the front of the cello.  It is well worth getting it set up at a proper shop.  AND,  I would add, get some decent strings.  They will cost around $200 which seems like a lot, but you will like the sound of your instrument much better with decent strings! Proper set up and strings will help you realize the true sound of the cello – the best sound you can pull from it.

(amazon link, to cello and starter strings here)

The next thing you will need to learn is to how to TUNE your cello!  This step gets missed, so MANY times, and it really is quite crucial. If you don’t tune your instrument, it affects EVERYTHING!!! At this point you are still learning how to set your posture, your left hand, your right hand.  If you are doing all these things correctly and  not tuning your cello, your poor ear will not stand a chance!  This is also why good strings are necessary; not only will your cello sound better and be easier to practice with, you will be much happier with the sounds you make assuming the decent strings you just bought are in tune .

Learning to play the cello is a feat in itself.  If you hit all the points of posture and positioning correctly, but have not tuned, you may still end up sounding terrible.  Tuning is essential, EVERY PRACTICE!! This in turn will help your ear develop, so on top of sounding better, your ear will develop better too!  It’s a really important point to remember and it will provide benefits that will far outweigh the bit of extra time and effort it takes to tune before you play. The good news is you do not have to tune your instrument by ear alone, there are many tuning apps available for smart phones and tablets the one I’m currently using is called Soundcorset, its free and excellent to start with.  If you prefer not to use an app you can also buy a tuner. This set up paves the way for you to spend as much time cultivating the correct sound once you start practicing!

Here comes another point.  Be sure to get the right size cello. They are not one size fits all.  I once scheduled a lesson with a 6 year old, who was all excited and ready to play.  His parents had gone out and bought a cello. When he came to lesson, I was prepared to teach him, only to find out this little guy had a full sized cello, a 4/4 cello. Cellos come in all shapes and sizes. You need to choose an instrument based on your size.  Whether it be 1/8 to 1/4 to 1/2 to 3/4 to a full size.  Even full size cellos come in a variety of styles and shapes.  I’m petite, so my full size is the smallest I could find, this makes it much easier to play.

Choosing the size that is right for you will make your instrument much easier to hold.  Holding your cello properly is another important part of playing well and achieving a good sound. The right size instrument will assist you in maintaining proper posture and posture is key to so many things.  If you don’t have good posture, there are many things that will be very difficult for you.  It is literally the root of many issues. 

Spend time choosing the right cello for you.  Spend time getting your cello set up properly and buy a good set of strings. Spend time developing a proper sitting posture with your cello.  Spend time tuning your cello.  These things will make a significant contribution to your success in learning to play the cello.

After this, the next question is learning how to read music.  While this is eventually non-negotiable, it’s not necessarily essential right away.  This is why I choose to teach the Suzuki Method to beginners.  The main premise of this method is to learn to play by ear first then learn to read.  This makes a lot of sense to me.  I personally learned via the traditional method which is reading and learning to play at the same time.  In my quest to learn how to teach I researched many teaching methods.  In this process I came across the Suzuki Method, which is ear development first, reading second. This is the same way we learn language.  We learn to speak, long before we can read or write.  Why wouldn’t it be the same for the language of music?  Reading is essential to playing an instrument eventually, just not right at the beginning.  Our brain learns in very specific ways, why not do what’s most natural?!  For this reason, I train posture and ear first then reading,…. think understanding speech (posture) then speaking (ear).  Eventually, reading, like any language, will expand your musical horizons immensely, you can learn any piece by looking at sheet music, noting the melody, rhythm, and even the feeling (that is often noted too!)  It really is an invaluable tool, though only in its own time.

What’s the next step to learning? Practice!!

Ahh … what a loaded word.  Sometimes incredible and flowing, and sometimes frustrating and tiring.  You need to practice to play any instrument or learn a language.  You need to practice something before becoming accomplished at it.  There are moments that are super intense and you think you may never get it, and then suddenly, as hard as it seems, something clicks.  Then it is as if you were never without it.  It becomes as natural a part of you as breathing or the ease with which you drink a glass of water. 

If you have ever watched a baby learning a new skill, you can see all the steps that are involved in it.  To open a door.  They have to:

    • crawl to the door
    • climb up the door
    • reach for the handle
    • shape their hand to the handle
    • hold the handle
    • turn the handle
    • pull the door open
    • move out of the way for the door to open

As time goes on, opening the door becomes one fluid motion.  This is accomplished though practicing the sequence of skills.  As they each become practiced they blend together and become one motion.  VERY COOL!

This is what we eventually, and I say EVENTUALLY, learn to do with our instruments.  One thought becomes all these motions, without even thinking about it.  This is what practice does.  One fluid motion, one impulse or thought, controls this whole sequence.  Nothing short of MAGICAL!

The difference between learning an instrument and giving it up is practice.  Develop a routine and commit to it.  You are immersing yourself in a language and it’s up to you to keep it up.  If you do, you WILL succeed!

Make practicing easy. Set yourself up for success. Find a nice place in your house for practicing — hopefully easily accessible and where you might spend your leisure time. Store your cello there.  The will make it much easier to sit down and play, thus learning it in a much speedier fashion. Get a music stand and leave your music open and ready on it. Soon you will find you will be picking it up every free minute you have.  You will be making music much sooner than you think!

In the I Luv Cello program, I designed a process to take you through every small step so you’re set up for success every step along the way!  I take you on a journey starting from learning about the cello itself and establishing a vocabulary that we can use to discuss the cello together.  What is the bridge?  What is the fingerboard? Then we discuss how to choose a cello? Whether to rent or buy?  How do I tune the cello? Then I show you how to sit with the cello, what your posture looks like, how you should feel free and comfortable with the cello.  I do the same thing with the bow.  What are the parts of the bow?  How do I hold the bow?  How do I place the bow on the cello?  How do I make a great sound with the bow?  We also look at the left hand.  How do I place this on the cello?  What does my arm look like?  How does my arm support my hand so that fingers are free to move efficiently and effortlessly?  Eventually we put both hands together and then start learning pieces!  During these lessons I have even included some videos, designed to help you with the process of how to practice.  I feel this is an invaluable tool to help you along.  Imagine, your own private practice coach in the comfort of your own home.  It is a wonderful process designed so that you can learn to play cello, with comfort, ease and joy!  If you are interested, check out some of my I Luv Cello videos on my Tutorials page.

  (upload, parts of the cello, rent or buy, parts of the bow, and initial posture work )

Are you are a bit more advanced?  Don’t fret, I have thought of that too. You will find on my Tutorials page, some free lessons on specific repertoire as well as additional ones for purchase (under Enriched videos) for a fraction of the cost of taking these tutorials in private lessons.    Here you can purchase lesson sets, designed to take you through the A to Z’s of learning a specific piece.  I will be uploading more of these on a consistent basis.  So stay tuned! 

Don’t see what you’d like to learn?  Send me a note and make a request, I’ll see what I can do.

As well, are you having an issue with a specific piece?  Send me a note and see if we could set up an online coaching session.  I am here to help in any way I can!

This is your learning journey. I can give you the tips, tricks and tools you need, and help you realize your goal of playing an instrument. You won’t regret it. 

Much Cello love,

Christine

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To your cello success!

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