More life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old self-taught guitar-player who never learned to read music, I’ve spent the past two months attempting to master the cello. Hard? Damn straight. But nothing worth doing is ever easy.

At first, I thought my age would count against me – Yo-Yo Ma started at 4, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist du jour, is only 20 – but I quickly realised that studying an instrument isn’t about simply learning the notes: it’s about utilising important life skills that have far wider applications than music (Life lessons from learning cello). I might not have the flexibility, patience or single-mindedness of a child, but I like to think my adult insight makes up for this deficit.

So here are more life lessons from learning cello.

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

The first few days, I mastered the C-Major scale across the four strings, and it sounded pretty good. Up, down, up, down, what could be simpler? I learned the notes and finger positions and figured I’d be a virtuoso in no time. If I know where the notes are already, I thought, I’ll be able to play proper music, without having to waste time on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

As they say, pride comes before a fall.

After six days, I looked up the sheet music for Schindler’s List – one of the pieces of music that inspired me to take up cello – and worked out where all the notes were (not being able to read music, after all). I figured it’s a slow piece, so there shouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, I was playing Nirvana a week after first picking up the guitar. How hard could it be?

Hard. It sounded like a leaky arsehole. Eurgh!

There’s playing notes and then there’s playing music, and the two things are worlds apart, especially when it comes to the cello. On the piano, you can make a perfect note every time with a single action – whether you’re five or fifty-five, press a key and you’ll get the same sound. On the cello, multiple things have to happen to make a note – the fingers of your left hand have to be in the exact position, not a millimetre out of place, and you have to be applying the right pressure; in your right hand, your bow has to be held properly, and it needs to be pressing on the strings correctly, with the correct force, moving smoothly and perfectly straight at the right speed. And for music, you need to adjust the force for expression, accelerate or decelerate. Without vibrato (where you rock the fingers of your left hand), everything sounds horribly thin and unappealing.

While you might be able to go up and down a scale and make it sound okay, and you can play the notes to Schindler’s List after six days, to make it sound good takes years. This realisation was a massive blow to my confidence, and I was of a mind to quit outright. But you have to be resilient if you want to achieve anything good – which brings me to my second life lesson.

2. Take it one step at a time.

A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath your own feet. All you have to do is take one step.

That’s all such a journey is – a succession of individual steps. Don’t think about all the months and years it’s going to take you. Don’t think of all the steps you’re going to have to take. The only thing you should think about, and the only thing over which you have control, is the very next step. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll get there.

That’s how we achieve any difficult, incremental goal whose attainment is way off in the future, and it’s a vitally important skill to have when learning an instrument – one step at a time. It helps you remain patient; encourages you to take it slow and master the basics; prevents you from racing on ahead and becoming disheartened; and limits much of the frustration and despair that you will inevitably feel.

And remember: you can’t take the second step until you’ve taken the first. So after those rapid first six days, I picked myself up and went back to the very beginning: the cello position; holding the bow; bowing an open string; moving from one string to an adjacent one; skipping over a string; first finger; third and fourth finger; and learning to read the notes on the bass clef. You need a solid foundation on which to build, and if you don’t get the basics right, it’s all just wasted effort.

So when the other day, after two months of nursery rhymes, I learned to play the cello part from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it sounded amazing, a just reward for my perseverance. Of course, it’s one of the easiest classical pieces to play, but who cares? I’m proud of myself. And that is so important in a world where you’re surrounded by people better than you.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

(Props to Jordan B. Peterson for this one). This, I think, is probably the most important lesson any of us can learn, whether it’s as a musician, a partner, a parent, or, really, anything. There will always be someone better than you. And I’m not just talking about listening to Stepjan Hauser and despairing that you’ll never be as good as him – I’m talking about all the crap that social media throws at us on a daily basis about our abilities, our relationships, our worth in regard to other people.

Part of the reason I raced ahead to Schindler’s List in six days was from watching videos on YouTube showing how far ordinary people had come in just one week with the instrument. I felt like I was in competition, and I compared everything I was doing with them. And it’s strange, when you start learning the cello, how many people suddenly appear out of the woodwork to say, ‘My cousin’s a professional cellist,’ or ‘My nephew’s just been accepted into music college,’ and I just felt so bloody inferior to them all, so darned useless.

But really, it’s not about competing with anybody else, because I’m not anybody else – I’m me. And each day I sit down to play my cello, I get a little bit better; it feels a mite more natural; and I’ve taken another step towards that distant goal.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Of course, taking it slowly, mastering the basics, and judging yourself only against yourself, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of the bigger picture. Yes, right now I’m playing Algy the Bear, but ultimately I want to be playing River Flows In You, and it’s not wrong to keep that distant dream in the back of your mind to give you both a goal to work towards and the motivation to get there. Just make sure it helps you, and doesn’t hinder you.

To help me on the way, I’ve started taking lessons. Originally I’d intended to teach myself, but after following five separate teachers on YouTube, all of whom were excellent, I found they were actually confusing me more than helping as they all said slightly different things. When you’ve learned five different bow holds, you start to second guess everything you do, so I decided I’d need one single tutor who could correct all the mistakes I’m making.

In terms of ultimate goals, she asked me how far I wanted to go with the cello, and I realised I hadn’t really given it much thought. I played her River Flows In You on my iPod and told her I wanted to play things like that. ‘So, professional then,’ she said, and it threw me through a loop. When I started to play the guitar, it was to play rock songs; I knew I probably wouldn’t ever be as good as Kirk Hammett from Metallica or Slash from Guns N’ Roses, but I’d definitely be able to master Nirvana, Oasis and Weezer (yes, this enables you to date when I started playing the guitar). But when I took up the cello, it was to play classical music – I mean, that’s what it’s designed for, right? You don’t take up cello because you want to play RnB. Doesn’t everyone reach the stage that they’re playing classical music? Does that mean they’re all professionals?

She’s teaching two other ‘mature’ students, one of whom has reached Grade 4 in eighteen months, the other Grade 8 in two years – whatever the hell that means. They want to play in orchestras. I only ever thought about playing in the spare room – I was learning the cello for its own sake, but I guess the essence of music is performance, so it’s something to consider, provided it doesn’t interfere with lessons 1-3 above.

5. Have fun!

And, all of the above notwithstanding, have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, even if it’s just Baa Baa Black Sheep. After doing an hour of scales, I like to reward myself by working out a rock song and then making as much noise as I can. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is virtually identical to Green Day’s Basket Case, while U2’s With or Without You is pretty easy. Pantera’s Walk is less so. Lamb of God’s Redneck is a non-starter.

So these are five more life lessons from learning cello:

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

2. Take it one step at a time.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

5. Have fun!

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