Life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old casual guitar player who can’t read music, I’ve embarked on a journey to learn the cello – an instrument that doesn’t spoon-feed you anything the way a guitar or piano does, and that requires time, patience and practice to play a single note. I’ve had my cello three days now, so how am I doing?

It’s going really well, actually. When you get it right and the instrument rewards you, there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction because you know you’ve earned it. And unexpectedly, I’m discovering that a lot of what I’m learning on the cello has a wider application – that the lessons of how to play are also lessons on how to live – so I thought I’d share them here.

Day One: Confront your fears

I had a girlfriend once who played the violin, and she never tuned it. ‘These sorts of instruments are too hard to tune,’ she said. ‘You have to take them to a specialist to get it done properly.’

So before getting my cello, I built up a massive complex about tuning. Since it’s a rental and came with luthier setup, I figured I’d leave it exactly how it came and be done with it.

When I got it out of the bag, and after adjusting the height until it felt comfortable, I tentatively plucked the strings. To my ear, and having no frame of reference, it sounded fine.

Being a guitar player, and thus well-versed in left-hand fingering, I ignored the bow for the moment and decided to practice some scales by simply plucking the strings (pizzicato). Since cellos have no frets, I knew the first step was to put tape on the fingerboard to mark first position, so I watched various YouTube videos explaining how to do this. They were all clear on one thing: you had to make sure the cello was in tune. Checking it against some tones I found online, I realised my cello was about one whole step down and all four strings needed tuning.

Bugger. With swelling anxiety, I read that, if you want to be a cellist, you have to be able to tune your own instrument. I knew if I left it, it’d grow into such an issue I’d never get over it, so I bit the bullet and watched a bunch of videos on how to tune a cello. With a healthy amount of trepidation and the certainty that I was going to mess up the very thing I’d been waiting for all week, I turned the first peg.

Wow. With 30-40lbs of tension in each string, the instrument makes one hell of a frightening cracking noise when you adjust the peg. And that peg is held in place by friction only, so you have to push it into the hole as you turn it, or else the moment you let go, it spins the other way and undoes all your hard work.

But you know what I discovered? It’s surprisingly easy, and once you’ve done it, your cello sounds so much better. There is no reason whatsoever to be afraid of tuning.

I spent the rest of the day plucking up and down the C-Major scale across all four strings, feeling rather pleased with myself. I’d conquered my fears and found them baseless, and was already being rewarded by my instrument.

So the big lesson of the day: confront your fears. You might just find that there was nothing to fear all along.

Day Two: Act with confidence

Since I was already building up anxiety about the bow, I took the lesson of Day One and dove right in. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d already read that in the first couple of weeks it’ll sound awful, but I wasn’t prepared for just how awful it sounded. The A-string is close enough to the violin (see my feelings on violins) that you can experience the screechy, scratchy drowning cat sound without even trying, especially if you’re fingering with your left hand at the same time. The lower strings sound better, but far from perfect. Like I said, the cello doesn’t spoon-feed you anything – instead of simply pressing a key, you have to do several tricky things at the same time to get a decent note.

Since practice makes perfect, I spent most of the day practising, but it wasn’t very good. I was nervous, which meant I was very tentative with the bow and I was trying to play quietly so I didn’t inflict the wretchedness on the rest of the family (and the neighbours).

Just when I was ready to give up for the day, I thought I’d throw caution to the wind and give it a bit of welly and – boom! – the sound improved massively. It was like flicking a switch to turn night into day. I realised that if you play nervously, afraid of the sounds you’ll make, you make bad sounds, whereas if you play with confidence, even if you’re unpracticed, you make good sounds.

That’s a great lesson for life – if you go into something worried that you’re going to fail, you will, but if you trust yourself and do it with confidence, even if it’s something new, you can achieve far more than you ever thought you could. The best at climbing trees are those with no fear of falling, after all.

Day Three: find what works for you

After two days playing the cello, yesterday evening my left wrist and right hand ached. I’ve watched more than a dozen videos and read about twenty articles on that ever-important bow-hold, and they all seem to say something slightly different. No matter which one I use, it cramps up my hand after a couple of minutes, and various parts of my body start to punish me.

Stepping back a moment, I found I was way too stiff. By trying to do everything right, and contorting my body into uncomfortable positions to fit someone else’s idea of ‘the correct way’, I was not only making myself sore, I wasn’t making a very good sound. You don’t grip the bow tightly, locking your fingers into place – you need a light, relaxed touch. And you don’t sit rigidly in the ‘correct’ posture – you need to be loose and gentle. Not all bodies are built the same, just as no people are built the same, so find what feels natural and right for you, and relax into it. You need to let go of your tension and flow, not only because it stops you getting sore, but because it makes everything sound better.

I spent today practising the C-Major scale with the bow up and down the four strings, and I’m feeling nowhere near as stiff, and not only that, it’s sounding great.

So, from three days of practice, I have these rules for life:

  1. Confront your fears
  2. Act with confidence
  3. Find what works for you

Who knows what I’ll discover tomorrow?