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?

It’s never too late to pick a new path

As a 23-year-old who had just finished a degree in film and just started a degree in nursing, I did something very stupid for someone living in a student house, working twelve-hour shifts in hospitals and care homes, and who didn’t have two pennies to rub together: I bought a violin.

Why a violin? At school, I used to watch other kids leave early to go to their violin lessons, and I was desperate to be one of them. There was something so sophisticated, so otherworldly, about those little black cases and those gorgeous wooden instruments. They spoke of a history and a culture almost unimaginable to a kid raised on Christian music and whose cultural horizons ended just outside the front door.

The violin stirred something in me, a nameless and poorly understood yearning for sharp suits, Corinthian columns and a tender beauty barely glimpsed behind a gossamer veil. I was terrified that if I reached out towards it, it would shatter – that such a fragile magnificence would never survive the cold light of day – but nonetheless, I wanted to throw myself into this feeling, and either triumph or be consumed.

Trouble was, I didn’t come from a musical family. There was an acoustic guitar in one corner for the occasional folk song and an organ in the other for hymns, but my parents weren’t particularly musical. They knew what they knew, and what they knew wasn’t much. While many of the children around me had rich educations in classical, or jazz, or blues, or rock, thanks to the tastes of their families, my brother and I knew the Christian songbook and little else.

But that doesn’t mean my parents weren’t open to our learning music. Being two years older, my brother was the trailblazer by which to gauge our musical potential, and his musical potential was, frankly, shit. My parents bought him a trumpet and paid for endless lessons, and over a couple of years of tone-deafness and refusal to practice, he hadn’t progressed beyond making fart sounds. In fact, I think his favourite thing about the trumpet was draining the spit from it.

So when it was my turn, I was rewarded with the recorder, a cheap, plastic abomination of an instrument that is torture for anyone within earshot, including the player, and a music teacher (the school’s head) so frightening that my hands would literally shake as I played. We learnt and played in a large group, and if there were any squeaks she’d stop mid-piece and make you all play solo so she could work out which of you to shout at. Needless to say, my recorder experience was not a crowning success.

When I later floated the idea, multiple times, of learning the violin, it’s therefore no surprise it wasn’t met with any enthusiasm. It was a waste of time and money for someone who hadn’t shown an ounce of musical flair, so while other kids had these fetishistic attachments to polishing pads and reeds and bows, gleaming metal and shining wood, I sat and watched and envied and swore that one day I’d learn violin.

Then something happened in my teens. My brother bought a CD by a band called Nirvana, whose singer had killed himself a couple of months earlier, and through the bedroom wall I heard something that I just couldn’t ignore. When he got bored of Nevermind after a few weeks, I bought it off him, and played it endlessly. For the first time in my life, I felt a visceral connection with something beyond myself, some intangible sense of the sublime, and I wanted to disappear into it.

Luckily, there was an acoustic guitar downstairs. Getting some guitar books with chord shapes in them, and watching a video that explained tablature, I threw myself into learning the guitar with the typical obsessiveness of an autistic teenager. I played every spare moment I had, teaching myself by ear, mastering techniques I didn’t know the names of like hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, natural and pinch harmonics, tremolos, palm-muting, pick slides. Eight to ten hours a day, I drove my family absolutely nuts repeating the same riffs over and over until I could play them perfectly without looking.

There were, however, a few massive problems with my training. As a lonely social outcast, I saw the guitar as my gateway into the larger world of music. If I could master the guitar, I thought, people would think I was cool and want to be my friend. The guitar was therefore a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I didn’t play it because I enjoyed it, though there was an element of that – what I enjoyed was impressing people with my ability, turning my obsessiveness into a positive and using my guitar-playing to compensate for my social deficits.

That meant that while I was focused on playing songs and riffs and solos, I wasn’t interested in anything to do with musical theory. You don’t need to understand why something works, I thought, in order to make it work. If I’m impressing someone with the solo from ‘Enter Sandman’, what does it matter that I can’t read music or know any scales or what all the notes are?

Looking back, I think this was partly because of my autism, since we’re often great at rote learning but lack a genuine, broader understanding of a topic. But in larger part, I think it’s because I’ve always had a massive inferiority complex to ‘musicians’. I was useless at music – the recorder showed me that. It’s too hard. I’m not capable; I’ll never be able to learn music; I’ll never be able to learn scales. Every lunchtime I watched the other kids go off into that glorious, unreachable world of orchestra and band practice, a world I knew was beyond my grasp.

I therefore ‘mastered’ the guitar without really knowing or understanding anything about the guitar. It got me out and about, it got me into bands, it got me socialising, but that was where it ended.

‘I can play the guitar, but I’m not musical,’ I used to say. ‘I know nothing about music.’

At 23, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be me. I thought that being able to play the violin would make me interesting, so I bought one – not because I wanted to play it for itself, but so I could be somebody else.

Of course, in an age before YouTube and on a shoestring budget with unkind (or sensible) housemates, teaching myself the violin the way I’d taught myself the guitar wasn’t something I had the time or inclination to pursue. After a few weeks I put it in the back of the wardrobe with the idea that I’d learn to play it eventually.

And there it sat for sixteen years.

It was a constant reminder that I’m not musical; that I don’t have what it takes to be a musician. Musicians are a special, select group, walking among us like gods who inhabit a mysterious, divine world that we mere mortals can only dream of.

A few weeks ago, I took it back out.

Earlier this year, I was in a really bad place. Nearing forty, I thought I’d reached the end of me. Nothing really gave me any pleasure. I didn’t look forward to anything, didn’t get excited, didn’t care if I lived or died. It was too late for me to do anything, I thought. Where I am now was where I would always remain.

One of the side-effects of depression, something I’ve struggled with all my life, is a lack of motivation. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say depression was invented by a diabolical genius – it makes you unwilling to do the very things that help lift you out of depression. Particularly if it’s something new.

So a few weeks ago, I decided I’d try to force myself out of my depression by teaching myself the violin. I spent hours watching videos online and trying to apply what I’d learnt, the cat-screech wail of my instrument testament to my utter lack of musical ability.

I was about to give in as the failure I always knew I was, when I suddenly came to a startling realisation that I wish I’d known sixteen years ago:

I don’t like the violin.

All these years I’ve spent looking up to violinists, I’ve been fixated on what they are rather than what they’re playing.

Even a good violin, played by a good violinist, is whiny. I don’t mind it as part of an orchestra to highlight or accentuate movements, but on its own it isn’t very pleasing to my ear. Why would I want to invest that much time and energy learning to play something in a room on its own that I don’t like the sound of in a room on its own?

So I asked myself the question: what do I like? The answer should have been obvious from the start.

Four years ago, while feeding my baby late one night, I was flicking through channels on the TV when I came across a concert by 2Cellos, a classically-trained Croatian two-piece. They were playing Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and there’s no other way to describe my reaction than that they blew my freaking mind. I had never seen such passion, energy, grace and talent, and when, a few days later, I recorded their 2013 concert at Pula Arena, I discovered that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the least of their triumphs. I then watched it more than fifty times, and bugged everybody in my life to watch it too.

For four years I’ve listened to people playing the cello and loved every moment of it. What started with 2Cellos moved on to Hauser and Yo-Yo Ma, ‘Schindler’s List‘ to Bach’s ‘Cello Suite No.1 Prelude‘. My favourite piece of music of all time is the opening four-note run in 2Cellos’ version of ‘Now We Are Free’ from Gladiator. It’s the bit where, in the original, Lisa Gerrard sang ‘We de(ee) zu’. I can’t explain why but those four notes resonate with something inside me. They communicate in a language beyond words, as if I have strings in my heart and God is playing them. People talk about having a ‘God-shaped hole’, and as someone who’s spent his whole life feeling disconnected, I’ve longed for the touch of the divine. Listening to the cello is the closest I’ve ever been to heaven.

So it is strange that never once in all that time, even in passing, have I ever considered learning to play the cello. It genuinely never occurred to me; didn’t cross my mind for a second. I see movies set in space and wonder if I’d make a good astronaut; I go to the doctor and wonder if I’d be a good doctor; so how big a mental blindspot must I have to obsess over cellists and never once consider learning to play the cello?

I guess it’s because I thought cellos are for musicians. They’re for other people, better people; people who went to orchestra at lunch, who understand music and would’ve been able to play the recorder. I believed, without question, that mine is to watch in humbled awe, to listen and be moved, not to participate. I never believed the magic could be mine to hold.

But why not? I suddenly realised, in this blinding explosion of the obvious, that I don’t want to play the violin – I want to play the cello. Not because of how it’ll make me look, not to make friends, not to join an orchestra or bore my family with recitals – I want to play the cello because I genuinely like the cello. I want to play it for me. I want to sit in a room on my own with nobody listening and play it for its own sake, with no other goal than to play. I want to feel the notes vibrating in my chest, and I want to understand it all.

For the first time in forever, which I know sounds awful for someone with a wife and two young children, I feel excited about the future. I feel hope. It’s like being a kid again, the first day of a new school. There’s a long journey ahead, but you look down at your feet and watch yourself take your first step, and you step into a larger world, a more colourful world, a bright place of endless opportunities, where things will never be quite the same.

I’m not unrealistic. I know it’s going to be hard. I’ll become disillusioned at times, there’s going to be plenty of frustration and tears, but it’s better to be on a path you want to follow than on literally any other path. All I know is that a year from now, I’ll be a better cellist than I am today; that in five years, I’ll be better than that; and in ten, who knows how far along that path I’ll be?

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we can’t do something because we’re too old, or we’re not good enough, or we failed in the past. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I can’t do music, that I’m too old to learn a new instrument, that unless you have a musical background growing up, there’s no place for music in your life. Therefore, for my whole life, I’ve been completely full of shit.

It’s never too late to pick a new path. Nothing is impossible.

I’m looking forward to the coming year.