Friday, January 20, 2006


Never too old to learn the cello

Learning the cello at age 55
I stopped after only an hour and a half today; it was just one of those days, I guess. I just wasn’t getting a good feeling from it. I probably should have switched to the scales, which always ground me, but I suddenly felt lazy.

It started out all right at about 7:30. After waking at 5:30 and exercising (fast walking at 5.0 mph on the treadmill) for a half hour, I shower and dress and take Z down to the bus at 6:30. Another hour to drink a few cups of strong dark roast and eat a piece of toast with crunchy peanut butter, while reading yesterday’s local rag and watching Fox news.

Then I set up the music stand in the middle of the living room; plug in the mike; load up the tuner/analyzer on the desktop; setup my laptop on the footstool beside me with the Suzuki disc loaded and the CD remote on the music stand; bring out a kitchen chair; pour a cup of coffee; mute the TV; tighten the bow and whip a few strokes of rosin onto it; put on my reading glasses and finger cot (for a little more dexterity, I cut the cot shorter today – now it just covers the tip up to the first knuckle); and then get the cello from the stand.

I spend a few minutes tuning it up - the C string at 65.4 Hz, the G string at 98.0 Hz, the D string at 146.8 Hz, and the A string at 220.0 Hz. I first tune it by plucking (pizzicato), then I rapidly bow each string several times and recheck the tuning. After tuneup, I haven’t really been using the tuner much anymore. (Below I describe an interesting tuning technique I learned about today.)

The next step is to bow the open strings for a while, varying speed, rhythms and techniques. I run scales up and down each string - one at a time, then two at a time, jumping back and forth to all four strings. Lately, I’ve been increasing the bowing speed and using the new Suzuki rhythms -"1-da-and-da, 2 and", "1-da-and-da, 2-da-and-da", and "1 and-da, 2 and-da".

Finally, after the warmup, I start on the simple exercises and work into the Twinkle variations. I listen to each one (while the piano helped set the rhythm, I sure wish they would offer a track with no piano at all; I’d really like to hear what the cello sounds like alone; that’s what I’m hearing as I play it myself); play it through four or five times, stopping once in a while to work on any difficult transitions; and then I listen to it again.

Suzuki talks about always striving to play beautifully. I’m trying.

I’m working on sound volume and quality. I really like playing it loud – especially when it causes the other strings to reverberate:

#1 (D) on the C string,
#4 (C) on the G string,
#1 (A) on the G string,
#4 (G) on the D string,
#2 (C) on the A string , and
#4 (D) on the A string.

The open G string is especially interesting on my cello, sometimes the whole body hums.

“Never Too Late”

In 1978 John Holt wrote an engaging memoir called “Never Too Late”, in which he describes taking up the cello later in life. He recounts his encounters with music throughout his life – singing a bit in high school, his awakening to jazz and the big bands in the 40s, and then gradually opening up to classical music. He picked up the flute at 30 but put it aside after a few years.

At 40 he bought a cello, started taking lessons, and eventually got involved with various local chamber music groups and quartets. He describes some of his early performances and experiences with various groups, one time where he completely lost his place and ended up just sitting and waiting for the piece to end. He describes how he approached his studies, and how he learned the various pieces he was playing.

His message is that you are never too old to learn. He relates an encounter with Janos Starker, a renown cellist, who upon hearing Holt was trying to learn the cello as an adult, told him that while older students have a much more difficult time developing the necessary muscular controls and coordination, they have one big advantage over younger students, because they can ask questions of themselves and then strive to answer them. This really struck a sympathetic vibration in me.

Many years ago, I read somewhere – maybe it was even Dear Abbey – about a 40 year old woman who was afraid to go back to college to become a teacher because her friends and family laughed at her and told her she was too old, that she wouldn’t even finish until she was 44. Abbey restated her question: So you say that you are worried that you’ll be 44 before you become a teacher; but if you don’t back go to college now, then what would you be when you reach age 44?

For years I put off exercising (absolutely necessary in order to lose weight) because it would be hard and it would take too long before I saw any results. I didn’t have the patience to diet and exercise for the six months it was going to take to seriously get my weight down. If I couldn’t have it all at once, I couldn’t get myself to do it. Strange, huh?

We all want instant gratification. Is that why so many people have trouble dieting? If the pounds don’t drop all at once, we don’t feel like it is worth the effort? Of is it that we don’t feel like it is really possible, since the results are incremental. You can’t see the changes as they happen, but if you keep at it you’ll be able to look back and see where you used to be.

One evening in September 2004, I realized that before long I was going to be 54 1/2 regardless of whether I weighed 250 pounds or 185 pounds; that it was my choice. Once my goal became weighing 185 at 54 1/2, but obviously not at 53 and 1/2, it was easier to wait for serious results.

The same thing happened when I started learning spanish. Obviously I wasn’t going to speak it perfectly when I began trying. I was going to have to work at it patiently, and I would eventually improve. After a year and half of intensive studying, I was just reaching the point where I could speak grammatically and colloquially correct castellano in groups of acquaintances or even one-on-one with strangers. [Later I’ll tell about our experience with emigration when we left Argentina for the last time – my verbal skills were not only functioning, but I was expressing anger, frustration, impatience, and most of all determination. I believe that is what got us out of the country that night.]

Holt realized that the first step for him in learning was the realization that it was going to take time, but that if he was willing to put in the time and patience, he would continuously improve. I have no illusions of greatness. I can’t see me ever being good enough to play in an orchestra, but I do want to play good enough to please myself. To be able to work out songs from memory (or favorite rock songs from my albums) and from listening to them, to be able to develop a cello version using Finale NotePad, and then learn to play it with a beautiful sound.

Holt described some of his discoveries and insights into the cello and music in general that I want to try for myself. When he struck an A-tuning fork and put the post on his bridge, the A string would vibrate in response. The closer it was to being a pure A, the stronger it vibrated. Then he described how he would bow the D string and leave the bow on the string, stopping the sound, and if the D was a pure 5th below the A, it would cause a sympathetic vibration in the A string. If it was off a bit, he’d see if it was sharp or flat by touching the D string at the nut to see if it made the A vibrate stronger. He applied the same technique to the other strings both working up the chromatic scale and down. I want to work on this tomorrow.

Holt makes a powerful case for learning with patience, humility and perseverance, to enjoy the process and not look for some future result. Sadly, John Holt died in 1985 at age 62.What a wonderful book. I’m adding it to my profile.

I'm not sure if you'll ever see this comment, you did blog this in 2006. I just wanted to say that before I read your blog I was in need of some inspiration, to pick up the cello for the first time, learn other languages, go to the gym in the morning and keep studying for the bar. So, thank you.
And here we are several years later still :)
I am good in the motivation department overall but I do like to know there are others out there making the same journey. If eels as if we are all lanterns on the current floating in the same general direction at our on speed and time. It looks quite beautiful from afar. Thank you for sharing!
I'm a bit late but I just wanted to say thank you
I am VERY late to the blog, but, I am 55 years old, and about to begin cello lessons. I've never played an instrument, and don't really read music, but I LOVE music. I am gathering my courage, and making the move. The comments and advice that I've found here, are going to keep me moving toward my enjoy trying something new, and to appreciate the journey. Thanks!
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