Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Reflections on learning the cello as an adult

I'm 55. I started learning the cello five months ago. I play 2 hours every day, without fail. I take lessons from a cello teacher twice a month. I have a wonderful cello that sounds rich and projects well - I really love it!

I learned to read music in high school (with a clarinet), and I've been able to adapt to the bass clef without too much trouble.

I have a good musical memory. I quickly memorize pieces I'm learning - too quickly, I'm afraid - and I can recall most of the tunes I heard even when I was very young.

My sense of rhythm/tempo is not that good, which is quite frustrating; but so far I have been able to work through that with some effort.

I damaged my left forefinger in a tablesaw accident about 25 years ago (which forced me to give up the violin I'd been tinkering with), but I feel that I've gotten past that by using a succession of thinner and thinner fingercots. Yesterday, I played without the fingercot. But today it was pretty painful, affecting my playing; as soon as I put it back on, it was OK.

My left little finger locks up on the fingerboard, so I'm having trouble "curling" it as I should. My teacher has suggested some ideas about hand-positions to try to work past it - I do find they help, but I can only do it for short periods at this point.

My musical ear is pretty good. I can readily tell whether or not I'm hitting pure notes. This is helping me to improve my intonation. I've not yet reached the point where I can tell what note is what by listening, but I can almost feel it when a note isn't pure....

Every morning when I sit down to play, I find myself quickly entering a zen-like state where I become conscious of tensions throughout my body - but mostly in the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, neck and jaw. Then I start working through a relaxation process that includes cracking all the related joints. The toughest problems are my thumbs, but after five or ten minutes of playing they finally relax. Within fifteen minutes of starting to play, I am physically very relaxed and comfortable. After that, I periodically have to remind myself to sit straight.

In five months I've worked through Suzuki Volume 1. Recently, I've "gotten" the Schumann piece and am close to "getting" the Bach Minuet #2 (by "getting", I mean I can play through the piece without errors at more or less the expected tempo; but it doesn't mean I am getting a beautiful sound all the way through, yet). I'm hoping I'll start Volume 2 at the next lesson. I am also working on some fiddle pieces she gave me. I find that the ones that I've heard before (way back when I was young) are much easier to play, since I "know" the rhythms. The ones I've not heard before are far more challenging.

Although I know it is the best way to learn (and I've used the techniques successfully, several times) I have a lot of trouble playing new pieces slowly, and breaking them into smaller sections for focused drilling. I still find myself wanting to rush on through, and trying to fix the errors on the next run-through. (The term "run-through" is apt.)

I understand the various learning processes, especially when it requires more than simply cramming information into my memory (which is how I got through school, and how I did pretty well in my career). Muscle memory training takes repetition, time, and patience.

Playing music, like speaking spanish, requires taking memorized information and doing something with it - such as using my vocal chords; or placing my fingers in the right places on the strings at the exact moment my other hand moves the bow across the strings. The only way to do that well is to do it over and over and over and over and over... Supposedly, the muscles learn just as well, when this repetition is done slowly.

Patience is my greatest challenge! I want to learn faster. My lack of patience actually inhibits my learning, because I try to push my limits by playing too fast. I think patience is the biggest problem for most people who are challenged to learn physical skills - whether it be an instrument, a keyboard, a sport, etc. Some kids don't even want to try new skills because they aren't immediately good at them.

As an adult, I know - intellectually - that skills can be acquired by repeating incrementally small steps until they become part of your muscle memory. I know that I can achieve a lot this way. I also know that old muscles are much harder to train than younger muscles - maybe because there is so much accumulated muscle memory that is not geared toward fingering the right places on the strings or bowing the right strokes. You can't unlearn these muscle memories, you can only imprint over them.

Since my finger/hand/arm/"ear" coordination for the past 55 years has not included playing the cello, they've always coordinated with each other in vastly different ways (although there was some clarinet, piano, violin training; which has to be helping my cello learning). It's not that I have to unlearn these long-standing coordinations, I just have to instill the cello coordinations on top of them. There are also plenty of purely physical limitations related to 55 years of bone growth, ligaments and tendons, and muscle use.

On another front, researchers are suggesting that intellectual stimulation retards the aging process (as well as staving off the onset of degenerating diseases such as Parkinsons and Alzeheimers, and other dementias). The more you stimulate your brain, making yourself think, learning new things, learning new skills; the longer you stay "young", the longer you remain in control of your faculties. Is this one of my reasons for starting the cello? Obviously, I am certainly happy about challenging myself this way, and if it helps me stay "young" so much the better; but I really don't think that is why I started this. Needless to say, I am proud of myself for taking on this challenge.

Wednesday, April 26, 2005

But for me, it is answering a call that has haunted me all my life. As long as I can remember, I've wanted to make music, starting when I was very young - at six I had a small accordion, which I played with until one of my brothers destroyed it. At nine or ten, I was drawn to my mother's piano (she was quite good, but rarely played - she loved singing in a community choir for many years, and at church; my father also played quite well, but I can only remember a few occasions when he actually did - apparently he didn't enjoy it that much). So the piano sat largely unused in our living room. On my own, I found some books and started to learn the basic keys and began to pick out simple tunes. But my parents never once encouraged me, at all; never. I vaguely remember my mother sitting with me once or twice when I first started, but not for very long. At some point I stopped.

In 7th grade music class, my teacher noticed that I had a musical "ear" and encouraged me to pick up the clarinet, so my parents rented (rent-to-own) one for a school year. Unfortunately, 13/14 is a tough age to discipline yourself to the rigors of practicing a half hour a day(!!!), and I don't really remember my parents ever commenting on the obvious fact that I wasn't practicing at home (I faked my mother's initials on my weekly practice card). How could they not know? It didn't help that I had three brothers and a sister who took every opportunity to ridicule my efforts and groan about the noise. My band teacher, who had been so encouraging the year before, gave me absolutely no support or encouragement; he never once commented that I could/should be doing better. So at the end of the 8th grade band, I simply didn't sign up for band the next year. My parents never said a word. They returned the clarinet without ever even commenting. Such support!

So that was my exposure to music as a child. I still dreamed of playing, but the lack of support along with laziness and impatience got in the way. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if anyone had actually supported and encouraged me to keep playing.

When I was 24, I bought another clarinet and spent a year or so trying to pick it up again. That was interesting. We were living on the top floor of a large old duplex house with high ceilings, wooden floors, and a swing on the front porch overlooking downtown Baton Rouge - a fantastic location near the capital and city center, busy in the workweek, but remarkably quiet after hours and weekends. The clarinet resonated throughout the house. But one day I noticed that the neighbors were closing their windows every time I started playing - it was hot and none of us had ACs. That freaked me out so much that I could no longer practice unselfconsciously after that. I later sold it in a garage sale.

After moving to Alaska, I was still feeling the call to make music, somehow; although having kids, trying to build a house, a job with irregular hours, and a serious lack of space were major obstacles. About the time I was 32, a friend sold me a starter violin for $100, along with some lesson books. I spent about a year working at it - for an hour or so a day (with no formal lessons). Every once in a while I actually got some sweet sounds out of that little plywood cigar box, and could play a few tunes. This was when I first noticed my musical memory bringing songs up out of my past and expressing them through my fingers - almost as if I were just an observer.

About a year into this, I signed up for an evening woodworking class at a local high school, and within a few weeks I did a stupid cut on the tablesaw, which kicked back and dragged my left forefinger backwards over the blade. The saw cut through fingertip and fingernail with an 1/8th inch gouge through the fingernail just into the tip of the bone. Surprisingly, I felt no pain - just a jolt, like a single sudden shock of electricity. I compressed the wound with my right hand for the twenty minutes that it took to rush over to the ER and wait for a surgeon to arrive. He sized up the fact that a significant amount of material was missing altogether, and decided to simply try to pull the two remaining halves back together, with a couple of stitches. My own doctor was quite disappointed with that action - he said he would have done a better job, leaving me more of a fingertip. After three weeks of intensive daily hydrotherapy, he stopped any further "healing" with a few drops of silver nitrate (y-e-e-o-w, that hurt more than anything I'd ever felt - it still hurts just to think about it!), and the wound was allowed to grow closed.

The healed fingertip is about a 1/4 inch shorter than it was, missing most of the "meat" at the tip. There is apparently a sharp edge on the cut bone, which can be pretty painful when it is tapped against anything. I have two "half" nails that overlap one another. That put an end to my violin playing. I just couldn't bear the pain of pressing the strings against the fingerboard. So, reluctantly, I eventually sold it.

Now, more than 20 years later, that pain is much less of an issue. I still can't forcefully tap my finger against something, but it no longer hurts to press with it. Having retired (more or less voluntarily), I found myself with plenty of free time and began once again to feel the strong pull to make music. Off and on for a few years I considered a piano, and even a saxophone, but we don't have enough space for a piano.

Then, in late November, I saw an ad in the paper for a viola outfit for about $600. Although I wasn't certain I could even play it, on an impulse, I arranged to meet the seller the next day and try it out. But then that evening, I started reflecting on my long-time pull towards the cello. There's no way to describe that feeling. Even when I was playing the violin, I found myself drawn to the lowest registers, and I remember wishing I were making a much deeper sound. The cello itself seemed so exotic (and expensive), but I sure liked its sound whenever I heard it on records.

One big advantage the cello has over the violin and viola is that although the strings are thicker, they are spaced further apart, which would let me use a fingercot on that bum finger. (Although the initial fingercot was quite thick, I found I was able to use it to stop a single string at a time.) I called the violist and told her I wasn't interested, but I thanked her for triggering me to go for the cello. I called a violin store in Anchorage the next day and arranged to rent a cello and began this long strange strip back into music.

Interesting story about your left index finger. I was using one of those gullotine papercutters in my early twenties and did a good slice into my left index finger. With a run to emergency room, they had me sitting for quite some time. Happily I had only sliced through the nail bed down to the bone. They had a plastic surgeon come and stitch it up so that the nail bed would grow normally. I'm very lucky that I never took woodworking.
Your story is so inspiring.
I had similar story with yours. I learned piano and guitar way back in my junior/senior high, and left them completely just after I could play songs and sing along with friends.

I love cello's sound.
it's so beautiful. And just last month, I decided to play cello. I have a teacher, he comes once a week. I am so excited, though I know cello is probably a difficult instrument to play. Especially for 54 year old woman.

I wonder how you're going these days with your cello.
Would love to read more of your days with your cello.
Thank you, Guanaco.

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