Learning To Play Cello:
As An Adult
New To String Instruments

Preliminary self-teaching by the book
and then with an instructor

Updated: 6 October 2021

Started: 19 February 2021

Contents:

Introduction

As an adult new to cello as a first bowed string instrument, this summarizes experiences starting with self-guided education “by the book”.

I had never touched a cello prior to 2021.

At roughly two months, face-to-face sessions with an instructor began before any “bad habits” would have possibly formed.

Topics covered here include: techniques, tips, on-line resources, relevant apps, published books, so-called “print” sheet music (now widely on-line, apps, etc.), accessories, sequence in which to upgrade each and of course the cello itself and future considerations.

(For children, consider beginning with Suzuki Method.)

This will be updated with new information as appropriate yet represents one person’s current state of learning. This document gets continuously edited and updated– rather than expecting you to wade through a series of blog posts from incremental learning.

Overview

Potentially, you could learn on your own.

The main book referenced below was written as the means to that end. However, having your own personal guide makes more efficient use of your time.

Let this document augment your own teacher’s (or author’s) instruction as secondary guidance for perspective or counter-point.

Not everyone has access to an instructor who has been playing cello for decades around the world, performs in a major metropolitan symphony orchestra, is an accomplished soloist and chamber performer– who is also excellent at teaching.

Hopefully, this saves someone a few months of background effort– beyond actual practice time, because there’s no substitute for practicing.

As many others also advise, having a private instructor is ideal.

Having in-person 1:1 sessions are best because your teacher can directly inspect your posture, fingering, bowing and intonation which leads to immediate corrections and avoiding bad habits.

In my sixth weekly lesson, I was beginning an activity that closely resembled “sightreading” but obviously using that word loosely and with humble apologies to anyone within earshot at the time.

That lesson corresponded with my three month anniversary of having first touched a cello or any other bowed string instrument. Daily practice was typically 30-45 minutes with cello plus time on either side for warm-up and stretches indicated by a qualified physical therapist (physio therapist).

Details of all that follow.

At six months, I relocated back to USA. Practice paused for one month during that transition. Picking the cello back up began with a thorough review from these notes alone.

The Least You Need To Begin

TL;DR

Begin with items in this summary for an excellent place to start an expedited search.

  1. Begin learning and practicing without a cello or bow, at least initially.
  2. Get one of the books:
  3. Get apps to help you practice while being in tune:
  4. While initially learning scales or otherwise unintentionally making squeaky/screechy noises, consider using a practice mute
  5. When you discover for yourself that recommendations from various books, videos, articles, etc. appear to contradict one another…
  6. Important accessories:
  7. Potentially unexpected items:

Further elaboration on each point above is sprinkled throughout this collection below.

Other items will be revealed in due time, such as acetone (nail polish remover) for dissolving rosin from bow hairs for occasional deep cleaning. You’ll find those along with further instructions when searching as you need them, so there’s no rush for such things prematurely.

If you must…

The impatient may jump to results of self-learning, 1:1 instruction and discovery along the way of both paths. It’s full of spoilers, so that section is towards the end of this document with only appendix material following. If you must, cut to the chase, but remember that the journey is at least as significant as the destination– and possibly more so– for someone new to cello as an adult.

Mentally Prepare For A Spiritual Journey

Learning to play a new instrument as an adult can be a spiritual journey.

Learning requires discipline: commitment, regular practice, effort for cresting the learning curve and mental fortitude of perseverance.

That same description could easily apply to honorable military service or meditation.

As an adult new to cello as a first bowed string instrument– release any combative stance stemming from unfortunate childhood music lessons. That’s water under the bridge and now gone.

Read words of guidance. Watch videos of others' experiences. Hear wisdom of your personal instructor. Yet when practicing, also heed your own intuition such as when you’ve had enough for that day.

Begin. Then continue.

Hearing someone learn to bow or learn fingering positions while still developing dexterity can be unpleasant, but this is where we are at this stage of practice. Be okay with that. (Yes, there are such things as “practice mutes” covered in another section, but this is about one’s mindset.)

For the student, focus on one thing at a time.

Without spoilers for early lessons with an instructor:

For instance, find your Left Hand finger position first and hold it here without playing the note. Return to proper posture. Position your Right Hand for bowing that note but still without playing the note. Go through your mental checklist to release any tension and maintain healthy angles for wrists, elbow, shoulders, etc. Then and only then, play the note. Again, focus on only one item at a time.

My first instructor noted that even as someone playing cello for forty years, it continues being the same sequence. Of course, it eventually all happens much more quickly as experience and dexterity mature.

Also as a student, focus upon what you’ve accomplished by each stage!

Consistent tone will come.

Squeakiness will fade.

Keeping the bow in its lane will happen.

Fingers will find their positions for accurate notes.

These things require “muscle memory” which takes practice to develop.

Be patient.

Most importantly, be grateful at each stage for what has been accomplished thus far!

Lesson Sheet Music Files & License

Exercises below with links to sheet music downloaded from this site generally use files for Musescore software. It’s open-source free software available for BSD Unix, Linux, Mac and Windows. Apps for mobile devices are also available on their sheet music repository and community website, Musescore.com.

Downloading sheet music associated with exercises below are offered with a CC0 License: full liberty for using or modifying those pages for your own interests, including commercial use.

Links to other sheet music, blogs, videos, etc. each are the property of their respective owners.

Research

Collected research, annotated over the course of self-learning and working with an instructor via in-person lessons:

Searching For Videos

It began with a simple search on a video platform: beginning cello.

Videos from Jonathan Humphries came up first.

From there, recommended videos included those of Sarah Joy.

Note that many video streaming platforms rank search results based upon several factors. These include age of the content, number of views of the video, time since most recent upload, etc. Recently active channels are not necessarily an indication of the best content for learning, but the ones above provided an excellent starting point.

With more specific searches, such as “cello bow hold” (not “grip”), the following emerged. Be sure to also explore their channels and playlists.

Please send each of them some Cello Love by perusing their videos, channels and patron offerings (e.g., Patreon). Many of their videos contain valuable resources within descriptions of videos.

Violoncello or just ‘cello to friends and modern players

For deeper research, note that the word cello was originally an abbreviation of the historical term violoncello. Expand search results further with spellings from other languages, such as violoncelle and celle.

Early sheet music where copyright has long since lapsed into Public Domain may refer to it as such.

Rent vs Buy

Rent for 6 to 9 months, and only if still committed, buy.

When buying, aspire for an intermediate to advanced model instead of a basic student version. However, be careful to not get a cello– or any tool for that matter– that is too far beyond your abilities because that leads to frustration, which in turn limits chances for success. This will make more sense after six months of dedicated practice and more so after tape on the fingerboard has become completely unnecessary for you.

If considering a used cello, comparison shop on reverb.com to determine a fair base price. However, when purchasing from a local shop with an in-house luthier, you are also establishing a relationship with them. Therefore, a lower price via internet or mail order isn’t always worth the discount!

Selecting A Music Store

Finding a local music store from which to rent a student cello involved disregarding reviews about each merchant from familiar websites like Yelp. Complete context is almost always omitted in those reviews, and many reviews have probably become irrelevant due to staff or ownership changes.

Instead, go and make up your own mind.

Visit each shop and speak with relevant staff directly.

In smaller cities and towns, there might be only one “orchestra” or “strings” person for that store, and that person might not be available the day you go. Likewise for their luthier: ask about their experience with setup for a cello specifically.

Visiting each store myself was best, as the websites didn’t match the reality of each store’s inventory.

For instance, one has far more selection available to rent or buy than appears on their website. Another is a national chain, so their website includes entire categories unavailable within the local store, such as orchestral strings being completely absent locally.

More than simply speaking with the correct person, engage in a dialog about where you are as a student, what are your aspirations, how much you would ideally spend, etc. Be especially realistic about your current level and budget.

Help them so they can help you!

Suddenly, nearly all negative on-line reviews of various music stores become meaningless.

For those curious:

Traditional Acoustic vs “Silent” Electric (or Avoid Disturbing Neighbors)

Learn the traditional instrument for building a proper foundation.

For some, practicing with a conventional acoustic wooden cello appears to be a non-starter due to risk of disturbances to neighbors.

Fortunately, there are options:

  1. Use a removable practice mute on a conventional acoustic cello (least expensive)
  2. Buy a “practice” cello (median)
  3. Rent or buy a “silent” electric cello (most expensive)

After migrating to a cello that is the last step before intermediate/advanced models and playing an acoustic with a quality practice mute, I recommend that configuration over an electric (unless, of course, you have the luxury of having two cellos).

However, there are other factors that may be more significant due to physics.

Consider that the cello endpin propagates vibration/sound to the floor, and materials for constructing the room and floor might function like a giant speaker cabinet (resonance chamber).

  1. Conventional house or apartment building with less than 7 storeys:
  2. Modern mid-rise or high-rise apartment or office building:
  3. Sound propagation beyond the room can be mitigated and managed:

Practice Mutes:

Categories of mutes available that get placed temporarily on the bridge:

  1. Clam-shell clamp style:
  2. Round friction-fit “tourte” style
  3. Metal-framed rubber-coated “hotel” mutes
  4. All-rubber mutes

The best is sold by WMutes which ships from Spain:

Alternatively:

See an informative comparison of the Artino versus WMutes by Richard Narroway so that you may make an informed decision.

Practice cello:

YUMI Travel Cello:

Prakticello:

Electric or “silent” cello:

Yamaha Silent cello series

NS Design

Others reviewed by Cello Central and Electric Cellos, what NOT to buy.

Accessories & Environment

Essentials:

Eventually:

Maybe Later:

Self-Guided Lesson Planning

Initial lessons without an instructor were going “by the book” which is Vera Mattlin Jiji’s Cello Playing for Music Lovers.

This document essentially expands upon that book based upon perspective of someone new to string instruments.

See also other sections such as Bow Hold & Bowing Technique.

Posture & Ergonomics

Ergonomics is not a luxury!

Posture:

Joining posture with motion, Amit Peled’s is the most comprehensive and self-contained explanation that I’ve found to date:

Additional material on Right Hand bow hold and Left Hand fingering with classic instruction from notable cello great, Andre Navarra, are below in the following subsections.

Seat:

Sheet music stand position and orientation:

Eyeglasses / corrective lenses, if applicable:

If doubtful whether eyeglasses may assist:

Bow Hold & Bowing Technique

Highlights:

Full instructions:

Finger Positioning

While some Left Hand positions may be comfortable enough for early pieces when learning, those same positions become limiting for intermediate and advanced pieces. This single issue tends to limit many self-taught musicians and applies to several instruments including guitar.

The cello is a very ergonomic instrument but takes experience to recognize it as such.

For understanding proper angle of fingers as each meets the Fingerboard, try this exercise:

A decent instructor will correct each of these aspects– all in good time.

Starting with a slightly incorrect Fingering positions may be appropriate in the beginning. Playing out of tune due to slightly misplaced finger positioning may be appropriate in the beginning.

After adjusting to proper Finger Positioning, returning to earlier exercises for a while again may be appropriate.

These are all things where a good instructor will guide you as you progress.

But remember: what may be easy/comfortable in the beginning could become limiting when playing more advanced pieces.

Shifting

From Pablo Ferrández:

From Jonathan Humphries

From Sarah Joy

Playing Higher vs Lower

Note that “up” with respect to notes or key means “closer to the bridge”.

My instructor suggested this memory device:

Rather than looking at the instrument as being nearly vertical, perceive it as if laying flat on its back (but never lay it on its back, even if only briefly– ever).

Then, top of the bridge becomes its highest elevation.

Thus, “up” and “down” seem reasonably applicable.

I never paused to ponder up/down again after that advice!

First Tuning

Open Strings

There’s a problem for a beginner musician with an untrained ear for that particular instrument. How would you know if the instrument is in tune? While you might find it by harmonics, is it possible to accidentally tune it to the wrong key?

Breaking the bootstrapping paradox can be done with another instrument of the same kind.

Without a second cello available, searching the internet for recordings of open strings became problematic. Each sample was too short for use as a reference by this beginner student. One day, a brief note should be enough but not yet.

There are generic devices for tuning any instrument, but again: what octave?

There are apps for tablets and other software available dedicated to the cello, yet there’s a more musical way to go about this. This is less about proper calibration of the instrument from an engineering perspective than also training the ear of the student.

Developing the ear is more important than perfect calibration, like the parable about teaching someone to fish rather than feeding them a single meal.

Search the Internet for name of instrument plus “drone” and the desired note. e.g., Cello Drones Circle of Fifths – playlist

See also the section, Frequencies & MIDI Reference.

Tuning Pro-Tips

When using a tuner or app with tuner function (e.g., Cello Coach), tuning or playing “higher” is with respect to acoustics, not physical direction. Therefore, higher means “closer to the bridge” along the fingerboard when playing a note, and it means “tighten the string” when tuning.

Likewise, “up” with respect to notes or key also means “closer to the bridge”.

(While on the subject of up and down: “up” bow vs “down” bow can be remembered by holding the bow across the strings as usual and then rotating your wrist such that the bow’s tip points to the ceiling. From that orientation, “up” and “down” bowing would match the physical directions. That might be easier than remembering pushing the pointy end means up and pulling the frog means down.)

When tuning with traditional wood pegs, turn each peg slightly. See How to tune a cello with the pegs for Nan’s concise instructions.

Pegs:

With wood pegs and most geared pegs, forget about rules when using a screwdriver or light-bulb. (It’s more like threads on bicycle pedals which are threaded relative to which side is being tightened.) Therefore, think in terms of rotating the shaft to which each string is attached:

Rotate as if rolling away from the bridge when tightening.

Another tip when tuning if you have fine-tuners on the tailpiece below the bridge, occasionally loosen the fine-tuners almost completely and then tighten the pegs more. This resets capacity for fine-tuners to do their job as strings stretch over time. If they’ve been tightened and tightened, eventually there will be no more tightening available.

For geared pegs, expect a 4:1 (or 8:1) exchange ratio: four turns of the knob is required for one whole rotation of the shaft to which the string is attached. When geared pegs are used, the instrument likely omits fine-tuners.

Finally, when strings break it’s most likely to occur while tightening a tuning peg or immediately afterwards. Therefore, hold the cello away from your head while tightening a peg and plucking the first note. Ideally, hold the cello at arm’s length (rather than merely turned away).

References:

Frequencies & MIDI Reference

The driving question for “day one” with a rented cello was how to acquire an adequate reference of each note, suitable for tuning a cello by someone completely new to playing the instrument. (Vera Mattlin Jiji’s book had not yet been delivered, and she addresses this situation.)

This was only an issue because of my own ignorance with music theory and naming conventions. This could have been simply resolved by searching an audio or video service for “cello” plus “drone” and the desired note. e.g., Cello Drones Circle of Fifths – playlist

For reference:

References:

MIDI note numbers and center frequencies

Caveats When Applying Tape To Fingerboard

Each piece of tape applied to the fingerboard slightly alters acoustics of ebony (wood).

Maximum width for tape to use is 1/8th inch.

The wider the tape, the more it will disturb the acoustics. (Otherwise when applying tape, find each note, apply tape, and confirm that one note before continuing to find the next note and definitely before applying the second piece of tape. Otherwise, each subsequent note may be slightly off key. Re-confirm tuning after applying all tape.)

When applying tape, play the D string because it’s easier to read for some low-end tuners bundled with student cellos.

Beware of tape other than the ChartPak brand specifically. Alternatives may have different adhesives that are difficult to remove. “ProTape” is another good brand but may need to be cut down to 1/8th inch width.

Regardless of which tape you use, change it regularly because adhesives break-down over time and with use. As a student, we tend to apply more pressure than necessary, which compounds this issue.

Locating First Position

First, some background.

The sequence of notes along each string begin with the note for which the string is named, of course. After open strings and starting from the Half Position above First position, each note follows the progression of notes including sharps/flats:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A

(Remember that an octave is nominally written with same note letter at beginning and end. Also, G♯ is identical to A♭, yet E♯ is identical to F, which is consistent with the omitted ebony keys on a piano keyboard. Whether to use G♯ versus A♭ should make sense within context of the Circle Of Fifths.)

When facing the fingerboard from perspective of the audience:

C   G   D   A
=============
C♯  G♯  D♯  A♯
D   A   E   B   First Position finger 1
E♭  B♭  F   C
E   B   F♯  C♯
F   C   G   D   Third Position finger 1
F♯  C♯  G♯  D♯  Fourth Position finger 1
G   D   A   E
A♭  E♭  B♭  F
A   E   B   F♯
B♭  F   C   G
B   F♯  C♯  G♯
C   G   D   A   Higher octave than open string
C♯  G♯  D♯  A♯
D   A   E   B
E♭  B♭  F   C
E   B   F♯  C♯

Distance from the nut to the first note on each string (C♯ G♯ D♯ A♯, respectively) decreases for the next note (D A E B). This span to reach each subsequent note continues to decrease along the Fingerboard until the Bridge. For most players, this tapering within each clustering of 4 or 5 notes should be imperceptible, but changing from First Position to Fourth Position requires a noticeable adjustment.

For initially locating First Position without tape or other markings:

On a full size (4/4) cello, my hand’s width is sufficient to span from edge of the nut to approximately where my fingertip would go for First Position. Your hand is likely a different width, so you’ll need to discover an equivalent for yourself while using a tuner or after tape has already been applied.

That’s a useful exercise for trying different cellos even when you might otherwise rely upon tape being on the Fingerboard.

Upgrades

Upgrading Your Rental

As referenced in Second Lessons: self-guided after interruption, there may be a need or opportunity to change or upgrade your rented instrument.

In my case, change became necessary due to relocation across national borders but also welcomed as an opportunity for upgrading because of particularities of their rent-to-own policy. (e.g., six months is “same as cash” for that specific cello; otherwise, half of rental payments apply towards a different one.)

The first acoustic cello rented in Vancouver was a step or two into the non-laminated range yet still a student cello. It was from Gliga of Romania (“Carlton” brand, retail CAD$2000 or approximately USD$1500), and the new one in Boise is the final student model before intermediate range from Krutz (300 Series, retail USD$2800).

The first bow was an entry level fiberglass model, and the new one is a woven carbon-fiber with less of a weighted tip.

The Krutz 500 series cello (USD$4300) that the shop encouraged me to also try paired with bow she selected made from Pernambuco wood was a great experience but just beyond my range as a humble student.

Practicing on instruments too far out of reach might become a source of frustration which then becomes counterproductive. For instance, this particular Pernambuco wood bow had almost no perceivable weight at the tip, which requires more dexterity of the Right Hand index finger (Finger 1) while bowing. At that time, I wasn’t quite there yet especially after a gap in practice due to relocating.

In this case, however, it was a great benchmark and set new aspirations.

My plan is to visit the store and that class of cello plus Pernambuco wood bow every other month to discover when that combination becomes playable within my skills range.
[TODO: update progress with the 500 Series in 2022]

Preliminary: Physical Warm-Up & Stretching Afterwards

Daily Warm-up

First Lessons: Self-Learning

This should obviously be seen as an incomplete method, so see also: First Lessons: Self-Guided and First Lessons: with instructor 1:1 below.

Reading Notes From Sheet Music

Jonathan Humphries:

See also Vera Mattlin Jiji’s book, as noted below.

Hand Positions: Left & Right

See also Finger Positioning and Bow Hold & Bowing Technique above.

From Hans Zentgraf

From Virtual Sheet Music

History

Taking a break from practice for absolute beginners and delving into a bit of history maintained the overall cello theme without adding fatigue.

A recommended video somewhere along the way included the making of a violin. It might also be suitable as “ASMR” for strings-geeks, making of a violin by Mirecourt, Dominique Nicosia, Luthier.

Lots of recommendations for videos and other products seem to conflate members within the family of stringed instruments, so be vigilant of that.

A quick search for making of a cello brought a few short clips plus a lengthy presentation from Museum of Science, Boston.

Solving the Stradivarius Secret - William F. “Jack” Fry and Rose Mary Harbison covers physics of acoustics including materials, position of the bass bar, position of the peg, strategic wood scraping of inside the instrument for fine adjustments, the “tongue” and why there are two pieces of wood glued together to form the back.

One of the various history or “making of” videos also mentioned that the glue used is weak enough that the instrument should come apart rather than crack under certain conditions. That’s a feature, not a bug.

See also Cello Physics section below.

Circle of Fifths

The cello is based upon half tone intervals and fifths. (A half tone may also be called a “half step” or “semitone”.)

From Music Matters

From Gracie Terzian

From Brian Kelly

First Lessons: Self-Guided

Sources

This follows guidance from the book, Cello Playing for Music Lovers, by Vera Mattlin Jiji, PhD. (Other books were discovered later.)

For me, her directions were complemented by instruction from videos, blogs and podcasts from current noteworthy cello soloists such as Johannes Moser and Alban Gerhardt, who has most of his full-length content on Patreon.

The late great cellist, André Navarra, is also represented in following subsections.

Earliest videos that laid the crucial foundation were mostly from Jonathan Humphries.

As a taller person (over 6ft/185cm), guidance from Johannes with added context from Alban– despite describing himself as not tall– were most suitable for my circumstances.

Ultimately, all of that self-learning and discovery was further corrected once working with an in-person instructor.

It’s too easy for self-learners to dwell on insignificant details for our stage of practice while also being completely blind to more serious flaws that could be easily corrected. A good teacher helps with finding that balance with you.

The major section below on First Lessons addresses those points.

The Book

As noted in a subsection just below:

The simple act of bowing open strings carries multiple nuances to consider at the beginning, middle and end of each stroke, and this number is larger than our minds can possibly consider simultaneously.

While professional soloists describe their first hour for warm-ups that might also begin with bowing open strings while reading the daily newspaper, the student however requires devoting full attention to this particular task.

Early lessons when beginning or returning after a hiatus should have bowing of open strings as the sole daily practice for at least a couple of weeks.

Augmenting the physical practice with reading about music theory proved fruitful later when the instructor introduced certain material.

Using this book strictly for these exercises was worth the price in my experience.

Camera setup

As mentioned earlier, recording video of yourself playing helps you observe details too numerous to track while playing as a new learner.

(Eventually, a full length mirror will suffice. Small steps…)

Video Recording

Avoid plugging a webcam into a hub.

For attaining best audio/video quality:

OBS Studio

OBS Studio is commonly used software for capturing high quality video or for streaming.

It’s free (Libre), open source software of high quality, and it’s available for Linux, Mac and Windows. (Apparently no direct BSD support at this time, but Linux emulation might work; sorry, friends.)

Self-Guided Lessons

When you can perform the exercises with sufficient quality and grace, there’s a simple test to confirm that you are ready to move on to the next phase:

Can you perform while maintaining a natural smile?

When the answer is yes, you’ve habituated to the actions such that those motions are now part of your subconscious.

Bowing Open Strings

Based upon Vera Mattlin Jiji’s book with further assistance from Andre Navarra - My Cello Technique (English subtitles by Cello Australia), focus is on:

Beware of visual anomalies due to wide angle of most webcams and their loss of depth-of-field, so ensure that you’re actually measuring what you think you are!

Feedback from watching videos of self:

Further exercises and considerations from Kirin McElwain –and my instructor– recommend:

To do:

Playing From Simplified Sheet Music

Various simplified versions of J.S. Bach’s Suite 1 Prelude may be found by searching the Internet.

This is the one that I have been using:

First Lessons: with instructor 1:1

Instructor

Initial sessions should be in-person because video chat becomes cumbersome for crucial early instruction.

There are lots of little things that a good instructor will observe and be able to make recommendations. There are questions that the student is unlikely to know enough to ask. There are so many reasons for having an instructor.

It’s a privilege being taught by someone with forty years of cello experience and an active member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Vancouver Cello Quartet, an accomplished soloist and chamber musician.

I’m especially grateful as an adult new to the instrument.

(Spoilers: Without his guidance, it’s highly unlikely that I would have begun sightreading after a mere three months since first touching a cello or any other string instrument.)

A good instructor is one who knows those squeaks and choppiness for what they actually are. Many students have been overly apologetic for believing their early playing to be torturous to their instructor. The “good” instructors have the patience to help you through this phase at your pace.

Moving at your own pace is key:

Much of learning comes through discovery.

Therefore, a good instructor facilitates discovering things like overtones for yourself– all in good time.

One footnote to “moving at your own pace” is that good instructors nudge their students along to ensure progress, which keeps you from fixating on insignificant details or on aspects that naturally develop with practice, perseverance and dexterity in due course.

Video conferencing with an instructor

Initial instruction would be best with a teacher in the same room, but circumstances may prohibit that.

Next best thing is using video conferencing app/software over the Internet.

However, video chat services are typically optimized for human voice and may need to be configured to prevent a musical instrument from being considered background “noise” to be filtered-out.

Tips to improve the quality of calls between instructor and student:

Ideally:

Search the Internet for your particular app/software for more current guidance.

Posture

Bow hold

Caveats:

When you see someone like Johannes Moser’s video on bow hold, bow arm and related exercises, understand that those are advanced lessons– not necessarily suitable for an adult new to cello.

The handle “wiggle” observed of many accomplished cellists will come in due time. Expect that this may take years to develop. Account for longer period of time for adults new to cello who might not be as flexible as a child that is still growing and body still changing.

Understand that all this will become automatic through “muscle memory” and is how the cello can be an ergonomic device when used correctly.

Right Hand: Bowing Technique

Exercise to get the feel of the elbow motion and upper arm rotation:

  1. place your right hand on a flat surface
  2. Such as top of a closed grand piano (which you have in every room, no?)
  3. Something a bit taller than a kitchen or dining table will do
  4. While maintaining that shoulder at a fixed height
  5. enforce right shoulder height by resting the left hand on it
  6. Raise your right elbow slightly
  7. This requires a slight rotation at wrist and shoulder joint
  8. Again, height of shoulder remains fixed while that joint rotates

Augmenting my teacher’s instruction: for maintaining bow to be perpendicular to each string, rotate with fingers (rather than at wrist) for bowing straight.

On-going work:

Exercise:

Left Hand: Fourth Position

My instructor guided through the use of First Position but exercises begin with Fourth Position.

Fourth Position is easier to find for new students than First because it is where the fingerboard meets the cello body (resonance chamber).

Exercise 1 – Finding Notes:

Exercise 2 – Finger Dexterity:

Once comfortable with those basic exercises– even though notes will still be played out of tune– name each note before playing it!

That is, say the name of each note out loud before actually playing it.

Begin as usual by finding the note with Left Hand, then focus on Right Hand bow hold, and before playing the note, say the note’s name. Finally, then and only then, play that note.

Of course, make subtle refinements until your Tuner indicates that the note is correct, and play it again correctly more than the number of times that were incorrect.

Experiences:

Left & Right Together Again

Third lesson with instructor:

Exercise – Spock Hands:

Exercise – Bowing near and far from bridge:

Exercise – Half & Quarter Bowing:

Exercise – Left hand finger press & lift combinations:

Exercise – Slide from First Position to Fourth Position:

Introspection:

Purchased a wedge-shaped seat cushion (10lb density foam) for improving posture in playing position.

Scales in one and two octaves

First and foremost at this stage, go back and re-read the section on mentally prepare for a spiritual journey.

Fourth lesson with instructor:

He suggested improvements in technique on bowing the lower strings, G and C. When starting on an up-bow at the tip, more pressure needs to be applied.

By way of analogy for those who have driven cars without adaptive all-wheel drive, when the drive wheel slips such as on wet pavement, it’s because the wheel accelerated too quickly.

Just as a wheel that slips continues to slip until releasing and starting again with proper traction, so too a bow that slips continues to slip and never quite gets traction on the string.

Pressure gets applied via index finger without any perceptible motion or rotation by the finger or hand. As stated earlier, maintain the proper bow hold which means a grip so loose that the bow may nearly fall to the floor. (In fact, if you haven’t actually dropped your bow a few times in the beginning, you have yet to find that sweet spot. After all, it’s difficult finding this threshold without crossing over it, which in turn means experiencing the bow actually falling out of your hand.)

The rationale for applying this extra bit of pressure at the tip on an up-bow: due to the heavier gauge of the lower strings, more work is required to move each to a state of vibration. By work, this is the term from physics: work equals force times distance. With less distance available to vibrate the string for the same note, more force is required.

By contrast, at the frog, there is naturally more weight on the bow due to gravity’s effect on the right hand.

Therefore, slightly more pressure is required for the tip.

The key word in all this is slight. Any increase in pressure is very subtle, very little increase compared to remainder of the bow stroke.

Exercise – one-octave scales in First Position:

Exercise – two-octave scale in G Major:

Arpeggios in one octave

An arpeggio is playing a scale but with only the first, third, fifth and eighth notes.

For purposes of an exercise at this stage, play the one-octave version.

Exercise – Arpeggio in one octave:

This was the last lesson that the instructor would mention notes to play by finger number.

Other aspects of the lesson focused upon traction of the bow specifically to an up-bow versus down-bow.

Essentially, consider that due to rosin on bow hairs, bow hair “grabs” the string from one side or the other. For an up-bow, the bow hair pushes the string. For a down-bow, the bow hair pulls the string. The practical implications of this are imperceptible when performed by an experienced cello player, but the student would need to exaggerate the effect in the beginning.

Playing a real song!

Moving beyond scales and arpeggios, the sixth lesson with a private instructor involved sightreading (for some loose definition of sightreading).

It sounds more challenging than actually was because of his graceful style of teaching, being so accommodating and having utmost patience for a student’s learning curve.

He mentioned the title, knowing that I would probably not associate correctly. He played the first few bars which he knew by heart. “Ah, yes, that one!” He presented its sheet music. We discussed aspects of the particular notes used and their arrangement. Finally, he prompted me to name and then play each note of the first line. (Needless to say, the pace at which my notes were actually played had little resemblance to the familiar tune, but we each have to start somewhere!)

My instructor selected this from sheet music published by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada: Cello Preparatory Level Repertoire, 2013 Edition, rcmusic.com

Beethoven’s Ode To Joy is the first song in the booklet and instantly familiar to most when hearing it even if not recalling it by that name.

There are sixteen bars (measures) with all notes played in First Position, making for an ideal first piece.

Continue with previous guidance when learning your first piece:

  1. Read the note
  2. Name the note
  3. Play the note

Of course, each item is loaded with a multitude of sub-steps.

Reading each note first requires understanding time and key signatures. Applying the key of D Major involves transposing each F note to be played as F#. (C# was unused within the sixteen measures presented.)

Naming each note means speaking its name out loud. Its first notes are: F# F# G A.

Prior to actually playing each note, check-in with yourself to ensure proper posture. Release any tension.

When playing the note– then and only then– look at any Finger number information as an aid. Just don’t let it become a crutch!

And so on.

Since familiar tunes might annoy others nearby while you learning it, consider using a practice mute.

Other collections of études commonly cited, in alphabetical order by composer:

Experiences:

Some challenges were observed while practicing this week’s lesson.

Improvements:

Remember to take breaks!

The number of things that your mind is juggling right now is an achievement in itself, so account for physiological effects of learning. For instance, your body temperature may rise while practicing. Alternatively, it might lower if holding too much tension!

Second song

Seventh week with an instructor:

Adjustments and refinements:

The second piece of sheet music was Au clair GE la lune (not to be confused with Debussy’s Clair Ce Lune).

Grasping this piece as music rather than a collection of notes was elusive. The accompanying CD contains tracks with the accompanying piano and with just the piano.

However, getting a better sense of the proper notes for cello still eluded me. This was largely due to my own squeaky and strained notes while reading and playing. A huge help came from transcribing those sixteen measures into Musescore and having its software synth perform the notes as a cello solo.

It was crude but effective– poor sound quality due to my cheap computer gear.

(Because that is a copyrighted arrangement, my version of it has been omitted.)

When doing this for yourself, be sure to properly apply all of the tempo, dynamics and other marks in your version of the score. It should appear on screen exactly as it does in the book. The Musescore software synth adjusts its intonation accordingly.

F Major Scale & Finger Extensions

Eighth week with an instructor:

We also discussed how humbling the learning curve can be.

This session marked my second full month with a proper instructor– as opposed to time just getting acquainted with the instrument, reading a self-guided instructional book and following along with videos from an Internet search.

While practicing and playing before the instructor, I experienced cognitive stalling– for lack of a more accurate term. It’s like the difference between stammering versus stuttering. This form of mental stammering while playing manifested as a momentary lapse of being able to read and/or process a particular note on the sheet music, even though the piece is virtually memorized at this point.

Be okay with that.

Children stammer when learning to speak, and learning a new musical instrument has many parallels with learning to speak a new language. A first bowed string instrument, then, is not unlike learning your first language.

Slurred Notes With A Slide

Again, a set of slurred notes are those where the Left Hand fingering changes while the Right Hand bowing continues uninterrupted. On sheet music, the notation for this is a curved line just above or below the sequence of notes being joined.

Lesson 9 with an instructor introduced no new material, but he directed a new combination of existing techniques: two octave scales with slurs for every pair of notes. Optionally, try for triplets too.

Apply this to each of the C Major, G Major and F Major scales that start in First Position. Remember that G Major ends in Fourth Position, and F Major includes a Finger 1 stretch (noted on sheet music as 1x) and ends in Third Position.

When reversing G Major and F Major scales, the slide along the A string from E back to D also involves landing on a different finger. This may feel a little mind-bending at first, but that’s the delicious bit of this particular learning curve!

Most importantly, have fun!

On that note, we discussed thoughts on practice versus performance.

(When practicing, it’s valuable to be self-critical for purposes of correcting mistakes. Then, practice the correction twice. Once is for countering the mistake. The second is for having practiced the correct version more than having practiced the mistake.)

He suggested that when practicing, focus upon one thing each time: fingering, bowing, intonation, timing, rhythm, keeping the bow in its intended lane, etc. Use a mirror or video camera when appropriate, etc.

Beyond that mode, it’s important to also practice a few rounds of playing through the entire piece without being self-critical:

Play the piece for the sheer enjoyment of performing it.

I would add:

Play through for the enjoyment of performing it at least as many times as having played while critiquing, so then you are practiced in performance while enjoying your own performance!

Second Lessons: self-guided after interruption

Overview

Due to extenuating circumstances, cello practice can be interrupted for weeks.

This section pertains to returning to daily practice.

In my case, there was a six week hiatus.

Cognitive Scientists found that we lose fluency after only four weeks. For those of us still learning, we should simply accept that this decay is much faster for us.

Therefore, it’s imperative to begin again.

Beginning Again

Understand this as an opportunity to strengthen those neural pathways where the foundation has already been laid.

Continuing Again

The goal isn’t to land where you left as quickly as possible but to build upon the foundation and muscle-memory that has already been constructed.

From experience:

Moving through material from early lessons went steadily and quickly.

There was a new quality previously not present, almost as if the break in continuity became a net benefit!

Other factors crept into awareness such as arm fatigue hitting much sooner than before, so cadence or duration of earlier practice sessions remains out of reach for several weeks.

Incidentally:

After the unintended break from practice, it has now become much easier watching the bow’s tip while playing than before.

Previously, attempts at watching the tip was distraction enough that it became difficult keeping the bow in its lane.

Now, watching the tip has become one of my primary method for tracking consistency of bowing.

(This is observing the bow’s tip from playing position, as I have yet to re-acquire a mirror or tripod suitable for practice.)

Summary

A big part of the learning process is discovery which only comes through learning, practice, patience and perseverance. These are best when found yourself.

That said, the summary of lessons learned follows.

This section will continue to expand and be refined.

Beginnings

Instruction

Warm-up

Start on D string

Quiet

Practice, Interrupted

Pressure

Cellos

Bows

Care & Feeding

Sightreading

Everything with a beginning has an end

Appendix

Everything that follows should be considered appendix material.

Rosin, Bow Hairs & Strings

When to apply more rosin to bow:

When to apply more rosin to strings:

Tuning By Ear for Equal Temperament

Instead of using an app or mechanical tuner, train your ear from comparing with a sample, such as an A note from another instrument or tuning fork.

With one string in tune, the other strings may be tuned from it.

Tuning via Harmonics

You can tune a cello using harmonics, but understand that word to have very specific meaning.

Harmonics occur when touching a vibrating sting at one of its nodes –using terminology from physics.

The harmonic at 1/3 length of the string should be the the same note as ½ the length of the lower string, which is also a harmonic.

Accurate Tuning

However, if you tune your strings using harmonics alone, it will be tuned to Perfect Fifths (no “beats”– as in binaural beating) and then the D will be slightly flat, the G more flat, and the C very flat compared to the Tempered Scale used by modern orchestras.

For Equal temperament (from vstrings), compare Bach’s 3rd Suite with tuning using Perfect Fifths tuning (via harmonics), and C will sound very flat.

Competent piano tuners actively listen for the beats of a Tempered Fifth: only one or two beats per second, which is very difficult to hear on a Cello’s complex tone.

Most cellists don’t play open A, D or G for any significant length of time, so Perfect Fifths tuning isn’t noticeable. Then, they simply re-tune C higher by a little to match the orchestra “by experience”.

t=7m24s “I emphasize that the fifths must not be in any degree wide and only slightly narrow. Do not tune using harmonics [alone]. It gives Pythagorean Fifths [which leads to the Pythagorean Comma] which the string may in many ways be false.”

“You usually see cellists using harmonics, but that’s to check that the string hasn’t slipped.”

t=9m10s Baroque uses lots of open strings, so it’s best to tune to the keyboard’s Temperament.

See also:

Approach

Correction: this is tuning via harmony– not “harmonics” as an experienced cellist would understand the concept:

  1. Start with a proper tone:
  2. Tune each lower string initially by harmonics:
  3. Finish tuning each string by accounting for beats or beating:
  4. When tuning this way, err higher than lower pitch:

Geared Pegs

Metronome

Lessons – Beyond The Basics

Interviews, Blogs, Podcasts, etc.

Play everything by heart

On thoroughly enjoying an otherwise high-stress performance

Successful performers, when asked before a big event, “Are you nervous?”, will answer, “No, I’m excited!”

The effects and symptoms of nervous stress from anxiety is physiologically indistinguishable from that of excitement from anticipation. Therefore, reframing that feeling in your mind to “excitement” can have a dramatic benefit.

Miscellaneous

The following subsections are a continual work-in-progress.

Sheet Music

Easy strings sheet music for beginners– print free or download in PDF:

Sheet Music creating/editing/playback software:

If the software synth version of other instruments is unsuitable for your needs, search the Internet for “backing tracks” or “karaoke”. A well-respected brand in this field dates back to 1950, Music Minus One based just outside of New York City.

Lessons With A Soloist

According to notes within Alban Gerhardt’s patreon membership levels, fees for lessons with a soloist generally range between EUR €200 and €400 per lesson [which are greatly discounted for his Patreon subscribers, but expect that his discount may be limited to 2020-2021].

Composers

Twentieth Century:

For context, Alban Gerhardt on Patreon discusses contemporary cello concertos; e.g., his opinions on why only Dutilleux’s and Lutoslawski’s– and no other concertos– made it into the standard repertoire.

Fun

Professional Audio Recording for Cello

Considerations for aspiring students to eventually be recorded or be performing live:

Acoustic Treatment for Sound Dampening Practice Room

Cello Physics

Theory

Music theory rooted in 17th Century European tradition and thought such as 12-tone Equal Temperament:

Purchasing A Cello

Common Advice: rent vs buy

Advice consistent from many, many sources:

First, rent for several months before buying anything. Rent different types to try before buying anything until you are certain of what to get.

See/hear an excerpt of A Cello Tasting where two similar models are played in sequence: one had just been made and the other had been played heavily over the prior year and a half.

Essentially, there are many factors that go into selecting a cello to buy that’s right for you.

Consider an upgrade for everything else before buying a cello:

Traditional Wooden Cellos

For finding a luthier, search for members of the various guilds and graduates of specific schools:

Quality student models originating from China but finished in Europe and/or USA:

Quality student models originating from Europe:

Bridge designs:

Pernambuco wood bows:

Carbon Fiber Cellos

An excerpt as stated by Ricci Carbon Instruments:

From the earliest construction of string instruments, far back in antiquity, wood has been the dominating material used.

But if the old and innovative masters had available a material with better qualities, they would have used it.

Cellos:

Carbon Fiber soundpost:

Things to consider:

From a review of Luis and Clark carbon fibre VIOLIN vs wood, mid-2017:

Older:

Checklist For Cello Inspection

Questions For Seller

  1. How was the instrument stored?
  2. Has the instrument ever fallen?
  3. What was the temperature & humidity range?
  4. Was the instrument ever stored or played in direct sunlight?
  5. Any occurrence or risk of mold, mildew, insects, worms, etc?
  6. What kind of humidifier was used, if any?

Physical Inspection

https://stringsmagazine.com/how-to-shop-for-a-cello-priced-under-5000/

  1. No high-gloss finish
  2. No laminated wood: confirm via edges of f-holes
  3. Inlaid purfling
  4. Varnish should be in light layers
  5. Varnish should show some wood grain
  6. Varnish flame: contrasting light/dark of wood grain under varnish
  7. Real flame is iridescent: light areas become dark with change of light/vantage point and vice versa
  8. Ebony fingerboard and pegs
  9. Ideal grain of ebony seems almost perfectly smooth
  10. Pegs turn and stay?
  11. Bridge without strings being too deep or too shallow
  12. Bridge feet fit without gaps
  13. Bridge’s flat side should face tailpiece at 90 degrees to cello top
  14. Fingerboard should be straight (i.e., not warped)
  15. Fingerboard scoop: depress string at nut and bridge to see this dip
  16. String to fingerboard on A should be 0.9mm
  17. String to fingerboard on C should be 1-1.4mm
  18. Neck back should be finished with oil, not colored varnish
  19. Peg ends shouldn’t extend or be recessed too far
  20. Endpin length sufficient for your height
  21. Endpin should be removable
  22. F-hole shape is in tact– not distorted by sound post
  23. Sound post well positioned: about 1” (2.5cm-3cm) from bridge
  24. Sound post without splinters or cracks
  25. Inspect for cracks, chips, etc.

Play

  1. Tune by ear using a tuning fork, confirm with app
  2. Open strings
  3. Open strings with crossing
  4. Find the wolf:

Changelog

Document revision history:

Copyright © 2021 Daniel Joseph Pezely
All Rights Reserved.