Part 1: Considering the Costs

The cello is a very popular choice of instrument for learners of all ages. It has a wonderful and rich repertoire to explore, a long line of distinguished players from Pablo Casals to Zoe Keating and an evocative sound that is often compared with the human voice. The cello has become very popular in contemporary music settings too: electric cellos of all shapes and sizes are finding their way into pop and rock bands, and cello is often favoured as a solo instrument by film and TV composers. So it really is no wonder that this beautiful instrument holds such broad appeal. If you’re thinking of taking it up as a hobby, the following points may help you to decide whether playing the cello is definitely your cup of tea.

There are always costs associated with taking up an instrument and the cello tends to be above average in terms of how much it will set you back. Private lessons cost around £25 per hour and can cost substantially more depending on where you are and who you wish to learn with. If you’re thinking of taking lessons, you will no doubt already have thought of this.

You will also probably have looked at the cost of buying an instrument and noticed how wildly this can vary – even in the student or school instrument range. Be warned that the cheapest instruments always end up costing at least twice what you pay for them just to get them into a playable condition. In the higher price ranges there are plenty of lemons too: “deluxe” instruments that are structurally identical to those in lower price brackets but have frilly accessories which make no difference to the sound they make but push the price up by a considerable amount. How to choose a suitable instrument is a complex topic and potentially a lengthy article in itself. My advice is to hold off buying one until you’ve had at least three months of lessons and know that you want to continue. Of course you’ll need an instrument during that time and will need to find a shop or individual to hire one from. This normally costs around £80 per quarter, and you may be entitled to buy the instrument at a discounted rate when the hire term is over. If you happen to know someone with a cello going spare you may be lucky enough to borrow it for a few months.

In addition to your lesson and instrument costs, you’ll have books to buy and ongoing maintenance costs for your instrument. These include replacing strings, getting your bow re-haired and seeing to general wear and tear. Once you’ve graduated from the early beginner stages you may want to join an amateur group to enjoy playing with like-minded people and enhance your musical experience. You may also be interested in attending music courses aimed at adult learners. All of these activities cost money, some substantially more than others. Amateur groups tend to run themselves as charities with each member paying a small monthly or annual subscription. They often offer discounts to students and unemployed or low income members. Courses on the other hand tend to be much more expensive due to the fact that they offer intensive tuition along with accommodation and meals for the duration that they run, which can be anything from a weekend to five days.

With all these costs most of which are fixed, it’s always worth taking a closer look at your monthly outgoings to make sure you can afford the weekly lesson fees, instrument purchase and maintenance and perhaps considering cutting costs elsewhere in your expenditure if you can. As a cello teacher I have had many adult learners who have started lessons with great enthusiasm only to have to stop some months later because they simply can’t afford to continue. For the teacher who relies on each student as a stream of income it’s hugely frustrating, but for the eager student it can be devastating – especially if lessons were going well and they’ve gone and bought an instrument which is never easy to sell on. They always vow to continue practising on their own and return to lessons when their financial situation improves, but both very rarely happen. I’ve even had one or two return about a year later only to have the same thing happen again.

Once you’ve added up the costs involved you’ll be able to make a much more informed decision as to whether you’ll be able to make cello lessons work within your budget. If you find that you’re not financially ready, at least you’ll have a clear idea of how much you’ll need and an incentive to get your finances to a place that will enable you to pursue that passion.

In my next instalments of this article I’ll discuss the physical and musical challenges of playing the cello as well as what to expect as an adult learner.

Part 2: Physical Challenges for Adult Learners

Although the professionals make it look like the easiest and most natural thing in the world, playing the cello is a physically demanding activity which takes years to master. Although the many cello students are able to overcome these challenges with careful and dedicated practice, it’s worth knowing what they are.

Believe it or not, the first consideration for adult learners is the size of the instrument. The general assumption is that all adults are the right size for a full sized cello. Although this is mostly true, there are exceptions. Trying to play an instrument that is even slightly too big can cause injuries to the hands and forearms, back problems and a great deal of frustration. If you’re very petite or have smaller than average hands, you will probably be better off playing a 7/8th or even 3/4 size cello. If you’re unsure, visit a reputable instrument dealer to get advice and sit with smaller instruments to make an accurate assessment or discuss it with your prospective teacher before buying or hiring an instrument. If you are unusually tall you may also need to make adjustments to your instrument or find one that has already been modified.

Although full sized cellos don’t vary greatly in size, cello spikes come in different lengths. If the spike on your instrument is too short your posture will be adversely affected causing neck, shoulder and back ache. Excessively long spikes can make the instrument permanently unstable causing it to move around while playing. This too can cause unwanted tension which often leads to playing related injuries. Fortunately there is a solution to this too. Specially designed spikes exist which consist of two adjustable parts making it possible for them to bend in the middle. This brings the end of the spike closer to the player’s feet, making it possible to properly cradle the cello between the knees and prevent any unwanted movement while playing. Once again, it is best to get advice from your teacher or dealer before getting any modifications made to your instrument.

I have already made more than one reference to playing-related pain and injury. Even with the right sized instrument and any necessary modifications, this can often be a feature of learning to play the cello – especially in the early stages. If you are prone to repetitive strain injuries or suffer from a chronic condition such as fibromyalgia or arthritis, you may find that your progress is slower than you hoped, and could experience excessive playing-related pain or fatigue. This really doesn’t mean that anyone who suffers from one of the aforementioned conditions should abandon their dreams of learning to play the cello. One of my current beginner students is 73 years of age and suffers from severe arthritis in his hands and shoulders. I am helping him to find alternate ways of playing the instrument without aggravating his condition. His progress is far from rapid, but it is evident as is his enjoyment of playing and learning. What I do strongly recommend is that you find a teacher who emphasises the importance of posture, balance and freedom of movement in playing – ideally someone familiar with Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais Method. Make them aware of your physical shortcomings so that they can work with you to prevent additional pain or injury.

This sums up the physical aspects of the instrument and the player which are important to think about before committing to lessons. It is highly unlikely that any of these things will prohibit you from learning to play, but being aware of them can certainly help you to make the right decisions about the instrument and teacher you choose, both of which will make an enormous difference to your enjoyment and progress.

Part 3: Finding Time to Practise

People have many different reasons for wanting to learn the cello. For some it is the fulfilment of a lifelong dream; many people regret giving up music lessons when they were younger and yearn to give it another go; and some people simply feel that they need something that they can call their own outside of their busy and demanding work life. Whatever the reason, it is important that you think carefully about why you want to play, and whether your schedule can accommodate regular practice.

Realistically, those starting lessons in adulthood have left it far too late to reach a professional level of playing, and it is fair to say that I have never encountered an adult learner who thought they were going to be gracing the concert halls in the near or distant future. That is not to say that you won’t be able to reach a very competent level and find like-minded people to share your talents and skills with, but this depends entirely on how much time and effort you are prepared to put in. Lessons alone will not transform you into a musician.

With the best will in the world, there are only 24 hours in a day. With a full time job, a family and the pesky requirement of regular sleep, not many if any of those hours are left for undisturbed practising and playing. Much like the financial issues which I discussed in my first article on this subject, I have had many students start lessons without having really thought about whether they could spare the necessary time for practising. The result is always the same: progress is slow to non-existent, frustration sets in and the student stops lessons saying that he or she will certainly start again when time permits. They never do.

This does not mean that busy people should forget about taking cello or any other lessons as a hobby. Amongst my students I have a judge, a physicist, a university lecturer and a chemist – not exactly part time occupations. Sometimes their busy schedules mean that they don’t get as much time to practice as they’d like, but by and large they have managed to set aside a set time dedicated purely to their cello. Their families understand this and they are able to enjoy uninterrupted practice sessions most days. So the question you need to ask yourself is not “Do I have the time?” but “Can I make the time?”

Think about your daily schedule and what part of the day you could realistically take time out from all work and family commitments. To begin with it doesn’t need to be more than 20 minutes, but as you progress and the demands of the instrument increase you will need to be able to extend that to at least an hour. You may find it useful putting this to the test for a week or two before you begin lessons. Since you won’t have a cello to practice yet, decide on something else to do with that time such as reading a book or doing something creative that you enjoy. If you have a family, this will give them an opportunity to get used to the idea of you needing that time to be alone with your hobby, and you’ll get an idea of whether it’s feasible for yourself.

It is also important to remember that while you’ll be excited and enthusiastic about practising when you begin lessons and will hopefully continue to feel that way, there will be times when you really don’t feel like sitting down to an hour’s practice. Now and again it’s all right to give yourself a break, especially if you’re overly stressed or fatigued, but for the most part you need to be able to overcome that reluctance and stick to your regular routine. The more you allow yourself to skip practice sessions, the less motivated you’ll become. In contrast, the more accustomed you become to regular practice, the more you’ll look forward to that time and enjoy the progress that comes with it.

© D C Cello Studio

Order or download my latest electronica-cello feast, Cellotronics

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