Speaking as a classically trained cello teacher who herself underwent years of tuition at school and Music College, I won’t deny that I am extremely biased. I simply can’t get away from the notion that learning an instrument like the cello can only be a successful endeavour under the instruction of an experienced and capable teacher, and even under those circumstances it certainly won’t work out for everyone. Am I being close-minded? As I conduct research for my own video/ e-book companion for cello students, I keep stumbling across teach-yourself cello methods that promise to enable literally anyone to play. Since none of the methods I have encountered thus far have actually given a definition of what “playing” actually is, I suppose they are not necessarily offering false hope – providing those subscribing to the methods do not equate playing with being able to perform great repertoire or play in a professional level orchestra. Many might argue that drawing the bow across the string to make a passable sound is also playing.

Furthermore, I don’t deny that certain instruments have a long list of outstanding self-taught players. It is more than possible to teach oneself to play an instrument and even take that skill to a professional level. However, I don’t believe that certain instruments – particularly the violin, the viola or the cello – lend themselves at all well to self instruction. I should add at this point, that I will not be drawn into the utterly pointless arguement of which instruments are “easier” or “more difficult” to play, and I am not suggesting that stringed instruments fall into either category. What I am considering, is the accessibility of these instruments when the student has no idea how to hold them, how to hold the bow, or where to place their fingers. I’m sure we can all agree that one of the most disagreeable sounds in the world is that of a violin or cello in the hands of a beginner. Whereas a piano or guitar – both instruments being more “user friendly” with a more intuitive interface to those who have never attempted to play them – may sound dull or uninteresting in the early stages, but never quite as dreadful as a stringed instrument.

Perhaps you think I’m being a snob, and that my concern is not based on the actual practicalities of learning the cello without a teacher, but on the implications of this actually being possible. If more and more people begin to realise that playing the cello is an achievable goal without the costly help of a tutor, people like me will be out of a job. I’ll tell you why I don’t lose sleep over the prospect of losing my business to self-instruction methods: even if it is possible to become a skillful cellist with only the assistance of a book and a few videos, there is a limit to the number of people out there who prefer the “DIY” approach.

As for whether anyone can learn to play the cello as well as they’d like to by following video and book instructions, I believe I’m looking beyond my personal bias when I say that I am far from convinced. Without regular feedback and correction on fundamental issues such as posture, balance, intonation and bow technique (and that’s just for starters) it simply isn’t possible to develop technique that isn’t fraught with tension and bad habits. One of the greatest sources of frustration for musicians is physical tension, pain and injury caused by inadequate technique. So even if your motivation for learning the cello is “just for enjoyment”, there is very little enjoyment to be found in trying to do something that just makes us feel out of our depth. Am I saying that those who study cello with a teacher will not encounter these problems? Sadly not. You may find yourself with a perfectly good teacher but simply not “gel” with him. You might end up with a less than capable teacher whose motivation is to earn a few extra bucks as opposed to helping you to find and develop your musicality. Or you might have an inadequate practice routine. There are many factors that can hinder the development of a music student of any instrument. My feeling is that without a good teacher, all of these factors will be stacked much more heavily against you. A good teacher gets to know her students on a number of different levels – personality, intellect, physical aptitudes, musicality – in order to develop an individual approach to each student. She will never take a one size fits all approach when helping a student to solve problems. A book or video series, no matter how well written and demonstrated, can only offer one approach which won’t work for everyone. It cannot offer several alternative means of explaining each concept without becoming saturated, unreadable and far too lengthy.

I would welcome comments from anyone who is currently teaching themselves to play the cello or has ever attempted to do so. What method did you chose and why? How would you describe your progress? What are your goals for your cello playing?

© D C Cello Studio


77 thoughts on “Can Cello Really be Self-Taught?

  1. Hi, I just read your post here, and at the end you wrote you would like to hear from people that are teaching themselves to play the cello.
    sadly that is the case with my self.

    I have bought the cello in 2006 and since I move around a lot for work it has not been possible to stay with a teacher long.

    For the next two years now I am fixed in one place, and found one teacher, whose approach had become so stuck on one routine, that other perspectives were not at all possible for him.
    I lost my interest to the point, where going to his class would be something I’d rather avoid..

    I had explained to him at the start,
    what my goals were.
    I wanted to learn to play the cello well enough, technically, to play Irish, Scottish traditional tunes solo, and accompanying a group of musicians in these tunes, with my cello.

    he agreed to teach me and said that we had to learn the different elements of playing the cello through classical music and as i would get better at playing, we would progress to some of the preffered music of my choice. that never happened.

    and though I have repeatedly asked for it,
    brought music sheets to the lesson and what not,
    we had to keep the focus on his classical music.

    So I stopped. and for almost 5 months now,
    I have carried on teaching myself.
    with the help of the internet,
    imitating fiddlers, practising scales, ear-training and intonation and what not by myself,
    and I have now learnt to play (pain free I might add) several beginners tunes, that I play along with whistle players from the internet.

    In the end, I do wish to perform with my cello,
    and so i take it very seriously, but I guess I am going for a ‘what feels and sounds right’ approach, more than a ‘what does my teacher think’ approach..

    At the end of the day music is a very very personal affair, in the sense that, what works for one, mightn’t work at all for another.. and with the cello, since i listen to a wide variety of groups, players and tunes,
    my ears have become quite specific to what is ‘good, nice, warm, sharp’ tone, or in another way, what is the kind of sound I’d like to have at what place, what point in the song..
    and so I record my self when practising, and play it back, and correct my self from that.

    I guess its not ideal, and I WOULD prefer a teacher to guide me.

    But since this is not possible here, I carry on myself, and keep looking for an opportunity, to go out and meet other cello players, or individual teachers, to get an incidental lesson, or advice..

    If you could tell me, what the obvious downfalls, or problems might be that beginners like my self (I guess I’ve been playing cello now for 10 months, and my practise time is near 3 hours per day, every day, spread out over 30 minute practising per one time..)
    will surely run in to
    I would be super grateful,

    But I guess that must be, even with all your teaching and training experience, quite impossible,
    since no student is the same,
    nor is information picked up or perceived in necessarily the same way as it was intended, by neither teacher nor student..

    The love for the instrument comes from its wonderfully particular, highly individual ways for expressing tone,
    in such an.. overwhelming.
    I just love it.

    OK, I hope this is somewhat like what response you might have found useful?
    if not, no worries. also, I’m not English,
    so sorry for my bad English..

    good luck and enjoy!

    1. Your story is heartening and certainly makes me question some of my thoughts on the subject of self-teaching. It seems you are extremely self-motivated and your passion for the cello is inspiring. It is a great shame that the teacher you found was so unwilling to entertain different styles of music. While I agree that certain aspects of a classical cello education are necessary for building a strong technical foundation, I think it is lazy and close-minded to refuse the study of other musical styles and genres. A teacher’s responsibility is to help his/ her students achieve their musical goals, whatever those may be. If she feels unable to do that she should be honest about that from the start, and either politely decline lessons or take it upon herself to study the area of music her new student wishes to pursue. If a prospective student came to me and said he wanted to become the Stéphane Grappelli of cello playing I would have to admit straight away that I was out of my depth and probably not his ideal teacher. I would be doing myself and the student a disservice if I agreed to teach him, then proceeded to stifle his musical ambitions.
      I believe you are doing the right thing by learning and practising your scales and arpeggios, listening to and imitating the people whose playing style you wish to master, and speaking to cellists and teachers whenever you can. Online lessons, although they lack some of the advantages of face-to-face lessons, may also be worth considering. You could at least have a teacher advise you on the development of your technique, listen to and watch you play, and offer tips and corrections based on what he sees. The beauty of this option is that it is not location-specific, so if you find someone whose advice you feel you could benefit from, it doesn’t matter where you are on the world. Of course you need the technology to be able to do this: a laptop with a good quality webcam (HD webcams can be purchased separately at relatively low cost if your built-in camera is not up to scratch) and a fast internet connection (at least 3 mbps).
      It is very encouraging indeed that you have not been experiencing any playing-related pain – especially given the amount of time you are already investing in your practice sessions. I normally only recommend a maximum of 1.5 hours a day to students in their first year of playing, but it seems you are not only capable of but also benefiting from the amount of practising you’re doing. It is sensible to break your sessions up into 30 minute units and I recommend that you continue doing this. It seems, based on what you have said, that you have a very natural affinity for the cello, which is a rare gift. Please don’t let me post about self-teaching being something of a dead-end put you off – I’m pleased that you’re proving me wrong! Perhaps you’ll find your ideal teacher along the way, and that will enhance your progress and overall learning experience. In the meantime, keep on bowing!

      1. On self teaching cello, I would have to agree with the author. Even one with extraordinary innate raw talent and desire and time to burn has the near certainty of injury, pain, and degrees of increasing debility over time! I am a mostly self taught guitarist for 48 years. I always, to my detriment mostly, resist proper instruction to do things my way

        I have music in me. I can hear it, feel it, and taste it!!! I hear my own music complete in my inner me, always have. Because of ADHD/Asperger’s issues my abilities to focus are very much related to sensory tolerance and low frustration threshold But there is the other side where hyper focus overrides all and bad habits, improper technique, breathing, hand and body posture, and improperly held physical or mental tensions, are cemented in over time.

        Ok, started cello at 52 years old when my son began Suzuki at age 6. Learned the whole CD by ear but also attended lessons with Sean. I was extremely motivated to excell and achieve a beautiful sound and I was getting there but… like with anything time will prove things out and all improper foundations WILL fail the houses built upon them! Everything I had learned on my own in haste had to be discarded and properly relearned! Breaking up practice time keeps overuse injury risk much lower than 4 hour marathon sessions with no brakes [sic] I don’t know maybe that’s just me but the terms proper and improper seem absolute.

        Unlearning bad habits may not be possible once they incorporate. Cello is a means to express what cannot ever be said with words, it is a voice extension that exceeds ones natural vocal range in both directions. It is not a piano or a guitar, as a matter of fact it’s more like a horse. If you don’t learn him and feed him and groom him and love him, he will take you nowhere! DIY is a big destroyer!!!!

        Suzuki is an amazing method that yields exponentially!! My advise is to get a good teacher if you really want to learn cello! It doesn’t have to be Suzuki method that’s my personal preference. All of the foundation and rudiments are essential for becoming even a competent cellist let alone a virtuoso! Janos Starker still had a teacher, I mean come on!!!!

        In closing, it is my opinion that Jackie Dupre as awesome as she was, is an example of one whose neck, shoulders, back and arms held an improper physical tension that eventually destroyed her. Raw talent and exceptional natural gifting can and does in some cases, override common sense and physical pain signals causing permanent injury and disability and early endings to brilliant performance careers!!

        There are amazing instructors and teachers out there. Take advice from an old dog, the right way only looks right after it has been taken. All proper methods have been born from the frustration, pain, injury, loss, death, and poverty of those who employed impropriety through experiment, arrogance, and ignorance. Due diligence and patience equals discipline. The easy way is the right way.

        Thank you for this post you give very wise intelligent and beneficial advise and info.

  2. A great post.

    I feel I should preface my response by saying that I do not yet play the cello, only the guitar, piano, bass guitar, flute, and voice. So while all of what follows is strictly my own opinion, I believe that there are some parallels in the learning process for any instrument.

    I suspect that the key to truly mastering any instrument is a balanced approach.

    If you could scrape the outer veneer of talent away from any great performer you would invariably find a core of extraordinary perseverance and determination underneath. Indeed, this is true for nearly for all things: The secret to becoming very good at something is to be very bad at it for a long time.

    To be honest, most people do not have that drive. If watching television was a skill, we would live in a world riddled with virtuosi (perhaps the very best of them would perform on a vintage Farnsworth or Marconi).

    What do I mean by a balanced approach?

    If one relies strictly on classical instruction to develop their technique they would become quite skilled at reproduction of notes on a page, but would never truly impart any part of themself into the sound. A reproductionist is hardly a musician. A phonograph can reproduce, but only a musician can interpret, metamorphose and create.

    On the other hand, one who relies strictly on self-education will put themselves at a tremendous disadvantage in terms of developing proper technique. Even upon developing an intuitive knowledge of the minutiae of tone and style, and gross musicality, they would always be restricted by their lack of understanding of the fundamentals – fundamentals which have been developed over hundreds of years by an unbroken lineage of the greatest players and instructors. Fundamentals which exist to solve the problems that hold one back from achieving effortless and accurate execution.

    It is only by a blended technique of mentored classical study, and unstructured experimentation that one can gain the benefits of both approaches. The unfettered precision, accuracy, and speed of the classical approach lends depth to the effortless improvisation, and intuitive ‘horse sense’ of the self-taught approach.

    Or to put it another way, mastery of an instrument requires roughly equal parts mentoring, structured practice, and goofing around.

    As I said before, it all comes down to a near obsessive dedication and perseverance. If you have this it does not really matter where you start out – classical or freestyle – your drive to excel in your craft will push you across that border as you recognize the need for a more complete set of tools.

    It is my opinion that this applies to all instruments. I’ve seen a lot of guitarists who never made it out of the beginners circle simply because they were unwilling put in the time to develop proper fingering and plectrum technique – and don’t bother trying to teach them anything about theory. Then they wonder why everything seems to be impossible.

    At the other end of that spectrum, I worked with a classically trained flautist who was utterly incapable of hearing the key. She couldn’t find a rhythm or melody with which she was comfortable. With her sheet music stripped away she was no more a musician than anyone in the audience. She was a skilled instrumentalist, but she never taken the time to develop her ear.

    I believe that it is best to at least start with an instructor, since they will help you to develop solid fundamentals and eliminate bad habits early on.

    If you choose only to learn what your mentor says, then you are robbing yourself of a valuable educational resource.

    Likewise, if you are unwilling to learn from a mentor, you are robbing yourself of a valuable educational resource.

    1. A very balanced and thoughtful response – many thanks for taking the time and care to post this. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment, but differ slightly with you on your point about strict reliance on classical instruction. While I do agree that it can stifle creativity and will undoubtedly put some learners – young and old – off playing altogether, I have seen teachers best described as technique fascists turn out some of the most breathtakingly artistic musicians with the added advantage of having equally breathtaking technique. Innate musicality varies from one individual to the next. Some music students need that musicality to be encouraged out of them, while others have it in such abundance that no amount of technical fascism can undermine or diminish it.

  3. I’m a self-taught cellist with basic instruction as a child. My family moved from a very culturally rich area to the mountains of Colorado while I was quite young. For many years I didn’t play as I worked with US Forest Service, primarily as a wildland firefighter. About 15 years ago, I picked up my instrument and dug in with great enthusiasm. I learned by watching, listening, but most of all, playing and playing! I now am principal cellist of a symphony where I played the Swan last weekend! I am a member of a number of regional symphonies and play in numerous chamber ensembles for fun and special events. I have the obsessive dedication and perseverence to music, as mentioned above, and I have this same drive in everything that I love, it’s always 150% or nothing with me. I think that if a person could find a great teacher that gets him/her strong technically initially, the cello can be your lifelong instrument, but only if you have the intense passion to really want to play it and learn and observe others’ techniques. I wished that our cello bows had odometers on them! I think my mileage is in the millions! Whatever we do, we should do with intensity and focus and lots of love!

    1. Good for you Janette. I’m self-taught too, and I think you hit the nail on the head – if a person wants to learn the cello (or any other high-level skill) they will, regardless of the teacher. Folks, it’s YOUR endeavor, not your teacher’s. YOU have to do the work – your teacher can’t do it for you. There is no getting around that. People use the excuse “I’m not doing well.. that means I need a different teacher”. They aren’t being honest with themselves. If you aren’t doing well, it’s because A) you don’t have enough natural ability or B) you don’t practice enough or C) a combination of A and B. By the way, I wonder how many people who say “you must have a teacher” are people who never tried without one.. their only experience being that of having a teacher? The point being, how can their opinion on a subject they have no experience with be of any value? There are a lot of people like that in this world…

      1. Hi John. First of all, I think it’s fair to say that there is no definitive answer to the question as it depends on so many variables: musical aptitude, musical experience, motivation, aspirations… the list goes on and the answer changes a little every time you change one of those variables. Of course I have my own views on the subject as a teacher, and those views are defined by my experience – not only as a teacher who has had several students who started self teaching and decided they needed guidance, but also as a musician and composer, formally taught in some areas and self-taught in others.
        I tell all of my students much of what you have pointed out: that real progress requires a disciplined approach to practising. I can help my students to develop a good routine; I can even put together a detailed practice program. But the self motivation to follow that routine can only come from them, not me. Having said that, I have not had a single student who has not at some point hit a rough spot with their motivation. It is then my responsibility to help them identify the reason for that, and to help them overcome it. That includes taking a long hard look at my own methods. I’m not always the right teacher for every student who comes through my door. Sometimes the wrong teacher really can mean the end of what could have been a great musical journey.
        It is always a joint endeavour. When a student-teacher relationship is entered into, it should always be on the understanding that the teacher will use his or her best efforts to facilitate the student’s musical aspirations, while the student will use his or her best efforts to practise what is taught in the lessons.

        1. Thanks for the reply Deryn. I took 3 or 4 lessons when I started. I absolutely hated every minute of it. To be fair, in my opinion that was because my so-called “teacher” was completely unfit to teach – there was nothing structured or planned about his “lessons” whatsoever. It was simply.. “well, let’s just open the book and start playing THIS (picked at random). You just follow along with me”. He never asked me how I was doing, or what I had been working on, or to demonstrate anything to him. Here I could barely hold the instrument, and had to learn to read music as well (I had to learn BOTH simultaneously), and we were just going to spontaneously “start playing”. Yeah, sure we are dude. I’d try to play the notes, read the sheet music, and try to “keep up” with him, all at the same time. That would go on for about 4 or 5 bars and it would of course fall apart and I’d just stop, exasperated. He’d try to make a joke of it. Simply maddening. I can remember leaving those lessons feeling very angry. Obviously not what I had in mind. But, I kept going on my own, and after a few years I am able to play a few pieces fairly well, and feel I’m getting a little better all the time. I recently discovered the easy Popper Etudes and am really enjoying those.. they are fun melodies and of course are designed as teaching tools as well.

          The truth is, I’d love to have a good teacher. I’m sure there are good ones out there, though it’s expensive, and by the way that’s another BIG problem. But I’ve found that unless you want to play in public, you can get a feel for it on your own and for some of us, that’s enough. One other thing.. the reason I took up cello is not because I wanted to play in an orchestra or in public, which is what my “teacher” assumed. Rather, it was to simply give me a better appreciation of classical music, ie, feel a little more connected. So, as teachers, you really have to be careful to find out not only what your student needs technically, but to find out what truthfully motivates them. Some surprises there, I’m certain.:)

          1. I’m really sorry to hear about your negative experience with lessons, and sadly, I’m well aware that yours is not an unusual story. I’ve had some pretty rotten teachers in my time too. For what it’s worth, the first questions I ask my students are why they chose the cello, and what they want to do with it. It shouldn’t matter to a teacher whether a student wishes to perform in great concert halls or play in the comfort and privacy of their bedroom. Either way, we are facilitators, and we need to understand what we are facilitating. You’ve highlighted the biggest issues with private music education: there is no proper regulation – anyone can set themselves up as a music teacher and pretend to have all the right qualifications and qualities; and it is not cheap, so a huge percentage of any population is automatically excluded from the chance of having private music lessons.

            The fact is, being a highly skilled musician is no guarantee you’ll be a capable teacher. Often musicians blessed with an abundance of natural talent find teaching tedious because they can’t understand why others would find the learning process so challenging when they never had to give it that much thought or effort themselves. Teaching is seen by far too many musicians as a fall-back position or a means to an end. This means that like your teacher, they don’t take the time to put themselves into their students’ shoes, and tend to view their teaching activities as a temporary distraction or an inconvenience. Music education in schools is not a great deal better. In spite of teachers having to go through a strict interview process, ever-decreasing budgets and ridiculous targets dictated by bureaucrats who know nothing about music makes it extremely difficult to offer individually tailored lessons. In the UK, music lessons in schools are seldom more than 30 minutes in duration (no more than 15 minutes of actual teaching after all students have arrived and instruments have been tuned), and seldom given to groups smaller than 3 kids at a time.

            The cost of lessons is a complex issue. On the one hand, private music teachers have to earn a living, and though the per lesson price is seldom cheap, it’s often barely enough for the teacher to cover the monthly bills and never enough to earn a particularly comfortable living. In principle it would be wonderful to be able to offer free lessons to those who can’t afford them. But in practice (and again I say this from experience), people tend not to value what they get for free. It’s a generalisation, and it’s not always true, but it’s true often enough to make it a patchy solution to making music education more widely accessible. What I would dearly love to see happen is proper regulation of private music teachers that goes beyond the optional memberships and accreditations that currently exist. In an ideal world, if a proper regulatory body existed, it would also raise funds (or be eligible for government grants) to subsidise lesson costs on a means-tested basis. Unfortunately the likelihood of that happening is vanishingly unlikely, especially since our younger generations will grow up without ever having paid a penny for the music they listen to.

            All of that aside, I take my hat off to you for having the continued determination and motivation to teach yourself. I hope you find yourself in a position where you are able to have at least a few lessons with a great teacher who can share his or her passion with you, and shape lesson around what you want to be able to do. And yes, the 15 Easy Etudes by Popper are great fun – enjoy them!

  4. So, from this small sampling (and what would you expect from such a limited audience) it would seem, Deryn, that, yes, you are a music snob. To doubt the abilities of anyone else y to do what you can do without the training/instruction that you have required is conceited to say the least. Passion is what makes the ultimate performance. Technical ability, as Dr. Avery suggested, can be attained by many without the ability to inspire us. No, not everyone can teach themselves cello….but don’t flatter yourself that IT CAN’T BE DONE! What a goob.

    1. Since I suggested the distinct possibility of my snobbery in my post, it is really not for me to protest. However, I should point out that my purpose was and is never to doubt anyone’s ability. My teaching philosophy has always been and will always be inclusive.

      I am genuinely delighted to find out about successful self-teaching projects, and I certainly don’t presume to tell anyone that their method is wrong or insufficient.

      I have more to add, but have to dash now.

    2. Sam Little, that is the most obnoxious post I’ve read in a long time. Passion without some decent technique is just music therapy, which certainly has its place in the world but is not something audiences will pay to hear. Deryn is clearly a very committed performer and teacher who knows just how difficult it is to play the instrument well. And yes, it is clear from this discussion that some people can learn to play the cello without a teacher, but what I don’t think Deryn realized is that there are people out there who either (1) aren’t interested in playing classical music or (2) don’t give a rats a$$ how they sound.

      1. Michele your reply is confusing. I am self-taught, I am interested in classical music, and I do care about how I sound. All 3 at the same time.

        1. Oh, dear God, I am so tired of this conversation, and this will be the last I contribute to it. If you are self-taught and happy with how you sound, then more power to you.

          1. Hey Michele if you aren’t interested in the conversation anymore then why did you write such a stuck-up reply? You are obviously a non-thinking snob. It’s your type that give classical music a bad rap.

          2. Apologies, Kay. Some of the comments elsewhere put me over the edge, but the tone of my response above was not called for.

            Seriously, if you are happy with your playing, that’s all that really counts, isn’t it? But to get the most out of the instrument, I still highly recommend finding a good teacher with whom you get along.

            And now I really am going to bow out of this conversation, even if comments are directed at me.

  5. I’m back to add more as promised!

    Sam, I certainly don’t disagree with your point about passion – it makes all the difference to a performance. But let’s consider the following:

    Four musicians play the same piece of music on the cello. We’ll call them A, B, C and D.

    Performer A has outstanding technique, but lacks lyrical and musical passion. His performance is very precise, blindingly fast, and he plays with excellent intonation. He is superficially impressive to watch and listen to, but his rendition is not inspiring. The audience applauds him enthusiastically, but later describe his performance in terms of how well he played rather than how it made them feel.

    Performer B is the opposite of performer A: his technique is undisciplined and shaky, but he is clearly deeply musical. When he performs the music previously performed by A we can hear that he feels the music and that he really wants to express himself through it. His passion drives him, but his technique lets him down. This frustrates him, and the more he tries to express the music the way he feels it should sound, the more tuning and note errors creep into the performance. For both the performer and the audience B’s performance is a frustrating experience. B’s emotional broadcast is constantly being interrupted by the interferences of his instrument.

    Performer C has neither technical ability nor musical and lyrical passion. His rendition of the piece is stilted and full of tuning, rhythm and note errors. C might be satisfied with his performance, but for the audience it has been both unmoving and unpleasant to listen to.

    Performer D has both technical ability and musical passion in abundance. He might not play with quite the same precision as A, but his technique supports his musical vision and his rendition is enjoyed by the majority of the audience because they can experience D’s vision of the music without being reminded of the technical difficulties and requirements.

    Of course some of the audience may dislike D’s performance because musical expression is an entirely subjective entity. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. But my point is that of the four performances described above, it is undoubtedly D who will provide the most enriching experience – for himself and for the audience.

    I don’t presume to know the ability of people I have never met, and I don’t believe my post suggests that – I can only apologise if it does. Expressing doubts is not the same as expressing an absolute negative. I do, however know the difficulties faced by those who choose to learn the cello, having taught a great many people from a huge variety of backgrounds over the past decade-and-a-half. A handful of those students had spent some time – anything from a few months to a few years – trying to teach themselves. In all of those cases, they decided to find a teacher because they had run into technical issues that they simply weren’t able to solve. Consequently they were unable to progress and unable to make the instrument sound the way their musical instinct dictated. They were like B, but wanted to be like D.

    1. Good, except for one thing.. this is all about being a Performer and “pleasing the public”. Not everyone takes up an instrument because they want to perform in public! In fact, I’ll take a wild guess and say that most do not.

  6. An interesting discussion.

    I was a professional symphony bassist for a number of years before I burned out and pretty well gave up music, except for bits and pieces of piano teaching, for some time. I’m now in my mid 50s, and a couple of years ago, a cello virtually fell in my lap. I fell in love with the instrument.

    I figured it would be a pretty easy transition from bass to cello. But guess what? It wasn’t! (Or maybe I should say it isn’t…)

    I don’t have weekly lessons, a difficult logistics issue where I live. I have to travel for my lessons and usually only manage one lesson every four to six weeks, which is fine for me with my experience as a musician. But there is absolutely no way I could be where I am technically without those lessons.

    Granted, I much prefer to be taught than to be resourceful and find things online, but my teacher provides me with technical tips that I would never have figured out myself (there are a lot of differences between the two instruments) as well as inspiration and encouragement. Of course, I should add here that it can be terribly frustrating to be a beginner on an instrument when you’ve reached professional standards on another much like it. I need frequent reassurance that I’m really doing quite fine.

    What my teacher does not have to teach me is general musicianship or how to practise, but all my passion and determination and even my musical experience would just drive me to the ground without her.

    In the decades since I left the symphony orchestra I’ve matured and learned a lot in life. I’m looking forward to playing cello professionally without all the baggage I had as a bass player. I’m also really looking forward to additional lessons (when I can muster them) with a different teacher who teaches pretty well everything but classical, and my very classically oriented main teacher is fine with that.

    I have taught piano for years, and I agree that for most (note that I didn’t say “all”) people who want to learn, lessons are a must. It simply makes the whole process way easier. It’s just too bad that so many people are driven away from lessons by bad teachers.

    So there you go. Another perspective.

    1. I agree with the statement, “I should add here that it can be terribly frustrating to be a beginner on an instrument when you’ve reached professional standards on another much like it.” To go from shredding a guitar to playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on a cello is quite humbling.

      1. I never did reply to this message. No Twinkle for me in the beginning! At my first lesson, I was assigned a 3-octave C-major scale, Sevcik op. 3, and the Vivaldi A-minor sonata. Sure, given my background, I could play the cello without any lessons; however, I certainly wasn’t satisfied with the standard of my playing and needed (um, still need) lessons in order to play the way I want to.

        I didn’t do Twinkle until this past summer, when I took Suzuki cello teacher training. And, I might add, the reason I wanted to take those courses was because, having kind of jumped in in the middle, I never really was a beginner on the cello and thus didn’t really know how best to introduce it without some pedagogy training, My standards as a teacher are as high as my playing standards.

        And I think that’s the crux of this discussion — standards. There’s not a hope in Hades that any self-taught cellist could possibly get a job in a professional orchestra. To reach that standard of playing — or even reasonable competence with playing classical music — you need lessons. To just goof around on the instrument for the pleasure of playing it…. well, that’s another story, but even then, I maintain that most cellists would get more pleasure out of their instrument with the guidance of an expert teacher, provided that the teacher genuinely likes to teach and tailors her teaching to the student’s needs and wants.

        If being a competent classical musician means you’re a snob, then I guess Deryn is a snob… as am I.

          1. I still don’t think it’s that straight forward. Most people who ask me whether it is possible to teach themselves to play the cello (and I get asked the question quite often, hence the post) have aspirations to do more than play a few basic tunes for their own personal enjoyment. They want to perform publicly in their bands, or have aspirations to play the advanced repertoire that attracted them to the instrument in the first place. Can I answer each of those questions with a simple ‘yes’? Absolutely not – I would be misleading someone whose musical aptitude, wok ethic and motivation was unknown to me. In spite of what the endless platitudes on Facebook might proclaim, sometimes *wanting it* – no matter how much – really isn’t enough to achieve it. Could someone with a musical background teach himself to play a few simple cello lines likely to get drowned out by the guitar, bass and drums anyway? Quite possibly. Could he learn to shred like he does on his guitar? Depends on what his idea of shredding is, and how concerned he is about tone quality and intonation. So maybe. But if he was hoping to shred like Tina Guo, he might drop her a line and ask her how many hours of lessons and guided, disciplined practice she has put in to be able to do what she does.

        1. Yep, I sometimes wonder why we as classical musicians and snobs are put together… 🙂 You mentioned that you were never really a beginner on the cello to start with… I was just curious as to why you say that, because I am wondering about this question myself. I have played violin for some years, the last couple with an excellent teacher, who unfortunately, due to a change in location, can no longer study with… Right now I am studying harp with a wonderful teacher (she says I am doing well, and could certainly study it in college, but I digress) so bass clef wouldn’t be anything new or unfamiliar. I have not been able to find any teachers anywhere near, and am wondering how crazy it would be for me to try and teach myself cello. I do not intend to get a job in a professional orchestra, especially as I am kind of late (15, near 16) and working chiefly on harp. Sorry to have talked so long, but if you could explain your background that gave you a head-start on the cello, I would greatly appreciate it!
          Madeline D.

          1. Hi Madeline,

            Yes, why are classical musicians so often labelled snobs? Well, some are! But also, as this discussion demonstrates, many people simply don’t understand just how much work goes into being a decent classical musician and the kind of precision that is needed, so they see our discipline and commitment as snobbery. If you’re a professional hockey player, that’s a different story!

            Every once in a while, when I’ve just spent yet another hour working on a 10-minute piece and it’s still a long way from being ready for performance, I wonder why I even bother. But for me, it’s worth it — that is, the hard work that includes taking lessons from a knowledgeable teacher at least at some point.

            I think you must have missed my post above where I mentioned that I was a professional symphony bassist at one time. By the time I took up cello, I not only already had a great depth of musical experience (including an understanding of what good practising entails), but I also had a solid understanding of how to use a bow and of fingerboard technique. I understood how to draw a sound out of a string with a bow, bow changes, string crossings, and techniques of playing on and off the string. I didn’t need reminding about my left hand position and already knew how to shift. Vibrato was a breeze for me! And from the start I had absolutely no fear of playing in the stratosphere — it’s easy for a bassist to go to the top of the fingerboard on the cello (although using the thumb and doing crazy thumb position stuff is still beyond me). Now, all of these are sufficiently different on the cello than on the bass so that I had (and still have) a lot of adjusting to do. And what I’m completely missing is a sense of what constitutes good fingering, as bass strings are tuned in 4ths and the hand position encompasses only a major 2nd rather than a minor 3rd (or the major 3rd with extended fingering on the cello), so all the patterns are different.

            So yes, I had a huge head start on the cello because of my background as a bassist, but there are enough differences in the two instruments to really make me stumble. I thought I’d be playing chamber music after a year of practising, but I’m still not there — my ability to find the right notes is still too weak, and I take forever to learn new pieces unless they’re dead simple. People are amazed at the sound I produce and how well I get around the instrument, but in so many ways, I am still a beginner. And as far as I’m concerned, I need a teacher. I would have quit after about 6 months if she hadn’t been on board with me.

            So how crazy would it be for you to try to teach yourself cello? It depends. Evidently lessons aren’t an option for you as there isn’t a teacher available, and you do have some musical background. So how much do you want to play the cello? How resourceful are you? How much are you willing to struggle? How satisfied will you be with less than perfect playing? (That’s my big stumbling block — I am NOT!) And what would it cost you (financially, emotionally, socially, whatever) to try? You might enjoy dabbling with it. I wouldn’t, but that’s me, and that sentiment shouldn’t stop YOU from trying.

            As for your age, I don’t consider anything in the teens to be late. I know a bassist who started the instrument at something like 17 or 18 (with a very good teacher) and won a position in a very good professional orchestra in his early 20s. Right now I have piano students ages 5 to 80, and it has been my observation (validated by some of the reading I’ve done) that it’s around the mid 40s when it gets harder to learn something new. I think starting an instrument in your teens is a very good time to do it, though if you have any intentions of continuing in any serious way (and I do NOT recommend a professional career in music to anybody who can possibly do anything else — unless you’re Isabel Bayrakdarian), be aware that when learning an instrument on your own, you’re almost certain to pick up some bad habits that would have to be corrected if you did get serious about it.

            Oy, I am long-winded today. Hope this helps.

            1. No, thank you very much for your thorough answer! Yes, I can see how a background in bass would help, but there’s enough difference to make it difficult; sorry I missed that. I have gotten some experience in teaching myself (with violin) this past year, and yep, it sure is much more difficult, even just for lack of an outside opinion, and finding resources wherever I can… I am becoming more aware about the difficulties of being a professional musician as I look into that for harp (And I’m afraid I’m NOT Isabel Bayrakdarian, tempting though a double-major is:-) I don’t think I could be a professional cellist, as you mentioned, without a good teacher, and I think my aspirations go no higher than being able to play some chamber music, ambitious though I know that can be. Unless anyone around here can recommend a teacher in the Texas hill country, (between Austin and San Antonio) I think I will be teaching myself.
              Thank you for time!
              Madeline D.

                1. I checked there, and though they say they offer lessons for cello among other things, I wasn’t able to actually find a cello teacher on their site. I’ve sent an email just to make sure and ask for their suggestions, though. Thanks!

              1. Yup, Isabel Bayrakdarian could have been a biomechanical engineer, yet her passion and gift for music took her down the musical path, to the delight of all who have the pleasure of hearing and seeing her perform. I mentioned her as an exception to the advice I usually give, which is if you have talent and skill in just about anything else, do the something else instead of music. Especially if you live in North America.

                You sound pretty determined to learn cello, and as a number of people in this discussion have indicated, it may be possible to do so without a teacher. I will emphasize that lessons are essential if you want to pursue a professional career with it — or even if you simply want to play it very well — but it’s always worth a try just to enjoy its rich, melodious voice. Good luck!


  7. I’ve taught myself to play several instruments. When you understand how music works, and get the “science” of playing the specific instrument and how to get a decent tone, it comes natural. Granted i’m not the next Yo Yo Ma, but I can wholeheartedly say that I have taught myself to play the cello.

  8. Music and musicality fall into two arenas: cultural or artistic. Music can be viewed either as traditionally set and rigid or as creatively fluid and evolving. Thus, good and bad become subjective terms. Case and point, consider the accordian’s introduction to South America, courtesy of a shipwreck. They were literally picked up off the beaches and toyed around with. Without any teachers, an entirely new approach to playing the accordian came about. It is no less music, no less art, and no less good. Yet, it is most definitely different. What a European might consider bad could be one of the best tangos ever played.

    So, the question of whether or not self-teaching the cello will work for any given student must begin with the goal, with what the student would like the cello to do in their hands. And the prognosis for success only gets more complicated by personal factors and natural abilities. Do they want to play Back? Or do they want to venture into wholly new territory? If the goal leans toward the “traditional”, established sounds of the instrument, then, yes, seek instruction. But, seriously, when you run a cello through a midi system and start playing around on the electronic end, it’s absolutely amazing what an array of possibilities unfold. At that point, who is to say right or wrong, good or bad.

    In the end, a cello is a tool. A tool, however, does not define the job at hand. Tools are very often applied well outside their original designs. No one designed a chainsaw to carve, and yet, the tool has made some amazing art. I’m sure there are some lumberjacks who complain and criticize too.

  9. I came across this site when I was searching, probably as the others as well, for answers to whether or not it is possible to learn cello by oneself. That’s what I’m trying to do since about march this year. Cello is one of the instruments I always had an interest in, though I never found the time or a teacher to learn it. When I was younger (well, I’m almost 30 now) I wanted to learn viola, but due to my family’s financial situation it wasn’t really possible. I learned to play flute, guitar, organ and piano when I was a child, and later taught myself piano again after not having played for almost 10 years. Finally, when I thought I couldn’t stand it anymore without one, I bought myself a cello. Another difficulty maybe might be that I’m left handed. But, (I need to make it short, cause I still have some work to finish here…) since I got that cello, I feel like it’s the only instrument I really ever loved, and every time I take it into my hands to practice I don’t want to ever put it away again.
    I’m from Austria originally, but in August I moved to China (where I had lived the past three years already) again after a short break. I couldn’t take the cello with me, and I missed it dearly from the first day. So I got a new one. Instruments here are cheap, I really was surprised of the quality my new Chinese cello has. I try to practice as much as I can, but of course without a teacher, and there you are right, some things might result difficult. I’m not sure whether I’m doing it in a correct way, but I think it is of great help that I have that ear for music, always had, and that I learned other instruments before. Of course none of them was like the cello, but as I love it, I do my best. I don’t want to be a world class player, I never will reach that level, haha, but I want to learn it well to maybe be able to perform somewhere out of love for music and the instrument. I think that no teacher can replace personal motivation, I had teachers who even destroyed my motivation to learn an instrument, which is sad. I’d appreciate to have a teacher, cause there are some things I’m not sure if I can figure them out by myself later on, but here in China I’m not sure of where to find one, then because I’m busy with work and so on. So I take my time with the instrument, I love it and I think anyone who is moved in the same way as me whenever they hear even the open strings of it will understand what it means to be in something with all one’s heart. Sometimes I feel even the sound of an open string can make me cry, I want to embrace that instrument (fortunately it’s possible…) and I’m glad I started to learn it. Maybe for others, and sometimes even for me, it sounds terrible what I produce, but I noticed that it gets better the more I practice so I have hope.
    I think I have to find out for myself, as everyone, how far I can go by myself and when there will be some limits. But I’m very sure that I don’t want to stop, cause it’s one of the things that make me most happy in my life, and I don’t want to miss it again. I’m glad there are others out there who try to do the same as I do, hopefully with the same passion as I do. Cause music is passion, and a life without music would simply be a sad life.

    1. Your story is inspiring, and I have no doubt that with your passion, dedication and musicality you’ll make progress in spite of the difficulties. You make two points that I think are spot on:
      1. Having a teacher doesn’t guarantee success or even progress. There are several reasons for this. The obvious one, is that some teachers just aren’t very good at teaching. They may be outstanding players, but that doesn’t mean they have the ability or training to describe how they do it. Some teachers simply take on a few students to supplement their income as self employed musicians, and go through the motions of teaching rather than viewing it as an integral part of their career. The sad fact is that some students have their motivation and relationship with their instrument cut short by incompetent teachers. Then there is the fact that a teacher, no matter how good, is not always the right ‘fit’ for every student.
      2. A good teacher will always encourage and nurture a student’s passion for music, but no teacher – no matter how good – can create that passion from nothing. It has to be there in the first place. The same goes for motivation to practise. Everyone has ups and downs with their motivation levels, and a teacher should be able to help students to get back on track. But if the motivation was never there in the first place, a teacher is unlikely to change that regardless of how much persuasion he or she tries.

      It’s very clear from the many detailed responses to this post that the question of whether cello can be self taught or not really doesn’t have a simple answer. Having previous musical experience definitely helps; having that insatiable desire to play is essential; making use of a wide variety materials – video, methods and books – is very important. And take any method that claims to be miraculous with a large pinch of salt. I wish you the very best on your cello quest – I hope it’s a lifelong journey.

      1. Hi Deryn, thank you very much for your reply & encouragement. Sure I will keep going, and I hope, as you said, the story of my cello and me will be a lifelong story. ^^

  10. Absolutely cello can be self-taught. But it’s not an easy task. Not easy at all. With enough knowledge of music theory, determination, passion, and raw musical talent, a person can teach themselves how to play anything. I taught myself how to play several instruments at a professional level, also arrange, compose, record, edit, and mix music. Cello is my most recent endeavor. I’m making excellent progress and I guarantee in a few years I’ll be playing it at a professional level as well. And I’ll bet I’m not the only one who can do this.

      1. I would say a professional level is getting paid to perform (as a job). Be it in a symphony, band, or maybe as just a recording artist.

        1. If you manage to get a job in an orchestra or as a paid session musician without any formal training, I think you’ll make history. People spend many, many years and huge sums of money on lessons and music college and still really struggle to secure professional jobs. I don’t disagree on the notion that someone with the right level of motivation and musical aptitude could probably teach him/herself to play to a relatively high standard. But it would simply be wrong and misleading to say that anyone could teach themselves to play. Furthermore, the definition of playing to a high standard is very subjective. For some it would simply entail learning to give a recognisable rendition of their favourite tune; to others it means being capable of playing just about anything put in front of them. As a professional session cellist myself, I can vouch for the fiercely competitive nature of my work. I work in a marketplace where people think it’s okay to ask me to work for free or ‘for exposure’. Putting aside the years I spent taking lessons and studying music, it has taken further years to establish myself as a session cellist, and the same is true for every other professional orchestral and session cellist I know.

      2. Now I will say this, 99 times out of 100 a classically trained cellist will be “better” technically than a self-taught cellist. Well…that really goes for any instrument. But simply teaching yourself to play cello, whether it be a super awesome cellist or just someone who likes to jam around, it can be done.

  11. I have to come clean and say I am one of Deryn’s students.

    It may well be possible to teach yourself to a very high level but IMHO it is unlikely, at least not without a lot of frustration, backpeddling, unlearning etc.. That’s not to say some of the same frustrations are not present with a teacher – esp. when you are motivated, have high expectations and want to be able to play like Yo-Yo Ma yesterday. Deryn can confirm my occasional classroom tantrums (with myself!) when things haven’t gone well!

    What teaching from a good teacher gives you are: the benefit of hundreds of years of accumulated insight, better ways to do things, new approaches to try, none obvious things to practise to acheive a specific goal, instant constructive and perceptive feedback, dealing with bad habits before they become ingrained, a tailored approach to what you want to acheive, sensible advice (often on what is best left until later!). The list goes on and is pretty inexhaustable but for me the biggest pluses are meeting another cellist, playing together, encouragement and honesty as well as a positive serving of reality!

    In case you think I am totally biased I have taught myself to play guitar (classical as well as folk/rock), bass guitar and plucked double bass to a good enough standard to have played on recordings and even TV on a couple of occasions. I play piano passably well (almost entirely self taught from picking up classical music from TV ads as a teenager, I did have a handful of lessons in my 20s but they didn’t amount to much) and have accompanied professional musicians on a number of occasions. Over the years I have been in and run choirs and staged the odd musical and concert.

    Having finally, at the age of 55, decided to pick up the cello with a teacher I now realise what I missed in all this past experience, and why despite a lot of pleasure and a degree of success I have never felt even close to capable of playing well some if the things I desperately wanted to play over the years.

    I may be deluding myself but after nearly 8 months with Deryn I now feel I am building a foundation fairly quickly that will release some of that pent up frustration and allow me to get to a point where I possibly will play the repetoire that inspired me to start my latest journey without hitting the ‘self-taught’ brick walls I crashed into I the past.

  12. I am a 99% self taught cellist. I do not personally use any method. I am part of my schools orchestra. (3rd chair out of 8) All I need to get help for are things such as articulations and the staff text. After teaching myself I can almost play the entire first cello suite. I also made the advanced orchestra for my school. So yes, it is possible to be self taught. I hope this leads to some insight on your beliefs. (If you were wondering, I practice everyday 30min-3hours)

    1. It sounds like you have a good combination of musical aptitude and determination. I haven’t heard or seen you play so I can’t comment on the quality of your playing. But my post was about whether one can teach oneself to play – which you clearly have – not whether one can learn to play with good technique without the guidance of a teacher. That is a different topic – possibly one for a future post.

      I have nothing but respect and admiration for anyone who has the motivation to undertake something as daunting as learning to play the cello without a teacher when circumstances make lessons impossible. I will say this though: if you’re doing well, serious about playing the cello to a high standard and keen for it to be part of your life for the foreseeable future, consider finding a good teacher if at all possible to help you refine your technique, practice routine and approach to repertoire. Best of luck to you on your cello journey!

      1. Hear, hear! Indeed, there are two questions here: 1) Can you learn to play cello without a teacher? and 2) Can you learn to play cello *well* without a teacher?

        And as long as we’re clear that anybody who wishes to pursue a career as a classical cellist (I’m being pretty specific here, sticking to what I know) needs to have lessons, I’m fine with the answer “yes” to the question that was posed as long as one’s expectations are realistic.

        I might add that even with good teaching combined with innate talent and a lot of hard work, it can be very difficult to succeed in the classical world, at least in North America. I doubt there is a professional classical musician (on any instrument) who has not studied with a master teacher at some point in his or her career.

        And furthermore, to study on one’s own, even with less lofty aspirations, is hard. It takes determination and resourcefulness. Most people really benefit from the expertise and encouragement of a good teacher.

        And on that note, you need a good teacher — not only somebody who is competent, but somebody you get along with and who is inspiring to you. (Sounds like Deryn is one of those. 🙂 )

  13. It has been fascinating to read all these opinions. I’m of the opinion that it is next to impossible to teach oneself the cello to reach a level of artistry that would please most listeners.To please oneself, yes, because a big part of the learning process is improving your listening and other sensitivities so if you don’t hear what a fine musician is hearing, you’ll think you sound great. I struggled for more than a decade without teachers and with mediocre teachers and finally at age 28 began studying with Lowri Blake who was wonderful and took me back to square one. I have just created a website for people who are not able to take lessons or for cellists who want to think more about their teaching. It’s non-commercial – I have no ads on it. It’s simply for me to develop as a cellist and cello teacher and for people world-wide who are looking for ideas and possible answers. I’d be grateful for anyone to have a look at it, give me feedback and/or add it as a link to their site or blog. http://www.learningthecello.com

    1. Thank you for your input, Suzanne, and for sharing your wonderfully comprehensive website. I look forward to looking at it in more detail, and I hope you find some of the articles here on my blog useful too. I find this type of exchange fantastic for keeping my teaching ideas fresh and finding new ways to describe and think about core cello techniques.

      1. I think your blog is great Deryn and it’s so good to for all of us cello teachers to express our ideas through words and videos (and notation -I’m starting to add some pdf files of exercises) We need to also stay fresh by learning from other “live” activities.. I just got back from a week long course with cello recitals every night and classes and private lessons each day. It was so valuable and I have so much more to think about and work on now.

  14. Hi,

    Over the lat few years I have increasingly wanted to learn the cello. I currently play the piano at grade 6 standard and saxophone grade 8 standard (ABRSM), and so paid cello lessons with a proper teacher wouldn’t work financially for me.

    One of my sisters played the cello at grade 5 standard and the other currently plays (although she is young and has just started). As a result of my first sister, we have a full size cello that is now no longer being used which I intend to teach myself to play on via books and videos etc.

    I was just going to enquire as to whether the problems that you mentioned such as how to hold the now and the instrument itself and how to sit whilst playing can e overcome by the fact I can receive feedback from my sister, regardless of the fact she wasn’t very good when she played?

    Based on my current knowledge of reading music from my other two instruments an my potential sources of feedback (even though it clearly won’t be to the standard a teacher) would you say that that would be sufficient to teach myself the cello.

    1. Hi Gabe
      As has already been discussed in the various comments on this post, this is not a question that can be answered with a simple yes or no. There are so many variables: what you want to be able to do on the cello, your physical aptitude and coordination, your motivation to practise, and many more besides.
      Your musical background will certainly help you, especially in terms of the theoretical side, physical coordination, and providing insight into the process of learning and practising. I can’t promise that you won’t experience problems with technique. The cello is not an easy instrument to learn, and it would be misleading to suggest that having a teacher is a guarantee of learning to play without bad habits or technical weaknesses. Your sister will certainly be able to give you guidance that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The Internet is also a treasure trove of information if you know where to look and how to filter out the less useful material. For example, forums are an excellent place to join discussions about practising, repertoire, method books, and the general learning process, but not necessarily the best place to learn about technique. There are a few sites that I’m particularly fond of for the clear, concise tips they offer. Two are Youtube channels, and one is a site for cellists. Links are below. I would certainly encourage you to give it a go, and I wish you all the best with it!


  15. I have played the violin and viola for four years but my passion was always cello.My teacher always said I was slightly out of tune,Tension.Where I live now is no cello teachers but my desire to play cello will never stop,I can only teach myself.That is my only option.Will my back ground in violin and viola help me?

    1. Hi Claudett
      As a player of violin and viola you will have a lot of advantages. You will have an understanding of how the instrument works, the tuning and fingering system, how the bow interacts with the strings to produce sound, and all of the articulations and bowing styles that we use as string players. I have taught several ex-violinists who took to the cello very well indeed. There are conflicting techniques to be aware of though – most importantly the shape, angle and placement of the left hand, and the bow hold. Because the angles involved in playing the cello are vastly different to those for the violin and violin, they do not complement each other and you’ll probably be inclined to transfer what you’ve learned on the upper strings. That shouldn’t put you off though. Take a look at the sites I recommended to Gabe, and look out for other violinists/ violists who have transferred to the cello so that you can compare notes and get advice specific to your situation. I would certainly recommend that you keep an eye open for a good teacher moving to your area. Best of luck!

      1. Thank you so much for your reply.I live in Belize and I shall have to bring a cello in from the USA or even Mexico or Guatamala.I need your advice on which cello to buy.With a beautiful sound.Thanks!

        1. This is a very tricky subject to advise you on. Firstly, I don’t know what your budget is, and as you’re probably aware, prices vary considerably. Here in the UK you can pay anything from £300 – £3500 for a student instrument. Although I never recommend instruments in the lowest price bracket (they’re basically expensive ornaments), price is often not an accurate indication of quality. The other problem is the fact that I am not very familiar with student instrument brands in the USA, and I have no idea about brands in Central America. Eastman offer a reasonable array of instruments, but even they have different brand names for the various levels of instrument here in the UK. Your best bet is to speak to cellists based in the USA, Mexico and Guatamala. I think the best place to do that would be the Internet Cello Society. In addition to their forums (http://cellofun.yuku.com/) they have a fairly active group on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/18642643064/.
          Whatever you end up buying, please remember that without a good workshop setup you’ll encounter a lot of problems: slipping pegs, bridge too high and badly placed, soundpost badly placed, etc. The last two problems are not only detrimental to sound, they can cause irreparable damage to your cello. Buy from a reputable instrument dealer and avoid warehouse-style retailers whose staff know little or nothing about the setup and care of stringed instruments. If your only option is to buy from a superstore, find a good luthier to set your cello up properly and replace the factory strings with a good set like Jargar or Dominants.

  16. I am a violinist/pianist who has been teacher trained my whole life. I just recently bought a cello, but I cannot take lesson for it at this point in time. I know how to read the music, know the notes for the first position, and I can hold the bow. I know that there is transition between the violin and the cello, but I think that I may be able to self teach myself. I don’t know what method approach I am going to take yet, but I will decide that when me cello comes in. Thank you for your article. It was very helpful.

    1. Shylah, as somebody who went from bass to cello and expected it to be easy, I can tell you to be prepared for a rocky road ahead! You will have a head start, for sure, but you may find that there are enough differences between violin and cello to make it difficult to progress. I know for myself that I couldn’t have made the transition without a teacher. I don’t say this to try to dissuade you but rather to prepare you for what might be ahead. And of course, given that you aren’t me, your journey will certainly be different than mine. Who knows? It could possibly be an easier one.

      1. “I couldn’t have made the transition without a teacher” How do you know that? Did you try without a teacher or are you just assuming that?

        1. Okay, that is perhaps an overstatement. Of course I didn’t need a teacher to get to the point where I could play notes on the cello. But having a teacher catalyzed the learning process and allowed me to become a passionate and competent cellist rather than getting frustrated and quitting.

          And did I try without a teacher? Actually, yes, I do so every month or so. I have to travel for my lessons, which is expensive and inconvenient, and I go weeks or sometimes months without lessons. But when I do go in to see my teacher, those two hours are worth two months on my own in terms of improved technique, being challenged to play more musically, and the boost of motivation and enthusiasm I get. It helps that not only is my teacher an outstanding cellist, but she’s a beautiful, caring person as well and an expert teacher. I’m sorry you didn’t have the same experience. My lessons are worth every penny and every minute of the five or six hours I spend getting there and back.

          Clearly this conversation has indicated that it’s possible to learn to play an instrument without a teacher; I don’t think we need to argue that point anymore. However, I stand by my position that if you want to play Beethoven and Brahms as Beethoven and Brahms are meant to be played, then you need a teacher. And this is not about playing professionally — for some of us it just isn’t satisfying to play music that doesn’t really sound like it can or perhaps should, whether playing for ourselves or for others. I probably would have quit cello within a year without a teacher.

  17. while I am not currently a cellist ( I’m contemplating taking up another instrument), I have had 14 years of classical piano training which I stopped about five years ago. I however continued to play religiously for hours working my way slowly through Beethoven’s sonatas, with occasional detours into other composers, genres and even doing some of my own composition . While I think it is incredibly difficult to learn an instrument well with out an instructor. I have found that being left to my own devises musically speaking has been a learning experience of it own kind, has allowed me to niche study my favorite composers, and stretch my abilities because I have to figure out problem area myself rather than relying of an instructor to give me answers for fingering, timing, ornamentation etc. In addition, I have had to been become more careful and aware of musical mechanics as I don’t have someone to correct me other than me.

    1. You make a very interesting point, Sarah, which is when should we choose to go it alone. I do think that relying on instruction for too long can be detrimental to musical development, and some classical musicians find it extremely hard to take that step. My own experience is similar to yours: I took lessons – piano from age 8 and cello from age 10 – until I completed my music degree at age 22. I haven’t had a single lesson since, but I continue to learn and improve, and hope to for the rest of my playing life. In fact it wasn’t until I was finding my own feet as a musician that many of the most valuable points my teachers were making really began to make sense. I still maintain that without that guidance and instruction during my childhood and early adult years there is no chance I would be the musician I am today.

  18. Heavens! What a thoughtful range of commentaries, unlike many one reads on You Tube. I rarely respond, but I thought I might make a few observations. I decided I wished to play cello about 3 years ago when I was 64. I had previously taught myself violin, concentrating on the Baroque period and oddly, fiddle music from Cape Breton. I had considerable help with the latter but had to teach myself pretty much everything to do with technique, bowing, fingering, etc. by myself on the violin. I started 23 years ago when I was 44 and has taken just about that long to play some of the Bach violin partitas and sonatas with passing adequacy.

    I took a few lessons for technique on violin but was terribly frustrated with the teacher because beginning to play violin at 44 requires an entirely different set of expectations on the teacher’s part (as much as the student’s part) regarding physical ability, flexibility, and so on. I found the same thing regarding learning fiddling. I was often to told to “just do it” when in fact, the physical process was nightmarish for me. Let me add that I had played the accordion (please, keep the laughter down if possible) from the time I was 12 and had many courses in music theory, so I certainly had excellent prep to play most any instrument from a purely conceptual standpoint.

    But the expectations of the teachers I had otherwise were dismal from the standpoint of my age. So, I took it upon myself to figure out how to do things which just are as easy when you do not start to bend your arm and wrist in ways neither wish to be bent when you are no longer 6 years old. Remarkably, I was lucky and stuck with it and I love playing violin.

    The cello was all because of the Bach suites. Period. And when one is 64, even considering much more than those is an unlikely probability. In fact, playing the suites is pretty unlikely at that age, but frankly, not as unlikely as it seems. I met with two cellists who offered lessons and decided I would stick to my own ability to learn. And in some ways, I am very pleased I did. The cello is a very challenging instrument in terms of finger strength. Much more challenging than the violin. Yes, I know about bridge height adjustments and fingerboard rejigging, but frankly unless you have a brilliant luthier and are willing to spend a great deal of money and time trying to alter your instrument, I think you have to accept the fact that playing on a well set-up instrument is just going to be a real challenge for your hands. And yes, I have arthritis in both hands, but I also am wildly stubborn. So… I just keep going.

    I agree that playing stringed instruments can present real problems in respect to harming oneself physically. I had to figure out a whole number of techniques to avoid strain, tension, and pain, but I was well aware of that in the first place. I believe that it is far more difficult for musicians who give lessons to understand the need to break a whole number of rules of playing and still end up with reasonably adequate sound. Telling someone that there is only one way to hold a bow is absolute madness. One only has to look at videos of artists and note the amazing array of methods to hold the instruments, the bows for each and even one’s body and leg positions. I started on a 7/8 cello as I’m very small but ended up playing a full size 4/4 after a year but that was because I came up with my own ways of stretching that worked for me. And I cannot hold a cello between my legs. They are just not long enough so I have one leg somewhat behind the left bout. There is at least one renown cellist who does the same for similar reasons. I heard one cellist tell me that it is impossible to play cello without holding it between one’s legs. Really!

    So, taking up an instrument when one is young is one thing. Most music teachers tend to aim their lessons at this age group with very specific do’s and dont’s, for some good reasons. But for older individuals, most of those requirements are unfortunately not all that useful and may actually interfere with the ability to play the instrument well on one’s own terms.

    Let me say that this does not mean that one can master incredibly complex pieces with much success. The 6th suite played on a four-stringed instrument is a technical nightmare and the likelihood at success at sounding competent at playing it is pretty small. I know I would need a great deal of help trying to conquer the alternative ways to play it on a 4 stringed instrument. Such is life. I will still try to do so on my own before the arthritis makes any playing almost impossible. Having said that, I think that if one has some musical background, basic ability to read music in whatever clef necessary and has solid determination, I think it best to go it alone for 6 months or so before taking lessons if one is 40 or over. Be patient, expect nothing to work well for many months, and take things one bar at a time. And if you do decide to seek out lessons, I would recommend asking every instructor a host of questions regarding how many adult students they have taught; how old those students have been; whether they understand that they cannot simply teach the same way to older adults as to children; and in particular, ask them about flexibility. That is, ask them whether or not they insist on only one bowing technique, one way to hold the instrument, one way to play Bach, one way to do anything. If they seem the least bit inflexible in these respects, my strong advice is to thank them and move on.

  19. I realise that this is a super-old post, and I don’t know if your feelings have changed on the subject, but:

    I am a self-taught musician. I learned how to play the drums *exclusively* during band rehearsals for the first 15(!) years, as I was never able to have a kit to play on at home and couldn’t afford lessons. Fortunately, my first two bands were punk, so playing accurately or well weren’t exactly a high priority. It got to a point where I was playing in paid live & studio sessions (although never making nearly enough to live on). It’s only within the last couple of years of owning my own house and having some disposable income to blow on an electro-acoustic kit that I could start practicing at home.

    After a few years of playing drums, I decided to try my hand at guitar. A friend lent me his old 3/4 size classical acoustic, showed me how to play A & D major chords, and then sent me away. I’m still pretty much just a chord strummer for the most part, but I understand the guitar, the method and, if pressed, could bust out a pretty lame solo. Again, no lessons, and by this point an almost militant attitude towards NOT reading music (I hadn’t needed it thus far!)

    Since then I got to grips with piano (mostly just triads and frills), bass (you think it’s just a guitar with fewer strings, but it’s really not), ukulele, and even flute. No lessons, and no music reading. It’s worth noting that I’m not trying to be a super-professional musician: I don’t want to join an orchestra or play backup keyboards for Deep Purple – I just want to be able to play music to my own satisfaction and maybe throw some demos together.

    With that in mind: I bought a cello. It has four strings – how hard could it be? Turns out, PRETTY HARD. Fretting wasn’t too much of a problem, but I absolutely could not get my head around bowing technique. After a couple of months of frustration, my girlfriend tried to book some introductory cello lessons for me for my birthday… but it didn’t work out. After my birthday she told me what she’d tried to do, and showed me the reply she’d had from the one local tutor she’d found. It said:

    “I have been playing cello for 25 years and I am still passionate learning every single day. I only teach people who are actually serious about learning to play, and it does not sound to me like your boyfriend is serious about cello AT ALL. Does he aspire to play in a world-class orchestra? If not, why should I waste my time? I have absolutely no intention of trying to teach him anything. Good day.”

    Needless to say, I was absolutely infuriated. I wanted to give the guy a hefty piece of my mind, but decided to let it go. It struck me that that was exactly the kind of attitude I had been put off by before (I had exactly one drum lesson aged 10, and the authoritarian instructor screamed at me because I couldn’t sight-read a piece of music. In my first ever lesson. Aged 10.)

    I am actually in a position where it is apparently IMPOSSIBLE for me to get cello lessons, because I’m not ‘serious’ and didn’t want to join an orchestra, yet I’m stuck because I’m having to try to figure this stuff out on my own. I’m determined to do it, but it might just take me a few years more.

    But when this is the kind of attitude that clearly some people can experience, what else is left beyond self-teaching?

    1. Lawrie, let me start by saying I’m sorry your interest in taking lessons turned into such a negative experience. Speaking as a cellist with 30 years of playing under my fingers, nearly 20 years of teaching experience, and continuing to work on my technical and musical development (it really IS a never-ending process), I find the response you received ridden with snobbery and arrogance, the like of which puts so many musicians and music lovers off classical music. It’s not the fact that he declined to teach you – I have turned away students who weren’t prepared to put in the necessary work and commitment to justify the cost of lessons, and I have terminated lessons when students have messed me around. It’s the fact that he wasn’t prepared to take on someone who wasn’t aspiring to play ‘in a world class orchestra’. Clearly he’s not in a world class orchestra himself – if he was, he wouldn’t have the time to teach, and would be out of town for at least half the year if not more. Perhaps he has turned out numerous world class players who have gone on to take the world’s orchestras by storm. I doubt it it though – he’d be snapped up by one of the top music schools and neither his schedule nor his contract would allow him to take on private students. Maybe he genuinely thinks his time as a tutor is only worthy of the finest young cellists in the country; maybe he was just having an off day. Either way, I’m going to say there was no excuse for that response. It gives classical music and private music education a bad name.
      Don’t lose hope though. Have you tried other tutors in your area? If not, see who’s available, and do a bit of a background check before you contact them. Most teachers have enough online presence to give you an idea of their musical activities and philosophy. If there’s no-one you can get to for face-to-face lessons, consider trying some online lessons via Skype. I have a few online students who I have been teaching for some years now. It was extremely frustrating at first, as poor internet speeds, glitchy video and terrible audio quality were constantly getting in the way. But technology is catching up fast, and although it still lacks the benefits of being in the same room, it’s still a lot better than having no interactive guidance at all.
      I really hope you’re able to fulfill your cello aspirations – whether they are to play a few bass lines in a band, or to learn the Bach solo suites.

  20. Hi,

    Thanks for your post and I thank everyone for the positive comments.

    I’ve started 4 months ago on a cheap Chinese electric cello to find out if my love for the cello as an instrument would also catch on as a player too, and it did, so I’ve bought an 120 yo acoustic cello with the most beautiful rich tone. ❤

    I am totally hooked and depending to the time I have I play somewhere between 2 to 6 hours a day.

    I live quite remote in Norway so a teacher is no option, and apart from that I am autodidact in different areas, so now I am adding cello to that mix as well. My experience is that self learning might come with disadvantages where it comes to rooting out bad habits from the start but what I see as a major plus is that it never gets boring. I play what I feel like playing. I practice whatIi feel like practicing, I hone my senses rather than that I rely solely on a teacher that might or might not be good at furthering my passion.

    I should also add by the way that I am not a youngster. I am 47. Also something some others might see as a disadvantage but I find it an advantage. I know I want to learn to play the cello, I know it is not on a whim and I am dedicated to get as much out of this beautiful instrument as is possible.

    I can't read notes but have played guitar and several other instruments in a quite decent level and I believe that having played other stringed instruments helps me a lot. Plus some genetics (coming from a musical family). I also prefer not to read notes which undoubtedly most definitely will be looked down upon but I have a good ear and like to listen and play and interpret. I play from my sound-memory.

    What I have found is that dedication, love, a good musical ear, watching others play and following tutorials on essentials like bow grip, hand position are very educative. But something which is very important as well is listening to your tone. Also, if something feels uncomfortable (I got pain in my right shoulder a while ago) research it and find out what you are doing wrong (I found out and the pain is gone). But what teaches me most is my mistakes. I repeat over and over where I get stuck until I get it right and I recently started practicing pieces of an intermediate level by Fauré and Schubert ad I am happy to get all the way through them. And if I go on youtube, listening to people who have played for a year under the guidance of a teacher then I am, to be honest, quite a bit further.

    I am still very far from there where I want to be but what gives me enormous satisfaction is the learning process. That every day that I pick up my cello that I notice that I got little further. That the sound is little richer, that I can play most without squeals and squeaks. That my vibrato becomes more and more intuitive and fluent and that I am hitting the notes more and more clean at once while shifting positions and so on.

    Cello is a beautiful instrument that is literally and figuratively speaking close to my heart.

    My reaction to your post is that you have some good points but that I also believe that, as with anything, it comes down to the individual as to which method will work best for him or her. Many people really need the motivating and driving power of a teacher to keep them advancing. I don’t need that because I am self motivated enough. A lot of people are very un-critical. Those people definitely would need teachers but still won’t come very far with those either. I am however overly critical and super motivated.

    Now I will practice thump positions higher up. Those are an ass now but I am sure they will be as easy as lower scales given it some time.

    Greetings, Douwe

  21. As a percussionist you have a million different instruments to play. I had a teacher for approx 12 years, but you never get to play all the instruments during your classes. As I perform in a lot of orchestras I don’t have a chance to be picky deciding to play an instrument or not. If it’s written I need to play it. So it means you need to find out how the thing works and how you should play it. I think if you know how music works, how it should sound you can do a lot of self-education, especially nowadays with all the video’s on the net.

  22. I am the one who you are looking for and ı aggre with you. I am living in Osmaniye which is a city in Turkey. I also would a theacher, but there is no teacher to practice. Nearest one 200 km. away from me… I bought some books and searched whole youtube and google. I cant find anything in Turkish which makes me sad. So it is been 2 month and I can say there is nothing ı could made. When I can hit the tabs well ı cant pull draw as well. When ı pulled draw this time tabs is problem. And as you sad, 2 month passed and just learnt how to hold the bow.
    I also learning english myself. As you can see how is self-teach stuff. there is no achivement for self teach. You can see the results.
    Sorry for my language. I just wanted to feedback.

  23. As a classically trained cellist, I would state confidently that I would be able to pick out a self-taught cellist, either by observation or just the sound alone, at least 95% of the time. In reality probably higher, but there are always exceptions to a rule somewhere!

    It’s a tough instrument to teach yourself – as the article explains, correct technique is VITAL if you want to progress to anything above a mediocre standard. As with so many things that require learned motor skills repeated constsntly, incorrect technique is harder to correct further down the line. Intonation is a whole other topic that I simply can’t imagine a self-taught cellist even fully understanding the basics of, let alone the nuances, without a skilled, trained, patient teacher.

  24. I’d like to learn the cello, and I began self-teaching/practicing, but ultimately, it was sentiments such as these that “encouraged” me to just drop it. I bought a upper-bottom tier cello and kept at it for a few weeks. In spite of what I saw as progress, I kept reading things like this, so… now the cello is an expensive space-taker in my closet. I’d like to learn, but I’m not sure there is a point, as the nearest teachers/lessons are an hour + away.
    Although I know this post is old, I am curious to know your thoughts on distance learning, likely used by music students the world over given Coronavirus. Thoughts?

    Thanks you for your time!


    1. Hi Justin

      Online lessons are definitely worth considering. With the pandemic still in full force, most established teachers have had to switch to Skype/ Zoom/ other online platforms in order to continue teaching. Although learning online has its shortcomings, I have had enthusiastic feedback from my students since I had to suspend face to face lessons back in March, and I know several other teachers whose experience has been much the same as mine.
      Assuming you have a good connection speed (be sure to use an ethernet cable rather than relying on WiFi), the only other things you’ll need are a good quality webcam and microphone. Although you can get by with the built in camera and mic on your laptop, I don’t recommend it. The quality is seriously lacking, and you’ll struggle to get a good angle of yourself (your teacher needs to be able to see you from head to at least knees) without being too far away from the mic. What you spend on hardware is likely to be less than a year’s worth of traveling to and from lessons.
      Give it a go, and I wish you the very best!

  25. Hi there, I am testament to the fact that you cello can be self taught, but there us a caveat to that statement. I bought my first cello just over a year ago, and I already play beyond Grade 8 and working on Diploma pieces. I also do some recordings quite convincingly. I can identify areas to develop, and I have a rule …always sound better than the dat before. However, the caveat is that I played Viola professionally for many years ( and Jazz Double Bass) so I knew what bow contact was, my ears were trained to listen, I knew the mechanics of bowing and adjustments required.

    So of you already play a stringed instrument or any other instrument you have some developed skills already. Regardless though, lessons are good to ensure basic technique….although Youtube might serve just as well for some,

    Even if you are an outstanding self taught cellist, listening to what another player has t o say is always humbling and useful. Its a journey, choose what you need at the time that you need it.

    Most of all…..enjoy!

  26. Any recommendations for an online program/teacher? We spend money for our children to take lessons, and that feels most important to me. However, I’m trying to figure out how I can learn too. I’m looking for a hybrid approach–recorded videos with an occasional live lesson. This, solely, because I think it may be less expensive. I must say you are quite an articulate and big-hearted bunch of musicians. I enjoyed reading many of these well stated comments.

  27. Well, the best cellists (2cellos) put in 12 hours of practice a day, for years on end, to get to the top. Myself, as a late starter and holding a full time job, being a virtuoso is never going to be a realistic goal. But I want to get good enough technically to play with other amateur musicians. My goal is to have fun creating beautiful melodic constructs with people.

    So, I tried to self-learn the cello, but a while ago was told by a luthier that i play the instrument like an erhu … which is bad. And so i got myself a teacher to keep bad habits from forming and ingraining themselves, irrepairably. A teacher is needed, in short.

    I know abit of piano, so some triumphs and struggles …

    1) Sightreading only a single clef for strings is EASY. There are very few chords in comparison to piano, where sometimes all the fingers have to press down the notes, only to shift to new keys a second later. There’s no fear of monster chords like Rachmaninoff/Chopin pieces.

    2) Got told i have good intonation so far. Still got beginner stickers on my fingerboard, which helps.

    3) Bowing properly is a whole new animal.

    4) Can’t do vibrato yet, but it’s so fun and something I truly look forward to learning. Vibrato and crescendo on a note is something a piano can’t do. But they pump so much expressiveness into music.

    5) In cello, I work out the D string to use as reference. And the note D is directly in the middle of the bass clef. Sightreading cello helps immensely in speeding up my piano (bass clef) playing.

    6) Cellists are reliant on aural skills moreso than pianists. The picking up of note intervals. Ear-training comes into focus. In piano, I can play by ear better than before, which is useful for playing the melody line (treble clef).

    7) Tenor clef is new. Choosing the right string to play the note is new. ‘Hand positions’ is new. I can play a simple piece convincingly if someone is just hearing my audio. But if they look at my fingerings they’d surely disapprove.

    8) Fingertip calluses, are not growing in fast enough. The fingers feel tender after pressing the strings for an hour or two. Limits practice time. My poor pinky!

  28. You are spot-on with this article.

    Tension is certainly the number one factor which inhibits the growth of a cellist. And it happens when one tries to learn on their own as well when one learns with a one-on-one teacher. And as mentioned, a good teacher *should* be able to analyze the problem and come up with the correct solution (but sadly, this is not always the case).

    I personally advocate for the hybrid method (sequential curriculum with personalized feedback) and this is a method I’ve worked many hours to create. Individual lessons can be so cost prohibitive for many people – so an expert, affordable solution to learning to play the cello may be the next best thing.

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