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