Can Cello Really be Self-Taught?

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

Developing Cello Technique


Tips for Avoiding RSI

There is no getting away from the fact that an effective practice schedule must include scales, technical exercises and studies. At face value these are boring, repetitive and lacking in any aesthetic value. The good news is that with the correct approach, none of the other adjectives will matter to you; only the good results.

There are also potential problems associated with repetitive exercises which many cellists will be familiar with. RSI or repetitive strain injury is every musician’s enemy – worse for some than for others. Whether you are prone to RSI or not, you can rest assured that a consistently incorrect approach to practising and playing will lead to injury in one form or another and for some musicians that can spell the end of their playing career. On the brighter side, being aware of this danger is an important step towards preventing it from happening.

From my experience based on the valuable advice my college teacher gave me and subsequent professional playing and teaching, the following three tips are indispensible when it comes to developing technique without developing injuries.

1. Choose your exercises according to the demands of your current repertoire

The whole point of developing the best technique we can is to be able to play challenging repertoire effortlessly. We want our focus can be on expressing the music, not managing the difficulty. Take time to study the pieces you are working on away from your instrument and identify the areas you know you’ll struggle with, or that you know other cellists tend to struggle with. Analyse those technical difficulties: do they relate to the bow or the left hand? Have you encountered them in previous repertoire you have played or are they new to you? If new, it is essential that you get your teacher to show you how to approach them and suggest what material you can use to practise and develop the technique in question. Avoid immersing yourself in the piece before you feel comfortable with the new technique – you will only frustrate yourself and grow tired of the piece if you keep hitting a brick wall in certain parts.

Also take time to analyse the keys covered in the piece, and identify any arpeggios, scales and diminished or dominant 7ths that occur. If you can’t play them from memory with a sensible fingering pattern, there’s a very good chance you’ll stumble when you encounter them in the piece. The same applies to difficult rhythm patterns and irregular time signatures, both of which can be applied to scales with great results.

Feuillard’s Daily Exercises has a complete section dedicated to scales and arpeggios and all of their variants across the entire range of the cello with alternate and uniform fingering patterns. I have found this section to be an invaluable resource for familiarising myself with the entire geography of the instrument as well as being completely comfortable playing in remote keys and reading difficult accidentals. For those of you who thought scales and arpeggios could go out the window once you passed your grade 8 exam, think again!  They are the fundamental basis of everything you play – whether it’s a concerto or a cello part in a symphony.

Many editions also offer valuable advice about the finer points of the piece, but these are more often to do with interpretation and should be consulted when you’ve settled on your supplementary exercises.

Finally, the Bärenreiter edition of Popper’s High School of Cello Playing comes with a text volume which gives an overview of the studies as a whole, a more detailed overview of each study, and a list of repertoire that each study resembles in technical challenges. Although the repertoire lists are by no means exhaustive, they are extremely useful and encourage the player to think of more pieces to add to each list.

2. Avoid the “no pain no gain” approach

We musicians all have a tendency to get overzealous in our attempts to better ourselves, and all too often we end up convincing ourselves that physical pain is a natural and necessary part of becoming a good player. Nothing could be further from the truth. If what you’re doing hurts you, you haven’t found the best way to do it. In everything that we do, we need to find the most energy efficient way to do it, constantly watching out for unwanted tension creeping in. This often occurs when we get impatient with slow practice.

However frustrating you find it practising at a slow and controlled tempo, you have to give your mind and body the opportunity to learn each movement specific to the technique you’re studying. You wouldn’t attempt tightrope walking without a considerable amount of training and guidance, would you?  This may seem a silly analogy as the prospect of attempting the latter without really knowing how to do it is physically dangerous. Attempting a technical exercise at a faster pace than you’re capable of may not be life threatening but it can and often will lead to pain or injury.

Avoid exercises that are obviously beyond your physical reach. I have encountered advanced exercise volumes devised by cellists whose hands were obviously considerably bigger than mine. Short of magically growing my hands I will never be able to play this without considerable discomfort so I avoid them. The same applies to certain studies and repertoire.

It is important to distinguish between technical weaknesses which can be overcome and technical impossibilities which are best left alone. The cello is gifted with such a vast and diverse repertoire that not being able to play a few pieces due to physical limitations is really not something to feel downcast about.

3. Know what each exercise is for

It is often perfectly clear what exercises are for – either because they are accompanied by the composer’s or editor’s notes, or because they cover an easy to identify technique. But this cannot be said for all exercises, and even those that come with descriptions are not always straight forward when it comes to executing them correctly. A good example is spiccato and sautillé bowing. Simply knowing that an exercise is aimed at improving one of these types of bowing is not enough if you’re unsure of the actual execution or the differences between the two bowing types, which are often confused. If you’re ever unsure, ask your teacher and try to find literature relating to the volume of exercises you’re working on from specialist magazines, journals or books.

This is even more important when it comes to studies, as they often cover more than one aspect of technique which may not be immediately apparent. As already mentioned, many editions come with comprehensive notes by the composer or editor, and these are always worth reading before starting work on any of the studies.

In conclusion, technical exercises, although potentially a double-edged sword, are an essential part of your practice diet and if used well, make up the building blocks of a solid, well-rounded technique that can be relied upon in as many settings and circumstances as possible. Technical exercises should not be seen as a separate entity, but rather as a means to facilitate your musicality and to promote physically balanced, relaxed technique.


Tips for Getting the Most out of Your Practice Routine 

Every developing cellist who longs to play the great repertoire for our instrument–whether to a packed auditorium or simply in the quiet comfort of their practice room–knows that getting there is a long hard journey with no short cuts and many hurdles along the way. We reach a point in our development where we begin to develop a personal voice through our instrument and start to realise that the importance of knowing our scales and arpeggios reaches far beyond a tedious exercise in keeping our teacher or examiner relatively happy. It is generally at this point in our journey that we begin to appreciate the importance of thorough daily practice.

This new mind set is one of the most important steps any musician can take in their musical development. It is also the point at which many musicians become frustrated and lose interest or give up playing altogether. The most common reason for this is spending hours practising and not making the desired progress.

Developing a truly effective practice regime takes time and a certain amount of experimentation to find what works best for each individual, but there are a few guidelines that will always get you off to a good start.

1. Know your weaknesses

In my previous article, “Tips for Avoiding RSI” I discussed the importance of using technical exercises and studies as material to support and aid your study of cello repertoire.  Constant self assessment is equally important and often one of the more difficult and frustrating parts of playing the cello, or any other instrument for that matter. If I had a pound for all the times I sat down to a nice session of vanity practising – cherry picking scales, exercises and pieces that I knew I could play well – I’d own a strad by now.  We all do it and it’s hardly surprising.  Learning to play an instrument to anything beyond an intermediate level means that you are constantly opening yourself to criticism from your teacher, your peers, examiners and audiences.  Every now and again it does us good to sit down and remind ourselves what we do well.

But not so often that we lose sight of what we need to work on and end up stagnating in our development.  Finding the right exercises to work on is entirely dependent on identifying technical weaknesses and understanding what is required to work on these weaknesses.

Whilst it is extremely important to be honest with yourself about what you’re not that good at, beware of becoming overwhelmed.  Remember that this type of learning is a lifelong process and without a patient, focussed practice routine you’ll only slow down or grind to a halt.  Remember also that identifying a weak area is not an exercise in self flagellation, but a positive step towards crossing it off your list.

The most frequent technical shortcomings I see in my more advanced students tend to be elemental issues such as string crosses, shifts and a lack of forward planning with the bow. Although the symptoms are often alike, the causes of these problems can vary and require a certain amount of analysis from both the teacher and the student to get to the route of the problem.

2. Know the benefits of going back to the basics

Regardless of how advanced you might be you can always benefit from revisiting more basic techniques.  One thing I realised in hindsight about my development as a cellist, was that the steeper my learning curve got, the more I focussed on the most difficult aspects, often at the expense of things as basic as drawing the bow parallel to the bridge or allowing tension to build up in my left hand.  The fact is, if the basics aren’t working well, there’s no chance of mastering anything more challenging.

There is an outstanding series of method books for the cello by Folkmar Längin called “Praktischer Lehrgang fur das Violoncellospiel”.  It consists of five volumes which cover every basic aspect of cello technique from open strings to thumb position and beyond.  Although there is no English translation available for these books, the exercises are extremely well written with excellent excerpts from cello studies and repertoire as well as arrangements of folk tunes and well-known classical repertoire for other instruments.  Furthermore, the method is the most thorough and best organised I have ever encountered, and as a teacher I’ve spent a great deal of my time examining and trying out every method I can get my hands on.  The fact that these books are written for cello students of any age also means that they are a much better source for older advanced cellists to use as technique refreshers as they are not covered in illustrations and large print notation aimed at younger learners.

3. Don’t be disheartened when your progress slows down

Even with the most focussed and attentive practice methods, progress often doesn’t follow an upward trend and can be governed as much by factors outside of your musical life as it is by those within.  It’s frustrating when there is no discernable improvement in your playing – especially when you’re under a lot of pressure to learn difficult repertoire and show results.  These two things are also often linked: the more stress you’re experiencing, the more distracted you’re likely to be. You may also find yourself somewhat more susceptible to fatigue and tension, neither of which will do your overall progress any favours.

There is no magic fix for times like these, but it pays to remember that when you’re already under a lot of pressure that you can’t do anything about, it’s best not to add to it by forcing yourself to practise when you’re not physically up to it.  More often than not, 3 hours broken up into 3 or 4 sessions will get better results than 8 manic hours with insufficient breaks and subsequently failing concentration.  We’re often told not to watch the clock when we practice so that we don’t end up simply “putting in time”.  Good advice for sure, but there are times when it pays to set your alarm clock to tell you when to stop and have a break.

Most importantly, remember that these frustrating times in your career may come up from time to time, but they’re never permanent and are quite often followed by a burst of enlightenment and progress that is equally intense.

The rest is very much up to you. Practising is the essential tool for developing your musical and instrumental ability and it pays to remember that it is not a ready-made tool. Learning to practice well is an integral part of learning to play. It requires equal measures of discipline, organisation and self-awareness, and will teach you as much about yourself as your instrument.


© D C Cello Studio

Order or download my latest electronica-cello feast, Cellotronics

Finding Your First Music Students: a Comprehensive Guide for New Music Teachers

One of the most daunting aspects of starting out as a private instrumental teacher is finding your first students – especially if there are already several established teachers in your area. The good news is that there are a number of effective ways to advertise your service. The less cheerful fact is that that you are highly unlikely to acquire a vast number of students overnight, or get enquiries from intermediate or advanced players until you have built up a reputation. It is important not to adopt the attitude that teaching beginners is somehow a “lesser task” than teaching more advanced students. It is teachers who can transform their students from barely knowing how to hold the instrument to playing it competently and artistically who become oversubscribed and have the luxury of picking and choosing their students.

So how does one go about finding these students in the first place?


The Internet has become so integrated into our everyday lives it really is hard to think of how we managed without it. All businesses with very few exceptions use the Internet in some capacity to attract new customers. Music teachers are no different, and there are three main ways in which we can exploit the online world without needing anything more than novice computer skills: online music teacher directories, classified websites and dedicated websites.

For private music teachers there are literally hundreds of online directories dedicated to advertising music lessons. Unlike Internet resources for promoting music, which are littered with scams and rip-offs, the vast majority of music lesson websites are trustworthy if not all hugely effective. They tend to follow a similar model, offering a basic free listing or a paid listing which offers the ability to add additional information and a picture or two; and comes up first in all relevant search results. These fees tend to be charged as an annual subscription which varies, but is normally a fairly modest amount. In the interest of getting noticed, it is worth paying for one or two featured listings, but don’t expect your phone to be ringing off the hook as a result.

There are several elements you should examine when signing up to one of these sites. Try to determine how popular it is – look at how many teacher listings there are and look for testimonials from users of the site – both teachers and students or students’ parents. Run a search for the site using basic keywords in popular search engines such as Google or Yahoo to see how well the site ranks. If it doesn’t show up amongst the first 5 – 10 results, it has much less chance of being found by prospective students. Keywords should be along the lines of “music teacher directory” or “find music teachers”. You can also be more specific and include the instrument you teach amongst your keywords – you may find some good specialist sites dedicated to your instrument or the family your instrument belongs to. Examine the site thoroughly and see that it runs smoothly and efficiently, is easy to use and has adequate search capability. Try to look at it from the perspective of someone seeking lessons for themselves or their child. If you’re searching for a piano teacher based in South London and your search pulls up trombone teachers based in Glasgow, you’re likely to abandon the site before you find what you’re looking for. Here is a list of reliable and popular UK-based teacher directories and classifieds:


This is a highly user-friendly site with over 5000 teacher listings. The site also has very useful free resources for teachers ranging from articles on a variety of teaching issues, music curriculum material, manuscript paper and a page of useful links to other music and teaching-related sites. The cost of a premium listing is currently £12.99 per annum. Basic free listings are also available with no images or external links.


MusicLessonsOnline is a well-designed site which is incredibly easy to navigate and is very well geared towards students with a wealth of useful information. Articles include information on the cost of music lessons, finding an instrument, the difficulties faced by beginners and how to overcome these, and background on music history and theory. Featured listings cost £9.95 per annum and free listings with no images or external links are available.


This is a directory for private tuition in a number of disciplines including music. The Tutor Pages has an interesting and unique model. In order to get a listing, you are required to submit a specialist article which is featured in your listing and included in the site’s information library. This is a great way to impress potential students and to get your creative teaching juices flowing. There are no free listings available, but profiles are very comprehensive with a “Q & A” section and the ability to upload documents like testimonials, your CV and more articles if you wish. Each profile is assigned a unique website address, making it much easier to be found on Google. The annual subscription fee is £19.50.


Vivastreet is a general classifieds website and is free to use. There is a section dedicated to music lessons. Listings can include pictures and a link to your website if you have one. Although the site is not dedicated to music education, listings tend to rank highly on search engines and can be refreshed every week to make them easy to find.


Partysounds is a musician finder website and has a section dedicated to music teacher listings which are also free of charge. There is no facility for uploading images, but you can link to your website or a more comprehensive teacher profile.


Everyone is aware of, the online version of the Yellow Pages directory. For that reason alone, it’s a good place to list your service – it gets a phenomenal amount of traffic. Yell does offer very basic free listings and unless money is no object for you, don’t consider paying for a more detailed and visible one. Furthermore, if you register a free listing, expect sales calls from them in attempt to get you to pay for a featured online listing or a Yellow Pages listing.

The above list is by no means comprehensive. There are many more sites worth exploring and the more you list your services on, the more your name will get noticed and associated with your instrument. Although there is very little chance of any of these sites being fraudulent, there are scamsters who target them. If you receive an unusual request – especially something that just seems too good to be true, you can rest assured it probably is. A recently popular scam involves tricking teachers into thinking they’re taking on a student for intensive lessons over a relatively short period – something like 5 lessons a week for 1 month. They will be asked to give a quote for this, and will be given an elaborate story about the student, who apparently comes from a foreign country but is visiting a relative in the UK and wishes to take music lessons while they are there. Should you take the bate and agree to teach them, you will then be given another elaborate story regarding the payment, which will go something like this: the student will be needing money to live off whilst they are in the UK, and you will be receiving a cheque for an amount that far exceeds the amount you have quoted. You will be told to keep the amount you quoted and withdraw the balance to give to the student. If you do this, you’ll find that the cheque has bounced, the student has disappeared without a trace and you have been defrauded of a substantial sum of money.

This particular scam is now fairly well documented and therefore less likely to happen, but there are many like it circulating the Internet, and it always pays to be vigilant. Any enquiry that doesn’t seem quite right probably isn’t, so trust your intuition. Be wary of how many personal details you share on your profile – an email address is sufficient for people to contact you in the first instance.

Having your own website can be excellent additional advertising but unless you have a fairly large budget to pay for it to be professionally designed and optimised to rank at the top of search engines it serves more as a brochure to direct people who have already found your details to than a means of finding new students. The cost of registering a domain name (i.e. and hosting a website has come down so dramatically over the past few years that it has become a viable and affordable option for small businesses and freelancers. Having your website professionally designed can be pretty expensive, but with the much improved quality of easy-to-use website templates and web building software there is no need to pay someone to do it.

Social networking sites make a great alternative to having your own website and don’t cost anything at all. You can upload music and videos such as footage of a lesson you’ve taught that you have permission to use or something inspirational featuring your instrument from YouTube. You can also encourage existing students if you have any or colleagues to leave positive comments about you.


There are many other things you can and should do to get your name out there and acquire precious students. As previously mentioned, you may live in an area that already has numerous well-known teachers of your instrument. Although this is a daunting prospect, you can make it work to your advantage. Introduce yourself to them – ideally in person – and let them know that you are actively looking for students. Ask them to pass on any students they are unable to or would prefer not to take on. Some may already have a preferred teacher to take on their overflow, but it never hurts to ask, and striking up positive dialogue with experienced teachers has many other benefits. They will almost certainly be willing to offer advice when you need it, and may even be willing to watch a lesson or 2 of yours and provide you with valuable feedback. It is also worth introducing yourself to teachers of instruments in the same family as yours. Often their students will have a younger sibling who wishes to (or whose parents wish them to) learn your instrument.

There are plenty of old-fashioned advertising methods that are still perfectly adequate. Make sure that all of your local music shops know about you, and if they will allow it, ask them to put up a post card or poster in their shop window for you. Some charge a nominal fee for this, but nothing that will break the bank. You should also make yourself known to independent instrument makers and/ or repairers. Look around your local area for notice boards that you could post an advert on, see whether you can leave fliers at your local library and even consider putting up an advert in the window of your newsagent. These are all free or very inexpensive ways of getting your name about.

Although most schools use peripatetic instrumental teachers checked and supplied to them by their local authority, not all independent schools do. They are worth getting in touch with to discuss making their pupils aware of your service. You can ask them to mention this in their newsletter, let you put up a poster on their notice board or get their music co-ordinator to mention you to pupils already taking music lessons. You could even suggest that you visit the school to give the pupils a brief demonstration of your instrument. Be advised that unless you have an enhanced CRB certificate, no school private or otherwise is likely to recommend you.

Finally, you might consider paying for a listing in a business directory. Depending on the size and distribution of the directory and the amount of space your advert takes up, the cost can vary from reasonable to extortionate. The best known of these is the Yellow Pages, and they do not fall into the reasonable price category. They do offer a few additional services such as a dedicated 0845 number which tracks the number of calls you get. This is all very well, but from my experience the cost does not justify the number of students you actually end up acquiring. I have had better results with free online classifieds than I did with the Yellow pages. The smaller local directories of which there are many offer a more reasonable price and some actually hit a much better target. Overall, business directories are considerably more expensive than most online advertising and the results they produce can be a bit hit-and-miss. They also tend to nag a lot when your listing is approaching its expiry date.


So which of these advertising and search methods is the best? Simply put, they all have advantages, some have a few points to watch out for, and not one is a magic quick fix. So try them all – get your name known in your area as far and wide as possible. The real advertising starts when you achieve good results with your students. They will often be asked who their teacher is and if their parents are happy with their progress and see that they are enjoying their lessons, they will inevitably talk about you to others. But you have to get there first, so get online, get those posters and post cards printed and up in the shop windows and start chatting to other teachers in your area. Good luck!

© D C Cello Studio

Basic Improvisation for Classical Musicians

For those of us with classical music training the concept of improvising often inspires feelings ranging from uneasiness to abject terror. We spend so much of our time bound to complex scores laden with incredibly specific instructions that the concept of making it up on the spot is foreign and frightening. Depending on what you do as a musician, you may never be confronted with a situation that requires you to improvise and therefore never feel the need to explore this avenue of music. If this is the case, you may be missing out on an enriching and satisfying experience.

I took it upon myself to develop my improvisation skills over a decade ago whilst at Music College. I was approached by an experimental poetry performance group from the local drama school (every bit as pretentious as it sounds) who were looking for a musician to provide incidental music for their tortured performances. I was intrigued by the idea and suggested playing excerpts from the Bach Solo Suites, which met with rolled eyes and long-suffering sighs – clearly everyone they’d already asked to do this had made the same or similar suggestions. What they wanted was someone who could provide a musical interpretation of their words and actions in real time – no rehearsals, no preparation and no sheet music. Just turn up and play. Up until this point, my musical experience had been nothing but intense preparation – whether it was for exams, competitions, recitals or orchestra rehearsals, the idea of “winging it” was out of the question. I agreed to turn up for their next performance, partly out of curiosity and partly because my bank balance was always in dire need of resuscitation. A day before the performance date I began to panic about what I had agreed to do. With the exception of playing a few pop tunes by ear on the piano in my school days and exploring a few chord progressions in the privacy of my practise room, I had never done anything like this before – especially not on the cello. I seriously considered cancelling on the grounds of a phantom flu bug or similar. I hadn’t told anyone about this particular gig because although I had no solid grounds to base this on, I assumed it would meet with disapproval from my fellow students and tutors. After much internal agonising, my curiosity and poverty came out on top and I decided to give it a go. After all, if it didn’t work out I simply wouldn’t do it again.

Of course, I couldn’t resist attempting a bit of preparation. I sat down with my cello, thinking I could perhaps come up with a few melodic ideas to store up my sleeve, but everything I tried sounded suspiciously like a medley of the repertoire I was studying at the time. The harder I tried to sound original, the less original I sounded. For fear of allowing my nerves to get the better of me again, I gave up the prep work for a bad job and hoped it would be all right on the night. It was better than all right. The actual performance (or what I can remember of it) was unbelievably over the top with painted faces, nudity, screaming and gratuitous profanity. I’m certain that had I recorded my playing I would cringe listening back to it. But I discovered my ability to let go of my classical paranoia, ignore the little voice that bawled at me when notes weren’t pitch or rhythm perfect and express my inner musicality on my instrument of choice. I continued to work with the tortured poets for the rest of my college days and thus began my fascination with an age-old musical discipline.

So if improvisation is about letting go of the rigidity imposed on us by classical music is it right to call it a discipline? Perhaps not if we’re talking about my first dabbling where I had no other musical lines to mesh with harmonically and simply tried my best to reflect what was going on around me. Compare this to the dazzling performances of well-trained jazz musicians however and you might as well compare a child taking its first steps with an Olympic athlete. After 12 years of developing my improvisation skills and putting them to the test in a variety of different musical settings, I’m no jazz improviser because jazz is not a genre I have had any exposure to other than listening to it. But I have learned to improvise confidently over traditional western diatonic and modal harmony, making my skill applicable to a wide range of styles and genres and ultimately making me a better rounded musician on numerous levels. Developing this ability has been a long road of trial and error and depended on two key ingredients: listening and following my instincts. Many believe that the ability to improvise cannot be taught and is based purely on musical instinct and aural ability. Whilst I can’t disagree that high aural aptitude makes improvising easier, I also know from my experience as a teacher that anyone capable of basic pitch recognition can develop that skill to recognise intervals, chords and modulations – the very same skills required to improvise. Most classical musicians get a good dose of theoretical and aural training to complement the study of their instrument, and all of these skills can be put to work to practise and improve our ability to improvise freely.

So where to begin? As previously mentioned my education in this discipline has been pretty haphazard and is by no means an ideal template to follow. After my early attempts at improvising on my own, I began to wonder how I would fare playing with other musicians. An opportunity arose to do a few jam sessions with a local blues band and I eagerly (if nervously) took it. I had a whale of a time, quickly learning the blues format and adjusting my style of playing to blend with the sounds of the lead guitar and the vocalist. It was probably fortunate that for the first few sessions there was no microphone available for me, and my cello was drowned out by the amplified guitars, bass and drums. This gave me the freedom to hit bum notes, misjudge chord progressions and generally make mistakes without upsetting the well-rehearsed harmony of the band. By the time a microphone was placed in front of my instrument I had become more familiar and thus comfortable with the style of the music and format of the songs and even felt confident enough to play a few solos when the opportunity arose. Having been given a confidence boost by doing the poetry performances, this was a brilliant start to my education and I would recommend it to anyone keen to try improvising on their instrument. Of course I realise there are a few flaws in this recommendation: not everybody lives in an area where such jam sessions might take place, not everybody likes the idea of playing along to a loud blues band and many, no matter how keen to try, do not feel confident enough to attempt improvising with other musicians when they’ve never tried it before. So here are my suggestions for getting started.

Many of us improvise without even realising it. Take the cacophony of an orchestra at the start of a rehearsal before tuning up. If you were to go around and listen to each individual player you would hear their own tailor-made warm-up routine which normally consists of a combination of scales, chromatic runs and arpeggios seamlessly running into each other. Sort of like a “best of” scales and arpeggios number, not methodically going through one scale after another in a cycle of 5ths but skipping from one to another. Everyone is doing their own thing, no-one is listening or appraising, and so if you were to record some of the individual warm-up routines, you’d probably hear some interesting and refreshing musical ideas that would surprise the players themselves. Anyone who has played in an orchestra will probably have done this to some extent. Next time you sit down to practise, give this a try. Instead of using a methodical list of scales or technical exercises to warm up, try creating your own routine with a mixture of scales, arpeggios, diminished 7ths, etc in different keys and tempi. The trick is to not think too hard about what you’re doing – pick a comfortable key and range to begin in and see where it takes you. Don’t be put off by notes that sound “wrong” or out of place and don’t be surprised if what you’re playing ends up sounding a lot less like scales and a lot more like a melody line. Don’t be despondent if the melody line resembles whatever repertoire you’re might be working on. Improvisation is also about being able to mimic a style, and you’re most likely to be able to mimic the style of the music you listen to the most.

This brings me to one of my earlier mentioned key ingredients: listening. Pick a style you think you’d most enjoy improvising to and listen to it intently and frequently. Start your own jam sessions – hum along to the music and see if you can develop an alternate melody line or harmonise with it. If you can vocalise your musical ideas, you should be able to play them on your instrument. If singing is really not your thing, go straight to your instrument and try playing along. Don’t be tempted to cheat by looking for sheet music even as a basic reference. It is up to you to use your listening skills to determine what key it’s in and what chord progressions it follows. Because this exercise is all about listening and not looking (at a score), try closing your eyes while playing along. Shutting out the world and its many distractions can’t hinder and may help to enhance how you listen and what complementary sounds you hear in your head. If you’re undecided on what genre to play along with, try blues. Even if it’s not a style you’ve ever paid much attention to, it’s an excellent place to start as it follows an easily recognisable format and chord progression. Try learning a few blues scales to complement your jam sessions and build up your musical ideas.

For developing your improvisation skills over conventional Western harmony, harmonised scales are an excellent place to start. Follow this link  to download play-along scale recordings and chord sheets. You’ll find three separate exercises covering scales in major, harmonic minor and melodic minor keys respectively. Each exercise consists of 1 octave scales working chromatically through all 12 keys and a corresponding chord sheet. It is useful to print out and follow the chord sheet when doing these exercises, as it will help to develop your chord recognition. Instead of providing the actual chords for each scale in every key, there is one series of chord symbols which apply to every scale and key in the exercise. You can begin improvising a melody over the chords straight away if you’re feeling bold, or (and I recommend this) you can start slowly and just play the scales at first, making sure that you read and take in each chord as you play each note. The scales are deliberately slow to give you time to listen to and take in each chord and later on to put in interesting passing notes and/ or chord extensions to make your improvisation sound more interesting. This is where instinct comes in. Whilst it is very useful and often necessary to understand and recognise the chord progressions you’re working with, it is equally important to be able to stop thinking about the theory and trust your musical gut. After all, you’ve been listening to and playing music for years. We all store up the parts we like the most or find the most distinctive from music we come into contact with and improvisation is a wonderful way of expressing those preferences. This, like interpretation of great classical works, is personal and once you have guidelines to get your creative juices flowing, cannot be taught.

Once you’ve spent sufficient time working on the scales and growing your confidence in your ability to create on the fly, it is probably time for you to seek out other musicians to work with. Again, the type of musicians you look for will be entirely up to your taste and aspirations. You may just be trying out improvisation to see whether you can do it or not, to broaden your musical horizons. If this is the case, you may feel that there is no real need to go outside the privacy of your bedroom, but I’m willing to bet you’ll find it more satisfying jamming with others, exploring each other’s musical styles, comparing notes and encouraging each other. If your aim is to take your improvisation to the stage you absolutely have to find others to develop your skill with first. It’s all very well being able to play pleasing melodies over a predictable chord progression, but the next step is to put yourself into a much less comfortable setting and learn to listen to and predict what others in your group will do. This may sound daunting, but in all likelihood you’ll start by agreeing on a basic chord progression to get warmed up and your jam session will evolve organically from there. You’ll probably be surprised at how far the music eventually wanders from your originally agreed structure and how once you’ve become more used to each other’s musical styles and ideas; you literally seem to be able to read each other’s minds.

Most who try this wonderfully liberating practice will derive something useful from it even if only to break away from the inherent fetters of classical music. As a cellist, learning to improvise has improved every aspect of my playing and musicality. The more I have explored and practised it, the more I believe that it should be incorporated into classical music training.

© D C Cello Studio