Old dogs, new tricks; learning the cello at 40

I've been learning the cello for six weeks. I've had six lessons. I've practiced for 40 days. (Yep, I missed two. I had the flu. So sue me.)

It's really hard.

Of course, I didn't expect it to be easy. After all, I sat through a year of my seven year old learning his quarter size cello as a spectator. I heard every squeak and rattle he made in that year but I closed my ears to the ugly bits and kept him at it because it was his passion. 

I wasn't really expecting that by the end of the year I would have fallen in love with it myself.

As a child I learned piano between the ages of 6 and 16. I also picked up the trumpet at age 11. It was my third choice of instrument at the time. The first was violin, but we had no teachers and no violins at our boarding school and no access to outside tuition. Choice number two was the saxophone but unfortunately someone else was using it. My mother suggested the flute or guitar but I dismissively thumbed my nose at them. "They don't make enough noise. I want my instrument to Be Heard."

I ended up in trumpet class with Mr Fisher who told me, every week, that I needed to improve my embouchure (fyi, that's the muscles around your mouth. Mine were lousy because my roommates forbid me to practice and it was too cold to head down to the basement of the boarding hostel and find a rehearsal hidey hole.)

So that was that. I'm what you'd call *average* at both piano and trumpet. As in, I can get by in a church service or a carols evening if I practice a bit and play along with other people. And I've been content to stay fairly mediocre. I dabble here and there but I don't work too hard and I grin when I make a mistake.

But something happened when I heard my son play that cello. And by the end of the year I was hearing cello parts in every song at church. I imagined myself playing it at carols. I recalled, nearly with tears, the astounding beauty and grace of the cello played at my nanna's funeral. 

I was in love.

Then, disaster struck. The child refused to play the cello any more. I negotiated an instrument switch and he ended up on viola (which he's really enjoying, by the way) but I mourned the loss of that squeaky little quarter sized cello terribly. 

"Ridiculous," I scolded myself. "You can't live your life through your children. If you want a cello player in the house, it had better be you."

I was pretty optimistic about it. After all, I can read music and play two other instruments, so a lot of that initial boring learning stuff would be completely unnecessary, right? I could hear myself playing gorgeously, in record time, ready to go into church and at carols at the end of the year.

It nearly killed me to have to wait for the teacher to get his ridiculously cheap rental cello back from another student who was overdue to purchase her own (will that be me one day?) but I took it as a confirmation that my cello passion was going to go the distance. Finally it arrived and with enormous anticipation, I rosined the bow and positioned the cello at my knees.

Screeech. Scraaaaaaw.

Yeh. Not so good. 

Hand position. Bow straight. Finger pressure. Finger positioning. Proportional bowing. Posture. HAND POSITION! Which note is which finger on which string? Have I ever heard of pizzacato before? Nope. And what does it mean when there's a little slash on the note stem? Oh, you play it twice? Of course. I should have known.

There's a reasonable amount of discomfort involved in learning bowing. There's a reasonable amount of pain as I build muscle and muscle memory. There's a reasonable amount of humility involved as I inflict my own rattles and squeaks on my family at practice time. 

It's an odd thing to become a beginner again. You're used to it, as a kid. You're always starting out doing new things, working up from the bottom. But when you're 40, competent and (mostly) confident it can be a bit of a headshake to go back and start again with something you know absolutely nothing about.

It's also pretty challenging to have your mediocre skills that you thought were 'okayish' challenged. Apparently I rush ahead - my inner metronome likes to speed up and my sense of rhythm is not as accurate as I thought. Also, my wrists aren't as flexible as they need to be and it seems that you need flexible wrists to do a decent tremolo.

But you know? There's a real joy in working with someone who knows what he's doing, who knows how to teach, and who teaches constructively and in a step by step manner. It's great to think, during the week, "I need to ask about why this is so hard," or, "I'd better check if this bowing is correct. I can't quite remember."

Mentors and teachers are worth their weight, people. If you can get a good one, in whatever field you're pursuing, you should do everything in your power to be able to work with them. In much of my life I've been self-taught, and while that's empowering and confidence-boosting to a degree, it's still not as good as working with a great teacher.

I suppose it could look like my adventures with the cello are a bit of a midlife crisis. Honestly, I think it's something different. I think it's more of a midlife surge of confidence. I'm committed to the process of learning and practice and even when I sound terrible, I'm patient enough and mature enough to not give up. Instead, I think of how I want to sound (Incredible!) and I think back to week one, and how much I've learned and improved (So Much!)

"I'll be better at this tomorrow if I practice today," I think to myself. And it seems to work.

I should also put in here that I practice every single day except when I have the flu. Why? Mostly for myself, but also (and here I confess how pragmatic I am) to get the biggest bang for my buck. I'm continually going on to the kids about how 'if you don't practice, it's a waste of my money...'. Can't be a hypocrite, now, can I?

It's hard to learn new tricks when you start getting into 'oldish' dog territory. But it's a buzz. The challenge is invigorating. I can't wait until I reach my goals with cello, and I'm making sure not to set them too low. I'm not going to write them here, but let's just say that I'd like to be a better cellist than I am a pianist or trumpeter.


What have you done that's new recently?