How to play the cello

After five years of trial and error (meditate on those two words for a brief moment), I finally know how it is done. Or maybe, after 46 years of trial and error, I have figured out how to do anything.

I asked my cello teacher for some technical exercises. He is of the opinion that an adult student of the cello comes home after a long, frustrating day at the office and a long, frustrating commute and can’t even drink a martini because he’s still sort of dieting and sits down to play the cello for what, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, if he finds the time at all and in that brief time the last thing he wants to play is scales; he would rather play an actual tune. So he assigns me actual compositions, on the assumption that I will learn whatever technical stuff is necessary as a byproduct of learning the song. Which happens sometimes, but I have sort of missed what I would call any technical framework, any ability to place whatever it is I am doing at the moment into any larger picture, or even name the note I’m playing this very second or what position my hand is in. So I demanded some of those boring, stultifying exercises they make students play.

It sucked, of course, when I tried them at home and I did terribly at them. But at my next lesson with him we went over them and I saw the light. To be precise, we were doing an exercise that requires one to change from the first position or whatever it’s called in English to the second, third or fourth positions. It requires you to pay close attention to your intonation. I kept messing it up. Over and over. Then it suddenly worked.

I had not been there, you see. I had been somewhere else. In the future, mostly. Hurrying. And this is how you play the cello. This guy here playing the cello, you are him, in that very instant. You are not worring about whether you will hit the note right, you are hearing it and playing it. You are not thinking anything else. You are not regretting past mistakes or how the hell this scratch got in the varnish. You are not anywhere else. You are not hurrying nor are you dragging your feet.

It’s also how I get my kid to clean her room. At least, it worked once. Since yelling didn’t work, I stood in the doorway with her and said, Look at your room. Everything perfect here? Is it perfectly clean? Anything you could do to improve it?

So of course now I try to do this with my life: stand in the door and ask myself if everything is optimal. Eventually the panic attacks that causes will abate, I expect, and then we will see.

Just being, and paying attention.

8 responses to “How to play the cello

  1. Your cello teacher must have enjoyed seeing you see the light.

    I actually had my guitar teacher physically wrench the instrument from my hands once in order to spare the further blasphemy of Jimi Hendrix. I was getting ahead of myself, but as a result it made him show me some more complicated techniques out of respect for the music. What I discovered when that light went on were so many new possiblities that, if nothing else, I slowed down and payed more attention to his pace of the lessons.

    Learning to play an instrument (better) is so much fun.

  2. mig

    Sort of like spotting a firefly a quarter of a mile away on a dark night. It was a very simple light I saw, just do it one note (or whatever) at a time. Relax.

    Impatience is a big problem, I suppose. Another problem I have is, when I finally find time to practice again, will I have forgotten all of this?

  3. wouldn’t it be less panic-inducing and more following of the metaphor you’ve built here to say, “look at your desk. everything perfect? okay, let’s move on to the dresser. we’re done thinking about the desk and we are so not ready to think about the floor; let’s just think about the dresser…”

  4. I envy your moment of zen with your cello. I’ve had similar experiences while painting. It feels good to finally “gitit”

  5. I can’t wait to speak French like that.

  6. mig

    You want to speak French better than I currently play cello, believe me.

  7. ooooh mig…


    still want to get my hands on you.

    but love your moment.

    I was always one for the freedom of learning technique through music, until I went to the US when I had to do 8 hrs studies and scales practice a day. If anything gave me freedom of expression that did. (and nothing else worked, I can assure you)

    Good on you to have demanded it. FORM EQUALS FREEDOM, MAN!!!

  8. mig

    8 hours for scales would be hard to find at the moment, but that’s the kind of stuff i need. I’m happy if i can find 8 minutes. I was listening to Zoe Keating on NPR and she mentions playing a single note for an hour, for two or three hours. I plan to try that if I ever have the house to myself.