Learning to Play the Cello Without Lessons - Can It Be Done?
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Learning to Play the Cello Without Lessons - Can It Be Done?

Learning to play the cello is hard enough with a good teacher, so can it really be done without any formal lessons? With more and more self-teaching methods popping up, this question has become more relevant than ever.

Speaking as a classically trained cellist who has invested a significant amount of time and money in lessons and Music College, I won't deny that I am biased on this subject. 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. Even under those circumstances it 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 teach literally anyone to play. Since none of the methods I have encountered thus far have 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. Be that as it may, I always feel instantly sceptical of any method or remedy that claims "miracle results" - whether it's about losing weight, earning money or learning to play an instrument. The truth of the matter is that there are no short cuts when it comes to the more challenging things in life: that is why they are challenging!

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 sound of a violin or cello in the hands of a beginner is truly painful. 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 because their tone production is less reliant on very specific technique from the player.

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.

Having said all that, I will make one comment to the contrary. As previously mentioned, DIY really isn't for everyone but there are people who absolutely thrive on it. If your motivation for learning to play the cello is simply to be able to play a few simple lines in your band, or on a recording of your song (for example), then a self-teaching method may work for you. Assuming you're self-motivated and welcome the often frustrating challenges that come with trying to get to grips with something that requires very fine-tuned co-ordination, have a good sense of pitch, and have learned to play at least one other instrument, you may just achieve your goal with a thorough self-teaching method to assist you. For those who chose to take this route I would recommend doing a fair amount of research first to find a method that doesn't make over-the-top claims and doesn't cut corners. No teacher, no matter how amazing, can turn a beginner into a cellist in a matter of months, so how on earth could a book or a series of DVDs be able to? Visit cello forums (there are many excellent ones to be found with a simple Google search) and ask for advice on methods.

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Comments (2)

What a wonderful and thought provoking article this is, and I have also devoted most of my life championing the merits of good instruction. Another huge minus in the DIY method for any instrument is that most have similarities to an illiterate variation on the Suzuki method. Watch someone on the video producing four notes, duplicate it, and behold, you are a cellist (or a violinist, cembalo player or what have you): the problem with that shows up when the student needs to learn a SECOND piece of music when the printed score is placed in front of them. All the DIY-er will be able to play are small snippets they were dragged through in the first place. The end result is that they have learned nothing at all. If I run a brush across a canvas with paint in just the right hand-form, that doesn't make me an artist. This translates to many skills in all cultures. Very well done, and I appreciate your fine explanation of this. Voted and liked.

Well researched work..Thank you for sharing a great piece of writing.

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