Learning the Cello

Learning the Cello

I started cello lessons today with Emily Ann Peterson. Learning the cello is one of those things I always thought would be cool to do [think: fun, free-spirited Filipina rocking out on a cello] but after my two-week stint trying to learn the violin in 5th grade, I pretty much swore off anything but the piano. So why the cello now? Honestly, because it’s a healthy way to distract myself these days and a way for me to take care of myself. And it kind of matches my internal state–at least for now: melancholy.

It’s been some time since I’ve committed to learning something new. School doesn’t count, since well…I’m perpetually in school. But to pick up something that’s completely foreign to me–something that involves significant time and money [lots of time and money]–that’s kind of a new thing. For good or bad, my coping mechanism when I find myself in crisis or change, is to do something. This time it involved some mixture of shopping, a nose piercing, working out every day and cello lessons.

I think I’m going to like this new routine with Emily. She’s fun, really encouraging and is getting me to see that learning the cello is a process, kind of like a relationship: awkward at first, but soon you just learn to settle in and play by ear because you know each other so well and trust yourself to remember the melody that you’ve known for so long.

Let your cello conform to you

Not gonna lie. It’s awkward. Perhaps guys don’t have to deal with this, but for women, it feels a little weird playing an instrument with your legs open while you find the most comfortable way for it to rest against your chest without your lady parts getting in the way. Over the boob? Under the boob? On the boob? See what I mean? Awkward. But the first lesson I learned was that the cello should conform to you. Don’t contort your body in some weird way to make your cello fit. Find your balance, sit tall and let the cello rest and lean into you. It’s a pretty vulnerable state to find yourself, but it’s one in which I look forward to letting myself sit.

Learn the music

Like I said earlier, my only experience with a stringed instrument was my lame 2-week attempt at the violin. Even though I took piano lessons through high school, we never did any ear training. I became a good sight reader and relied heavily on notes [and later, chords] to be able to play anything. If there was no printed music, you couldn’t count on me for much. I’ll be using the Suzuki method to learn cello. That means lots of listening and feeling which again puts me in this really vulnerable state! I want to play it right, and well, I’m relying on my ear and on memory to get through the song. Not easy. Though it might sound counterintuitive, Emily explained it was pretty natural. Just like we mimic language as new learners, copying sounds that we think we hear as we communicate what we need/want, learning to play the cello is trying to copy and translate what we remember hearing. It’s unnerving not remembering if I start on an open string and what sound comes next. But after time, your fingers remember where to go because your knowing the tune guides you. I kinda like the idea of being able to play a piece of music so well that your memory of the song that just sits in you, becomes your guide–not the notes on the page. Learn the music.

Play with it

Yup. Run with that image for a minute. Emily’s advice to me this week: spend time with my cello. Watch tv with it [her?]. Read with her, let my hands run up and down the strings, make music, make noise. Get to know her. Let her rest into me. Let my body feel her weight and her lightness. And when I finally do get around to plucking the hell out of her with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star [we’re not using the bow, yet] in different keys, I’ll feel a sense of unity with her [should I give her a name?].

Make mistakes

What I’m probably the most apprehensive about in this process are the moments when I’m in my room plucking away at a song and getting it wrong. When you practice by yourself your faults are pretty exposed. You see the parts of a song you can’t seem to get right, you hear how pitchy you are and you see where your timing is off. Again, I’m vulnerable.

These will be some interesting months ahead. I’m sure I’ll learn just as much about myself–my ticks–what I get hung up over, what I like to spend time practicing and where I gloss over–as I do about playing the cello.

Here’s to new adventures!