Playing the Cello Can Be For You

I dropped music from my life for 47 years, while I taught English and raised my family. Although I missed music intensely, I said, like many other people, that I had no time for music making. What I really meant was, “I don’t have time to practice enough. I can’t play as beautifully as I would like to. So I am quitting this field totally.” Only in my 60’s, after I retired from my job as a teacher of English, did I go back to studying and playing the cello.

Hearing that I’ve gone back to playing music, people often say, “Oh, I love the sound of a cello! I wish I could do that. But I KNOW I can’t.” Music is absent from their lives.

Listening to their sad voices, I feel very sorry for them and very frustrated. Why are people so afraid of trying to play music? So sure that they can’t? Without ever trying, they’ve denied themselves this opportunity. Sometimes it’s because they never had any musical instruction in childhood and simply assume that all musical training is formidably difficult. Unfortunately, many music teachers and self-styled experts perpetuate this myth, by repeating how difficult it is to learn any instrument, how much practice it takes, and so on. Sometimes they add that the cello is among the most difficult of all. Other adults were forced to take piano or violin lessons as children and didn’t like practicing, so they decided at the time that they had no musical talent. Or a school teacher said they couldn’t sing in tune, so they shut their voices down forever. Or, worse yet, a demanding “old school” music teacher completely discouraged them. Unfortunately, such stories are far too common.

But that’s such a pity! Playing music is one of life’s most glorious experiences. Nobody should be deprived of it, especially through an unwarranted fear of any personal inadequacies or music’s difficulties.

I’m not promising that learning to play an instrument doesn’t require practice and repetition. It certainly does. Nor do I promise that older beginners will learn to play complicated pieces beautifully enough to perform in a concert. But that’s not what counts. If their goals are modest, they can learn to play well enough to bring real pleasure to themselves and, possibly, to fellow amateur players in their circle.

“Well enough.” What does that mean? People should decide that for themselves. For example, Noah Adams, a commentator for NPR radio, decided that he would be a successful musician if he could perform Schumann’s Traumerie in a private concert just for his wife. His book, Piano Lessons, describes his experiences achieving that goal.

I studied music and the cello as a child. Along with the lessons came the unspoken rule that studying music was a sacred obligation like becoming a nun: all or nothing. I managed until college. Then, challenged to succeed in my college classes, I quit both my music lessons and my playing. All or nothing? It had to be nothing.

It took me forty-seven years to realize how wrong that notion was. Amateurs who play bridge, golf, contact sports or even the guitar are not derided for being less skillful than professionals. They play as well as they can, for their own pleasure, not for paying audiences, that’s all. Why shouldn’t the same standards apply to amateur chamber musicians?

They do, once you find a congenial group. And now, after a 47 year gap, and sixteen years of being an amateur and a senior citizen, I can declare myself blessed, playing for the love of it, happy.

Why is that? First of all, you can’t be “retired” when you’re playing a musical instrument. You are as physically involved as an athlete during a game. Your heart is pumping hard, your juices are flowing. Second, you are not using language, that deceptive, tarnished medium, to communicate with your fellow players. You are passing musical lines of dialog back and forth among you, and your lines were written by geniuses. That dialog is irresistible.

There is a joy in the exactness of the music’s timing and dynamics (getting louder and softer), as your part fits in with the others. You experience the sense of team work producing an invisible yet beautiful object. When the music calls for a slowing down and then a sudden pick up to the previous speed, you all do that together. This can happen only if the players are listening very carefully to each other. How often do your companions listen to you and echo you so closely that you are sure you have been thoroughly heard? That seldom happens except when playing music. There, the literal and figurative harmony of the moment is truly exhilarating.

Beyond all this is music’s ability to speak directly to our emotions. If you were fortunate enough to play music when you were a child, returning to it can help you recapture that expressive quality that you may have lost. It’s no less joyful for beginners. I have shown people how to move the bow back and forth across the cello’s four strings to unleash its gorgeous sound in a few minutes, and seen them happy achieving that goal alone. Let me encourage you to participate in this extraordinary world.

Reposted from November 2007

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