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My foolish dreams


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I’m a month into playing the cello! It’s been great fun, I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to realise that I missed playing an instrument…

Before the cello

I played the double bass for my last two years of middle school. It was enjoyable enough, and me and a friend got up to grade 2 or 3 standard but never took any exams to confirm it. When I got to high school, I told myself that it wasn’t worth the hassle of having to lug a massive instrument around everywhere. The beginning of high school was hard enough work without it.

When I got to university last October, almost everyone else seemed to bring an instrument with them. I played Rock Band for the first time and was awful – that came as a wake-up call to me as I’d thought that I’d been blessed with perhaps a scrap of musical talent…apparently not!


The two instruments I’ve always wanted to play are the clarinet and the cello. The clarinet always seemed to be the most sophisticated of the woodwind instruments that were played in the middle school orchestra; not as ‘common’ as the flute; nor as hefty as a bassoon.

The cello seemed like the perfect middle ground between the rich, deep sounds of the double bass and the melodic ability of a violin or viola. I was fed up of playing tedious bass lines; I wanted melodies and concertos that were written especially for my instrument. There’s an elegance about the cello, which coupled with my knowledge of string instruments eventually enticed me to splash out on the cheapest cello I could find. Including delivery costs and a few vital accessories, I spent just over £200 of my student grant on it.

Littlest things

A month after the cello’s delivery I was finally able to play it for the first time, having arrived back from university for a couple of weeks at the end of my exams. I was terrified that part of the cello would be broken, or that I would break something in the process of making the instrument playable, but I’d underestimated the value of YouTube – I eased the bridge in place easily enough, despite my sister’s certainty that the strings would break.

I had known that attempting to teach myself cello would be challenging, particularly as I have to battle my own impatience; but I didn’t want to have lessons (the expense and the risk of being stuck with a patronising teachers). Two things that have helped this approach go better than expected: first, an excellent book (Do It! Play Cello by James O. Froseth, ISBN: 1579992447) that I was able to borrow from the library and second,  more importantly, my sister’s willingness to learn with me.

Learning along with someone else makes the whole experience about ten times more enjoyable than learning alone. It stops me from rushing off through the book and ensures that my playing is of a much higher standard. I’ve also become a kind of teacher, passing on my experience of stringed instruments to my sister. (Although she seems to have ignored the correct bow grip and posture – she’s stubborn and will never change).

Our first hiccup with the cello was on the second day of playing. The rich tone gradually disappeared to be replaced by a dull squeak and then a lifeless scrape. I was worried that I’d somehow damaged the instrument itself; but pizzicato worked as well as before so it was easy to conclude that the problem was with the bow. I was convinced that the issue was too much rosin, after all, we’d been applying it liberally just because it was kinda fun. For the next couple of days I carefully cleaned both the strings and the bow hair, with no noticeable effect. The hair wasn’t gripping the strings, I realised. And rosin was used to help the bowhair grip. Finally putting two and two together, I rosined one section of the bow as much as I dared. The tiniest hint of a proper tone! Half an hour later, the cello was singing again.

I’d felt pretty stupid after that episode, but hugely relieved. Learning that lesson earlier rather than later was definitely a good thing.

Moving on

A few weeks of playing time later, after about an hour’s session every day, both my sister and I are getting on well with the instrument (and each other, of course). We’ve progressed from nursery rhymes to waltzes to the D Major scale.

Perhaps surprisingly, we are able to play a theme from Tchaikovsky’s 4th; the Birch Tree:

(from 0:15)


We’ve played only on the D and A strings (the two highest) so far. After we’ve mastered slurs and attempted spiccato we’ll have a go at the growling G and C strings.


Written by Freya

Tuesday 12th July 2011 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Cello

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