For most of the last 30 years I’ve had a cello sitting in a case in a corner of the flat, unplayed. I described myself as a lapsed cellist, former cellist, sort-of cello player when younger, someone who is just not really playing these days. Occasionally I would get the cello out and tune it. I knew that I wasn’t playing, but I never officially decided that I wasn’t going to play and should get rid of this rather inconvenient instrument.
I learned the cello in County Durham in the 80s where tuition and loaner instruments were available free to anyone at a state school. It was a remarkable offer. I had a good teacher (Jim Bickel) and liked him, and I enjoyed playing music, but I was a lazy and not very talented student.
I made it into the county youth orchestra, played in a few concerts—a highlight of my whole life, really—and was eventually over-promoted into the front desk. By that point I had my own cello and definitely called myself a cellist. When I went to university I took it with me, joined an orchestra, attended a few times, got distracted, found many other fun things to do, gradually stopped playing—and then my cello was stolen.
It wasn’t recovered, and although it was insured and wasn’t fancy, the prices of such instruments had gone up quite a lot in the few years since I got it. I was only able to replace it with a worse instrument that could sound OK at times but was quite a bit harder to play. I lost the love. And 30 years passed.
Late last year I opened the case and found that the strings, bridge, and tailpiece had all fallen off. The wire that connected the tailpiece to the pin at the bottom (it’s called the tailgut, I learn) had snapped, having being stored at tension and no doubt knocked around at times. I replaced it, but the moment played on my conscience and shortly after that I finally sat down to try playing again, discovering of course that I no longer knew how.
That gave me energy and I began to practise properly, finding I enjoyed it far more than I had remembered. After a couple of months I’m still doing so quite seriously. It’s going to take me a long time to become as good as I was at 18. I might not make it. But that’s my goal.
Here’s some of what I’ve found so far.
I have a lot more patience for real work—for things that involve repetitive effort. I am enjoying effort. Studies, scales, bowing exercises. Ševčík, Feuillard, Popper, Dotzauer. Anything I would have resisted as tedious when younger. (Actually I did quite like Dotzauer back then, but I still never played anything of his that I hadn’t been specifically told to. No idea why I was so negative about Popper.)
Unfortunately I can’t apply much sustained effort. My fingers hurt even with an hour a day spent playing, which is not a lot. Getting a slightly thicker A-string (Thomastik Alphayue brand—they advertise it as a bit thicker for this reason) has helped. Hope I’m not too old to build up more strength reasonably quickly.
Speaking of fingers, they’re awfully slow. Left hand speed seems to be a big limitation at the moment. I can still type quickly, so I like to think things are not hopeless, though playing calls for a far more decisive combination of strong and fast than typing.
There are lots of things I never properly got to grips with first time around. I liked to nest in first and fourth positions and only came out on special occasions. I learned other specific fingerings for individual pieces, often to a level that seems daunting now, but I didn’t cope at all well with common stretches (e.g. 1-2-4 whole tones) and I didn’t have a good instinct for the geometry of the fingerboard and where intervals sit along and across strings. I just tried to get away with it through quick switches of position.
If I have a hope now of improving on the early me, this is where it ought to lie: spotting intervals across strings and moving to lower-effort fingerings naturally. I’m not all that hopeful but I can try.
Any tune, no matter how negligible, can become a proper earworm once you’ve played it a few dozen times.
It’s not just the notes, either. The timbre of the instrument itself gets stuck in my head, so my idle brain will dwell on one phrase after another from different pieces without noticing it has moved on. Certain intervals are intrinsically appealing as well, so I will mentally replay them and exchange them with similar moments from other pieces.
And although I love the timbre of the cello, it doesn’t half spike my tinnitus. I had never really thought of it as a loud instrument before. The mute makes surprisingly little difference—probably attenuates the wrong frequencies—but a soft earplug in the worse ear helps.
My instrument does have a pretty aggressive sound. I took it to a local cello repair shop to fix a rattle in the fingerboard, and while I was there I asked if there was anything else I should do to make sure it sounded as good as possible after 30 years out of service. They looked it up and down and said “I have to tell you, this is an extremely basic instrument.” I think that was their way of doing me a kindness by saying I shouldn’t try any expensive interventions, but it wasn’t a great feeling.
If I ever find myself in a position to spend more than a grand on a better cello, I’ll justify it by telling myself that the richer, smoother timbre will be easier on the tinnitus. It’s a health-and-safety matter.
Occasionally while playing something unusually smoothly I will catch myself thinking “oh yes! this is fucking magic!” — and then I instantly become like the centipede that realises it doesn’t know how it can possibly walk with all those legs and gets tangled up and falls over.
I also have a nasty tendency to read ahead in the music. I’ve always been bad at memorisation—that might have been the first real sign I had as a child that I would never be a proper musician—and I rely too heavily on having music in front of me. Especially when things are going well, I’ll drift ahead and read either the notes or the fingerings from a different bar and start playing the wrong thing.
No matter how well I seem to have learned a piece one day, I will always mess it up within the first two bars the first time I play it the following day.
I have had a couple of pleasing rediscoveries. One is that it can be easier to play a piece more quickly. If you’re struggling with putting one thing after another, play it much faster but less energetically. Sketch it. This makes things easier and more impressive at the same time, which is such a fabulous win that it should be a rare and exciting one-off life-hack, but I think it’s just normal for our brains.
The other really nice discovery is that even when I’m really tired and stupid, too dopey to work, I can still enjoy practising. It doesn’t become frustrating, at least not through simple tiredness. I become a bit easier on myself, work a little less hard, perhaps play something mellower, and that’s pleasant, and just fine.