Being a Real Cellist


One of the interesting things about being an adult beginner, at least for me, is that I don’t feel like I’m really a cellist. I’m also pretty sure that I don’t play the cello — I “play” the cello. When people find out I play the cello, I always qualify it with “but I’ve only been playing a year!” That way they don’t mistake me for someone who actually plays the cello. Or I tell them I’m learning to play the cello — definitely not the same thing as actually playing the cello.

So why do I feel this way? First, I can’t play anything, really. Sure, the Feuillard book has pieces by Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Couperin, Rameau, Shumann and a number of other important dead people whose first names are all Johann or Jean-something. But the pieces are all excerpts, or are closer to etudes than real songs. Sure, I like learning them, but it feels really lame to tell people that I can play Bach’s famous Minuet in G, except I can only play it in F. Or the most impressive thing I can play is the Gavotte by Couperin. Then I discovered today that one of the Dotzauer (is that how you spell it?) etudes in Feuillard is actually just an excerpt of the real thing. With easier fingering. On top of that, having trouble with 5th (and 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st) position isn’t nearly as cool as my 15 year old neighbor having trouble with thumb position. Seriously.

Feeling like this can lead to many problems, such as Cello Studio talks about in The Race to Grade 8. Feeling lousy about yourself for where you’re at in the learning process can take a real toll on students. I think adult beginners in particular can get so upset with themselves while practicing they can go backwards, at least that’s the impression I get from reading various beginners’ blog posts (and from my own experience.) It is usually so bad that I won’t even refer to myself as a cellist. Maybe a “cellist” but never a cellist. Just a fraud of a musician. During one lesson my teacher started a sentence with “We as musicians” and it took just about everything I had not to flip out on her and make a complete fool of myself. That was probably the single most upsetting thing she’s ever said to me. Emily Wright has tried to address this many times, but we students are stubborn and don’t seem to get the message.

Then there are other days when I feel so the opposite of all this garbage that goes on in my head. Sometimes I have this wonderful understanding that I was a cellist before I started playing the cello. I didn’t know it until I started playing, but once I did I encountered this aspect of who I am that had just been waiting for me to discover it had been there all along. There’s this Zen saying that you can’t receive that which you don’t already have. Granted, that saying is in reference to something very specific that isn’t cello (the precepts) but I think it applies here too — you can’t become that which you aren’t already are. Like the Zen saying means that you already have that which you are receiving, we beginners already are that which we are trying to become — cellists.

After this post I thought it was time to sit Zazen — for the first time in four years. Just when I was finally able to relax and focus on my breathing, the doorbell rang. It was my 15 year old cellist neighbor asking to play a duet with me tonight. Coincidence? I stopped believing in them a long time ago. On the other hand, I’ve come up with an idea of another blog — The Failed Zen Student: One Woman’s Misadventures with Buddhism. What do you guys think?


16 responses »

  1. For the longest time, I used to tell people I’m not a cellist, but that I just happened to play the cello!

    Hope you had fun playing the duet with your neighbor. And I tried sitting Zazen for a while. Had worked it up to the point I could sit for a couple hours but I would so often start having visual hallucinations, which I thought was really strange since most other meditation styles keep the eyes closed, meaning even more sensory deprivation, which is a much better set of circumstances for hallucinations–but it only happens when I sit Zazen.

    I guess I’m too much of an ‘old school’ Therevada Buddhist, eh? 😛

  2. I can understand that — my eyes will play tricks on me quite easily (or at least they used to back when I used to sit for hours a day.) Something about staring at the same damn spot for a long time in really dim light. Not so much a problem with eyes closed (which all Zen students do, even if they won’t admit it. I’ve even witnessed people falling asleep during retreats!) So, I don’t think that it’s weird at all but rather normal.

    People from Mahayana traditions tend to get stupid about people from Theravadan traditions. I don’t know why, because it really goes against the spirit of what these same people think makes their own tradition better. Unfortunately it’s rather rampant.

    Yes, I had fun playing with him. We’re working on Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring ( ) which is nice because he’s challenged and I have a simple part so I can focus on listening and working with him, beautiful relaxed legato bowing, and having good dynamics. We both had fun with it and are planning on reconvening regularly and perhaps giving our families a recital after it sounds good.

    I’m still kinda puzzling over his remarkable timing. My history with spiritual practice is complicated and the reasons for taking a break are even more complicated, so what the hell does it all mean? Because surely it means something. Every time the universe has conked me over the head like this and I didn’t listen I ended up regretting it deeply. My break (now turning into abandonment) was meant to be temporary and here I am, having thought recently it may be time to resume. I thought I may as well have a go at it, and my neighbor shows up begging to play. Having being told something, though I’m not sure what, by the universe about my attempt at sitting is kinda ironic. Perhaps I should just accept that I’m really just a failed Zen student and focus on cello, because that was certainly the message I was getting today.

  3. You should read some of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s books, but especially his first one, Flow–physical activity (like practicing the cello) can be meditative and Dr. C (as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is often referred to as) talks about the psychological mechanism behind the phenomenon.

    I think that’s one of the things that many of the Mahayana traditions have excelled at–movement meditation. Qigong, Tai Chi, Walking Meditation–all a wonderful way of eventually integrating mindful awareness into everyday actions that some of the Indic meditation traditions can’t or don’t do.

    So maybe your sitting meditation is meant to be with the cello! 🙂 Glad you found someone to play with–it’s like the Beuddhist proverb says, “when the student is ready the teacher appears” — or in this case, when the cellist is ready, a musical partner appears! 😉

  4. My first thought when reading your reply: OH MY GOD THAT IS THE WORST LAST NAME EVER HOW THE FRAK DO YOU EVEN SAY THAT! But beyond that, I will check him out. We certainly did a lot of moving meditation — walking meditation between sitting, Qi Gong during retreats. And I also used to (*sob*) practice a very traditional style of Karate which emphasized the art as moving meditation. I was going to start again with my old teacher after moving back to the Sacramento area, but I ended up playing cello instead. My old Sensei would understand — he actually plays with SacPhil. I’m finding it strange (though maybe I shouldn’t) how interconnected all these things are.

    I guess my cello and I are meant to do these things together or not at all. I suppose when I take a break and just bow open strings I do relax as in Zazen. I just hadn’t though of it that way until now.

  5. Have you seen this yet? You probably have.

    It’s worth a re-read

    At the very least, you can now have something intelligent to ask to other cellists when you meet them.

    I go through something very similar, about not playing “real” music. Dan, my teacher, always says approach everything like you want to make it musical, like a song.

    As for your comment about starting a second blog, I can only say from my own experience that it is hard to maintain two readable blogs simultaneously. You may be just as well served by putting an occasional outside interest post here. Of course, that may not apply to you; if you want a completely new audience, you may need to start a new blog.

    Good luck in ALL your endeavors!


  6. The line that really appealed to me was the last one. I was thinking about your post all day – mostly about always being in the minor leagues. For me, my next measurable milepost will be to sight read well enough to attend a music camp.

  7. Music camp sounds fun. Have you found one that accepts adults?

    I feel glad she has that page for everyone to read as it seems most of us (not just the adult beginners) don’t feel like we’re really cellists. For me, however, it doesn’t help with my own personal demons of self-deprecation. It’s pervasive in my life, not just in cello. So, while it’s nice to see that a real cellists thinks I’m also a real cellist, it doesn’t cure my neuroses.

  8. Perhaps organized by region — most of us would prefer something close by because they tend to be expensive. For example, I could more easily do one in Sac because it’s not a long drive and I could just stay at home, which would save a LOT of money.

  9. Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said, “If you label me, you negate me?”

    Funny how I’ve been watching old movies and your post kinda matched up with “The Zen of Wayne’s World”

    A story. I paint. Badly but not badly enough to not hang my works at home (and the really bad ones at work). A few years ago I was sitting at the beach just playing with some watercolour pencils when a woman asked me “Are you some kind of artist or something?”

    That got me thinking. How do we define ourselves and how do others define us?

    Next time you meet someone new, 9 times out of 10, the conversation will go “Hi, I’m XXX” “Hi XXX, so what do you do?” “Oh, I’m in accounts/IT/some-other-boring-job.” But what if you were to say “Oh I’m a cellist.”

    I’m guessing that since for most people work==identity they would assume that you’re a professional. But what about the follow up of, “Yes, it’s my passion. Of course, double-entry-book-keeping-in-the-accounts-dept pays the bills…”
    Just sit back and watch the does-not-compute light come on behind the eyes.

    Labels. They’re for cans of tuna.

  10. I found this awesome shirt on CafePress one time that says “Instant cello player. Just add coffee.” I often think I should get one for every day of the week. Wake up — drink coffee — oh, hey. I’m a cellist now!

  11. Pingback: A New Approach « The Adult Beginner

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