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?