Should I take up the cello?
May 19, 2015 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Am I too, ahem, old, to learn new tricks?

Background: I'm about to be 37, been playing music, not in a very serious way since I was 5. I play the piano and mostly guitar, but like most people that play them, can passably pick up most fretted instruments. I also, like many others, played clarinet from 5th through 12th grade. I do read music. I also tend to go long stretches of a few months here and there where I don't really play much music. This is mostly due to lack of time, but also sometimes just a lack of inspiration.

Anyway, I'd like to learn the cello. It's always been one of my favorite instruments. Beautiful sound, very emotive. I don't think I'm alone in saying there's just something about the instrument that draws me in.

So. Tell me some pros and cons. I don't want to just waste money (and buying tips would be appreciated too). I haven't tried to learn a new type of instrument in some time (bowed, fretless), so that's a big con right there. I'd be entering completely new musical territory, but I also don't want to regret never trying it.
posted by doogan nash to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Never Too Late is a book I really enjoyed about the topic of learning the cello starting at age 40. It might be helpful or inspirational to you.
posted by primethyme at 7:16 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Avoid cheap internet cellos. They often can't be made playable. Try to find one with real ebony pegs and fingerboard (not just painted black). You can rent month to month from most local music stores. I would get weekly lessons, if you have the time. Orchestral instruments involve learning a lot of technique up front, hence better to start with lessons. In other words, the learning curve is steep at the very beginning. You have a good musical background, so you're way ahead in terms of reading music and 'hearing' the notes (no frets on a cello). Good luck and have fun!
posted by jabah at 7:24 AM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

My mother learned to play the violin in her 50s and got a lot of enjoyment from it, having never played a bowed instrument before. She found a local teacher for lessons, started with an inexpensive instrument and got a better one once she had learned enough to appreciate the difference. This is just to say, you are not too old!
posted by hsieu at 7:33 AM on May 19, 2015

I don't have any cello specific advice, other than (shocker) you probably won't become the next Yo-Yo Ma. Thankfully there's an awful lot of worthwhile music to be made by the non Yo-Yo Mas of the world.

I think you already know this but the time will pass whether you are playing cello or not. In one year, or five, or ten, you will be a much better cello player or you will not. You will never, for one minute, regret having invested the time and resources into playing cello but you will nearly certainly regret having not done so.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:40 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

If an instrument calls to you it is such a gift. The emotive power of the instrument is connecting with emotive power within you that wants to come out. I get the cons, the cost, the time, blah blah, all very grown-up things to worry about. The pro is that your soul gets to sing. Even a little bit. Totally go for it. (If it will help your grown-up self, you can always sell the instrument later if you wind up not playing it very much.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:47 AM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

I retired as a clarinetist after the 8th grade and played no music until I took up the drums at 35. I had always been fascinated by percussion and finally decided to give it a try. I started lessons at a local music school that provided instruments so my initial investment was small. I am not great; I love it anyway. Do it! I doubt you'll regret trying.
posted by trixie119 at 8:01 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

If used cellos are anything like used guitars, you should be able to pick up a pretty good one used, play it for as long as you want and, as long as you properly maintain it, sell it later for about what you paid for it (maybe more). A quick CL search in my area comes up with a decent selection.

If I were you, I'd figure out what the equivalent of a decent Fender Squier or Epiphone Les Paul is, have professional give it a once-over/setup and play that until you're certain you're going to stick with it and then upgrade.

Do regret learning the piano or guitar? Why would this be any different, especially if the instrument calls to you?
posted by VTX at 8:09 AM on May 19, 2015

You regret the things you don't try more than the things you do.

Hire an instrument to start out with, nothing worse than trying to do anything with cheap tools. Also you will have much more idea what you want in an instrument before you buy one if you have some hands on experience. Take lessons. The only Con I can see is it will take up some time & money if you can afford both then for go for it & have fun.
posted by wwax at 8:14 AM on May 19, 2015

I was a cellist through high school (switched to voice) and have entertained the idea of picking it up again. The main thing that you should pay attention to is the condition of the instrument. The fingerboard and all that pale in comparison to whether the cello is made of solid wood or "plywood" laminate. Typically, you can tell because the edges will be noticeably thicker on real wood models than those made of laminates.

As a guitar player, you probably know this: you need to pay attention to the humidity and condition of a real wood instrument, because it can crack very easily. It needs to be played frequently. You need to keep it in a better case -- a hard padded one that locks, not a bag or one made out of black-covered cardboard or plywood.

If you can do that, it'll be easier to tune and keep sounding great, which will make the amount of time you have to futz with it go down while the amount of time you play it goes up :)
posted by St. Hubbins at 8:15 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree that you should get a teacher. People teach themselves guitar, and make it work OK with all kinds of messed-up technique, but I have always heard that that won't work for orchestral stringed instruments. You need to learn the correct way to bow, and correct left hand positions.
posted by thelonius at 8:17 AM on May 19, 2015

Learning a new instrument as you are approaching middle age is an excellent way to keep your brain sharp. Everyone should do it.
posted by myselfasme at 8:30 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Before you commit, consider what it is that you want to play on the cello. It's a beautiful sound, and quite adaptable in terms of being played in a lot of contexts (chamber music, orchestral, solo classical, jazz, folk, backup-band for rock, singer-songwriters, etc.) but be sure you can find a teacher who will show you how to play music that you want to play. Someone who only teaches kids to do well in their high school orchestras might not be a great resource if you want to play along with the radio or your singer-songwriter buddy. Along those lines, if you're hoping to take this out of the house (not a requirement) what kind of community is there that needs cellists for their jams/gatherings/ensembles/performances, and if there isn't such, will you be content to play cello for yourself?
posted by aimedwander at 8:33 AM on May 19, 2015

Yes, learn to play cello! You're not anywhere near too old and I don't know why you're even worried about that!

Since you have a strong musical background, already know how to read bass clef, presumably already have an ear for what in-tune notes are supposed to sound like, etc -- I actually don't think that you'll find it especially difficult.

I agree with the poster above about taking lessons, because there's a lot of technique involved (how you hold your hands and body, etc) that would be very difficult to pick up on your own. A teacher will also be able to teach you other things that are best learned hands-on, like how to tune and restring your instrument (though that's somewhat similar to the guitar). It can also be really helpful to have a teacher to help you pick out music.

Once you get more advanced in your playing, your teacher might also be able to recommend a group or orchestra for you to join. YMMV, but I think stringed instruments really come into their own (and are *so* much fun to play) when you're playing as part of a group rather than solo.

Rent the instrument month-to-month from a music store. Stores will often do a "rent to own" deal by default, so if you end up falling in love with playing and keep renting your cello for years, it'll eventually be yours regardless. You'll also be able to try them out in the store, and the store workers can help you pick your instrument. They might also have recommendations for cello teachers.

Also, when you get the instrument, get rosin and an endpin rest. I recommend the kind that's on a strap (you loop one end around your chair leg) rather than the traditional kind of cello stop. The cello stops can sort of slide around at inopportune times and be annoying. YMMV. Otherwise, you probably have everything you need to start playing right away (tuner & stand?).
posted by rue72 at 8:54 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I teach stringed instruments to beginners. It's not a dreadful idea to start as an adult if you are passionate about it, but go in knowing that the learning curve is very, very steep. Here is what I always tell people who want to start as adult beginners:

1) The variety of string instrument brands is huge; there's really no equivalent of a Fender Squier. The terrible ones are really, really terrible and will make your playing experience miserable enough that you'll want to quit. This is why it is, in general, a good idea to rent instead of buy especially when you do not know how to select an instrument.

2) Find a teacher. Listen to the teacher. If the teacher is not telling you that great technique from the start is the most important thing, find another teacher. Tell the teacher what your goals are so you are both on the same page.

3) Commit to practicing every day. Not for a long time, you'll get tired, but for 20 minutes or so. The most important thing is daily reinforcement of what your teacher is telling you in your weekly lessons.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:06 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hi there! I'm you!

I took up the cello in my late 30s after a lifetime of involvement in other (classical) music pursuits. It's been a couple of years now, and I play in an orchestra and occasional small ensembles. I won't lie-- it's hard as hell. I will battle intonation until I die, but the joy the cello brings me is something I can't understate.

Rent your cello from a reputable string shop/luthier, NOT a guitar/band instrument/general music store. You need a shop that knows how to set the instrument up, maintain it, and who has a good rental program. By that I mean that you should be able to use your first year's rent toward the purchase of a better instrument, should you choose. There should also be a selection of instruments for you to try out, none of them laminate. Your first bow doesn't have to be wood-- carbon fiber has come a long way and is considerably less expensive. Do try several before choosing one, though.

Find a good teacher! This is a big deal! Audition several if you have to, but that relationship is really important. Pick someone you feel comfortable with so you aren't afraid to play for him or her. Make sure they have a strong background in teaching and a focus on teaching adult beginners.

Find others to play with! I know so many adult cellists who have been toiling away at Suzuki book two for years because they are terrified to play with others or to perform. They stagnate until they give up, and they're missing out the best part of being a cellist. Playing with the right kinds of other folks (as good as or slightly better than you) will push you much more than you will push yourself.

You're gonna love it.
posted by hollisimo at 10:31 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's a site that seems pretty on-topic : Mid Life Cello
posted by metadave at 10:39 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nope, nope, nope, you are never too old to take up a new instrument, especially one that actively calls to you! And nthing previous recommendations:
  • Do due diligence when deciding what to buy or rent; go to a reputable stringed instrument shop* versus buying the cheapest one you can find online. (I will say that the no-name $25 Chinese-made fiddle outfit I bought on a lark from Ebay is actually quite impressive for the money, but it was not playable out of the box.) The thing with super cheap instruments is often that the extra money you spend paying someone to get them into playable condition would have been better spent on a nicer instrument in the first place. A decent bow may be more expensive than you expect.
  • Take some lessons, at least to get started. The two major benefits of taking lessons on a new instrument are that a face-to-face teacher can give you real-time feedback about technique and form so that you don't adopt any bad or even injurious habits, and it also gives you some external pressure to practice.
Re: learning a fretless instrument, if you've got a decent ear you may find it easier than you'd expect; I played fretted instruments for years before getting my first fretless banjo, and I was surprised by how quickly I got used to it. You can immediately hear when a note is off, and your fingers get used to the proper positions pretty quickly; if you've ever gotten to the point on a guitar where you can jump through chord changes without looking at your left hand, it's kind of like that.

* Look for reputable but not gougey/snooty; reviews and word of mouth are your friends here. I once inquired at a high-end string shop about the price of a no-frills basic-but-good violin starter package; violin, case, and bow. They quoted me a figure of $750 and acted a bit offended that I would even ask about an entry-level instrument. I'm sure it would be a very nice instrument and well-set up, but from what little I know about violins you can definitely get a decent starter instrument for significantly less than that.
posted by usonian at 10:40 AM on May 19, 2015

I have a friend who took up cello when she was about 32, and she LOVES it. I'm not sure she even could read music before she started, and now she plays in the volunteer San Francisco Civic Symphony.

As a returning student myself, I can't tell you how gratifying it is to play with some seriousness or focus. I learned my instrument well enough to allow me to go back to it after a 20 hiatus without a teacher, but I decided to find a teacher who accepted adult students anyway and I have been incredibly happy that I did.
posted by janey47 at 10:50 AM on May 19, 2015

having started playing the drums at 39, i say go for it.
posted by koroshiya at 11:23 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

The cello is a particularly demanding instrument, especially early on. This is not by way of discouragement. Be prepared to be patient. If you pursue it with passion, you will be rewarded.
posted by Jode at 12:03 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

What has age got to do with it? Just do it!
posted by Cranberry at 12:46 PM on May 19, 2015

VTX, used cellos are nothing like used guitars, even down to the concept of "used."

As others have said on here, the absolute best thing to do is rent as good of a student instrument as you can afford. It will be far better than anything you could buy at this point. Many places will apply your rental fees to a portion of purchase if you eventually buy from them. I always recommend Johnson Strings, but there are other good places out there.

I'm a violinist/fiddler, and have been since an early age, but my one tip/recommendation is that if you get frustrated with learning classical music, explore the world of fiddling. The cello is increasingly an accepted folk instrument, and Scottish music has a particularly strong tradition. Check out some folks like Natalie Haas, Mike Block, Emma Beaton, or Rushad Eggleston. There's a wide spread of adult learners in that world, an amazing social aspect to playing, and just lots of fun to be had. MeMail me if you'd like more info!
posted by Polyhymnia at 1:23 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I played the cello from the 5th through 8th grades, then I played other instruments. A few years ago a friend who is an amateur (yet serious) violist was talking to me and she encouraged me to get a cello so we could play together. So I did. Then we added a violinist. We play almost every week, except for when things happen such as my hip replacement surgery (I am 64; my violist friend is a little older; and the violinist is around 50).

Of course, as I said, I already had 4 years of cello playing (and was a proud member of the Brooklyn All-Boro Junior High School Orchestra in 1960!) so I had the basics down. I love playing but the MOST fun (as was stated in a post above) is playing with other people. So I would encourage you to find an amateur group to play with.

Don't be discouraged if you can't get out of first position for awhile: there's a lot you can do in first position! My little trio uses a lot of music by this little company, Greenblatt and Seay. I also bought this book for cello that also has guitar chords, and my husband accompanies me on guitar.

I give these suggestions to show that you don't have to be an orchestral cellist in order to enjoy playing solos and duets with people even when you are a beginner.

I also nth the suggestions about renting or buying a cello. Plywood cellos are awful (and very heavy). Don't be turned off, however, if a cello you're interested in is made in China. A lot of good cellos are made in China these days.

Also, look on YouTube for cello lessons presented by some very good teachers. These videos aren't a substitute for cello lessons, but they can show you many things between lessons. Also, your hands and shoulders are going to get tired, but that's okay -- practice for short periods of time, and you'll make good progress.
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:15 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

My dad took up the cello around age 50. Prior to that he had some rudimentary knowledge of piano and guitar, but more relevantly, had been playing the viola da gamba for about 5 years, which was a preadpation for him. Anyway, he's never going to be an excellent player but he gets a lot of fun of it still, now aged 85. He has a group he plays with and it's an important social outlet for him as well.

He took lessons for a while. One of his tricks which I don't necessarily reccommend, was he made a simulated cello fingerboard on on a stick which he practiced his fingering on during his long (mellow) commute each day.

Anyway, 50 may seem late to pick up the cello but he's now been playing it half his adult life.
posted by Rumple at 10:08 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, learn to play cello!

Find a good teacher to start with so you can learn good habits and avoid bad ones. It's not really the kind of thing you can teach yourself. It would be easy to make what seemed like early progress while actually going down a path that will inhibit future progress, and possibly lead repetitive strain injury.

A lot of teachers will ignore bowing and just expect it to come along as left hand technique develops. If you take lessons, make sure your teacher is as concerned with bowing as with fingering.

Also, see if you can find a teacher that will get you out of first position early. Usually they keep you in first position for a long time, then the other positions end up being this mysterious space on the other side of a psychological barrier. Given what I've experienced, if I were to start over I'd want a teacher who had a more open approach to the higher positions.

Finding your individual optimal playing position is critical, so make sure you spend some time figuring that out. Victor Sazer's New Directions in Cello Playing covers that in some detail.

Learning cello is not like learning guitar. Guitar is difficult to master, but it's easier at the beginning to start playing music instead of just making noise. You won't be able to pull your cello out around the campfire and start playing songs after a week of practice. Much patience will be required.

I'd advocate renting an instrument at first. Ideally you'd have a cello-playing friend or your teacher come with you to the violin shop and advise you as you tried out different instruments and different bows (bows are important, they should not be thought of as a mere accessory). A bad cello (or a badly set-up cello) or a bad bow can really impede your progress and make you feel like a failure. My cello is a piece of crap. One of these days I'll get a better one and enjoy playing even more.

I'd never get a cello I hadn't been able to sit down and play, so for me buying online would never work unless the vendor had a generous return and shipping policy. In any case, you'd need to find a local luthier to handle setup and maintenance.

When I was first learning cello as a child I kind of hated it because it was super-nerdy. Now everyone I meet is really impressed, and even though I'm not that good I get invited to play at parties, weddings, recording sessions etc.

If you are a patient person, I say go for it!
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 9:46 AM on May 20, 2015

I took up violin for the first time in my mid-30s. I'm now a part of a string orchestra for adults who play casually. All of the members are people who took up their instruments as adults or who haven't played in years. It's totally worth a try if you're interested.

Rent your instrument - don't buy right away (cellos are expensive). My shop let you apply any rental fees to a purchase price if you eventually decide to buy. Not sure how common that practice is, but I thought that it was a great deal.
posted by owls at 3:34 PM on May 22, 2015

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