Self-Taught Cello: Is It A Smart Idea?

Pablo Cassals self-taught himself the cello up until age 11, and AndrĂ© Navarra stopped formal cello lessons aged 15. So clearly it’s possible to self-teach the cello and be highly successful.

However, unlike the keyboard and guitar, there’s a high risk of injury since there are so many muscles involved in correctly playing the cello. Within this article, I analyze whether self-teaching the cello is a smart decision and what you should be aware of.

Self-teaching the cello is not a good idea due to a steep learning curve, the risk of injury, and the technical challenges in playing correctly. Unlike the guitar where self-teaching is effective, beginners can easily form bad habits which limit cellists’ future progress.

Whilst it can seem tempting to save money on cello lessons, the early stages of learning the cello are particularly important as it sets up a foundation for learning more advanced techniques. Read on to understand more about the particular challenges faced in self-teaching the cello.

Is Self-Teaching The Cello A Good Approach?

There seem to be self-taught experts in every walk of life. With the success of self-taught guitarists such as Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Noel Gallagher, it might seem possible to self-teach other instruments.

Jimmy Hendrix mostly taught himself to play guitar whilst in military service.

However, the cello is unique compared to instruments like the guitar and keyboard which are regularly self-taught. And therefore way more challenging to self-teach.

There are two main challenges to self-teaching the cello:

  1. The cello is very technically demanding, and having a teacher direct you is far easier.
  2. Since the cello is so technically challenging, it’s easy to pick up bad habits immediately. Without the help of a teacher, you may not even realize bad habits are being formed.

Playing the cello is in many ways counterintuitive, therefore not conducive to self-teaching. Many beginners face issues in the amount of tension required on either hand. The left hand (used for fingering) requires ‘dead weight’ from the arm in order to apply pressure to the strings. However, one would intuitively assume that the strings should be squeezed with the strength of the hand.

By making natural assumptions during the learning process, bad habits can be formed very quickly. Teachers are particularly valuable where from the ‘outside perspective’ bad habits can be corrected immediately. The cello is unique in this respect and there are many other examples where beginners can use incorrect techniques yet still produce notes.

Lastly, the potential for injuries is high when learning the cello. The cello should be played in a neutral posture, and the cellist should use the weight of their body to transfer power to the strings. But in order to achieve this level of ‘oneness’ with the cello, many muscles are involved. A good teacher will help with technique and posture which prevents injuries and promotes a long and happy relationship with the cello.

Self-teaching the cello leads to a high likelihood of incorrect technique and the possibility of injuries.

Check out the below video which demonstrates 6 common mistakes beginner cellists make:

Why Is The Cello Particularly Challenging To Self-Teach?

The cello is a unique instrument in the level of detailed technique required to play. This makes it particularly challenging when attempting to self-teach, even with the use of resources such as instructional videos.

Technique

In order to play even the most basic piece on the cello, you need to be doing all these things:

  • Hold the cello correctly, in the right posture. (and have the cello set up with the correct spike length, and tuned accurately)
  • Holding the bow correctly and being able to move the bow perpendicular to the strings at JUST the right amount of pressure.
  • Have your ‘finger hand’ place your finger on the fingerboard in the right PLACE and at the right tension.

There are many things that need doing all at the same time in order for a good sound to be produced.

When we compare the level of technique required to play the cello with, say, the keyboard, the level of complexity becomes clear. In order to produce a sound with the keyboard, a key simply needs to be pressed. You don’t need to worry about posture or tension in the hand.

The complexity involved in playing the cello makes it particularly challenging to self-teach.

The other aspect is how important it is for beginners to get the basics mastered. This lays a foundation for more advanced techniques such as vibrato and the thumb position. These techniques normally wouldn’t be attempted for at least a year into playing, and also won’t be possible unless the beginner masters correct posture and hand tension.

Tuning

The cello is an unfretted instrument and can therefore be played out of tune, whereas the piano and guitar are always played in tune. Playing in tune requires both a trained ear and muscle memory in the fingering hand.

Compared to a piano or a guitar, the audience at cello recitals is more likely to hear flaws compared to the guitar or piano. A teacher can help improve a player’s intonation through coaching. The ear must be trained to hear correct tuning, and beginners are unlikely to have a naturally trained ear.

Reading Music

Many other instruments such as the guitar and piano do not require the player to read musical notation. There’s actually also a technique within classical music called the Suzuki Method which promotes not reading music, and encourages ‘playing by ear’.

However, there are many advantages to cellists being able to read and play music:

  • Most ensembles involving the cello use the classical stave to help everyone play together. If cellists want to be part of an orchestra or quartet, they’ll need to read music.
  • Being able to ‘sight read’ music enables the player to learn pieces far quicker than just playing ‘by ear’.
  • If cellists want to play duets or play music with friends, being able to read music is far more efficient.

Whilst it’s totally possible to learn music theory yourself, the necessity to be able to read and play music adds yet another complexity to an already difficult instrument to learn. Teachers can be invaluable in showing students how to read and interpret sheet music.

If You Really Want To Self-Teach, What’s The Best Approach?

If you are really set on self-teaching an instrument, one approach would be to try another instrument than the cello. Some instruments that would be easier to self-teach include:

  • The guitar or bass guitar.
  • The keyboard.
  • The Ukulele.
  • The drums.
  • The recorder or harmonica.

These instruments are more conducive to self-teaching and require less intricate techniques compared to the cello.

If you want to play the cello but are against formal tuition, I’d still recommend getting occasional help from advanced cellists. See if you can get a local ‘expert’ cellist to help with the basics such as your bow hold, posture, and fingering positions.

You could also get a cello teacher every few months to review progress and technique. This way you’d be mostly self-taught but your teacher can correct any technical errors before they turn into bad habits.