Cello STEP Project 2015-2016

This summer I began my lengthy STEP Project, with the ultimate goal of purchasing and learning how to play the cello. My interest in music began at a young age when my father played guitar for my brother and I. We soon learned to play instruments of our own, and have carried that musical curiosity with us throughout our whole lives. My interest in the cello began more recently, when my grandmother purchased a cello of her own and began taking lessons. I wanted to have an instrument in common with her, as I had learned to play the banjo with my grandfather several years earlier. My grandmother has been incredibly helpful and encouraging as I worked to learn this instrument that is so unlike any other instrument that I have ever played before.

The STEP Experience that I chose to participate in is Artistic and Creative Endeavors. The academic component and preparation for my STEP Experience was my background with music. I have formal instruction in piano and trumpet, and I will enroll in a music class to develop a more complete understanding of music theory. Also, I have taught myself to play the banjo, melodica, and bass guitar. This knowledge of instruments and music theory has greatly benefited me in attaining my goal of learning to play the cello. In developing my proposal, I consulted with my grandmother, who has purchased a cello and learned to play the instrument, so I had a good understanding of what to expect when purchasing and learning to play a cello of my own.

After a good deal of shopping around, I finally purchased my cello on June 30, 2015. The store was called Studio Strings, and I was shown dozens of cellos that were all very near to my price-range. One of the owners played each cello in order to help me narrow down my choices, and then handed me a bow. At this point, I was given my first lesson: how to correctly hold the bow. This is much more difficult than it looks, and was one problem that I did not imagine when planning my STEP Proposal! When I finally had the bow in my hand correctly (it would take me several more weeks to get the hang of), I played my first note on a cello. The instrument produced a fairly weak sound, and probably didn’t sound very good, but I was immediately hooked!

It was exactly two weeks later that I took my first lesson from my cello teacher. In those two weeks I played my cello almost constantly, which turned out to be not a great idea. The amount of “structural” changes that my teacher told me I needed to change was amazing. The entire right side of my body was too tense while playing, the cello was sitting too low and was off-center, the bow was not being dragged across the strings in a straight line, and my thumb was constantly pressed flat across the back of the cello’s neck. During the first lesson my teacher placed thin tape over the neck to indicate where my fingers needed to press for each note, and I was also forbidden to play the cello with the bow for the week. Instead, I practiced placing my left hand correctly and plucked the strings: a style called pizzicato.

Over my next several lessons, I learned how to correctly play with the bow (undoing all of the damage that I had done by trying to learn on my own) by playing in front of a mirror and watching the angle of the bow on each string. I also slowly learned to read music, which was my biggest concern about learning to play the cello. I was already able to read music, as I had played piano and trumpet for years, but reading music in the context of a stringed instrument posed an interesting challenge. I quickly learned which fingers needed to go to each position in order to make each note, but still have trouble sometimes associating each position with the note name instead of simply recognizing its note on the page. As I get into more complex works, this understanding will be crucial to my continued success.

My understanding of music theory helped me immensely when I first began. My teacher did not have to walk through explanations of note-lengths, rests, key signatures, or other music notation, which allowed us to focus solely on creating the best sound possible through my instrument. I know that I still have much to work on, but I am very happy with the progress I have made thus far. I’m looking forward to many more lessons in the future, and eventually performances. I will post more information about my STEP Project as it leads up to my presentation at the STEP Expo in autumn semester of 2016.