Is the Cello the Right Instrument for You? (Part 2)
Part 2: Physical Challenges for Adult Learners
Although the professionals make it look like the easiest and most natural thing in the world, playing the cello is a physically demanding activity which takes years to master. Although the many cello students are able to overcome these challenges with careful and dedicated practice, it’s worth knowing what they are.
Believe it or not, the first consideration for adult learners is the size of the instrument. The general assumption is that all adults are the right size for a full sized cello. Although this is mostly true, there are exceptions. Trying to play an instrument that is even slightly too big can cause injuries to the hands and forearms, back problems and a great deal of frustration. If you’re very petite or have smaller than average hands, you will probably be better off playing a 7/8th or even 3/4 size cello. If you’re unsure, visit a reputable instrument dealer to get advice and sit with smaller instruments to make an accurate assessment or discuss it with your prospective teacher before buying or hiring an instrument. If you are unusually tall you may also need to make adjustments to your instrument or find one that has already been modified.
Although full sized cellos don’t vary greatly in size, cello spikes come in different lengths. If the spike on your instrument is too short your posture will be adversely affected causing neck, shoulder and back ache. Excessively long spikes can make the instrument permanently unstable causing it to move around while playing. This too can cause unwanted tension which often leads to playing related injuries. Fortunately there is a solution to this too. Specially designed spikes exist which consist of two adjustable parts making it possible for them to bend in the middle. This brings the end of the spike closer to the player’s feet, making it possible to properly cradle the cello between the knees and prevent any unwanted movement while playing. Once again, it is best to get advice from your teacher or dealer before getting any modifications made to your instrument.
I have already made more than one reference to playing-related pain and injury. Even with the right sized instrument and any necessary modifications, this can often be a feature of learning to play the cello – especially in the early stages. If you are prone to repetitive strain injuries or suffer from a chronic condition such as fibromyalgia or arthritis, you may find that your progress is slower than you hoped, and could experience excessive playing-related pain or fatigue. This really doesn’t mean that anyone who suffers from one of the aforementioned conditions should abandon their dreams of learning to play the cello. One of my current beginner students is 73 years of age and suffers from severe arthritis in his hands and shoulders. I am helping him to find alternate ways of playing the instrument without aggravating his condition. His progress is far from rapid, but it is evident as is his enjoyment of playing and learning. What I do strongly recommend is that you find a teacher who emphasises the importance of posture, balance and freedom of movement in playing – ideally someone familiar with Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais Method. Make them aware of your physical shortcomings so that they can work with you to prevent additional pain or injury.
This sums up the physical aspects of the instrument and the player which are important to think about before committing to lessons. It is highly unlikely that any of these things will prohibit you from learning to play, but being aware of them can certainly help you to make the right decisions about the instrument and teacher you choose, both of which will make an enormous difference to your enjoyment and progress.