When Billy Tobenkin decided to learn the cello from scratch at 25, he ignited a lifelong passion. He shares what turned out to be a bumpy but ultimately deeply fulfilling journey
This article is for adult learners who are serious about their new musical passion. And to be clear, I think anyone who starts to learn the cello as an adult is serious. You have overcome the inertia of finding an instrument, finding a teacher and wading into uncharted waters as a rank beginner. You are willing to join a starting line dominated by four- to six-year-olds, all because you have a deep desire to express yourself and make beautiful sounds. You are serious.
As someone who began studying the cello at the age of 25, I’ve often thought of perfectionism as a key ingredient in achieving excellence on the instrument. But first, an admission: however much I might want to be a perfectionist, I’m not one. It’s just not in my make-up. However, with each step forward in my journey, a voice inside me has been asking the same questions: ‘Would this be easier if you had started as a child? Do you own this technique in the same way that others do?’
Over the years, my anxiety about having started as an adult – even after 14 years of experience and having made cello playing and teaching my profession – has at times compelled me to adopt a perfectionist mindset. For the adult learner, however, this mindset can create more issues than it solves. That might seem counter-intuitive – after all, learning to play a stringed instrument requires incredible physical precision, and it makes sense that being able to do things flawlessly would open up new levels of expression on the instrument. But, in reality, I have noticed – both in myself and in my students – that a chasm quickly opens up between the mind and the other senses. As your quest progresses, the initial goal of making a beautiful sound slowly falls off the radar because you’re not ‘worthy’ yet. After all, how could you make a beautiful sound without an ideal bow hold? And how could you even try to achieve a beautiful tone when your technique is so limited?
For an adult learner, the fastest way to make progress is to develop a balanced mindset between acquiring skills and linking those skills as early as possible to musical intentions.
I’ve always been the kind of person who tends to fixate on one thing at a time, and right from the start, that proved true with the cello. I initially set a goal of practising for 45 minutes a day, but I often found myself playing for two hours straight without realising how much time had passed. In a way, the first two years or so of my journey were the most exciting. My standards for quality were low and my ears were unrefined enough to allow all manner of string playing sins to pass unnoticed. I simply equated the difficulty of the piece I was working on with how advanced I had become (never mind the sound I made when playing it!)….
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