What my cello has taught me about the art of learning

What my cello has taught me about the art of learning

I have two closets in my apartment, one of which I think of as my cello's closet. Even when it's spending a lot of time there and not too much time, well, outside playing, my cello reminds me of many valuable things I've learned about learning.

The value of listening: From rehearsals at school through private lessons to now, listening to CDs, the best way to learn a piece of music is to listen to it -- ideally, to listen repeatedly before trying to imitate it. So it is with language, whether it's learning a foreign lanuage or one's own. One reason I get bothered by hearing words misused is that those "audio cues" are likely to be imitated, and that's a verbal version of imitating wrong notes.

The value of practice: When you need to do something a particular way, whether it's making a recipe, a speech, or a sewing project, it's best to practice first. Cutting out a sewing pattern poorly has cost me many a project (and, eventually, limited my sewing to just mending). Speeches can seem marvelously written -- but then come timing, pronunciation and the tongue-twisters that don't appear until I try to pronounce them. When things like that happen, my cello grabs my attention from its closet and seems to be saying "Practice, practice, practice."

The value of memory: When I was a sophomore at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, we played Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" suite at the Christmas concert. Getting the music passed out in orchestra one morning is a vivid memory: I'd known the music since I was a small child, so I just wanted to know what the cello part would be; my classmates just looked at it as if it were Brahms, wondering what was in it.

I discovered that "Waltz of the Flowers" has a marvelous little passage for cello not long after the beginning -- two phrases, scrambling up, down and up higher -- which soon seemed to be the hardest music in the world. I plodded through the grace notes, stretched my fingers to the highest notes, and mastered it in time. Then I put it aside, fed up.

Four years later, in the Valparaiso University orchestra, "Nutcracker" turned up again, and there was "Waltz  of the Flowers." Re-learning those two phrases seemed harder than learning them had been in the first place. Once I had them the second time, I didn't make my high-school mistake: I never go many practice sessions without playing those once-pesky phrases. Now I love them. Remembering is that valuable.

The value of good influences: When I want to learn a piece of music now, I have to find my own teachers. When I'm working on Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme," I listen again and again to Mstislav Rostropovich playing it -- sometimes playing along quietly with my cello, sometimes just listening intently.

That's not so different from reading a detective story and thinking once of the characters' adventures and once of how the author managed to entertain (and/or confuse) me well. Then there's the author's use of language, which can (surprise!) delight me all by itself. In this case, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might be called "my Rostropovich of words" -- a good influence to whom I turn again and again.

So listening, practice, memory and good influences are all valuable to me in learning. If I happen to forget the value of any one of them, my cello is here to remind me.

For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.

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  • Great piece, Margaret! i love cello music. let me know if you are going to do any performing in the area!!

  • In reply to Bonnie McGrath:

    Thank you, Bonnie. I'll let you know -- and thanks for wanting to hear me and my cello.

  • You're quite a good writer, my friend. I enjoyed your trip down memory lane and the eloquent tribute to your cello.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Many thanks, my friend. Coming from a very good writer like you, this is high praise.

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