- Is it easy to pick up the cello?
- How much maintenance does the cello need?
- We go over everything you need to know about learning the cello
- Also, check out our post on the best cello for beginners
Are you interested in learning the cello but unsure where to start? I feel you.
Once upon a time, I was thrust into the world of the cello. In 2014, I was a music education major with a flute focus. After two years of intense study, I was able to start taking instrumental methods classes.
I had been waiting to hear back from my advisor about a strings basics class when I got the most intimidating email: “Sorry, that class isn’t running next semester, so you’ll be taking private violin lessons.
Followed by private viola lessons… And after that, you’ll learn the cello (and lastly, the bass).” Over the course of one semester, I took private lessons on all of the orchestral string instruments.
That’s all to say that I learned cello as a busy college student. With minimal time to practice and intense one-on-one lessons each week, I learned a lot about learning the instrument on the fly. So, what’s the verdict?
So, Is The Cello Hard?
I hate to give a wishy-washy reply to this question, but the short answer is yes and no. Cello was the easiest string instrument for me personally.
So, when talking about orchestral strings, I would say that cello was easier than others, but not easy… But not everyone at my college had an experience parallel to mine.
Certain music pages will tell you definitive things like ‘Cello is harder than percussion,’ but I can’t get behind that. Everyone has their own individual skillset and affinities that come into play, making it very subjective.
So, let’s talk about some of the aspects of the cello so you can figure out just how much goes into making this thing sing.
The Many Aspects of Playing the Cello
If you know bass clef already or have some experience with the viola, then the cello will be far easier than if you don’t. Let’s get into it!
Tackling the Lack of Frets/Tuning
The cello is generally harder to learn than the guitar. First, it has no frets, so all of it will be muscle memory and positions.
There is also less educational material for free online, so you’ll likely need an in-person teacher.
Tuning is also much more difficult when you don’t have frets. The saving grace is that the fretboard is much larger than a violin’s.
I found it harder to play in tune on the smaller strings than I did on the cello. While some folks think that the spacious fretboard is more intimidating, I found it easier to be accurate.
If your finger is off a bit, the pitch isn’t affected as much- As a beginner, you probably won’t notice your 5 cents flat. The smaller the instrument, the less forgiving it can be (such as the piccolo).
Related: Cello vs Violin: What’s The Difference (& Which To Choose)
Cellists know where they are on the fretboard by memorizing the locations of several hand positions (most commonly seen as numbers 1 through 8). It can take years upon years to get used to positions.
It is also worth noting that there are half positions in between these and many fingerings you can choose from.
The Challenge of the Bow
My biggest sticking point while learning orchestral strings was getting comfortable holding the bow.
The first time I struggled with a bow was in violin methods. As I progressed to the lower string instruments, I did gain more experience holding said contraption, getting better as I went, but it still wasn’t great.
The cello’s big bow was one of the most cumbersome-feeling aspects of the instrument. This is likely why so many method books start beginners off on pizzicato – plucking with fingers.
Cellos require a heavier bow and more weight/pressure than other smaller strings. And since the cello bow is much larger than the violin or viola, it can also be difficult to make it feel like an extension of your arm (which is the primary goal here, by the way).
On the flip side, the larger accessory does give you more length for longer notes. On the violin, I struggled to time it out so I didn’t ‘run out’ of bow length, getting stuck in the middle of a piece.
Types of Bow Grips and Hold
There’s no one correct way to hold a bow- But then again, there are also many wrong ways to hold one. When I was taking lessons, my instructor compared me to his four-year-old, saying their kid did the same exact (incorrect) thing. Ouch!
Grips and holds are two different things: Bow grip is the style in which you are holding it, whereas bow hold is more how tightly you grasp it and how your fingers are spread.
Most musicians agree that the bow hold should have activated muscles, but not so much that you become stiff or tense. Bow grips, however, are more subjective.
Several different bow grips are frequently mentioned in formal training. The most common that you’ll hear about is the French Grip, a type of overhand grip.
“You don’t hold the bow, the bow holds you” – Carolyn Hager
Cellists Read 3 Clefs
Since the cello’s range is over four octaves, once cellists get into intermediate materials, they begin to learn multiple clefs.
Luckily, music theory I-IIII taught me everything I needed to know. But unless you’re in a rigorous program, you will need to do some diving into theory on your own.
The first clef cellists learn is bass clef, which will get you through a fair bit of literature (Bass clef’s C is in the second space on the staff).
The next clefs cellists typically learn include the tenor clef and treble clef. (Oddly enough, the cello doesn’t play in the alto clef). Switching between three clefs can be mentally taxing!
I find tenor clef the most difficult to read, especially on a semi-foreign instrument.
Tuning the Instrument Itself
If you’ve played the viola, you’re in luck. The tuning is the same in a different octave (C G D A). The instrument is tuned in open fifths up (fourths down) across the board, which might feel bizarre for native guitarists.
The cello is also much more difficult to tune than an electric guitar. The large knobs at the top (which help you make big tuning adjustments) and the smaller fine-tuning pegs at the bottom.
You’ll Need all the Pinkie Strength You Can Muster
Developing pinkie strength was one of the hardest parts for me when learning to play cello and bass. The lowest string can feel impossible to push down.
Ensuring you have an instrument with friendly string action can help, but you’ll need to work out your littlest finger.
Accessories Everyone Needs:
- A bow that suits them
- An anchor
- A tuner
As I mentioned, finding a bow that works for you is integral to becoming a cellist. You’ll also need a good tuner (self-explanatory) and an anchor.
Anchors/endpins prevent the instrument from slipping away from you- Or, even worse, flying and clattering away to the truss rod’s untimely death.
Taking Maintenance Into Consideration
This instrument requires a lot of maintenance. Truss rods (the essential piece many string instruments are based on) can crack or snap with improper temperatures and handling.
Strings will need to be changed, and fretboards oiled- This differs from your average beater guitar you can shove in the corner and pick up whenever.
If you’re not a big instrument maintenance person but are into the cello, consider getting an electric instrument.
Because of the all-wood structure, the instrument is highly susceptible to minute changes in humidity and temperature.
Is Learning Cello Easier than Learning the Violin, or Is it More Difficult?
The violin is less forgiving than the cello. That doesn’t mean that the cello is definitively harder than the violin, but I can say that it was easier for me.
Of all the 4 orchestral string instruments I tried, the cello came more naturally to me (And that’s coming from a native flutist!).
How Do You Hold the Cello?
Ah! How could I have forgotten? Most people hold the cello between their knees, with their feet flat on the floor, fairly far apart.
Putting your cello on top of your knees instead of in between them may make it fall away from you.
Related: Different Cello Sizes
I Love the Look and Sound of the Electric Cello. Should I Start with an Acoustic?
As my roommate always says, “Practice on the instrument you want to play.” Get an electric if you dream of rockin’ the stage in an epic-classical-fusion setting.
If you want to be an orchestral player? Get acoustic. Whatever you envision yourself performing with, do that!
Related: All The Main Types of Cellos
Can I Teach Myself Cello?
You can learn cello alone, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you are looking into any sort of orchestral/band instrument, it’s best to have a pro at your side so that you can nip bad habits in the bud right away rather than trying to fix them 20 years from now.
Some instruments are easy to learn but difficult to find nuance in, while others are extremely difficult to start and stick with but easier to nuance.
I’ve found that the cello falls into the first category for me, whereas the flute fell into the second. Again, it depends on the player.
Is it Normal to Feel Pain When Playing the Cello?
If you’re a beginner, yes! Especially in your bow hand. Cello requires a heavy dose of weight to make the instrument sing.
Your wrist will likely tire easily at the beginning- but if this goes on for weeks, have a pro cellist look at your hold to see if you are holding it ergonomically.
What Kind of Bow Will I Need? Choosing Your Musical Wand
Bows can cost anywhere from $30-$8,000 dollars. Choosing your wand is important for beginners. But rather than getting the most expensive accessory, you’ll want to focus on the shape (at first).
Cello bows come with either a rounded end or an octagon end.
Rounded bows are the most common, but some players prefer how stiff the octagonal feels. If you are a smaller person or a young person, you may need to use a bow that is ¾ size. Be sure to try some out at your nearest brick-and-mortar music store.
What are Some Good Cello Brands?
Eastman is one of the most common names you’ll hear. You can find the instruments at big retailers online and in stores like Sweetwater.
Yamaha, Strad, and Knilling are other brand names that sell student-level to mid-range strings.
Looking for new strings for your cello? Check out our guide to the 11 Best Cello Strings!