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cello teaching

Is it important to start string lessons with a good teacher?

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Is it important to start string lessons with a good teacher? Yes, for many reasons.  It will help you  enjoy playing and will make the process seem relaxed and fun. It will also help you avoid getting into bad technical habits  that can make playing much more difficult than it needs to be. And it should allow you to achieve what you, as an individual, would like to achieve on your instrument.

Making it easy and mixing with others

If you are an absolute beginner it’s sensible to start by having weekly lessons if possible so that you become comfortable with the easiest and most natural way of playing. If you’re an adult you’ll probably be motivated enough to cope with lessons on a more ad hoc basis after the first month, depending on how much time you have. And I  recommend finding other people to play chamber music with, or joining an amateur orchestra, as soon as you can. There are lots of enthusiastic amateur string players and playing with them is usually fun and supportive.

Is it important to start string lessons with a good teacher?

Basic scales and improvising

I am also a strong believer in encouraging improvisation from the start. This may be as basic as just playing open strings in your own rhythms. But it definitely enhances confidence and creativity and helps you feel at one with your instrument. Once you have learnt basic scales – which does not take long – playing simple tunes by ear is also an excellent idea and gives you a sense of freedom.

More information

Roger and I are both experienced teachers. If you’d like more information please  email us  at or ring 07964 232654

Cello Books

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Can cello books – or music books in general – change your playing? My own feeling is yes. This doesn’t mean I think that any cello  book  can compensate for one to one teaching. It’s rather that my own teacher recommended certain books which resonated with me and have been a major influence on my life.

Performing influences

I was lucky enough to experience some excellent string teaching.My cello teacher was the inspiring Christopher Bunting, and he recommended I read Stanislavsky’s Systems and Methods of Creative Acting – much of which relates directly to music. As well as helping me develop a secure technique, Christopher constantly focused on the difference between being an instrumentalist and being an artist and the importance of interpretation.  Roger and I generally agree on this approach when we work together in Fedora Strings – and  La Cumparsita is an example of the results.
cello books                                                                          Christopher Bunting
I haven’t always been able to be true to these ideas in the past – for various reasons – but I have always known that they are right and they have given me something to steer by. Another major influence for me was the well known violinist Manny Hurwitz, whose down to earth, characterful playing and approach to performance I still remember – and even today it helps my confidence.

What would they think?

If I could sum up the most important thing that I took away from all this, it is that to be an artist you need to find your own voice. And you need to project your ideas with all your heart in performance. Last week an American cellist and scholar who is researching Christopher Bunting’s cello books came to my house for a chat. I found myself wondering what Christopher would think of my playing now. I know for certain he would not interpret things in anything like the same way I do. But I hope he would be glad that at least  I am following my own instincts and ideas and projecting them as confidently as I can – something he always, always emphasised and that I regard as his greatest legacy to me.

Remembering the past

Good teachers are almost like family. How much you wish you could see them again and talk to them. And how much you hope that they can see you and know what a positive effect they had on your life. Ultimately good teaching – like good parenting – gives someone the freedom to be fully themselves. It’s beyond price.

To get some idea of Christopher’s superb playing listen below… 

This is his cello duet based on the Bourees from Bach’s 3rd cello suite:  Bunting Cello Duet

You can buy his  Portfolio Cello Exercises or Elegy by browsing here : Bunting cello music

And here  you can buy cds of Manny Hurwitz’s Aeolian String Quartet


  • Do you have happy memories of your teachers or music books you can recommend? If so please let me know by clicking on the comments link at the top of the page 

Cello thumb position

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Cello thumb position – like most high playing on the cello – is something few cellists are super confident about.But one way to develop a relaxed approach to thumb position is to play simple tunes in D major that lie within an octave by ear : these involved no stretches and lie relatively easily under the hand.

cello thumb position

One octave starter tunes for thumb position
You could begin by playing the one octave scale of D major in thumb position and then D major arpeggio. All the notes in the following tunes lie within that scale and they all start on D :Black Sheep, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Kum-ba-ya, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Lavender’s Blue, Blue, Pop Goes the Weasel. 

Two things to remember
You need to toughen the skin on the side of your thumb, so build the amount of time you spend practising in thumb position gradually. You could also consider rubbing surgical spirit on your thumb to help harden the skin. Secondly – thumb position itself is very natural: if you take your hand away, shake it to relax it and then put it on the cello in the right place
(thumb on harmonics D and A) the position will be roughly correct.

Make up tunes and exercises
Something about the spontaneity of getting used to playing without music is generally very good for confidence anyway,so you could move on to improvising simple tunes or exercises involving thumb  position. I think it’s a good idea when practising to start with something you find easy and just enjoy and then move to something you find less comfortable. And if you think the cello is challenging on shifting and intonation you may especially enjoy watching the video below – a fine example of beautiful, relaxed thumb position playing on the double bass!

Play by Ear on the Cello

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One way to boost your confidence and sense of relaxation with your instrument is learn to play by ear on the cello. This should seem obvious, but it’s surprising the number of cellists who are unable to do this and it is not part of traditional classical training.
play by ear on the celloThe freedom of playing by ear
I became especially aware of this a couple of years ago when I was spending New Year with friends in Ireland. At a small  gathering around an open fire people were telling ghost stories and one of the men started playing simple folk tunes on the banjo by heart very evocatively. He had only been learning the banjo  for a year and was able to do this in a relaxed way -and it struck me that so many classical musicians who had been learning for maybe decades and perhaps practising for hundreds of hours during that time would not be able to do the same.I don’t mean that the disciplined side of classical music, with its technical and musical demands, is unimportant; just that also being able to play by ear on the cello – any tune you love – can give a wonderful sense of freedom.

How to start
The easiest tunes are folk , nursery rhymes, hymns or carols. Many of these lie within one octave and have simple structures with repeats. Choose an easy cello key – C, G or D major – and start trying to work it out by ear and practise until you can remember the finger patterns.  Baa Baa Black Sheep, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Frere Jacques, Humpty Dumpty, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Kum-ba-ya, Au Clair de la Lune, Tallis Canon,To Be a Pilgrim, Jerusalem, Scarborough Fair, Morning Has Broken, Lavender’s Blue, Good King Wenceslas, The Holly and the Ivy,O Come All Ye Faithful, Pop Goes the Weasel, Old Macdonald  and Lilliburlero all begin on the first note of the scale so are a good place to start.

You can find out more about our cello duet version of Lilliburlero here:










Improvising on the Cello

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Improvising on the cello encourages a great sense of freedom and for quite a long time I have been incorporating this into my cello teaching – occasionally with almost miraculous results. I had had no idea where to begin, but a lesson with pianist Lucinda Mackworth Young was a huge help. Lucinda showed me how simple improvisation can be and came up with many easy but effective ideas that have transformed my teaching and given me a strong basis to develop my own improvisatory approach .
Improvising on the cello

A sense of freedom
Why is improvising such a good thing? It gives you freedom ( I always have an image of Mel Gibson in Braveheart when I say that word ).The classical music world is focused on perfection, and frankly it is so hard to play an instrument to the highest level that the effort involved can create a sense of inhibition and stress. While it’s true that there’s no substitute for regular hard work, it’s sad if this means you cannot look at your instrument without a feeling of joy in your heart.

How easy is it?
As with anything, the more you practise improvising the better you get. I also think that the more you are aware of how composers put things together – of the chords, modulations and intervals and how they affect your feelings – the more sensitive an ear you develop and the more you can ‘own’ your interpretation in performance.

Improvising helps with composition
Roger and I have often used improvisatory ideas in our violin and cello duets and we know from experience how this can suddenly bring a sheet music arrangement to life. Oh for the days of baroque music where pupils were taught to improvise from the very beginning and expected to do so in live performance.

Cello Teaching Ideas

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One of the great advantages of You Tube is being able to see and hear other wonderful musicians play, which can inspire new cello teaching ideas. Recently I’ve found two stunningly good cellists who I love listening to: David Finckel and William Molina Cestari.
William Molina CestariCestari makes a beautiful sound, phrases expressively and has a touch of the hero from The Mask of Zorro about him. I especially like his performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which is one of my favourite pieces and has a fiendishly difficult cello part.

100 Short Cello Talks
David Finckel is the cellist in the Emmerson Quartet but gives a lot of solo recitals as well and you can see why, as both his playing and his rapport with his pianist wife are superb. He’s recently posted 100 short Cello Talks on You Tube.
These are particularly suitable for professionals and discuss the problems of concert hall projection and getting used to different acoustics, lighting and seating in a performance situation.But they’re also useful for students  and  give insight into a professional musician’s life – weird though it probably seems to be to the outside world.  Of course everyone’s approach is slightly different and what works for one person isn’t always effective for another. Nevertheless, if you’re a cellist these videos are well worth viewing.


Improvising in Classical Music

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 Improvising in Classical Music

Classical music is so superb and technically demanding that technique and interpretation are normally the main areas focused on. This can result in a sort of freezing perfectionism, where you feel unable to play anything on your instrument unless you have been practising it for hours every day for the last few weeks.

I was never taught to improvise when I was a student, but having recently returned to classical music professionally after a long time I’ve been determined to overcome some of my former insecurities and now I start practice with improvisation –  either just playing freely to express how I feel, or playing tunes by ear.

The great thing about improvisation is that it can’t be wrong: and it’s this sense of freedom that is such a welcome balance from the intensity of classical training. In my experience improvisation also encourages straightforward enthusiasm and love of playing your instrument and helps give pupils the feeling that the teacher is responding to them individually, rather than carrying out a formal instruction session.

Of course all the best interpretations of classical music sound as if the performer has made the music their own, and this is another sense in which regular improvisation can be incredibly beneficial: in improvisation the music really is your own and you alone are its master.