Adults Can (and Should!) Learn to Play the Cello – Q&A with Carolyn Hagler about CelloDiscovery.com
by Valerie Fischer
When I started teaching cello to adults of all ages I was barely an adult myself. I never had any doubts that adults could learn to play the cello as a beginner but I absolutely doubted my own potential to learn much more because I thought I was done as a “grownup” with a music degree. Thankfully I eventually wised up and learned that I wasn’t done growing as a musician, I was just getting started.
I got over myself in part by internalizing what I was saying to my adult students if they got frustrated or doubted why they were learning to make music. It is about awakening yourself to community and learning a craft that is intellectually stimulating and physically engaging. Most importantly music-making is learning more about yourself and others. You might be surprised by what you discover.
If someone tells me they love to listen to the cello I tell them, “You should learn to play too!” Apparently I’m not the only one. My colleague Carolyn Hagler has enjoyed teaching adults and went through a similar experience to mine of realizing that being an adult does not mean you can’t transform your playing or even learn a new instrument, but the needs in learning as an adult can be different than learning as a child.
Hagler has created a fantastic new online program to teach cello to adults called Cello Discovery. This perfectly named program is well thought out and an incredible resource for learners to begin their studies, refresh their skills from childhood, or even supplement learning they might be doing on their own.
I wanted to ask Hagler about the development of Cello Discovery and her experiences that helped her craft the system because it is so beautifully practical. What follows are my questions for her and her responses so that if you are thinking of learning to play you will think, “I can and I should!” Discover the cello and a few things about yourself too. It became a career for us but it is really about the community of friends and colleagues and a passion that continues to challenge us to grow, learn, and enrich our lives.
VF: Tell me about your experience in teaching adults.
CH: Many years ago, I made a weekly Tuesday afternoon drive to Fredericksburg, TX to coach an adult chamber music group and to work with a handful of retired, adult private cello students. This was back in the late 80’s and was my first experience teaching adults. I had so much fun working with them, but at the time I may have infused too much rigor into their experience. I didn’t think of learning the cello as something a person could do casually to enrich their life, or as an opportunity for someone to experience a musical community for the first time. I was teaching them the way I had always been taught, and that approach was a little too intense. Needless to say, I have learned a lot over the years, as I too have aged. My perspective has changed dramatically, and I have a completely different mindset teaching adults now than that of my young, adult self.
VF: Are adults different to teach than children?
CH: Yes, very different! Where do I start? I love teaching adults as well as children. They each present unique joys & challenges. The most fundamental difference I see, is that many young students are playing the instrument and/or taking lessons because the parent initiated it. The parent is usually paying for the lessons and requiring the practice time. The parent is overseeing the acceleration of progress. Adults, on the other hand, are learning primarily as fulfillment of a dream. They have always wanted to learn how to play the cello. They love the soulful sound and they are ALL in.
Children are sponges and rubber bands. For the most part, they absorb & process information quickly and their bodies move effortlessly. When you put those two elements together, learning the cello happens more rapidly. Adults on the other hand are more set in their ways - both physically and cognitively. Adults also tend to have more fear of failure. However, adult learners have a sense of pride for finally taking the step to learn a lifelong dream. And because of that, they listen more intently, ask thoughtful questions and find yet another nugget of confidence they didn’t know they possessed. Adults really do care about learning correctly.
VF: What are the benefits of learning as an adult and what are some of the challenges of learning as an adult?
CH: As I mention on my site, learning an instrument as an adult can actually boost the brain’s health. It can strengthen the brain’s memory skills and it can increase overall cognitive function. Plus, there is a social component to playing in a music ensemble which is very valuable as we age. It also reduces stress and depression. Just those benefits alone should be enough to convince anyone! The biggest roadblock to learning the cello as an adult is the ability to be physically flexible. Those who practice yoga, meditation & relaxation seem to be most apt in conquering the tension issues I often see in adults.
VF: When did you start your new program Cello Discovery and what was the impetus? It seems like a smart way to boost your reach and income as a teacher but there are likely huge benefits for this platform in particular for adults. What do you hope for some of these benefits to be?
CH: About five years ago, my dear friend, Beth Blackerby (creator of ViolinLab.com) gave me a hearty nudge and encouraged me to develop an online cello learning platform for adults. She and I have always spent a bit of time geeking out on string pedagogy and to her it seemed like the next logical step for me to take. Cello Discovery was created in fits-and-starts over several years, and then last spring… along came Covid. As a teacher and performer, I found myself without a lot to do with my time so I took a dive, head-first, into the project. Cello Discovery was FAR more complex to create than I ever imagined - so it’s good I didn’t know that from the start!
Cello Discovery is a labor of love. It was a substantial monetary and time commitment to get this thing off the ground, and I don’t expect a financial return on my investment anytime soon. But that’s really OK because it has been so incredibly rewarding in countless other ways.
Many of us teachers know that we often teach the same lesson over and over. Sometimes we think, “If I could just push a button and record this lesson…” Well, I did just that. I was able to gather my thoughts in a succinct way to teach each particular lesson with clarity and then I recorded it. Students really CAN watch the lesson over and over again! And honestly, this is a great way to learn. A lot of what is discussed in live, one-on-one lessons is lost between lessons. That’s not the case with this online learning platform. The student can watch the lesson twenty times if need be! No one will know.
VF: What should adults keep in mind as they begin to learn the cello as a complete beginner or as someone returning to the cello with some experience?
CH: I have three recommendations for beginning cellists, including those returning after a long hiatus:
Rent a quality instrument. Don’t buy a cheap, junk cello on the Internet because you’ll probably quit.
S*L*O*W…down. Don’t be in such a hurry to learn the cello. You’ve waited your whole life to do this. Don’t feel the need to rush. Savor it all.
Set the bar low and celebrate each little achievement. It’s really ok to do that.
VF: I don’t think we ever stop being students of our instrument. What have been ways you have kept up your own learning as a cellist? Did that factor in how you teach or perform?
CH: About four years ago I completely changed the way I practiced. I mean, this was an an all-out reformation. When I tell friends about the change, I describe it more as a “zen year.” For starters, I became more disciplined with the metronome than I had ever been before. It was ALWAYS on, truly making me aware of the continuum of time. And when I practiced, I became deeply mindful of everything: the exact relationship of one finger to the next, total spacial awareness of each shift, the precise blending of two sound waves in perfect harmony, the sonority of achieving a clear, rich and beautiful tone. It was mind-blowing. Once I initially found this zen place, I was able to find it again each and every day. It was wonderful. Who would have thought in my 50’s I could change so much? Take note, mid-life learners. It’s definitely possible.
Now, when I have students who are receptive to hearing about this technique, I do my best to get them in this zone. If my students can reach this kind of awareness, I know they can accomplish anything they want.
VF: What else would you like to share about Cello Discovery?
CH: I really, really believe in this website. Not just because it’s my baby, but because it is thorough, affordable and it was designed with the beginning adult student in mind. I haven’t found anything else as comprehensive as this on the Internet. It’s not just a compilation of videos. It’s a very detailed, sequential plan with lots and lots of interactive music to play along with. Students can practice the music along with (the pre-recorded) me, or with my (pre-recorded) pianist on most all of the lessons. The cursor follows the music to help the student develop music reading skills. The interactive music can be slowed down, sections can be looped for repetitive practice, and the music can be enlarged if small notes are challenging for maturing eyes. All the music can be printed with the markings already notated in the music. And most of all, I really believe the member-only community is an incredibly important component of the site. All of our Cello Discovery members are so curious, encouraging, and engaging on the community forum. At just slightly over a month since the launch date, our community has already exceeded my expectations. I’m so looking forward to watching our members learn, perform, ask questions, make new friendships and experience the incredible world of music. Digging into Cello Discovery is a great way to learn the cello as an adult.
Learn with Carolyn Hagler:
Hagler has had an extensive performing and teaching career in Austin including a tenured chair with the Austin Symphony Orchestra. Learn with her at Cellodiscovery.org