Learning Cello in 20 Minutes: An Experiment

Is it possible to teach a complete beginner to play cello in a twenty minutes?

Two weeks ago master cello teacher Hans Jensen and I tried to find out. We were at PopTech, a conference in Camden, Maine. We were gathered with forty people for a session about talent. We asked for volunteers — four adults, none of whom had ever so much as held a cello before.  Then Hans (who teaches at Northwestern University, and is regarded by many as the best cello teacher on the planet) went to work.

What happened next was pretty remarkable.

  • First, Hans connected emotionally. He was warm, funny, and above all, relentlessly positive.
  • He had them play copycat — thumping the instrument, cradling it, mimicking him as he tapped out rhythms, held the bow. He had them hold apples to teach them how to position their fingers. Hans guided their arms, then let go so they could feel a proper stroke.
  • He zoomed in on large physical keys: to be soft, to be loose. In addition, the students sang every note as they played. As Hans said, “if you can sing it, you can play it.”
  • He was always slightly ahead of them, firing dozens of quick signals and reacting instantly to each individual (“See if you can find the note  — Perfect! — Now see if you can copy him — Wonderful! — Now together!”)  The exchanges were quick, intense, and always connected to each other. He was building a neural scaffold.

Were the beginners suddenly transformed into virtuosos? No. But at session’s end they did the unthinkable: they played a song together. The audience (which included cellist Zoe Keating) was duly impressed. Even Hans was invigorated at how quickly the circuits can be built in the right conditions.

“I am always surprised by what people are capable of,” he said. “That is why I love my job.”