Is one of your New Year’s Resolutions to start playing the cello? We highly recommend Carolyn Hagler’s Cello Discovery. Read on to learn more.
Meet Cellist Carolyn Hagler
Longtime cellist and pedagogue, Carolyn Hagler, is the creator of Cello Discovery, a website that helps older beginners learn how to play the cello. When I first heard that someone was teaching beginners online, I didn’t know whether to be skeptical or awed, because it’s such a daunting task. I’m much more hands-on with beginners; while Zoom has many good points, that’s not one of them.
Before I spoke with Carolyn, I spent some time on her site and was extremely impressed! She has everything broken down into logical sections with clear explanations, demonstrations, and exercises, taking students from absolute beginners through intermediate level, and covering topics such as what equipment you need to get started on your cello journey, and an introduction to patterns in thumb position!
I enjoyed our conversation and am pleased to recommend Cello Discovery as a helpful resource to beginner cellists. I am also thrilled that Carolyn Hagler will be offering a short beginner’s introduction to the cello at the Cello Guild, too. Look for a short course about getting started on the cello coming soon.
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Cello Museum (CM)
Please tell us about Cello Discovery. I’ve been through it, and it’s fantastic – very well put together.
Carolyn Hagler (CH)
Over the years of teaching, you teach a lesson, and then you come back the next week and have to teach the lesson to that student again. Pre-cellphones, pre-internet, I used to think, “If I could just record this lesson, I could give this to the student to take home and rewatch so they can more easily remember this information.”
So I’ve created Cello Discovery as a place where the technique is broken down into bite-sized pieces. The goal is to take somebody who doesn’t even know how to read music [so that] someone who’s never touched a cello, or can barely spell the cello, can get in there and find the tools that they need to get set up correctly.
An Interactive Learning Environment
I wanted to differentiate this website from other courses by creating a space that is constantly evolving, educational, and also brings people together in a community and learning experience that extends beyond stagnant videos.
What I have created, in addition to the sequential course videos, is interactive music and exercises that you can play and watch the music go by on the score, and you can even loop sections. It’s a fun way to practice the material. To create this interactive learning experience, my pianist and I recorded all the parts, and I’ve set it up so that you can play them together.
Cello Discovery Group
We have an online community that is just absolutely delightful. People make friends – they talk about their experiences. It’s special because it’s a Cello Discovery Group.
In addition, we also do weekly Zooms. Every week, people can jump in on a Zoom, and we have specific topics that we discuss. I also do video exchange lessons.
Cello Discovery is something that I created to be constantly expanding, and to help people feel like when they get in there, they are going to learn how to play the cello. They have the resources, and they have someone there for them. That was the goal, and that’s what Cello Discovery is really all about.
It’s wonderful how you were thinking about a way to share this material even before the pandemic and even before all the technology we have now. What was the spark that inspired you to create this? What brought it together from wishing you could share the materials with students between weekly lessons to creating this innovative and interactive website?
There were several key points that led me to create Cello Discovery. One started with my dear friend Beth Blackerby, who runs the Violin Lab. She was probably the very first online string course out there. She started 13 or 14 years ago, and she kept saying, “You have to do a cello one.” I thought, “I know. But I’m teaching public school orchestra, and I’m playing in the symphony, and I’m raising three little kids. I just – I can’t do it.”
But she kept hounding me and talking to me about it. At one point, I reached out to a company that created websites, and I went in and I told them, “I don’t even know what I want. I don’t even know what to tell you. Because I don’t even know.” I knew I just needed somebody to start this website for me.
Inspiration Amid Pitfalls on the Road to Cello Discovery
Then, literally, years went by, and I just couldn’t figure out what to do. I was just stuck, asking myself, “How do I do this? How exactly am I going to make it?” I didn’t share this story for a while, but in 2017, I had a stroke and I lost the use of my left hand for a short bit. I happen to be in a city that was close to a stroke center; I was given this medication that busted the clot and I got use of part of my hand back within the hour.
But I didn’t have these [thumb and first finger] up for a while. The physical or occupational therapist basically said, “You need to get in there and play the cello. There’s nothing you can do that’s going to be more beneficial to you than playing the cello.” And boy, did I take that seriously! In time, I got the use of my first finger back. Now the thumb is still very, very slow as compared to my other hand. But, as cellists, you can make it work without that thumb.
There’s Nothing More Beneficial than Learning How to Play an Instrument as You Get Older
When I was recovering, it was quite a mind game. What I kept coming back to was that I am so lucky. I am so lucky that I got my hands back, because there are so many people that go through this and lose their arm or their hand or their speech. And that’s it – I just felt this profound gratitude for the ability to be able to play the cello and to convey music through the cello.
Then I started thinking about the fact that there’s nothing more beneficial than learning how to play an instrument as you get older. Everybody should do this. They should learn how to play an instrument. That inspired me to get working on this website. Then, during the pandemic, there was no cello playing – no symphony, no nothing. So, being a go-getter, I had to do something. I thought, “Okay. I’ll create the website.”
That’s when I really started digging in, and breaking it apart and making my outlines and trying to figure out how I was going to make it work.
No Bridge, No Problem (Well, Solvable Problem…)
It’s really impressive, and it’s so well put together. I think that beginners are the most difficult level to teach online. I’ve been teaching online since about 2012. I started because I would lose my students on snow days. We don’t get many snow days here in North Carolina. But when we get a sighting of a single snowflake, they close the schools.
I started teaching on Skype and then switched to Zoom for snow days. I discovered how hard it was to teach beginners; not only can you not use hands-on methods, their instruments often need attention – especially on snow days. The pegs often slip, not to mention bridge, fine-tuner, and endpin problems. Please tell everyone how you approach teaching beginners without the hands-on adjustments of shoulders, arms, fingers – and also without the ability to physically help them with issues related to their cellos?
Well, you absolutely nailed the issue. That was what I thought about when I was creating this site. I’ve taught orchestra for years. At one point, I was teaching 44 kids in a room. I was very structured in my lessons because that’s a lot of middle schoolers, and you have expectations. You’ve got to have everything laid out.
Having taught that many kids for so long, I learned what people struggle with, what typical problems are, what happens to the instruments, and what kinds of instruments you see. So I had that knowledge going into creating this website, which was helpful.
I even have a video called something like, “Does your cello have these things?” When beginners first get an instrument, sometimes fine tuners, or maybe the bridge is completely wrong. Or maybe it doesn’t even have pegs, or maybe it doesn’t even have a bridge.
Reaching Out Through Zoom
I really encourage [students] on my site, because they’re watching stagnant videos, to get on the community page and say, “You know, I’m trying to hold the bow, but I’m having a hard time getting my hand angled correctly. I don’t know why it’s hurting in here.” Then I respond with, “Try this . . . , show me pictures, send me a picture from the side,” and so I get to interact with the students. If they really want to learn, I’m there to help.
One of the frustrations is, as you said, that I just want to reach through the computer and grab their hand and go, “Relax your wrist . . . or dig in there,” and grab them and help them do it. I’ve had to learn the language well enough to try to help them understand what I’m trying to do. Sometimes, I will just make a little specific video, or I’ll do some little Phyllis Young techniques, like bringing the balloon up in the air with the bow. There are some things that I can do that help them play with more ease, and relax certain parts of their body.
The Importance of Getting a Good Start
Setup is crucial; if you don’t set up a player right from the beginning, they’re either going to give up, or it’s going to be very difficult for them to learn. That’s just one of those things, breaking it down, that’s very detailed.
If students watch everything sequentially, they’re going to get that information. People who really want to know more do a video exchange with me where they talk, they show me, and they play. Then I send back a 15 to 20-minute video addressing all those questions and having them do certain techniques that will help. It’s sort of like a delayed lesson that way. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a great option for people who want detailed explanations but don’t have the opportunity to have in-person lessons or maybe need this more affordable option.
How to Get Started at Cello Discovery
I know this is a time when many people make resolutions to start new activities, and I’m in whole-hearted agreement with what you said earlier, that there’s nothing more beneficial than learning how to play an instrument – especially as you get older.
How can people sign up for your Cello Discovery?
If people want to learn how to play cello, or if they’re just needing a supplement to their in-person lessons, they go to cellodiscovery.com.
The basic membership gives you everything except the video exchange lessons. People who want more feedback can sign up for the premium option. Both options are recurring monthly subscriptions.
People are welcome to email me if they have questions or they just want to know a little bit more before they make that commitment. I’m pretty good at getting back to people quickly. So it’s pretty easy to join.
“I looked forward to that one hour all week long!”
Well, I just admire so much that you’ve tackled this challenging aspect of cello teaching. Let’s turn to your own journey with the cello.
How did you get started playing the cello – what made you pick it as your instrument?
In Northern California, there was the option to take orchestra when you were in the fourth grade. They don’t have that program anymore, unfortunately. When you went to fifth grade, you could do band, but in fourth grade, you had the option of starting orchestra. It was only on Thursdays, and it was only one hour a week.
But let me tell you, I looked forward to that one hour all week long!
I picked the cello because of my older brother, who’s my Irish twin. We’re only 11 months apart – and I did everything that he did. He chose the cello when he was in fourth grade. He brought it home, and I’d never heard of the cello. I didn’t know anything about it.
In fact, I would read the little book, and I called it a “suh-lello” or something like that, and I was really taken with it. When I got to fourth grade, it was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s what I’m going to play, too!”
That’s where I started. I was in the public school program for a while. My parents got me private lessons, and I really started to take off from the time I was about 10.
The Difference a Good Cello Makes
What cellos and bows do you play now?
So, now I’m understanding how important a wonderful cello is. You know, it’s taken years and years; they’re just so expensive. If you’re not able to be part of an organization that will life-loan you one, you’ve got to figure out how to find the best that you can afford. That’s why a lot of people are playing on not-very-good cellos for many years, not realizing how much of a difference a good cello makes.
As the years went on, I was always looking for the right cello. I knew that I wanted something a little bit smaller than a full size; I have slightly smaller hands. I just think it’s just easier to maneuver a 7/8-size cello.
One day, I was going into a luthier’s shop. Sitting on a stand was this beautiful cello. I walked past it, and I literally did a double-take. It was kind of a love-at-first-sight thing. I said, “Whose cello is that?” And they told me a lady brought it in, and she was trying to sell her cellos. I played it, and it brought tears to my eyes. I told them, “I have to take this out on trial.” They told me that somebody else was going to try it out – but they brought it back! So, at the end of the week, I was able to go get the cello, and I love it.
I don’t know a lot about it; it’s a little bit of a mutt. What we do know is that the back, sides, scroll, and neck are from sometime in the 1600s. It has one label that’s very old and hard to read. But it’s from about the 1600s. You can tell by the scroll it definitely has the pulling-out-of-the-Baroque period sort of flavor to it. The top has clearly been heavily damaged. The whole instrument has had a lot of damage over the years, and the belly has been replaced. The belly is by a different maker sometime in the 1800s – that’s the other tag in there. It’s beautiful and has a deep, rich sound. That’s my cello.
The Magic of the Cello Bow
My bow I had made for me. It’s a custom bow by Eric Paulu, who’s in Colorado, made about 20 years ago. Our principal cellist at the time had a bow, and he let me try it because I was looking. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I love this bow.”
I asked, “Can I buy this bow from you?” He said, “No. But here’s the guy who made it.” So I called him. He had one piece of wood left from this block – enough to make one more more bow – and so I commissioned him to make it.
Now, it would probably be closer to $10,000 or $12,000 to buy that bow. I got it for five or six [thousand], and that was probably 20 years ago. But it’s beautiful. I call it my magic bow because it’s just so great – it’s weighted so beautifully, it looks beautiful, it bounces really nicely. So that’s my bow.
Finding the right bow is often a revelation for students. Many times, students think a good sound is primarily related to the cello. But the bow can make an enormous difference.
I made a YouTube video about finding a bow because, often, people don’t know where to start. It’s, “Okay, my teacher said I need a new bow.” Well, now what?
There are so many questions – how do you select a bow? What about the price? Carbon fiber or pernambuco? There are a lot of steps involved and still more questions – is that good? How do I know it’s good?
But, when you find the right one, you know, don’t you?
Bows are a fascinating topic. For more information about bows, please see our series by bow specialist, Andrew Bellis.
Carolyn, please tell us about your upcoming projects.
I’m always working on the website because I want it to grow and evolve. So, that’s a constant in my life right now.
But another project I’m doing has stolen my heart at the moment. A man from South Africa – in a rural Township just outside Johannesburg – wrote to me and said, “I have started a music program.” The township where they live is very poor and full of crime and drugs. But he has found a way to help get people out of this – he started a music program. Every week, he gets more and more people.
Every Saturday, he works with his group all day. He wanted to learn cello really well, so he could teach them to play the cello, too. He’s in the Violin Lab, and they’re learning violin that way. He has an ear for music. So when he reached out to me, I gave a scholarship to all of his students.
The only way they have internet is when they go to the church where they work. I’ve been Zooming with them, and they wanted to learn the Hallelujah chorus. I found an easy string version, bought it for them, and emailed it to him. And we work through a couple of measures at a time. They work so hard – so hard – and they listen so intently. This group has my heart right now.
How to Follow and Support Carolyn Hagler
Don’t Miss Any Cello Museum News
Sign up for our weekly newsletter today.