This time last year I was nothing more than a hopelessly lost wanna-be cellist. I had purchased my cello from a student program last January for about $600 from one of their remaining Christmas specials. At the time, I couldn’t tell the difference between the strings or couldn’t tell if it was in tuned. Hell, the first time I strung it I put the strings in backwards. I was completely clueless on how to even play the instrument until around April when I finally found an instructor I was comfortable with. Since then I have been playing pretty regularly. I’m working on a couple of classical pieces, played Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus for my grandmother’s funeral back in October in a duet with my instructor, and I’m in the process of learning the third cellist’s part from Apocalyptica’s Hope. (It’s basically the bass tone for the song since it’s within my current skill level.) Today my instructor introduced me to the G-major scale in a second octave.
Now, you might be wondering why in the world I am blogging about playing the cello on a gaming site. Well, I realized today that I will probably never be able to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band every again unless I play on the drums.
Sometime ago a woman interested in purchasing Guitar Hero for her kids asked me to demonstrate the game to her. At first, I thought nothing of it since I’ve played the game before. My family had bought the guitar/game bundle for the PS2 when the first Guitar Hero game was released. I had played through one and two on the PS2 before deciding to purchase the third game for my XBox360. Since then, I had played World Tour, a bit of Aerosmith, a bit of Guitar Hero 5, Rock Band, and Beatles Rock Band. Even though I wasn’t an expert on the game - only being able to play all the songs on Medium with not failing on a few songs on hard - I felt comfortable enough with my ability to play the game to show it to her until something went terribly wrong.
I can’t recall what song I was playing, but I do know it wasn’t anything hard. Generally, I do pretty well at the game getting 97%-98% of the notes down even if I’ve never played the song before. However, I hasn’t even through a third of the song when things began to crumble. My fingers began to burn as a sudden, sharp pain shot up through my index finger and began to spread to my other fingers. I felt my wrist start to become inflamed almost instantly after that. My shoulders felt ridiculously tense and my elbow felt locked. I bit my lip attempting to hid the discomfort as I kept playing the song and explaining the mechanisms of how it worked to her. At the same time, I was starting to become frustrated with the increasing amount of missed notes. Eventually she was satisfied enough to make her decision and let me be, but I was bewildered as to why something that once was easy for me had become so difficult and physically painful.
I took a moment and stopped to monitor myself as I tried to finish the song; I was about half way done with it when I already felt too tired to finish it. One song was wearing me out… As I looked at how I held the guitar, things started to make sense.
The first issue I was running into was the pain of changing my hand positions. For the past eight months, my wrist and arm had grown use to playing an instrument vertically due to the cello’s neck over horizontally for a guitar. I had become accustom to having my wrist raised in an arch compared to it curving under so my fingers can reach up.
Finger placement was the second problem I had. While in the picture it would seem like I’m just playing a song on Hard or Expert, I’m actually setting my fingers on the guitar as if they were being placed on my cello. Why is this a problem? I do it naturally. You see, over time and due to constant, repetitive practice for my cello, my fingers have begun to naturally stretch to reach the notes. If I try to play the guitar for the game, I end up over stretching my fingers - hitting the yellow button when I meant to hit red or completely missing the orange button. I have tried to force myself to keep my fingers close enough to play the guitar properly though that is when the pain sets in.
My fingers become sore quickly when I try to use all four of them at the same time. You see, when playing the cello I only use a maximum of three at a time. It has become a natural reaction to either raise my middle or ring finger much like I would for the different hand positions for my cello. It is abnormal to me to have my fingers in the necessary positions in order to hit the buttons correctly.
The other issues is the fact that when playing Guitar Hero, there’s no bow. It would seem like such a minor difference but it actually is enough to pretty much screw me up when playing. I’m use to my whole arm moving perpendicular to my instrument with the fingers clenched tightly around the bow. Now compare that to only using your thumb and index finger to strum the strings… Once again the wrist movements change. I’m going from a firm “left to right” movement with both my wrist and arm to a forcing my wrist to rapidly up and down. The sudden and quick movements required from strumming again cause pain. While it is true that at times I need to make quick, sudden movements with a bow, those movements feel more fluent to me since it has become what my body is use to.
They say practice makes perfect but did you ever know why? As my instructor has explained to me, repetitive movements help build up a sense of muscle memory. It’s what allows constantly performed activities to become easy to do to the point where it becomes a natural reaction since the brain no longer has to be told, “this is how you do that”. My mind has connived itself that regardless of the activity, I must do it in this specific way and if you need help taking a glimpse into my mind, you can play this flash game by the Berliner Philharmoniker to see what my mind says I need to always do. It’s why I was able to write this article without ever looking at my keyboard. It’s why you are able to get out of bed and walk. It’s the reason why you’ve become better at Guitar Hero and it has become the reason why I can no longer be a pretend guitarist; because I have become a cellist.