Thanksgiving 2015

What if today were the day when everything was enough?

What if, when you picked up your instrument, every squeak, the low percentage of right notes, and even all “unscheduled solos” were okay?

If today could be the day that your focus became on the process instead of on that far off perfect end point?

If those things were enough, could you be grateful? Could you be grateful for the ability to simply draw your bow across the strings and make resonant, beautiful sounds?

For the sheer power of the instrument?

For its smooth, curving beauty?

For your hands?

For you?

Today everything is real and good and it is all enough , including you - be grateful.


Happy Thanksgiving.


The Path That We Have Chosen

I 'm driving home in the late afternoon deep in thought, my brand new studded snow tires crackling against the stones as I pass over the familiar dirt road. I come around the bend and am struck by the light on the water of the pond. The conifers on the far side of the water look as if they have a spotlight shining on them. Staggeringly beautiful and in the water in front of them an equally stunning reflection- two for the price of one.

I pull my car over to the side of the road to take a moment and breath it in. Overhead geese honking their goodbyes as they fly over the water. Small ducks, permanent residents, bob up and down looking for food. Someone drives past me, dust from the dirt road swirls around my car, as it settles back the view reappeares as if it has been hidden behind a scrim just waiting for my show to begin.

The brilliant colors of the leaves have rusted out. But there is something in the faded color, in the new sparseness that pulls at my emotions. I think it is the ache of loss coupled with the anticipation of things to come.

I know this view. Every day I see the pines rise up from the shoreline. Their almost black- green creating aggressive stripes against the soft deciduous trees. I need each of them to be able to see the other.

The pond curves out ahead of me as I drive. One day it will be dark and capped with white foam, unsettled and rough. The next it will be beautiful blue green, peaceful and calm. I find that as it is reflecting what is around it to me, I also feel peaceful and begin to reflect it.

Today I notice my neighbors gathering their wood. One man comes out in red plaid carrying a maul. At the next house someone is pulling a tractor out of his shed, cranking his neck around to miss hitting the cars parked in the driveway. Like squirrels bravely darting across the road, we, too, are preparing for the next season. Each of us gathering. Friends are getting the final brussel sprouts off the stalk and forking potatoes into a bucket to be stored in the basement and brought out later when the ground is white.

I know this dirt road. Beautiful in the fall, hard and solid. Winding through the fiery colored landscape. Peaceful in the summer, long and dusty, passing in and out of the cool, green shade. Icy in the winter, almost unrecognizable with its white coat on. And treacherous in the spring. We take in big gulps of air before heading out on each journey anticipating the bumps and jolts of mucking though mud. Wondering if we really will ever get back home.

This is where we choose to live. We could choose somewhere that is placed on the side of smooth, black pavement. It would be quick to get to and the road easy to drive on. We would know what to expect each and every day. But we don't want to know what to expect from day to day. And we want to have to experience the struggle of living here because we need that to be able to appreciate the good that we have.

This is our road, why we are here and this is the path that we have chosen.


The Art Of Ensemble


I woke up this morning and noticed a dusting of snow on the grass. In response to this offense the trees seemed to be tossing leaves to the ground in a swirl of defiance. Protesting winter's early visit. We had to feed the stove big chunks of maple instead of poplar to keep the wood floor warm under our feet while making breakfast.

I put a whole chicken into a pot to roast the day away and made a pumpkin pie for dessert. It is fall in Vermont.

The younger students are back onto their weekly schedules both in school and for private lessons. It is not just math skills that gathered dust over the summer. We revisit our bow grips and climb down the scale to begin the climb back up.

They gradually remember my teaching subtleties - when my eyes drift over to an elbow that is cowering too close to their side- out it pops as if by magic. The quick turn of my head to catch a wayward pinkie having British tea brings it back in line avoiding a scribble in the notebook that will indicate the need for a week of bow-skill work.

At the end of each session we play duets. It is the cake of the lesson. Students get to pick their duet (something they have not played before) and their part, (top or bottom). It offers the opportunity for each student to be in charge of at least one part of the hour and that is important. There are laughter and mistakes but there is also growth. I liken it to adding chopped broccoli to spaghetti sauce, my kids never knew and yet they got the value of the vegetable. Amidst the laughter the student learns to sight-read - an invaluable tool in their cello drawer.

As the music programs in many schools falter and even stop, it becomes important that the private teacher offer some kind of ensemble opportunity to their students. Perhaps there is a youth orchestra in the area that can help with those skills. But, for some, for different reasons, that may not be feasible, and for many early-learning adults it is not possible.

Paul and I have run an ensemble (known simply as “ensemble”) for many years. It began life as a way to give students the chance to learn how to play as part of a group, how to work under a conductor, and what it means to be part of a musical community.

We decided on music and there were normally four levels of parts matching skills. We, (and when I say “we” I mean Paul) transposed various instrument parts into cello parts. It was the ideal orchestra to our minds- all low strings- all the time! We met bi-weekly in the basement of a local church and through cold Vermont winters the lights of that church would blaze out over the snow and the sound of music and chatting would fill that basement.

As word spread of ensemble more people asked if they could join us and before long we were dealing with a small chamber orchestra by adding violins and basses. At one point we had five basses lined up, backs to the windows.

Each session opened with music and closed with cookies. They performed at every recital and could hear as well as feel the results of their new experience. It was exciting to watch students begin in the fourth cello part, mainly half and whole notes, and each successive year move up through the ranks- a shy smile on their face on their first day of being with a new section. One year our oldest student was an eighty-six year old Japanese man and the youngest was an eight-year-old little girl and they sat side by side. Kazuhiko spoke very little English but, fortunately, the language spoken was music and it was enough. 

This year our schedules have not allowed us to run a full-on ensemble and it is a disappointment - both to them and to us. However, Sunday evening we will be holding a Renaissance Night as a collaboration between our two studios and our friend Margaret Gilmore's studio. They are from the Upper Valley so we will meet in the middle at a church in Randolph, Vermont. There will be players of different abilities and each will have their own part. There will be a potluck dinner and pie, always pie. This time the lights will blaze out over colored leaves and retreating snow and there will be the sounds of chatting and of music filling another basement hall. And it will be a chance for us all, teachers included, to remember that an important part of learning music is remembering to “play” together.


Photography & Music

Recently I had a great experience pairing solo cello music with photography and painting. It has been so interesting to put all three art mediums in one space - there is an element of sensory overload that is edgy and exciting. It has certainly made me more appreciative of the visual arts.

Photographers and painters “see” in minute. They pick up interplay between colors and textures and enjoy the world of sight with a magical tilt. Musicians “hear” in minute- we hear the rhythm in the calls of the crows outside the bedroom window each morning. We listen intently to the background music in film and we are never unaware of how sound affects the way we feel - in fact - we rely on that sensory intertwining and understand the need to be able to tap into it.

For our Paul Perley Cellos website we set up a photographic space to take pictures of the cellos and bows for sale. We put it in our basement both due to lack of appropriate space as well as to insulate the blue language involved as we figured out how to best shoot the instruments. In studying luthiering Paul was taught that varnish is holy. Above all else, avoid altering the varnish on an instrument. We respect, understand and appreciate that, but the sheen off that varnish with big lights makes photographing the cellos without big “hot spots” nearly impossible for lay photographers (that's us...)

So we did what all respectable photographic wannabees do- we hired someone!

The team that we hired, John Snell and Rob Spring are fine photographers and they loved working with the instruments- the beautiful shapes of the bouts, some magnificent peg designs and the impressiveness of thirty cellos are hanging shoulder to shoulder -the sense of waiting to be played palpable. They did a fabulous job for us and our web site is testament to their artistry. However, Rob also added extra photos of our shop and instruments to his website   The web site is well worth exploring in it's entirety- to both appreciate the feminine shape of the cellos against the geometric angles of gray barns in the mist.

He helps us to remember that everything, including what we see and hear each day, is beautiful.



There are many things that happen as time begins to slant toward autumn. The angle of light changes and everything is cast in a faded lemony yellow. Slowly we are losing our long and warm summer evenings. We have to hurry to the garden after dinner to get any weeding done and walks are often in the cool of the twilight. The pulse of the summer pace is quickening.

It feels like yesterday that we finished teaching our school year schedules and eased into the more relaxed summer routines. Recitals and end of year concerts are over and the sigh of relaxing is perceptible.

Interestingly, it seems that when things are at fever pitch is the time when I am most efficient with my practicing. I find pockets of time to tuck practice in between students- I become more focused and diligent about utilizing my free space to work with my own instrument. When I am in summer mode it becomes harder to feel pushed to get to the cello. Aren't there still tomatoes to pick? And this heat makes it a perfect day to take the dog to the river for a swim. I become the practicer that I discourage my students from being, the “leave it to the last minute” practicer.

What this normally means is that I end up working late into the night. Entering the dark studio becomes the challenge, the music is silent on my stand, it seems that where during the daytime hours it is calling me, exciting me with possibilities, in the nighttime it seems very still, as if to say “why not tomorrow?” Sheer stubbornness (and, okay, a performance looming) makes me get to it and I find I pass through degrees of both simply being awake and yawning in tempo, into focus and intensity. Although it sounds like a good teacher to say “so- practicing really does excite me”, there is something about feeling the music move under my fingers and watching struggle morph into success that drives me forward.

Albert Einstein once said that the reason people enjoy chopping wood is because the results are apparent and immediate. In many ways I find that is true of practicing as well. If you use your time efficiently and zero in on problem areas of your studies you will feel, at some point, movement in your progress. It is part of the path to mastery and, while necessary, it is also quite thrilling and addictive.

And so, while I will miss the warm days and the slower pace, I also know what is coming, I feel the rhythms changing and look forward to, perhaps, practicing in the daylight.


Your Special Day

Tis the season- not the season with decorated trees- tis the season for weddings!

Every musician looks toward the spring/summer with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and occasionally dread.

The process begins with a phone call or an email - excited brides or grooms are calling to see if we would be willing to share in their beautiful day.

Most of the time Paul and I perform for weddings, as the cello duo, Soavita.. And the first thing we discuss with them is what they are interested in having us do within their wedding. Almost always we are asked to play pre-wedding music as the guests are seated (standard wedding fare) and, in the last few years, we have been asked to replace “Here Comes the Bride” from an organist, with two cellos playing “Trumpet Voluntary.” I have to say - I play a mean trumpet with strings.

The standard postlude (think “Ode To Joy”) as many times as it takes to empty the church. The challenge is sandwiched somewhere in between pre and post and that is the bride's, groom's or, to be honest, the mother of the bride's, choice of ceremony music.

The choices are usually the fodder for dinner conversation between Paul and I. The question becomes:

“Can Paul, as arranger, make Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven rock with two cellos?”

Or “Can cellos actually twang in a Johnny Cash song”

Or, “Can Melissa somehow fit the Dvorak concerto into 3 minutes?”

There seems to be a gap between what they hear on the radio and what instruments will actually be playing the piece during the wedding.

Once we have the music in place we talk logistics. Where, what, when, certainly how, and more often than not, why?

In New England, outdoor weddings are popular. The ideal is sunshine and roses, the reality is more likely to be blowing rain and black flies.

Long ago we decided it would be a good idea to come up with a contract that would detail the weather conditions under which we could/would play. This contract was borne from weddings (painfully, this is all true) where, even after explaining that wood instruments and water did not mix- we tromped across a soggy yard, heels sinking into soaked earth, to be placed without cover near the bride and groom who are safely nestled together under their canopy. And when the sky began to spit drops on us- we suggested that we, too, needed to be nestled under the safety of a canopy! Only to then be unceremoniously placed under the family porch next to the lawn mower, peering out from behind lattice work for cues to begin playing.

Or, the reverse- we play the ceremony and head to the reception where we will be playing for a cocktail hour. The sun is baking everyone so they all retire to the cool shade of the porch for champagne while we plant our chairs next to the garden and begin to slow roast. Water and wood do not mix and I am here, through experience, to tell you that direct sun and wood are not the best of friends either.

On the car ride home, with another performance looming, my string height and pitch dropping further than I care to remember- and more tears and swearing than Paul cares to remember, is the time when one begins to contemplate purchase of the “wedding cello”.

We have arrived at a wedding to discover that the bride and groom are being married in Star Wars outfits, we have watched many a ceremony from behind the backside of a large attendant and we have ratcheted up the dynamics of the music to cover the sounds of a sobbing bride coming from the bathroom.

Our wedding “kit” contains:



Water, water, water

Bricks to keep our stands from flying into the swimming pool

Clothespins to keep our music from following

and duct tape- because it is duct tape.

So if you are planning a wedding- we might include a few suggestions. If you need it, ask for a bit of help when choosing music- we are happy to do it and would much rather (trust us) offer up some suggestions than default to Pachelbel's Canon....again.

Feed us. Even cookies. because believe me, eating black flies does not constitute a meal.

Pay us when we are finished, we have worked really hard.

There are many details that you will not remember about your beautiful wedding day- but your music may just be one of the things that you can both recall with fondness - hopefully we can as well.


End Of Season

End of season is always challenging for both player and teacher. It is a time for auditions and recitals: end of school. The beginning of the long, untethered days of summer hang, tantalizingly close.

In order to be fully prepared for it all there needs to be repetition and lots of it. Weeks of the same scale and piece mean two very different, yet ironically similar things to the teacher and student.

The student feels repetition as tedious work. The question “why” seems to pop up frequently. The explanations and answers illicit “the look”- eyes glazed and unseeing and ears hearing only the Charlie Brown teacher voice.

To the teacher repetition means surprise. Surprise that the E major scale in four octaves could wander into so many keys over the course of weeks. I often ask the question “Are you sick of this piece yet?” and my students are always interested that the  “yes” response is the good and correct one.

Recitals and auditions bring fear, pride, angst, tears and always, at some point, laughter.

I feel a true compulsion to mother my students, adults, teens, and children alike. To wrap warmth and empathy around them while simultaneously gently, but resolutely, pushing.

There are the students who will triumph in the manner of the tortoise and the hare. They will listen as I instruct and will take suggestions and step over the hurdle of talent.

And then there are the students who will cram for the recital, ignoring the repeated messages penned into their weary notebooks. In the early preparation stage the notes are filled with cheering and encouragement and as time passes slide into the philosophical with a dose of crankiness.

I have to make the difficult decision to let the inevitable happen. The lesson to be learned is bigger than preparing for cello work and it is organic in it's simplicity. The inevitable result of lack of preparation is disappointment in performance. My own children learned more form falling down and getting up than from being carried.

It is now, in the twilight of the season, that I know more fully what it means to teach. For now is the time to bring forth all of my talent, creativity and, if all else fails, the box of Popsicles. At the beginning of the term everything is shiny and new. I am a rock star with stickers. Now it is hard not to feel hurt by my students watching the clock.

But I teach - it is much of what I do and who I am, and if I have to I will fireman-carry each and every student across the finish line of May.


And so we wear mud boots....

Most of the northeast U.S.enjoys four diverse seasons but Vermonters will tell you that we have one more, a fifth called mud season.

If you have the pleasure of living on an unpaved road, it is the coming of both mud and guilt. Our business lives at the end of a dirt road. Customers and students must travel more than 3 miles off pavement to get to us.

Somehow I'm always surprised by our fifth season, until the first time my car bottoms out. Then I remember.


This year had one of the coldest, snowiest winters on record. To give you an idea of how cold, I can tell you that a lot of Vermonters ran out of wood. Enough said.

I, incredibly, did not bump heads with winter this year. Incredibly, because I don't need a lot of encouragement to bump heads with most anything. This winter, however, I just threw more wood in the stove and photographed the five foot snow banks that tucked our home deeper into its surroundings. I decided to follow the rhythm of the season. We repeatedly got snowed in and each time we simply shoveled out.

There is a long, crystaline peace in winter, but then it thaws. It is now early April and the thermometer has finally broken single digits and pushes to fifty five. To celebrate we take our dog to the bike path in Burlington and are amazed to see people walking, running and skateboarding in shorts, t-shirts and even tank tops.

With spring comes the sap and exposed toes. We all feel the “push” with the sunshine, our clothing reflects the fact that we know that the seasonal clock has begun to tick and the time our skin is out from cover is limited.

We gobble up tulips from the store before our own bulbs reveal themselves so that we can convince ourselves that spring is here. To enjoy color after so much white.

The car that we drive in April is our “mud” car. Its only requirements are height and four wheel drive. It is the time when people carry tow chains alongside their groceries in their trunks. I forget what color the car is because it is iced with mud frosting.

Mud is the Everest of seasons, the one time of year when there are places you simply can't get to. At its worst, any morning travel can depend on last night's freezing temperatures to make solid the surface. When I schedule a lesson or an appointment I always preface it with “ what type of car do you drive?”

But one of the many reasons I love living in Vermont is the character and resilience of its people. Someone told me that “soft climates make soft people” and I believe them.

By the time April comes, I am so excited to not be in snow boots that I head out in little spring shoes, tiptoeing around puddles and globs of mud...only to sink, only to fail. And so, inevitably, out come my thick, green, rubber mud boots. No flowers, no polka dots to clash with the dirt,. Utilitarian mud boots. And I notice them all over Vermont. At the grocery store, at restaurants, school plays and music lessons!

But while I may feel guilty when people have to traverse the mud to get to us, I notice a certain pride of success on their faces and in their voices at making it to us. Everest.

The Nile Project

Every year Paul & I like to attend some of the concert series that happens annually in nearby Burlington. This year's events included an interesting-sounding ensemble called The Nile Project and last week on Sunday night Paul and I went.

The Nile River provides the water that is tied to all aspects of life for the eleven countries situated along it. It is the spring that feeds this endeavor.

The Nile Project brings together artists from the eleven Nile countries to make music that combines the region's diverse instruments, languages and traditions.

As these nations face water stress: tensions inevitably rise. The Nile Project is a grassroots effort to create a cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration.

Seeing the cultural diversity in the musicians' clothing and hearing it in their music made me remember that we are all made of water and perhaps that explained why the language of their music was strange to my ears but familiar to my center.

It is continually interesting that, when words fail us, music has the power to bridge.


The Cracks Of Winter

The act of writing this blog is painful....not because of the material but the actual ACT of writing is painful as the pads on the second and third fingers on my left hand (and yes, I am left handed) have split open in this cold, dry weather.

Each day as I practice I can feel the rhythmic pulse of my heart beat in each of those fingers. Sometimes they even bleed while I am demonstrating something for one of my students.That has its advantages as I appear extremely sacrificial to my instrument with blood running down my fingers: if only they practiced a little more, they too could bleed.

It then stands to reason that our living, breathing wood instruments would be reacting to the lack of humidity as well. We are repairing weather cracks left and right in the shop. There is something facinating to me about my cello shrinking and swelling in response to its surroundings. Something that shows it is, indeed, a living thing. I knew it all along but this just proves it.

We are lugging water jugs back and forth to our shop and to the music room in our house. Twice daily we fill the humidifiers. Each time we pass by our instruments I imagine them sighing in relief to see more water being added to the air.

I know that this will pass, it always does. But, as with the extreme winter weather, there is something special in the effort to keep things going. Lugging water jugs to and fro makes me feel a bit pioneer-ish and that without me, where would my instrument be?


A New Look for Paul Perley Cellos

We launched our new Paul Perley Cellos web site this week.

Simply making the decision to change the site was a hurdle. Our website has always been well regarded and we have had good success using it. However, even your favorite clothes begin to look tired after a certain period of time and we decided that, after 10 years, it was time to change things up.

In reality- our daughter in law, Elyse gently coaxed us into modernization. She is a marketing expert and her work includes teaching at a graduate school in North Carolina and she offered her brilliant services.

And so it began- we found a terrific team of photographers to work with, John Snell and Rob Spring. Often John's work involves photographing animals in the heat of Africa and so, given the challenge of shooting individual cellos in the heat of our shop, who better?

Cellos are difficult to photograph. It seems that their individualism extends to their varnish and how it reflects light. However- Rob & John persevered and did some amazing work.

Once we had the inventory (which will be different almost weekly) it was technical time all the way.

Figuring out what to move and where, what policies to keep and which to change, shipping options, etc., etc.  Not to mention the reality of life swirling around all of us. Shop work and practice and teaching and performing leave less than desired amounts of time in a twelve hour day.

But after all that. we did it and it is here. We have changed the clothes but who we are remains. We understand the very personal process of finding a new instrument and with 26 years experience with bowed instruments, we understand strings.

Our goal is the same - to help every musician find the instrument that helps them to make their very best music.

Thanks Elyse!



In thinking about the part that music has played in my life, I realize that it has not been just about listening to music as such.  My earliest memories of experiences have always had musical soundtracks playing behind them. They still do.  Much of this music is comprised of things I've heard although some seem to be original.  

Recently this has prompted me to contact friends: John Snell an amazing photographer, and Hope Burgoyne, a terrific painter, asking them to collaborate with me on a project called Reflections.  Both Hope and John use themes of nature in their work, so Hope painted two large, identical landscapes, the second of which was made up of numerous smaller sized components, each of which stood on their own, and John used a sizable series of photographs of water taken during all four seasons.  While John's slide show (ingeniously projected on a light fabric hung from the ceiling, gently flowing in the breezes created by human movement), I play unaccompanied excerpts from cello pieces, a few of which I wrote for this project, that are my reflections of John's and Hope's work.

It's happening on Montpelier's (VT) winter Art-Walk, and on Valentine's evening in nearby Waterbury. Three performances in each space.

I love the the idea of the cello being a collaborator in a non-traditional way, jointly expressive with the work of other artists.



Cello Lessons Through Skype

I have just finished a weekly Skype lesson with a cello student in California. I have Skyped lessons several times before- mainly in the US but I have also taught a weekly lesson via Skype for a year with a student staying in Spain.

Each time I have hesitated. Concerned with sound production, inability to play together and the lack of intimacy that is born in a studio setting. Each time the student has convinced me to try and it has been successful.

I set aside lesson time each week and we run a lesson in the same manner that I do in the studio. Although complexities and the lovely timbres of the cello are reduced across the internet, there is the advantage of hearing something much closer to pure pitch.

We can't play together and that is a disappointment to both teacher and student and I can't offer a shoulder squeeze or high five-
However, to counter these challenges I keep a notebook during the lesson and then email my student their assignments for the next week as well as comments, suggestions and encouragement.

I'm finding that because of creativity and cooperation music can, and does, bridge divides.



Acquiring a Cello in a Soft Economy

As we have found since the financial downturn beginning in 2008, cellists do not consider their instrument a luxury item: the equivalent of say a new boat or a hot tub or a large flat-screen television.

That said, there is now less money available to most of us and less confidence that, with the 2013 financial picture, government shut-downs and what have you, there will be more any time soon. It doesn't inspire people to begin, or move up in this instrument that we love. So what does one do to acquire a cello, the kind that that makes the sound so important to us.

To begin, please be very careful of the online companies that offer cello outfits that include bow, hard case, instrument stand, possibly a few more things, and free shipping, all for a few hundred dollars. We've seen students and customers with some of these and even the very best of them are very poorly set up with a bad bridges, warped fingerboards, and horrible strings set so high that the cello is almost unplayable. Very few of them are made of wood that is actually dry and they frequently develop cracks within a couple months. Everyone we know who has had one of these has replaced it within year (usually after having a number of expensive repairs and adjustments) and if they were able to sell it at all, ended up not getting much more then $50.00 -75.00.

But this doesn't solve the financial issue. Perhaps this is your, or your child's, first cello and a few hundred is all you have to spend. Good shops will rent quality instruments, maintain them for you and will give you rental equity which will credit a certain percentage of your paid rent toward the cello's purchase. Often those shops will have an even better quality cello to rent with the same equity terms albeit a higher monthly payment. In the case of children who will need less than a full size cello, many shops make the transition in size seamless and with no extra charge.

If you do want to purchase, and most serious cellists do, it is difficult to find the kind of quality you need for much less than $1000.00. Since many cellists, especially at the earlier levels, are not experts at evaluating quality, here are some clues and questions to ask. First, is the cello guaranteed, if so for how long and against what? A good shop will guarantee an instrument against doing something it shouldn't (like the neck coming out, cracks developing in normal humidity levels, fingerboards warping, etc.) for as long as you own it. Second, will the seller of the cello take it back in trade for what you paid for it toward a cello of greater value? At any time? Next week? In ten years? Free shipping is also suspect. No one ships things for free, especially things as big and in need of protection as cellos, so the shipping cost is added to the price of the cello. Which means if you purchase a cello outfit with all the extra goodies for $400.00 including shipping, someone is making a profit selling a $200-300 cello. Just having that cello last for 6 months, let alone actually being able to advance as a player on it, is probably not something you should count on.

If there is such a thing as good news in our present economy, it is that it is a buyers market. In our shop we have more older, under $10,000 (some way under $10,000) lovely, in-great-condition, terrific playing cellos than we've ever had at any one time in the past 25 years. Other shops probably do also. The reason is simple: people who need money and are no longer playing want to turn their cellos into cash. Occasionally we even have nicely made older cellos for as little as $3000. And unlike most boats, hot-tubs and flat screen TVs, older cellos will hold their value and usually increase over time, better than most anything else we can purchase.

It's often difficult in tough times to come up with $1000 or more for a cello that will work for you. It's even more difficult to come up with $400, then 6 months later come up with another $1000 on top of the $400.

If we could find guarantee-able, quality cellos that we could sell for $400, or $700, we would absolutely do it.

The old adage “if it seems to good to be true, it probably is” still applies.

How Large Should Your Cello Be?

If you go into any reputable shop that sells cellos, most of the new ones available will likely be somewhat larger than many of the 100-150 year old cellos. So what constitutes a large cello and does bigger cello mean bigger sound?

First let’s define average cello. Other people in the field may disagree but after looking at and measuring thousands of cellos of all ages and ilks for the past 20 years, I propose today’s “average size” cello. I’ll work in inches as most U.S. residents still use this system. Multiply these numbers by 25.4 if you want millimeters.

a) Length of body: 29 ¾.

b) Upper bout: 13 7/16.

c) Center bout: 9 1/2. d) Lower bout: 17 3/16.

e) Average rib height (rib height near neck + rib height near endpin, divided by 2): 4 ½.

The above measurements are for a Stradivari and similar models. Different models, like a Montagnana, widen the bouts and shorten the length. Which brings us to the concept of Body Volume – the interior space of the cello body. For you number people (I tend to be one) let’s define a formula for Cello Body Volume (don’t freak – I’ll walk you through this) as the length times width times depth. The width is a bit tricky as the shape of the cello isn’t rectangular or even regular, so let’s calculate the width by averaging the 3 bout measurements. Referring to the paragraph above: the width is (b+c+d)/3. It’s not perfect, but it is sufficiently accurate for comparison purposes.

To then calculate the body volume of our “average” cello we take the width as: 13 7/16 + 9 1/2 + 17 3/16 = 40 1/8. Dividing by 3 we get 13 3/8 which is our width. So our length 29 ¾, times our width 13 3/8, times our depth (rib height) 4 1/2 = (approx) 1791 cubic inches.

Montagnana and occasionally Gofriller models tend to have slightly more body volume. Even though their lengths are a bit shorter and their depth closer to 4 1/2, their average width is sufficiently larger to give them more volume. One I just measured equaled 1861 cu in.

A truly great playing cello is Melissa’s 1880’s German whose measurements are: length 29 ¼, bouts 12 3/8, 8 3/8, 16 ¼, and average rib height 4 3/8 giving it a body volume of only 1578 cu in. And yet it outplays most “average” size or larger cellos including in the lower register. How can this be true?

Some years ago at the request of a customer, we had a bass made for us that had a 7/8 –size body, but a ¾ string length (most basses are ¾). The idea was that the customer would be able to switch easily between this and his jazz bass as the two instruments would have the same string length but the larger body would give him a bigger, fuller sound for classical playing. Interestingly, other shops and companies almost instantly picked up on this idea, and for a short while it was almost impossible to acquire a ¾ size bass as most commercially available basses came in this new size. The interesting thing was that almost none of these basses sounded nearly as good as a regular ¾ bass. Why? Full 7/8 basses had the larger depth of sound one might expect: and the only consistent difference was the string length.

It seems that the vibrating length of the strings matching, in some way, the body volume is critical to the depth of sound we’re looking for in a larger instrument. When Rob Morse worked for us, he acquired a somewhat larger bass than the normal ¾ size but set his string length at ¾ length. When he experimented and set at the longer length the bass was actually made for, his depth of sound increased dramatically.

There are more variables in cello sound than probably anyone knows: but the body volume variable is tricky and without sufficient string length, a larger cello body may produce a much lesser sound than a smaller one – everything else being equal. Cello string length is pretty well fixed today: strings are manufactured to reach the proper tension at pitch with this fixed length. Longer lengths also mean longer distances between notes which in turn make speed more difficult.

Our experience is that most cellists inquiring about Montagnana models are looking for a bigger, deeper sound, and most inquiries about slightly smaller cellos have to do with physical issues: tendenitus or arthritis, small hands, etc. Interestingly, we have found over the years that older, smaller cellos will frequently outplay both older and newer larger cellos. Sometimes our given string length works better on less than “normal” size cello bodies than it does on larger ones.

More on Chinese Instruments

Not infrequently we get requests from customers for a cello that is “not Chinese”. When we ask why, more often than not the answer is something like “nothing specific really, I would just prefer something that isn’t Chinese.”

Sometime in the early 1990’s a well-dressed young Chinese gentleman found his way to our shop and politely showed us his cellos. He was of a gentle nature, pleasant, bright, and his cellos were amazingly low-priced, but he clearly knew nothing about what he was selling and he clearly had no idea that the cellos he put in front of us were horrible.

This scene repeated itself throughout the country over the next several years as various Chinese shops sought a niche in the U.S., trying to dramatically undersell increasingly pricey new European instruments. Discount houses, general instrument stores, and some string shops began carrying this early Chinese fare, and the instruments quickly acquired the negative reputation that, in some respects, they are still trying to shake today.

But as the U.S. population learned in the 90’s, the Chinese are nothing if not smart, industrious and flexible. Realizing that they had entered a very specialized field that most of them knew little about, they began hiring European luthier school graduates to train and supervise the workers in their shops in Beijing and Shanghai. The fledgling Chinese woodworkers were quick onto catch on the skills being taught and willing to put in the time it took to bring these skills to the high level required for the Chinese to successfully compete in the American and European stringed instrument market. The Chinese luthier shops became, in effect, a microcosm of what was later termed the “Asian Miracle”.

Because of our high visibility as specialists in cellos, Melissa and I get to examine new instruments from all parts of the world. Yes, you can still buy really mediocre cellos from China and other places (for very little money), but for new cellos under $10,000, we feel that no one can compete with the Chinese in workmanship (a good Chinese cello is clean throughout the inside: blocks, linings, jointery), varnish (to augment their regular good varnishes, a couple Chinese luthiers have unearthed an antiquing method that one of my restoration instructors would have given his right arm for), good modeling (several Chinese luthiers have been able to get their hands on real Amatis, Gofrillers, etc. and make exact copies. All the important dimensions of all models are correct, the necks feel good in the hand etc), and they have great sound (cellists are entering college programs with cellos costing $6000 and less).

Recently we had the opportunity to examine what looked to be an attractive new German cello retailing at about $4500. When we looked more closely, the interior work was very rough, the glue was too-strong, rubbery and non-water-soluable, the wood was under some stress (not completely dry) when it was assembled, and although the varnish was an attractive color, it had started to flake. And it didn’t play all that well. This was one instrument from one company, but the salesperson had chosen it as a representative of the company’s product.

We can and do offer new cellos from Europe. But because of the quality in so many areas, much of our hand picked new stock comes from China.

If you look at the international violin-making competitions, it’s interesting to note the increasing number of Asians on the medal-winners lists. And by the way, the polite, young gentleman who came to our shop in the early 90’s has been, for the last 10 or so years, head of one of the largest instrument companies in the world.

More About Teachers & Purchasing a Cello

Earlier this fall (2007) we received a telephone call from a cello professor at a university on the west coast. He requested that we send him, for trial, up to 4 cellos, older but in good condition, worth $30,000 - $60,000 each, preferably in the higher end of that range.

He had 4 students who were looking to purchase performing cellos and they would be doing it through him. He also asked that we include invoices that would give him a markup of $15,000 on each cello (although if we were uncomfortable with that he would simply mark them up himself). If he liked the cello(s), he would send us a check immediately and our name would never again be associated with the instruments.

The power of a teacher in the purchasing of an instrument by their student cannot be understated. Students aspiring to become performing cellists put full and implicit trust in their teachers to get them there: they will do what he instructs them to. So here was a man whose stated goal was to make $60,000 on cellos he simply directed his students to purchase. Toward the end of the conversation, we asked him if his students knew he was profiting on these cellos and he said of course not.

While this huge profit is probably not the norm, teachers profiting on sales of instruments to their students without the student’s knowledge is. Teachers often make agreements with shops to a fixed percentage of any instrument sold (usually around 10%): the teacher may look impartial in encouraging the student to try cellos from various competing shops, but the final decision invariably goes to an instrument that provides the teacher with some not-insignificant income. Obviously if the teacher makes the student aware of this agreement, the decision cannot seem quite as based on the real quality of the cello or what the student really prefers. Often when we give or ship an older cello to a cellist whose teacher is connected to a shop, the cello will be returned with the comment that since it is old and may have some repairs that it will be “nothing but trouble”. There was, of course, no money in it for the teacher.

Most students have great trust and respect for their teachers, and this is as it should be. But before you ask your teacher’s opinion about a cello you are thinking about purchasing, consider the following:

1. Your teacher is likely not a luthier. Some older instruments are poorly repaired and really may give you trouble, but someone who is not a professional luthier, no matter how long he or she has played the cello, is not qualified to make those assessments. Some new cellos are better made than others, but this often takes the eye of someone with different qualifications than a teacher.

2. Many teachers are not linked to stores or shops and can give more objective opinions, but more are than aren’t. It is a fair question for you to ask your teacher, although most students are not comfortable doing this.

3. Even with everything being objective, it is you who will own the cello. Your teacher may like the sound of a different cello than you do, but he or she is not the one playing it. Have confidence in your taste: it’s your sound that you want to hear not your teacher’s. If you think you might change your mind down the road, make sure you purchase your cello from a reputable shop with a lot of cellos that will take yours back in trade at any later date.

Teacher commissions (or kick-backs, to use a more blatant term) are very common. As a shop we flirted with the idea a few years ago of giving teacher commissions but quickly backed away. It’s deceptive and not the way we feel things should work.

By the way, we told the gentleman from the west coast that we weren’t interested.

Getting a Professional Cello on a Very Low Budget

Both Melissa’s and my cellos are of definite professional quality: dark complex sound, great volume and projection, Belgian-chocolate C-string, warm focused A, and wonderfully even from one to the next. I have to admit (reluctantly) that Melissa’s is slightly better than mine.

Neither cello is of discernable pedigree. Melissa’s is smallish, made somewhere in the northern part of Germany around 1880 and has an average number of repairs for a cello of its age. Mine is about the same age, larger in size, probably made somewhere south of where Melissa’s was made and 8 years ago was in over 100 pieces. It was repaired in our shop by our assistant then and in hundreds of rehearsals and performances since, has not had so much as an open seam. Each would sell in our shop for just a few thousand dollars.

If you are looking for cello with a big pedigree, you may or may not get great sound and response, but you will get a big price tag. Stradivari and his Italian successors have made some wonderful instruments with amazing workmanship, varnish, and sometimes sound (only a handful of Strads are concert instruments) which have captured the imagination (and certainly the market prices) of the string world. But experiments abound disproving what I feel is somewhat a myth that their sound is unmatched. In a previous Cello Chatter, I wrote about a simple experiment in a large hall where 3 violins: a Strad, a 1900’s German commercial instrument, and a new maker violin were played on stage by a very fine violinist. In the back of the hall were several musicians, including the three violinists who owned these instruments, facing away so that no one could see the violins that were being played. The votes for best sounding violin were about evenly split among the three candidates and, just as interesting, none of the three owners could identify their own violin.

Older cellos of any ilk are difficult to come by and older cellos selling for $5000 and less that are structurally solid are certainly not common. But Melissa and I are fortunate to be able to occasionally find these, and many are truly excellent players. Customers of ours across the U.S. and abroad who own these things write us telling how often other cellists have offered to purchase their cellos because of their sound.

Will a lower priced older European cello have repairs in it? Most likely. That’s why it’s lower priced. Is it more fragile than other cellos? Somewhat. But the repairs, if done well, are not what make it more fragile. As mentioned before, great sound comes from brittle wood, and brittle wood is more fragile: that’s why there are repairs in it in the first place. We’ve seen cellos survive collisions with everything from swinging doors to French Horns, but the kind of wood that gives and flexes with these kinds of accidents doesn’t produce very good sound. If you are patient (an enormously important virtue in finding an affordably priced, professional quality cello) look for a 70+ year-old instrument with its repairs guaranteed. They’re still findable.

Further Tonal Improvements to your Cello

Last time we discussed cello tonal improvement possibilities, mostly involving tailpiece & tailgut combinations. This time let’s consider things like strings, bridge, endpin and, yes, fingerboard.

Strings are an obvious and effective way to change the tone of your cello, but be aware that strings that work great on your stand-partner’s cello may actually have an adverse effect on the sound of your cello.

A teacher I know used to tell all of his students to use Larsen A & D (strong), Pirastro Permanent Soloist G & C, and change the tailpiece to an Akustikus. All good products to be sure, we handle a lot of each, but not necessarily suited to all cellos, or all tastes.

Our best guess is that 90% of all serious cellists use either Larsen or Jargar A & D. You can sometimes tone down a strident A with a light gauge of either of those (although you will lose some power) or beef things up a bit with strong or forte gauge. Larsen also makes a soloist version which adds brightness. Like most brands of cello strings, Larsen A’s do not always match their D’s, and many cellists solve the problem by using a regular A and a soloist D.

For those who want even more focus, Pirastro Permanent (we handle the soloist only, the others don’t sound that great) A & D work well, as well as Pirastro’s Evah Pirazzi’s.

The G & C strings present more variety and much more of a challenge to find the ones best-suited to your cello. In the past 15 years, new technology and the use of exotic metals have revolutionized cello strings, but most especially the lower ones. There are others on the market, some costing big bucks, but these are the ones we find work the best: we’ll describe them in order from darkest to brightest. Remember we’re only talking about G & C strings here.

Jargar – these strings are DARK, meaning chocolatey, but not with a lot of focus, and can be very difficult to engage; but if you have an excessively bright, hugely sensitive cello, you may want to give these a try. They’re fairly reasonably priced also.

Next up the scale for us is Prim. These strings work on a surprising number of good cellos – a fine professional from Mississippi still puts them on his cello which he uses both for solo work and for his position as section principal of a major symphony. They are slightly less dark than Jargars and have none of the engagement difficulties. And they are the string bargain of the cello world at less than $40 for the pair.

One step up from that would be Spirocore Silver. The silver metal darkens the sound, but these strings have a bit more focus than Prims. Silver tarnishes more easily than some metals so wiping them down after each use is a good idea.

Helicore would be next up the brightness scale: the U.S. manufactured string uses an interesting combination of silver and tungsten. Silver, as we mentioned, provides a somewhat darker sound and tungsten a more soloistic brightness: the combination puts Helicore somewhere in the middle.

Larsen makes two versions of a tungsten G & C, the more expensive of the two having a slightly richer sound, which you would hope for given the 2nd-mortgage-type price tag.

Spirocore tungsten is probably the most popular G & C among our customers and perhaps world wide: it produces a solo sound which is a bit metallic for a couple weeks, but mellows out after use without losing the focus. They are also among the longest lasting G & C strings out there, possibly making them less expensive in the long run than they seem at first. Some cellists change them every 6 months but others, me among them, keep them in excess of 5 years.

Highest on the G & C brightness scale is Pirastro Permanent soloist, used by a fair number of customers looking for power.

Things to remember about strings:

If you change one or two strings, that change will affect the remaining strings: i.e. using a brighter G & C will result in a brighter A & D.

You may not need to change strings, especially G & C as often as some people recommend. The tungsten strings in particular can, to a point, get better with age.

Again, the strings that turned the sound of your friend’s cello into that of a concert Strad, may actually make your cello sound worse.

An A string that is still too strident can be nicely modified by putting a small rubber washer between the string and the bridge. You’d think that something like this would be available at the local hardware store, but I can only get them from string companies. Your local shop may have some if you can find them no where else.

Experimenting with strings can be expensive. Some shops, ours is one, will let you try strings without obligation. If are able to take advantage of this, it is the courteous thing to do to actually purchase the strings you’ve decided on from the shop rather than run out and mail order them from someone else.

Bridges. 30-some years ago, there weren’t many choices in cello bridges. To be sure there were varieties that had several hearts, or a slightly different configuration of waist and leg-length, but those were mainly decorator versions of the basic French-style bridge. Enter the Belgian bridge – actually in existence longer than I realized – a radical departure from the traditional French bridge, especially in the arch that the legs make.

Most of us are more familiar than we’d like to be with the McDonald’s “golden arches”. My limited knowledge of their history tells me (possibly erroneously) that they were modeled after the famous arch in St. Louis: the point being that these arches are in the shape of a parabola, which you fondly remember from your analytic geometry, and a parabola gives us the strongest geometric arch known to man. While the arch of the legs on most Belgian bridges is not a true parabola, it is close and is much better at resisting the downward force from the strings on a cello than is the arch from the traditional French bridge. The result is more focus. It may also enhance the lower strings and give some added richness to the entire sound, but often not. It will be result in a brighter sound than the standard French bridge so the dark richness you want may be more available from the French. It is noteworthy though, that today one-half or more of all performing cellists use Belgian bridges.

Now comes a dizzying array of foot-widths, the distance between the outside edge of each bridge foot. For many years 90mm and 92mm foot width were the only ones easily available. Now luthiers use widths in excess of 96mm. Interestingly, we’ve found that narrower foot widths often work better for more focus without stridency: the most common cello bridge in our shop is a special-ordered 86 mm Belgian. This bridge has the added bonus of having a much lower heart, meaning more wood between the heart and the strings which adds richness.

A number of French bridges are using a sturdier arch than older styles, so quite a variety is available depending on what you want to achieve.

When I was studying restoration and repair, I was taught that the width of the bridge foot was dependent on the placement of the bassbar for optimum sound: the foot had to extend about 4mm past the outside of the bar. My experience has led me to believe that this is not the case and that sound can often be improved by departing from this rule.

Removing wood on various parts of the bridge will also change the sound. We won’t go into great detail here: your luthier is probably into such things and can discuss them with you when you go for a new bridge.

What do Melissa and I use? Both of us use Belgian, Melissa’s is 86mm, mine is 90mm.

Now let’s look at endpins. Various companies have, in the past few years, developed exotic-materials endpins that are claimed to be extremely light in weight and have the additional ability to transmit vibration (sound). To the floor, we presume. The claim is, of course, that your sound will be greatly enhanced by the use (i.e purchase) of this endpin.

Our experience is that in a concert stage setting, the large wooden box you are sitting on (the stage), can act, at least minimally, as an amplifier for your cello, which if it had the proper endpin, might come across as having a larger sound.

Both Melissa and I use steel endpins: the standard 5/16” diameter variety. Only we take the long, straight one out and substitute an old, somewhat shorter one that we’ve bent at 30-45 degrees, with a flat side ground on the part that enters the cello so that the thumb-screw will keep it from rotating while it’s in use. It’s a cheap version of something that cellist Paul Tortellier invented some 50 years ago. We like them because they make the cello (for each of us anyway) significantly more comfortable to hold, move with, and secure into a floor that would otherwise reject a straight endpin halfway into your big cadenza.

Here’s the interesting part. A colleague and I, in his house which has acoustically friendly wooden floors, tried both our cellos with four different endpins: a standard straight steel, a pricey ultra-light carbon fiber, a really pricey titanium, and my salvage bent steel endpin. My friend’s wife, a fine professional musician, listened from the adjoining room, not able to see which endpin was in use. We each played each cello with each endpin. The results: a tie for first place – the titanium and the bent one ($300 vs. $2.00), a close second and third were the carbon fiber and the straight endpin.

If the bent pin is effective in enhancing sound, my feeling is that it is probably because it allows the cello body to vibrate more freely rather than the pin transmitting sound through the floor.

Both my and Melissa’s personal opinion is that, despite the fact that some cellists think differently, the endpin is a variable with the ability to make only a small, possibly not audience discernable, difference in sound. The new exotic ones are attractive in part because they are something a cellist can purchase and often install her/himself without the aid and expense of a luthier.

Could Melissa and I make some money marketing these things with the right amount of hype? Probably. Would you really notice a significant difference in the sound of your cello after spending all that cash? Probably not.

So what about this fingerboard thing I spoke of at the beginning. Isn’t a fingerboard’s job simply to provide a stop-surface for the strings?

The initial design of the fingerboard back in the heyday of the gamba probably had that as its sole function. It was later discovered that it also provides your cello (or violin etc.) with a valuable stiffening device that keeps your instrument’s neck from warping, something that would almost certainly happen without a fingerboard.

But, as we discovered quite a few years ago in our shop, the fingerboard also has significant bearing on sound. Especially with bigger instruments like cellos and basses. Our mantra, that everything on your cello needs to vibrate well for maximum tone, extends big-time to the fingerboard. As a kid, or possibly as a parent, you probably played with popsicle sticks, holding them flat on the kitchen table with half the stick extending off the edge of the table, then thwanging them with your finger and delighting in the sound it made. Your fingerboard is very much like that popsicle stick and exactly how it vibrates will affect the tone of your cello. A lot. A cello that is dull and unresponsive very often has a fingerboard that is thick and undercut only partway back to the neck. Put your fingers underneath your fingerboard at the end nearest the bridge. You can feel a rounded undercut there. Now slide your fingers underneath the fingerboard and see if that rounded undercut goes all the way to the neck.

We found that we could significantly enhance a cello’s responsiveness and focus by undercutting the fingerboard all the way to the neck. However, if we took too much wood off, it could become tinney and whiney, correctable only by replacing it with a new fingerboard. A cello with a too-bright tone can often benefit from a heavier fingerboard – we use only the finest quality fingerboards we can find: they are usually denser – and leave them a bit thicker than normal, especially off the end of the neck. But we always fully undercut them.

Our recommendation is to not run out tomorrow and ask your luthier to undercut your fingerboard – although if you have a serious dullness and responsiveness issue, it may be a solution. The process is expensive and irreversible with your present fingerboard. If you need a new fingerboard for other reasons, think about what you are trying to achieve and ask your luthier to prepare it accordingly. Or if your luthier hasn’t considered this sort of thing before, email us and we can help you come up with some specifics.

There are other major operations that will change tone, but they involve the cello proper (nothing we’ve discussed deals with things that are an integral part of your cello) and the removal of wood. Regraduation is something we would rarely do to a cello we owned: we would never consider doing this to a customer’s cello. Even a bassbar is something we normally try to talk a customer out of replacing. We have great bassbar wood and feel that we are highly skilled in the installation and shaping of the bassbar. But if the tone is worse than before, there’s no way of going back.

As always, email or call if you have questions.