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:

Sunscreen

Raincoats

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.

Melissa

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.

Melissa

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.

Melissa

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?

Melissa

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!

Melissa

Reflections

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.

Best,

Melissa

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.

Best,

Melissa

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.

What can be Done to My Cello to Make it Sound Better?

Short of getting a different cello, most cellists at one time or another are interested in improving the sound and playability of their instrument. Is there really that much that can be done to improve a cello, or should we be resigned to accepting its sound as our lot in our musical life?

Most of us have heard stories about string players who have taken their instruments to ‘great shops’ (most stories place these shops in NYC or London) to have their “sound adjusted”. An attendant, in impeccable dress shirt and crisp tie under a spotless white lab coat, peers dubiously over “expert” glasses at the instrument in front of him, silently takes it to the “master” in the back room (no customer has ever actually seen the master), and returns 15 minutes later with the soundpost critically adjusted. The musician tries the instrument, narrowly avoids swooning over the almost unbelievable improvement in sound, gladly coughs up several hundred dollars for the experience, and leaves convinced that he or she has come into contact with a power just this side of God.

In fact, a correctly placed soundpost is an important part of any violin-family instrument’s health and optimum sound. A post at the wrong tension or location can adversely affect both the tone and playability: but it is only one of several adjustments possible and, contrary to popular belief, there are other things that will have a much more pronounced effect than a small soundpost adjustment.

The most easily changed set-up item that can have a pronounced effect on your cello’s sound is the tailpiece/tailgut combination. (The wood “tailgut” is actually a somewhat archaic word derived from the now-rare use of real gut to connect the tailpiece around the endpin: “hanger” is often used now, but I prefer the old one. Sorry.)

There are essentially six different types of tailpieces that we use for cellos in the shop: 1. traditional wood: ebony, rosewood or boxwood, 2. traditional wood with fine tuners built in, 3. metal with fine tuners, 4. hard plastic with fine tuners, 5. soft plastic with fine tuners, and 6. composite material (like carbon fiber) with fine tuners.

There are four different tailguts that we consider: 1. real gut – great sound but it does break. 2. plastic with threaded ends for easy after-length adjustment, 3. wire, 4. non-stretch cord.

First the tailpieces. Our basic principal is that if you want more sound and brighter sound, use the lightest (in weight) and hardest possible tailpiece available, and attach it with the material that lets it flex the most. The two tailpieces in this category that we use are the hard plastic and the composite. We’ve found that the two are fairly comparable in result with the plastic actually sounding better in most cases: which is good news since the hard plastic is about 1/5 the cost of the composite even if it doesn’t have quite the status. For even more focus try a wire tailgut: or if you really need to boost the focus, try a metal tailpiece with wire. To darken things a bit, try the non-stetch cord (our favorite) which we carry in three different diameters, the smallest causing the brightest result and working backwards from there. For a cello that is too bright, try the old wooden tailpiece – ebony is the densest – with 4 auxillary fine-tuners added, and attach it with the plastic tailgut. (Those of you with a mathematics bent have probably by now calculated that there are 24 permutations of these tailpiece/tailgut possibilities). In short, heavy tailpiece + stiff tailgut = darker, somewhat quieter sound. Light tailpiece + flexible tailgut = bigger, brighter sound. Most cellists who experiment with these things end up with something in between.

Pay attention to your after-length – the distance between your bridge and tailpiece. 120 mm is spec., but you can darken your sound with less (as well as make wolf-notes less noticeable) or enlarge and brighten your sound with more.

By the way, should you want a little less squawk or twang from your A string, try a barrel-type wolf note eliminator attached about ½ way between your bridge and your tailpiece on your A string.

There are tons more things that can be done to improve the sound of your cello; we’ll continue with more of those next time.

What Repairs are Acceptable in the Cello You're Buying?

A cellist from Georgia wrote us that although she prefers older cellos, she doesn’t want to own a cello with repairs in certain areas, or a lot of repairs in general. A nearby cellist who plays in a major symphony was able to afford the cello of his dreams because it has a (well-repaired) soundpost crack in the back. A customer from the Midwest, who purchased a late 19th century German cello with loads of repairs from us about 6 years ago for a very good price, still tells us about how he wows people with its sound and continues to send customers to us on a regular basis looking for something similar.

Is there some rule of thumb about purchasing a cello with repairs in it?

First, unless it’s free, be careful of purchasing a cello from a private party (including over the internet) unless you’ve had it thoroughly checked by a qualified luthier. More than one customer has brought an internet treasure into our shop only to find out that the necessary repairs to make it structural and playable would cost more than the value of the cello itself.

Second, old cellos of any ilk are scarce. In the lower price ranges, what was purchasable for $5000 10-15 years ago, is close to $15,000 now.

Third, much depends on how you feel about the sound you want, and what you’re emotionally able to accept in existing, repaired damage.

There are tons of new cellos out there from many parts of the globe (some of them surprisingly remote) but many cellists are discovering that the sound they are looking for is more likely to exist in an older (70 years or more) cello. The exposure of European Spruce to ultraviolet light, as well as its experience of being vibrated for an uncountable number of hours, gives it a brittleness and resonance that no known treatment of new wood can duplicate. The problem is finding one with your sound that you can afford.

Here are some facts that may help you better understand the possibilities. First some information on specific repairs:

1. A cello is devalued if it has a repaired bassbar crack (20-40%), a repaired soundpost crack in the top (30-50%), a repaired soundpost crack in the back (40-75%), although any of the above repairs, or any other repairs, if done properly, will result in the cello NOT being any weaker in the repaired area than before the damage occurred.

2. Instruments with a repaired neck-heel crack, neck crack, or a glued pegbox crack (no cheek patch) are suspect. I know of only one repair (other than a neck-graft) that will indefinitely hold a cracked neck heel – especially if the crack is near the fingerboard - and most luthiers don’t do it. A repaired break in the neck itself is chancy at best, and if you see a glued pegbox crack, it necessarily won’t have a cheek patch (which would hide the crack). A cheek-patch is relatively expensive.

3. If the button looks like it has been broken and glued back in, make sure that it is reinforced with a doubling inside or that it is a new grafted button. A luthier can spot both of these. These are both somewhat expensive repairs but once done make things as strong as new.

So if a cello has repairs in it, what can you expect?

1. A cello without repairs will be considerably more expensive than its counterpart with repairs.

2. It is not unusual for good sounding cellos to be slightly more fragile (and therefore over time accumulate more repairs) than cellos that do not sound so good. Brittle wood usually makes for better sound. This goes for new as well as older cellos, but the brittleness of wood does increase with age and is more likely to occur in older cellos. A cello with some repairs may indicate one with good sound.

3. A cello with a number of repairs, despite what some people (including dealers who wish to sell you new cellos or older cellos with few or no repairs) may say, is not dramatically more likely than other cellos to give its owner unusual problems provided the repairs are done well.

We know many cellists who own older instruments with various numbers and types of repairs. They’re in love with them, and none of these owners have more problems than cellists with newer or repair-free older instruments. Both Melissa and I own and love century-old cellos with several repairs in them: mine had suffered a serious fall before it first came into the shop and the number of separate pieces was close to 50. During the 6 years since its restoration, it has endured annual frigid, dry winters, the same number of sweltering, humid summers, been schlepped to and played in rehearsals and concerts up to 4 & 5 times a week, traveled to various American States and Canadian Provinces, and has not had so much as a seam come unglued. Yes, I’m a luthier and I can take a chance on such things and no, I wouldn’t put a cello with 50-odd repairs up for sale in our shop. But my experience with my repaired cello’s stability is far more the rule than the exception.

Since we sell nearly equal numbers of new and old cellos, we have no particular interest in promoting one over the other. But if things about old cellos interest you, you can sometimes pick up same fabulous players for not a lot of money. There will be some repairs in them; but make sure the repairs are done well and guaranteed and you can own a cello that not only plays terrifically, but also doesn’t keep you awake at night worrying that it will fall apart.

When is a Cello Worth Restoring?

“Restoration” , as we’ll use it in this text, refers to the act of bringing a stringed instrument as close as possible to new condition using as much of the original material as is feasible.

A full restoration normally results in all of the repairs being made invisible (a very time-consuming and expensive process), and having the original varnish looking as unblemished as possible. Missing exterior wood is in some instances replaced with wood removed from the inside of the instrument, or if that is not possible, replaced with wood of the same age, from the same geographical area, and visually similar if not nearly identical.

Full restorations incorporating the above are usually reserved for important Italian instruments, and undertaken only by the handful of luthiers qualified to do them.

Restorations, however do not have to this extensive, and in fact can encompass only what makes sense for the instrument and its owner. A few years ago it didn’t make a great deal of sense to restore, or in some cases even repair, 100 year-old German commercial instruments. Now that they have become scarce, and in many cases their old sound more mature and desirable than anything new, their current value suggests that it may make sense to consider at least a partial restoration.

Here are a couple examples. A cello was sent to us from the Midwest: a nice maker-instrument from early 1900’s Germany, purchased at a good price from a reputable auction. Excessive use of dampits (read the Cello Chatter on humidifying your instrument) caused extensive warping and even rotting damage in the lower bout area near the endpin, and invited a colony of woodworms to take residence there. The worms gradually ate most of the wood between the varnish and the inside of the rib area near the endpin, leaving almost no structure to the wood. Any small trauma, like a bump or even a tap, caused cracks and just general collapse. Outside this area however, the cello was in very nice condition.

We removed the part of the two lower bout ribs that could not be repaired, grafted new (actually old but solid) wood onto the good part of these ribs, varnished to match (the splice was almost unnoticeable), did a few other repairs and the cello was in great condition. Even with the cost of the repairs and the cost of the cello at the auction, the Midwest customer paid far less than the cello was worth when it was done.

What about an older cello whose accepted monetary value in repaired condition (remember that great sound has little to do with a cello’s net worth) is, let’s say $3500. You paid $3000 for it, the neck is loose and needs to be reset, there are some cracks in the ribs where your 8 year-old brother (or son) inadvertently dropped a baseball on it, and you’ve noticed another crack in the top because you thought that you really didn’t need to humidify the cello’s living space this winter. Your luthier said that it would cost about $1000 to fix what ails it, and you would then have more into it than it is worth. But you love the sound: in fact you played some new cellos in the local shop and you hated all of them, and they cost $4000 - $7000.

My thought is that if you have an older instrument that works for you, it makes sense to consider repairing and/or restoring it as long as it doesn’t outlandishly exceed its current appraisal. As shop owners, we would make far more money selling you a new $4000 cello than we would restoring yours. But old sound is lovely and increasingly hard to come by. And instruments with properly-done repairs play as well as those without repairs at all. They just aren’t worth as much.

Other than the restoration cost grossly exceeding the instrument’s value, when is it not a good idea to restore a cello? Recently we were offered a German cello from the 1920’s. It was in decent condition, although it began life on the other side of the tracks with a thick sprayed varnish (somewhat unusual in my German-commercial experience), and somewhat rough workmanship. It played ok, but what finally held us back was that the top had been regraduated (its thickness reduced), fairly recently judging by the color of the interior wood, to the point where it was simply too thin in critical places. The purpose of regraduation is usually to try to darken the tone but the effects, if the procedure goes too far, are usually temporary if the process works at all. The weakened plate eventually can produce less and less sound, and be vulnerable to cracking and sinking. Instruments sometimes survive excessive thinning, but in our opinion it isn’t worth the risk. And it doesn’t make sense to restore one of these unless it is fairly valuable and worth the high cost of a chest patch which may or may not rescue the tone.

As mentioned, older cellos are not as easy to find as they once were. If you have one, find a luthier you feel good about and discuss it with him/her. It might be worth some work and you might end up with a cello that is not only structurally better and much more pleasing to look at, but one with a sound even nicer than it had.

Facts & Fictions About Bows

Instruments in general and cellos in particular are often a mystery to their players. And even luthiers who claim to know everything about cellos cannot consistently craft or adjust a cello to sound terrific. Bows, however, have a mystique all their own.

If you’ve ever sat in a room and listed to a cellist try a variety of bows, you know that different bows can make remarkably different sounds on the same instrument. Which leads to several questions: 1. will a bow a that makes a better sound on one cello than bow b, also make a better sound than bow b on another cello? 2. Will the same results with the same bows and cellos occur if the cellist is different? 3. Will a bow that makes a better sound also feel better to play? 4. Does more money always buy you a better bow?

Let’s start with #3, since it has the shortest answer. A bow that feels good in your hand will often sound better on a given cello than one that doesn’t feel as good, but there are lots of exceptions. We had recent first-hand experience with two cellists, one an intermediate amateur, and one a young national contest winner headed for a career. Both tried bows that felt slightly less good in their hands but produced much better sound to all who were listening, including musicians the cellists brought with them. It’s important to have a bow in your hand that feels good, but make sure it produces the best sound for you.

In regard to questions 1. & 2., a cello needs to fit the cellist: make the sound the cellist is looking for, project and be heard in the situations in which the cellist plays. A bow has to go one step further: it has to fit the cellist, but it also has to fit the cello. Many cellists are surprised to discover that the bow that played just fine on their old cello doesn’t do as well on the cello of their dreams that they just purchased; they find that a different bow makes that better cello even better. And a bow that works great on a particular cello for one person, very often doesn’t do so well on that same cello for another.

What makes a bow work. Like a cello, great workmanship counts big-time. An important goal is to make a bow produce great sound over the entire length of its stick, and not have “dead spots” at any point (which can convince the cellist that his or her technique is faulty, possibly unfixably so, and therefore depression medication is called for). The skill required here is that which cambers (bends) the bow uniformly, much more difficult at the ends than the middle, so that there is uniform flex at all points. Obviously a great piece of wood helps also. A maker bow graduates and cambers the stick according to the characteristics of the piece of wood she or he is working with, and gets the maximum from that particular stick. Less expensive, more commercial bows graduate and camber everything the same: if the planets are all in the right place, you can occasionally find a great playing commercial bow: the cambering was done more uniformly and the graduation happened to match the wood that was being worked. Probably more than cellos, more money can buy you more bow, and it’s good to support fine bowmakers who make their living providing the world with a top-drawer bows; but if you’re on a budget, look around. The commercial companies are getting better at their product, and we’ve sold some amazingly inexpensive bows to national-class cellists who rejected bows costing literally 50 times as much.

Your Cello in Summertime

Summer in Vermont is beautiful: hot, but much less so than most of the rest of the country, lush vegetation and – we are in the east after all – humid.

It is the humid part, probably more than heat, that will affect our beloved cellos. As we talked about in the Cello Chatter on humidity (mostly winter conditions), the wood in our instruments expands in moist conditions, and shrinks in dry conditions.

In the summer, the various pieces of wood in your cello expand in such a way that they cause the angle of the neck to lower, resulting in an increased string height above the fingerboard. The amount of increase varies greatly from cello to cello, but most players find it necessary to have a second, shorter, bridge for summer playing. At the same time, the top and back are expanding in a direction perpendicular to the grain which, because of the arching, causes them both to pull away from the soundpost. A complicated way of saying that if you loosen your strings yourself to change to your summer bridge, your post will likely fall, causing you to use inappropriate vocabulary and necessitating a trip to your luthier before you can play again.

It’s not any better for your post to be this loose in the summer than it is to be tight in the winter, so June is a good time for your cello to visit the shop and have both the bridge changed and post adjusted. You may be amazed at how much more easily and beautifully your cello plays after you do this.

Another humidity-related annoyance is your pegs. In the winter, dry conditions can cause the pegs to shrink (it’s a little more complicated than that but it suits our purposes here) and you take your cello out of its case only to discover than all your strings are loose and your bridge is laying in the bottom of the case. Summertime is worse for pegs though. They swell, essentially, and when your fine tuners are maxed-out, requiring tuning from the pegs, you find them completely unmovable, stuck in their pegbox as solidly as if they were put there with Gorilla glue.

There are a number of wrong moves you can make here. The first is the "I’m stronger than any stuck peg" approach where you grasp the peg and exert the full force of your entire body on it. It may, on rare occasions, actually free the peg. It may, on not so rare occasions, break the peg, and/or pull a shoulder muscle (this happens more frequently than you might expect). Another is the tool approach – if I can’t turn it with my hand, by jiminy my new Sears vise-grips will get it. This almost guarantees a broken peg, a crushed thumbpiece and afterwards one of a number of possible mental states ranging from mild remorse to full suicide. My recommendation is to take the instrument to your luthier. If, in your mind, circumstances dictate that the problem MUST be fixed right now, take a piece of 3/8” dowel about 3” long, and gently tap it with a light hammer against the end of the peg, driving the peg out of the pegbox. Don’t get too aggressive or you can break the pegbox. A luthier is much more likely to be successful at this.

Leaving your cello in your car on a sunny summer day can cause serious problems also. The heat though a car window, absorbed by a dark colored case can reach temperatures hot enough to bubble varnish and/or do nasty damage to the wood. All involve costly repairs.

If you play outdoors (weddings, parties, outdoor concerts), you may want to consider a second cello, probably new and not hugely expensive, so that you’re not taking your 150 year old beauty into a lot of direct sunlight or sudden rainstorm (you can write anything you want into your wedding contract and still end up exposed to an unexpected downpour). Look in the $2000-4000 range: there are some perfectly fine-performing new instruments here. You may also want to consider an inexpensive composite bow for the same use.

The upside to all of this is that many, if not most cellos tend to sound better in the summer than winter: richer, fuller. And, at least in Vermont, most everything is nicer in the summertime than the winter.