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.