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 briefly 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 better than mine.

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.

Looking for Cellos in the $2000-$7000 Price Range

$2000 - $7000 PRICE RANGE


No matter what cellos we have in inventory at any given time, the bulk of requests from customers comes for cellos in the above price class.

Which brings us to an oft-asked and somewhat sensitive question: how much do I have to spend to get the really great sound I want?

As dealers who have specialized in cellos for nearly 20 years, it is certainly in our interest to tell you that the more you spend, the better sound you will get. But from what we’ve experienced, this doesn’t necessarily follow. Are the great Strads out there in the performing world great players? You bet. But of the 60-some extant Strads, only a handful are considered concert instruments, although all will command big prices at auctions or private sales.

What really determines a cello’s financial worth is a combination of two things: pedigree - who made it (including when and where the maker worked) and its condition. Other things being equal, it is almost always financially better for a cello to be Italian than French, French than German etc. It is usually better to be older: 1700’s is more valuable than 1800’s etc. Please notice that nowhere is mentioned how an instrument sounds or what it’s like to play it. Not that these things aren’t hugely important to a buyer of a cello of any ilk: but it has little to do with the price.

Some years ago a group of people performed a trial in which three violins: a concert Strad, a new violin by a very reputable maker, and an early 1900’s German commercial violin where played on stage in a large hall by the owner of the Strad who was a concert violinist. A number of people, including the owners of the other two instruments, stood in the back of the hall facing AWAY FROM the stage so that they could not see the instruments. The listeners then rated each violin, and were asked which violin they thought they were listening to each time one was played. Interestingly all three violins received about equal ratings, and almost none of the listeners could identify which instrument they were listening to including the owners of the two non-Strads.

Many times in our shop, there is a cello which to almost all ears outplays all the others. In most cases, it is not the most expensive cello there, in some cases it is a fairly low priced one. It bears mention here that we do most of our “sound tests” so that the listeners are not facing the cellos.

Melissa, Rob and I have all gradually come to the conclusion that there can be something of a myth surrounding “important” instruments. That if a cello possesses the right pedigree, it will have a certain quality of sound. String players speak of the “Italian sound” and the “French sound”, neither of which I’ve ever found to be unique or even common among cellos with those specific ancestries. A number of years ago, a fine professional cellist I knew was performing on a late 1600’s Italian instrument. She spoke of its power and tone which was unique to its maker and that no cello that she had ever heard or played on had ever come close to it. A few years later she took it to a shop in New York to have some work done on it, and the shop’s expert informed her that her cello was actually a 150 year old German instrument with an Italian label. Crushed, she started to realize that she had indeed been mistaken about the sound: that it wasn’t the dark Italian tone that would only come from an instrument with that history, and that its power maybe wasn’t that large. Some time after that, another shop told her that it was actually what she first believed, and she resumed performing on it, confident in its Italian sound and power.

Another story involves a fine cellist in the southern U.S., a soloist and principal cellist for a major symphony. He came to us looking for a good playing cello to replace his current instrument, a fine French cello, which he had played on for years. He ended up purchasing an early 1900’s German commercial cello which played so well that his conductor, and a number of others believed had to be Italian. The cost of the cello was $5000.

Money can buy you pedigree (if you’re careful) but not necessarily sound. If you want great sound and are on a budget, look at cellos, especially (but not limited to) older ones, in the $2000-$7000 range. If the cello is old, the lower the price, usually the more repairs are in it. If the repairs are done well, the dealer should be able to guarantee them – fix them for free if they fail – for as long as you own the cello: which takes the fear out of them. Also, a cello with a lot of repairs doesn’t necessarily mean it is fragile, it may just have been treated roughly. Also, our experience is that great sounding cellos are often that way because the wood, especially the top, is brittle. And brittle wood cracks more easily than soft springy wood. But don’t shy away from these either, just treat them carefully as you would any cello.

If you spend time and look in the right places, you can eventually find a great player for less than $7000. Maybe a lot less.

Climate & Your Cello

My family and I live in Vermont. There are places in the continental U.S. and elsewhere in the world where the variations in climate can have a more pronounced effect on your cello, but not many. It's a good test ground for maintaining instruments: although most places have enough changes in weather to affect cellos in some way.

The effect of humidity on bowed instruments is a subject that, for some reason, has been discussed publicly only recently. Resulting studies indicate that a large percentage of cracks in violin-family instruments are weather related. It certainly seems to be true of instruments that come to our shop for repairs.

Here's what happens. Wood (all wood) swells when it absorbs moisture and shrinks when it loses it. Let's say your cello is very comfortable (at equilibrium) on a Vermont early-fall day: the temperature is in the high 60's, the humidity is 58%. The in February, you spend some serious time with below zero temperatures and humidity less than 10%. (If no humidity is added to your living space your cello is experiencing less than 5%). The wood in your spruce top slowly shrinks laterally – that means that the distance between the grain lines gets smaller – and the top pulls the ribs, or sides, with it. Only, after a short distance the ribs won’t go any further and one of two things happen: either the seams (where the top joins the ribs) open, or if the glue is too strong the top splits (cracks) causing a somewhat expensive repair and a lessened value for your instrument. This same scenario can occur on the ribs or (less frequently) the back.

It is encouraging to note that most tops are attached with an intentionally weak enough glue to, under weather stress, separate before cracks occur. Trouble is, you never know which will happen until something does. But it is also encouraging to realize that there is something that can be done to prevent either. ADD SOME HUMIDITY!

Forget the green plastic snakes you soak in water, wring out, then hang into your cello through the f-holes. As mild as their dampness seems, the water will collect at the bottom of the snake, then drip into the inside of your cello , almost always in the same place since you store your cello in the same position every night. Over time, sometimes several years, this water will rot blocks, dissolve glue, warp ribs, and do several other things that will necessitate costly repairs and make you think about shooting yourself. I still know people who swear by them: but using green snakes is a little like smoking – you’ve been doing it for years and everything seems fine.

I’ve noticed an impressive array of inside-the-case humidifiers on the market recently, some complete with digital hygrometers. And although I haven’t tried them, I have no reason to believe they won’t work: except that every time your instrument comes out of its case for practice or rehearsal, it is plunged into ambient humidity conditions.

Still the best system I know, and it’s not perfect, is to buy a room humidifier ($30-$150 at the hardware store; $1-$15 at a yard sale) and humidify your practice/cello-storage room. Buy a digital hygrometer. They’re not cheap but the pretty brass dial gauges almost always stick, usually at 50% which leads you to feel great about the humidity level while your cello is cracking in several places. Monitor your humidity level daily and don’t let it fall below 30%: not below 35% if possible.

Next time we’ll talk about some of the other effects of weather changes, and how to keep your cello playing great in all conditions.

More About Weather & Your Cello

A cellist (L.H.) from Minnesota writes: “I get all the stuff about humidity, in fact I’m a bit over the top in keeping my cello room as close to 40% as I can. I lug literally buckets of water a day there – spilling as I go – and I still have two problems. 1. At least once a season, I have seams open and need to be re-glued, and 2. My strings are always too low at this time each winter and too high in August. What am I doing wrong?”

Dear L.H.

Both things you describe are actually normal in your climate, or at least are not preventable by normal efforts. Remember that in the summer your humidity reaches 70-80%, and right now you are 40% at best, according to your letter. Your cello is gradually losing the moisture it acquired in August and depending on the sensitivity of the wood in your instrument – they do vary – things are going to contract. Hence open seams.

The string height question is an interesting one. Some people blame it all on the bridge shrinking, and to a minimal degree the bridge does shrink in the winter, but the bigger series of events is the combination of woods – top, back, ribs, block, all moving, or not moving relative to each other to force the neck angle to be higher in the winter than in the summer. Most cellists in Vermont have two bridges to allow for this: some have three. As the string height reaches critical numbers – too high or too low – a more appropriate bridge is put on.

By the way, like heart surgery and bungee jumping, I don’t recommend trying this at home. If you loosen all your strings to replace your bridge, your sound post can fall, or at least move. Have your luthier do it for you. At the same time he can do your seasonal post adjustment – critical in northern climes – and check for open seams and other cello misbehavior.

Next time we’ll talk about a topic with a little controversy – old vs. new cellos.

Your Next Cello: Old or New

Most photographs of any great cellist include a fine old instrument, usually Italian, usually 200-300 years old. Many players come to our shop specifically to try older instruments. Often people who do buy newer cellos prefer them to be antiqued so that they at least look old. Yet there are some great makers working today: are their instruments always going to be inferior to older ones, or is the old-instrument belief a myth?

Certainly an instrument dealer who sells only new cellos will be tempted to tell you that the old ones are fragile, any repairs will come apart, that you will have nothing but trouble, etc. A dealer of only older cellos will often distain new instruments as having a “new” (read tinny, not rich, inferior etc.) Is either right?

As dealers with an inventory of about equal numbers of new and old cellos, we have quite a bit of experience with both and it isn’t our financial interest to convince you to buy one over the other. Here are some facts that we believe to be true based on a lot of years working with both newer and older cellos:

1. There is a physical difference in new wood and old wood. Here’s an experience that we think is telling. A few years ago a customer’s 100 year-old bass had an accident in which the top was destroyed beyond repair. I first called colleagues looking for a good piece of wood to make a new top from; I didn’t find the wood I was looking for but did, almost unbelievably, locate a “new” top, which by some miracle was adaptable to the bass. The amazing part was that the top had been sitting in a shop for almost 100 years. What I learned from the process of cutting the purfling channel was that unlike cutting through wood a few years old, which the cutter goes through relatively easily, in the old top each winter grain (the grain lines you see in your cello top) almost completely stopped the cutter which had to re-sharpened with almost every grain. The winter grains in old wood are much harder than in new wood.

2. In my experience brittle wood sounds better than springy wood. Older wood is more likely to be brittle than new wood but this is not always the case.

3. There is in general an “old sound” and a “new sound” that is discernable when you try the two side by side: especially in a smaller space. Many people prefer the woodier sound of the older instruments, usually darker and, well, older. Interestingly this difference seems to diminish somewhat as the size of the performing space increases.

4. New-makers with supplies of old wood have eliminated some of the distinction between old and new sound: though not entirely since wood that has been vibrated for 100-300 years will sound “older” than wood of the same age that has not been vibrated.

5. Newer instruments (good ones) tend to have a slightly bigger sound than comparable quality older ones although there are a lot of exceptions to this..

6. Older cellos can be expensive, especially if they’re made by the right person from the right part of the world. Less expensive older cellos are becoming more difficult to find, but they do exist and some of them are great players.

7. Good sounding new cellos under $5000.00 do not all come from Europe anymore.

Next time we’ll talk specifically about cellos in the $2000-7000 range, both old and new: what to look for, and how to find a treasure.