Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lesson #18 (7/20/11): Finding a Cello

I'm currently in the process of finding a cello in the $3,500-$5,000 range, so we didn't go over any technique during this lesson, just tested out a couple of cellos I had out on trial: a Y. Chen Solo Montagnana cello and an Eastman 502 Lombardi Stradivarius cello. I don't want to mention any shop names until I make my decision on the cello.

We took some recordings of the cellos so I could listen to them later and  we discussed what we thought about each cello. I'd like to post the videos, but my teacher doesn't want them up.

My rental cello: Angel Taylor C110 Strad 4/4 Strad Model:

For the price $1,800, this cello had a lovely grain and had a lot of volume, but I returned my cello rental because:

1) It had a really bad wolf and it was a bit difficult to play. Even with a Lupx Wolf eliminator I could feel a wolf ready to come out on certain notes. Perhaps if I purchased a heavier eliminator it would have helped.

2) I couldn't make any changes to the cello, that is add posture pegs, update the endpin, etc. And did I mention that the C peg touching the back of my head was driving me nuts? ;). And causing my posture do do weird things because I was trying to avoid the peg.

3) When I played chords, there were a lot of notes that rang when they weren't supposed to! My teacher said he'd never seen a cello do this before.

Measurements (helpful to know when looking for a new cello):
Length: 29 3/4
Lower: 17
Upper: 13 1/2
Center: 9 1/4

I’ve learned so much about cellos – more than I expected and more than I wanted to know! I’ll have to post some of my findings in more detail. But some information for now.

Also, some good articles I found regarding finding a cello

What I’ve learned so far:
  • Find a knowledgeable luthier, friend, teacher, cellist, husband, etc. that can give you good honest advice.
  • Know what I want before shopping. I thought I knew, but apparently not!
    • I wanted a cello that "sounded good." Apparently, for me that's equivalent to "good tonal quality which is complex and rich." Also, I found out recently that I don’t particularly like “bright” cellos and that I prefer warm or darker sounding cellos!
    • I wanted a cello with good “playability” – my rental had a bad wolf and I couldn’t bow very fast without applying a lot of weight because I could feel the wolf ready to spring into action. I didn’t realize that it affected my bowing so much until I played a few cellos. I could bow faster much easier and still retain a good quality of sound. And, I was louder because I could bow faster!
    • I didn’t know I wanted power and projection until later. My rental cello was really loud and boomy. In fact, my husband says that it vibrates the walls upstairs. I assumed that all cellos were loud, but apparently not.
    • I know that sound is the most important part of picking out a cello, but I had reservations about cellos that looked “bad,” i.e. bad varnishes, lots of knots, lots of dings and scratches, etc. I know I’m a newb! I’m getting over that because the cellos I’ve tested all have some kind of weird aesthetic "issue." Trust me when I’ve heard the comment, “it adds character” more than a few dozen times.
      • The cello I’m currently thinking of buying has really bad varnish issues but has beat out cellos in the price range between $2,990 - $9,000! Although I haven’t tested it against anything more than $9,000.
      • It was discounted because of varnish issue (weird streaking on the cello, but not that noticeable), so it was only $3,200, but with all of the fittings I wanted its going to end up being $3,450.
        • My teacher’s cello is a professional cello and it’s really expensive, but it completely blows any of the cellos that I’ve looked at out of the water! I have some cello envy there! :)
  •  Asking about warranty
    • This sounds obvious, but I didn’t even think to ask if the shop or maker covers the workmanship or material until a shop owner reminded me! I was told to look for a warranty longer than 1 year. If the manufacturer won't provide I should look for a luthier that will back it up with their own warranty.
      • Eastman warranty: "its instruments to be free of defect in material and construction for the lifetime of the product."
      • Cleveland Violins warranty: “provides a lifetime warranty on material and workmanship to the original owner-not the product, which, depending on its interpretation, can work to your advantage (purchased directly from Cleveland Violins) or disadvantage (a luthier owned instrument). Warranty repairs or replacement can be arranged with the local dealer or with them directly."
  • I've done LOTS of research on cellos:
    • I’ve had to become familiar with the common “brands” or makers to have a good comparison because I can’t find good “deals” if I don’t know what’s out there. Some cellos that I've looked up were Eastman (which are all handmade with no machining) and Rudolph Doetsch (“American favorite German brand cellos”). I also looked into Heinrich Gill and J. Haide cellos, but they weren’t in my budget...darn!
  • I learned about basic cello patterns:
    • Some good info on patterns:
    • I’ve found that I’m more comfortable with Stradivarius patterns because the upper bouts are a bit smaller than the other patterns, and lengthwise it falls more comfortably against me. However, I love how the Montagnana cellos sound because I think they sound more deep and dark, but the upper bouts are too big for me. Gofrillers also sound good to me and seem to have a lot of power, but it’s also a big pattern. I have yet to test one. The Ruggeri is a smaller pattern, but I’ve found that these patterns are too bright and “sonorous,” and I prefer warmer or darker tones.
  • Basics fittings – I was fortunate that I could choose my fittings on one of the cellos I’m testing. However, I had to do some research because I didn’t realize that fittings affected the sound of the cello.
    • Endpin options - steel endpins, carbon fiber endpins, and bent endpins (Stahlhammer). Most people are switching to carbon fiber endpins because it opens up the sound and is much lighter. I was looking at bent endpins because I disliked the C peg touching the back of my head, but the posture peg fixed that.
    • Pegs – I wanted posture pegs (where the C peg is not there) because the peg touching the peg definitely drove me nuts! And I wanted mechanical pegs, either Planetary pegs or PegHeds because it’s easier to tune and they don’t slip! Planetary pegs are plastic and PegHeds are real wood so it can be made to match the tailpiece. Also, I learned about different peg styles just for fun (heart, swiss, strad, etc).
    • Different woods for fittings - types of woods used on fittings are Rosewood, Pernambuco, Ebony and Snakewood. Most commonly used is ebony because they’re the hardest, but more recently Pernambuco has become more popular because a recent study showed that this lighter wood opens up the sound more. I'll have to look for that study and post it.
    • Different varnishes - knowing about basic types of varnish can be important because it can affect the cello's sounds. There are spirit varnish, oil varnish, a mixture of both of those and I'm sure many more different kinds.
      • Spirit varnishes are pretty much at full cure from the start and are hard and affect the way the wood sounds. It is preferred that these cellos mature and mellow and round out a bit. 
      • Oil varnishes normally take about 2-4 years to really harden and set. They are soft and take some time to harden and come from the other end of the spectrum. The tone is rich and lush, but often times are not as loud. When these varnishes harden, they become more focused and ring more. 
      • In addition to varnishes, the wood itself is also changing which contributes even more to the maturity of the cello's voice as it ages.
    • Environment– I found out that cellos have to acclimate to their environment! Apparently, Colorado’s high elevation, lack of humidity and other environmental factors are not good for some cellos and can cause cracks if not properly acclimated. Therefore, luthiers will hold cellos for a few months (even up to a year or more!) to have them acclimate, and will also pop the seams and rework the fingerboard and then put the cellos back together! I didn't realize there was so much behind the scene things going on. 
      • Definitely a good idea to ask if the cello was set up by a local luthier and if there was anything done to the cello to acclimate it. They should know what you mean and if they don't - beware!
    • Strings – if it’s a new cello, the strings probably have not yet been broken in which can take about two weeks. So the cello may sound different later, which is also a good reason to have a 2 week trial period. Also the cello may need to settle, especially if it was shipped or just recently put together, or both! In which case, that will probably take longer for it to settle.
      • It's definitely a little weird playing a cello and realizing that it sounds completely different from a few days ago.

My advice:
  • Low ball your amount because this doesn’t include adjustments, strings or fittings that you may want. I wanted a posture peg for C, custom Pegheds and a D’Harmonie tailpiece! And I'll most likely be changing out the strings ($100+).
  • Take videos so you can watch and listen to it later. The cello will also sound differently behind the cello then from the front.
  • Do your research, makers, patterns, fittings, etc. – lots and lots of research! You'll be more knowledgeable and you'll find better deals.
  • Buy from a shop who will give you a trial period – THIS IS IMPORTANT! If they won’t give you a trial period -forget about it! Same goes with cellos on Craigslist or where-ever.
  • Bring your current cello along to any of your testings. It will give you a good point of comparison.
    • Get your teacher involved, even if they don't want to be! ;). It’s customary to pay your teacher when looking at cellos – just think of it as a lesson to look and learn about cellos!
    • The more you research, the more you’ll be aware if you come across a good “deal.” There a lot of cellos in the $7,000 - $12,000 range where the price has dropped because the seller is frustrated that they cannot sell their cello. The reason being:
      • 1) At this price range, these cellos are normally "workshop cellos," where there isn't one master luthier that completes the cello from beginning to end and these cellos values don't normally increase in value. However, there are some cellos that are made by one master luthier within that price range that do increase in value, so cellists are more willing to buy those instead or buy one that is brand new and made to their specifications.
      • 2) Beginner/Intermediate cellists like me have purchased a cello in the $3,000 - $5,000 range and sometimes there isn't that noticeable of a difference to justify spending more, so will jump to the next price range (which is what I'll probably end up doing when I get to that point).
        • I've found cellos like Frederich Wyss selling at $3,500 (normally around $6k), and William Harris Lee cellos selling at $8,500 (normally around $12k). Even good $3,000 German cellos selling at $1,800.
        • However, I think I'll be buying from a shop where I can trade in my cello and apply the cost of it to the next cello price range.
    I have LOTS more information on how to look for a cello, so I think I'll post them separately. I also have some really good advice from luthiers on how to pick out cellos too.

    1 comment:

    1. Hey There! I am also searching for a cello, but am not nearly as far as you in technique/learning process.

      Do you mind if I email you some questions? I am in the Denver, CO area and would love to correspond with you if you were so willing? my email is griffin (at) mountastic (dot) com