Chinese Proverb

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

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Lesson #22 (08/29/11): Cello Testing #2 (Part 2 of 2)

Another thing I discovered while testing these two cellos which I've discussed with my teacher.

If I play one cello first for a couple of hours and then play the other, I prefer the first cello I played over the other!
  • If I play the Eastman cello first, the notes sound very rich and singing, and then when I play the Wultur cello next, it sounds overly loud and boomy. The Wultur cello is a naturally loud & robust cello
  • If I play the Wultur first, than it sounds rich with a certain presence, but then when I play the Eastmen afterwards, the Eastman sounds too quiet and lacks a rich quality

This was very confusing to me, but it made me think if there was anything on the psychology of buying a cello regarding how a person's ear is being TRAINED while they are doing a cello trial and how it affects their preferences, and what is the likelihood of someone purchasing a cello if the trial period is extended. 

I was thinking as long as comfort and playability aren’t factors (which I've now learned is a very important in looking for a cello, but was only looking for sound before), then the chance of returning the cello probably decreases because the person is training their ear to PREFER that specific sound. I think this may be a feedback mechanism… I'll have to research this further and post my findings!

This got me wondering how much of this affects my developing personal preference in sound and what is its lasting effect? So what happens if I play the same cello for 10+ years? How likely or how difficult will it be to find another great sounding cello since my ears would be so attuned to the sound of that particular cello?

Also, I was curious how much of the sound preference is influenced by the TEACHER. Since a student’s ear is still developing and is using their teacher’s cello as the point of reference!
I found it very odd that I had almost the EXACT same thoughts as my teacher about the sound of my cello when I changed out the strings!! I had brought a cello that I was testing to my lesson with the original strings, and then the following lesson brought it in with my new string selection. We both thought the cello sounded too bright and that the original strings sounded better! When he gave me his feedback on the strings during the lesson, his words were almost verbatim of my own thoughts regarding the string selection! It was very weird...I seriously thought he was reading my mind! Lol! :)

So subconsciously am I trying to find a cello that has a sound similar to that of my teachers?
I joked with my teacher that how would I know if his cello's sound was any good, since his was the one I was using as a reference point! However, I do think his is a great sounding cello - in comparison to other cellos as well.

Anyway, my teacher had come across this same issue when he recorded the same piece on different instruments and about half way into listening to each version his ear had gotten used to the way the cello sounded and liked it better than his original initial impression. Although this can also depend on recording quality, he's had his other fellow cellists listen and have the same issue.
So there is definitely an issue with getting used to a certain sound and not realizing it. I forgot what this was called, but we covered this in my Cognitive Psychology class, I'll have to look at the textbook and post some info on this.

However, my teacher did say if I don't like a particular sound, than I won't like it and my ear won't get used to it.

Here's a fun little experiment my teacher sent me:

Below are audio files of my teacher playing a tango. He's playing all 4 parts. He recorded the 4 tracks and then put them together. All of them are recorded at different locations with different mic mixes and different cello's or cello set ups.

Listen to the recordings:
  1. First impression: Listen to the beginning of each recording first and see what immediately grabs you. Describe it and explain why its your favorite
  2. Listen to the entire recording: What happens after listening to the whole recording and then move on the next. What changes?
  3. Skip to different sections: Listen and compare
    • I found this to be the easiest way to compare the recordings because my ear doesn't have time to get used to (desensitized) to the recordings
  4. Listen in different orders:  What happens to each recording? Does it sound different?

El Choclo (2011)
  • My teacher recorded this a few nights ago with his current cello and set up (with a French bridge)

El Choclo (Whedbee):
  • The cello used was a friend of his that he used for several years before finding one he liked better. The value of the instrument is $35,000, which he borrowed to make a Christmas recording and threw in this tango for fun

El Choclo (Walke):
  • This recording is right after my teacher purchased his current cello, and has different strings with a belgian bridge instead

I should post my thoughts on each, but I don't want to make this a three-parter!

Some good articles on music and listening. They're a bit too short with not enough information, but its a good start. I'll have to look at the original publications for more information...hmmm...maybe I'll post them and write a short blurb...


    1. hey there, my preference:
      looks like the current set-up is the one that best suit me, or the song. but in my imagination, no 2 would be my favorite for songs like waltz no 2 (shostakovich) but i dunno. my newbie ears do lie~

      p/s: i am SO learning this song ( el choclo)! maybe in 1 or 2 yrs :P but thanks for introducing us :)

    2. That was my preference too! 1>3>2! :)
      Definitely a beautiful piece!

    3. I prefered the belgian bridged one(3). Could that be for another reason besides the bridge I wonder? It sounded the almost the way I would prefer a cello to sound. But I would prefer a little .."sweeter" is the only way I could describe it. Less ..deep??
      I am trying. Your first several months worth of lessons are a lot to take in in just a week. And I don't even have my instrument yet.
      Thanks for all the meticulous details.

      1. Everyone is a bit different - you played the violin though right? :) So that makes sense. I would love to learn the double bass since it's SUPER deep and mellow, so it makes sense that I'd like the deeper one.

        Yeah, I start slacking off on notes after a while but I'll try to get back to where I was soon.

    4. Interesting! My own limited experience with mics is that dramatic differences presented here that are easily detected by mere mortals (ie students) are ones that are caused by mic placement & quality, adjusting gain, and room quality (not necessarily cello setup). I imagine that the differences picked up by your teacher's colleagues were more subtle differences that students like you and I might be able to "feel" but might not be able to articulate. For evidence of this, check out the recordings at Linda West's website. She can make a $3000 cello sound surprisingly similar to a $24,000 one (at least on a recording), and you can see this on the few occasions where she records pieces normally reserved for her high end instruments on better quality "student" cellos. Of course none of the above speaks to playability or projection in a live performance, but merely the recordable depth of the instrument/player's sound quality.

      As for wanting a cello that sounds like your teacher... I know the feeling!! And yet, when my teacher has played my humble Yamaha avc7 cello, it sounded remarkably similar to when she played her own (7/8) master crafted custom cello which has a sweet, rich and even booming voice. Though my tone and ears have dramatically improved, when I play my yamaha it still sounds more like a scratchy nasally violin by comparison to when she played it. This makes me think that by far the biggest component of sound quality is the player, not the instrument, especially if my teacher can make a student cello sound like a professional one. Having strings in tune, and playing perfectly in tune makes a HUGE difference in resonance. When I play an A properly on the C string, it sounds dramatically more resonant and sweet than when it is off by even 5 cents. You can see the A string resonate strongly in sympathy as much as if it where actually being played. I think this is a big part of why the cello takes a lifetime of dedication to master :)

      If you want to test your ears for becoming accustomed to the sounds your cellos make, then get a few different types of cello mute (orchestral, rubber practice, metal practice, etc) and try your best to make your cello sound like it does au naturale. Then play it unmuted and see how different the instrument sounds then before you ever put the mutes on! Some of the difference will be your ears adapting, and some of it will be the entrainment of your bow arm's adaptation to the conditions of each mute. Recording each step with a objective device with a full and honest frequency response like a Zoom mic will show exactly how different sounding the setups really were. A smartphone mic would also be objective, but not particularly accurate or sensitive.

      Sorry for the walloftext!! And thanks for reading :)

      1. Hi Ben,

        Thank you for sharing, and I totally agree. :) In fact, my teacher Adam had mentioned the same thing when I sent him a bunch of links from her website and asked him, "which one sounds better to you?" He kind of laughed and said I needed to have the cello in front of me and that recordings can sound different depending on recording equipment!

        Coincidentally, both of my cellos are from Linda West! ;). After testing a bunch of cellos, I knew for certain that I did NOT want a nasally or bright A, so I always tended to listen for a very mellow dark A string which I can kind of tell on the recordings. I’ve heard that professionals like brighter A strings to cut through the orchestra though, but again, I’m a newb! :). That’s the reason why I had my teacher play all of them and tell me which one was the best.

        I was also told that playing the instrument in tune helps to open up the cello faster because the strings will vibrate more and that does something to the wood or something… I don’t remember what my luthier said exactly…

        Relative tuning is difficult, but interesting! I’ve been learning about tuning a lot lately due to my lack thereof!! I was told I can be in tune with my instrument (sympathetic vibrations), in tune with members playing with me, or in tune with the key of the piece. Still learning how to tell when I’m in tune though, and I swear that both of my teachers have slightly different pitch centers too!

        That is a GREAT idea with the use of the mutes!! I will definitely try that out!! :)