Finding the right cello
Receiving admirers in his green room one evening, Jascha Heifetz was confronted by a delighted member of the audience who told him just how wonderful his violin sounded. Whereupon (so the story goes) Heifetz lifted the violin to his ear and said, quizzically, ‘I don’t hear anything!’
Heifetz’s point ‒ that it is the player who makes the sound, not the instrument – is as true today as it was then. It is also true that players need to find the right instrument to give them maximum freedom of expression. Working with the right instrument can be as fruitful and liberating for the cellist as a happy relationship with a life partner. So it’s no surprise that finding the right instrument is often as much of a challenge as finding your other half.
Even the process of trying cellos is like courtship; in the early days you may not be sure what it is that you are looking for. As you try each cello, you will be learning as much about your own needs, your likes and dislikes as you are learning about the personality of each instrument. Or you may start with pre-conceived ideas about what will suit you, but in the process of searching you may discover sounds and responses you had never thought possible. For a really fruitful relationship, you are likely to be seeking an instrument which will broaden your horizons as a player rather than one which is merely compatible with you.
When encountering a cello – or a person – for the first time, it can be difficult to judge their underlying qualities at first acquaintance. It sometimes requires experience, or the help of a luthier, to find what lies beneath the surface.
Set up: Every cello has a substantial range of different tonal complexions which are dependent on the set-up which the instrument has been given by the luthier. For example, the luthier may have chosen to set up a cello to give a broad, nutty timbre and good projection. This style may suit you beautifully, but if your sound priority is to have a mellow top string, you may reject the cello out of hand, unaware that it might have been your first choice with a different bridge, sound post and strings.
It is always worth discussing the set-up of the instruments you try, so that you can get a feeling for the range of tonal possibilities which each instrument offers. If you like a particular cello, but are uncomfortable with its response at the top end, it may be possible to adjust the sound post and strings to suit you better. For more valuable cellos it is sometimes possible to arrange for a new bridge to be cut to suit you better.
‘Resistance’ is the term given to the feeling experienced by the player under the bow. A cello that is set up with high resistance can be pushed harder by a powerful player and will project well in a large concert hall. However, a player not accustomed to such a hard set-up may find such an instrument unmanageable or difficult to play. It may also be that an instrument set up in such a way would be inappropriate in certain chamber music settings. If you feel the resistance of an instrument is too hard or too soft, it may be possible for a luthier to adjust the sound post and bridge to suit you. With skilled adjustment, the resistance of each individual string can also be controlled to suit the player.
Strings are a very important part of the set-up as they profoundly influence the style of sound that the instrument produces. If you are interested in a cello, it is worth experimenting with different strings in order to explore its potential further. Bear in mind that some strings may cause a cello to feel alien because they require a different bowing technique from your own.
Projection: It is very difficult to judge an instrument’s projection from the sound you hear ‘under the ear’ when you are sitting behind the cello. It is a great help to bring a friend or colleague with you to judge an instrument’s projection and the absolute ideal is to bring a fellow cellist with you who is happy to play instruments back to you, so you can judge their sound from a distance.
When you have an instrument out on approval, it makes sense to test it in as many different spaces as possible, including concert halls; a cello which sounds magnificent in a medium sized room may fail to project well in a larger space. If you are trying cellos in a busy festival or exhibition environment, you may find yourself preferring an instrument which has been set up to project well, but which may lack more subtle qualities of sound when you get it home to your music room.
Bows: There is an intimate three-way interaction between the bow, the instrument and the player. Sometimes there can be a strong match or mismatch between a particular cello and bow which can be good news, bad news, or just misleading. In order to limit the number of variables and the problems of discrimination, we always advise players to try out cellos with a familiar bow, even if a change of bow is part of the plan.
Acoustics: The size and acoustics of the room in which you play will have a profound effect on the sound you experience as a player and as a listener. If the acoustic is fairly dry, you are likely to hear a realistic impression of each instrument’s sound. However, if the room has its own resonance it likely to be very flattering to the cellos you try. So it is well worth taking time to assess the acoustic of the room in which you are trying cellos. The simplest way to do this is to bring your current instrument with you, and to use it to test the acoustic.“It can be alarming to think that the tools we’ve been perfectly happy with for years can be improved upon and it can be overwhelming to try too many different sounding instruments (the wine tasters suggest a limit of three or four). However, we need to play on other cellos and bows, even if we are not thinking of buying, just to expose ourselves to different tonal possibilities. As a matter of fact I make a point of playing on the cellos of my students in lessons and I’ve noticed that at first the positives show themselves… it is a pleasure to find things that are easier than on my own cello. It’s only after a much more rigorous workout that I become aware of the problems of an instrument and it requires some considerable time to determine whether these problems can be overcome. Here perhaps the marriage analogy is more appropriate than the wine-tasting!” Colin Carr
© Robin Aitchison and Sarah Mnatzaganian 2007