I get several emails a week from students asking whether they should buy cello A or cello B, although cello C is lovely and has a single-piece back, here have a look at this picture, would a serial number help?
Ethically, I can’t offer any real advice without being in the same room with the instrument. But maybe I can help a little by guiding you through finding someone to be there in my stead, and informing you of what they’re going to be looking for.
Step 1. Find a local professional to help you.
If you don’t have an instructor, search one out. Where? Local colleges, ASTA studio search, google machine, ask colleagues. Then ask how much a consult will be. Yes, you will be paying for their time. It’s worth parting with $100 for expert advice when you’re about to take a multi-thousand dollar hit to the wallet.
Step 2. Set a budget and stick to it.
If you can afford $4000, you’ll want to play instruments between $2500 and $4500- the uppermost, mostly for comparison. Sometimes the cheaper instruments sound better! Don’t be swayed by caché! Are you shopping for a bow, too? What about a hard case to protect your new baby? These are not cheap afterthoughts. Most of the time a bow plus case will not be less than $1000, unless a used case is in the mix. The only advice I have here is to buy the lightest case you can afford, which means WITHOUT WHEELS. Wheels are only useful on silky-smooth surfaces without any bumps or seams. How many times do you find those? Maybe at an airport? Maybe a long hallway? Get a light case, invest in padded backpack straps, keep that baby close to you, and your arms free to open doors and karate chop evil-doers.
Step 3. Make an appointment at a reputable string shop.
Even if you’re going to be buying an instrument from an individual, it’s important for a luthier to have a look at the thing. They’ll look for:
- quality of prior repairs
- current damage (seams open, cracks, warps, structural and cosmetic stuff)
- quality of hardware and non-permanent stuff (pegs, fingerboard, tailpiece, bridge, endpin, soundpost, strings)
- construction and type of wood (single piece back? plywood? varnish?)
And likely other things I’m forgetting, because I’m no luthier! This is why we need experts. 🙂
Step 4. Play and listen, play and listen.
The cellist you hired will likely have a system of their own, but it will no doubt involve having you play the same examples on several cellos in rapid succession. Then they will play for you while you sit across the room. The cello sounds incredibly different right under your nose. Crackly bow changes can be lovely just 3 feet away. Silken tone can go tinny after the sound waves complete a 5-foot oscillation or two. It’s very important to hear your potential instruments from the point of view of the listener!
Play many cellos: as many as you can. I usually suggest no fewer than 5 or 6. Allegedly identical instruments from the same shop at the same price point can sound radically different.
You’ll usually exclude a few right off the bat, and then end up with 2 or 3 contenders. Make concrete statements about each one. Take notes if you like. They’ll say things like:
- easy tone
- rich low end
- bright A string (possibly change strings/soundpost adjustment)
- feels small in hand
- action too high (lower bridge?)
- significant wolf note (ask luthier?)
Don’t be afraid to ask a luthier to knock the soundpost around while you’re testing an instrument. It’s not difficult for them, and can do everything from increase resonance and fix a wolf note to balance lower and upper strings and make pitches speak more clearly.
Step 5. Choose two
Narrow things down between two main contenders, and listen to them again. Do not let current issues in your playing cloud your vision. As you improve, your sound will develop. Buying an instrument that quickly resolves one annoying idiosyncrasy is short sighted.
Step 6. Do a gut check.
Go with your gut, talk bows and cases, get the final figure. I’m not big on bargaining, but will say that if you feel like the all-in cost is only a little uncomfortable, ask if there’s a used or less expensive case that might put the grand total in a better place. Or, you can stick with your old bow and get the number down a bit. Don’t be afraid to ask if they’ll take a 2 or 3 payment installment plan. The worst they can say is no. There is no shame in being of limited means (and respecting those limits), no matter what our culture tells you.
But DO NOT bargain for the sake of bargaining. String shops selling instruments on consignment have hard bottom lines they can’t dip below, because they have to give the seller a fixed amount. Instruments that are owned by the shop may have a little more room built into the price, but you would be surprised how tightly they make the ends meet, even on multi-thousand dollar transactions.
If you’re in over your head, walk away. Sleep on it. Don’t feel pressured into a decision that will kill your credit score or doesn’t sit quite right. Know also, though, that if you buy a quality instrument from a reputable shop, your instrument will hold its value, whether that means trading it in for an even better one down the road, or selling it, if need be. This is not the case with cheap instruments, which hold no value at all.
Step 7. Get an estimate for insurance.
Some places will mail you an official valuation, others will send you home with one. Depending on the estimated value, you sometimes can cover your new cello under your homeowners/renters policy. More expensive instruments will require a specific musician’s firm, like Clarion, Allianz, or Anderson Group.
Step 8. Take care, and enjoy!
Don’t leave your cello in the car! Don’t leave it in the sun or near air conditioning or heat. Keep it humidified. Learn to straighten the bridge when the seasons start to change. Replace the strings when needed- this can range from every few months to a year or two. Clean the strings after you play to avoid GnarlGunk™ build up between the bridge and fingerboard. Wash your hands before you play, and use a soft cloth to clean the upper part of the fingerboard.
Instant upgrades you can make, once you have a feel for your instrument:
- new endpin assembly (carbon fiber can help resonance, maybe try some angle?)
- new strings (so expensive, and absolutely ESSENTIAL)
- geared pegs (to make it easier to tune and prolong string life)
- new bridge (not always necessary, but a good bridge is miraculous)
- new tailpiece (again, a real treat if resonance is an issue)
I hope this is helpful for you blossoming cellists out there. It is crucial for someone to advocate on your behalf and give any potential purchase a hard look without a vested interest in the sale of the instrument. The violin shop world can seem insular and intimidating, but just remember: your money spends just as well as anyone else’s, and you do not have to buy anything until you are ready.