The other morning, I woke up with a bee in my bonnet. That bee has a name, and that name is, “Emily, you need a better cello.”

I do not like this name, or the bee himself very much, but he tells the truth.

So I took my current cello and Mr. Bee down to The House Weaver in Bethesda and took my first step towards new cello-ship. I have guided many students through the process of purchasing a high-end instrument, and find myself strangely lucky to have been saddled with this particular cello, whose frailties echo my own and force me to practice in a concerted manner. Now that I am healed from the surgery and steadily playing, I can see that almost all of the dissatisfaction with tone and even technique is inherent in my current instrument.

Some examples?

No matter what A string I use (and I have tried them all), it is an entirely different, brighter, brassier character than the rest of the instrument. This has gotten much worse with the move east.

It is nearly impossible to get thumb position 5ths in tune, and 4th position on the D and G strings is torturous, due to the deep groove in my paleolithic fingerboard.

The pegbox has been re-drilled twice, and makes tuning (and staying in tune) a little tricky. Pegheds are not an option, because the guy who did the last drilling made the holes far too large. Even if we bushed them, they do not make Pegheds large enough for these abominations. Yes, I am trying to work on forgiveness. It’s a long road. Chop wood, carry water.

The C and G are warm, but not deep. Up high on the D sounds strained in comparison to even some inexpensive student instruments. This, too, has gotten worse in the move eastward.

Bill offered some fixes for these issues. Of course I can get a new fingerboard (and that necessitates a new bridge). He could take it apart and cleat the old repairs and put a new bass bar in. Try a new string configuration. I don’t think he saw me as a professional when I brought this instrument in, because he said, “Then it will sound just like all of these other good student cellos!”

I blanched. Sigh.

After that steaming plate of humble pie (which never killed anyone, so I did my best to look happy), I asked about the next level up.

(raised eyebrows)

“Well, then you’re looking at investment level instruments.”

I leaned over and showed him my left elbow. His face inquired. I said,

“I am a professional cellist, if you can believe it! A year ago, I had surgery to move my ulnar nerve so I could once again be taken seriously as a performer. The cello has been the center of my life since I was a child, but for the years leading up to the surgery, it seemed doubtful I’d ever recover. So buying a cello that costs as much as a Mercedes seemed like a lavish act of hope. I’ve been teaching, and writing, going back to school to broaden my skillset, and I will continue to do all of those things. But in the last 25 years, I have never gone more than a week without playing, or teaching, or in the days when I was injured or recovering from the surgery, longing for my instrument.  I think, given all of that, and how lucky I have been to make a living in music despite these challenges…that perhaps the only cello that would be appropriate for me at this point is one that could be described as investment level.”

“Here. Try this Italian one.”

And I did. And I love it. More soon.

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12 Responses

  1. As it will be years before I out-grow my cello, and likely next to forever before I'm in the market for an investment quality instrument, I look forward to living vicariously through your posts as you research and acquire a new cello.

  2. When it was time to upgrade my 3/4 size to a 7/8ths in 7th grade I was so excited. I loved the 7/8ths I traded up for and it took me through college auditions and through my first year of college. Then I had the talk with my professor and he sat me down and broke the news to me that my 7/8ths wasn't giving me enough sound and that I needed to be playing on a full size. In my mind no full size would be able to match my beloved 7/8ths. So that summer I did the long search. Not only was my budget small, I had the notion that the better the cello was the higher the price tag. I wasn't finding one I absolutely loved so I was definitely getting frustrated. Finally, I found one that I not only absolutely loved and one that wasn't going to break the bank.

    To anyone who's looking, it could take months and months but don't give up nor settle with a mediocre cello that you don't love. It's an investment that you'll be keeping for a long time hopefully so keep looking until you find "the one". I also then was set with the task of matching the perfect set of strings with my instrument and found that a Jargar/Pirastro combination was the right fit. String shopping is also super important. The right strings can turn a good cello into a great one. =)

  3. Of course, if you buy an "investment level" instrument, it will be your investment. And it would be a great one. If it's a instrument by an important maker, the amount it will appreciate would probably be at a greater level than your interest on a loan for it. You do have to factor in insurance payments (which you cannot–and really should not–take out loans to pay). Do the math. Get help with the math.

    But, before buying anything, get a second and a third opinion concerning authenticity and condition. Also, make sure to check out the reputation of your dealer. There are dealers who will inflate the price of an instrument so that they can make a huge profit.

    There are a lot of people who know a lot about instruments who can help you.

  4. Thanks, Elaine. Perhaps my honesty about the process has made me look like more of a fool than I am. While I surely will seek counsel and multiple opinions, I have seen more than 40 people through the process. Appraisals, insurance, cost calculations, trade in vs consignment, supplemental insurance, BBB, and online research, the whole shebang. Please do not think that the quality of my instrument is an accurate measure of my capabilities.

    1. Emily,
      I cried a little just now reading this blog entry. I came across you searching thru google for suggestions on how to upgrade my own cello. I am in a very similar pickle right now, and have been a little down because its seemed like no one quite understood why my cello doesnt cut it, and ive been so scared to venture forth to upgrade at a ‘serious’ store.

      I am a professional cellist and music teacher as well, and sometimes it saddens me that my students’s cellos are of higher quality than my own.
      Now, here I am getting ready to call appointments at violin shops tomorrow…to see my options, and if I should look into rent-to-own, or if that is a step back or what……………………………….
      I feel a lot of nervousness to ask the questions I need answers to them, as I fear being seen as pedestrian with my intermediate student cello.

      Now, if you dont mind me asking, in your cello journey, did you by chance ask about trading up your old cello for credit toward your investment? Thats something ive been wondering, in my own situation.

      again, i truly appreciate this entry and can relate. if you’ve any advice, id sure appreciate it!

      1. Inky! Yep, I asked about trade-in. Many places don’t want to do that because that cuts into the “pure profit” model of business. But for me, it’s not hardball. It’s no-ball. If they can’t take my cello as part of the payment, then I’m never going to be able to get another instrument!

        About 20% of my students have cellos that are of a higher quality than my own. Instead of getting down about it, I mostly think of how fortunate I am to

        1. have students who can pay my rates (so can afford a killer instrument)
        2. have students who don’t play some CraigsList monstrosity cello that sounds like ass
        3. probably still sound better because technique trumps instrument quality

        Cry happy tears. Our job pays nothing, but it’s a pretty stellar life anyway. 🙂

  5. My best wishes through your cello search! I am looking forward to reading about it.

    Would you consider talking to Christopher Dungey, who would work with you and build a cello to your specifications? I am so happy with mine and every professional cellist who has played it loves it.

  6. I got a crash course in cello values when I had my cello reconditioned recently after abandoning it for several decades. I went into sticker shock when I got a bill for $1100, since it cost only $300 when my father bought it for me. That was in 1955, however, and the cello is a 1924 Roth that's well worth the repair bill and then some. Since I played a really vile viol in my younger days and am unlikely to get a great deal better, this cello will always be better than I am. I guess the secret is to get a decent cello when you're really young and hang onto it until you're really old.

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