Cello: Instrument, Bow and Setup
WHY PLAY AN INSTRUMENT?
In the beginning was ………. the voice. And a few sticks and stones for percussion, but definitely not the cello (nor any of our other sophisticated melodic and harmonic instruments).
We are all originally, naturally, potentially, singers: born with a most beautiful instrument (the voice) attached. Our voice, unlike all other instruments, can be neither chosen nor exchanged. We just have to accept the one we were born with, and live with it forever. Our only choice regarding our voice as a musical instrument is whether or not we want to sing with it. The voice costs nothing, is easily transportable, can’t be knocked over and broken, requires no expensive mechanical accessories (strings etc) and little external maintenance. It also requires infinitely fewer hours of mechanical training. Whereas string players and pianists need to spend many hours practising every day, for singers, this is absolutely prohibited.
Why then do so many people nowadays learn instruments, but so few people sing? And why is it that most instrumental players don’t even sing at all! This predominance of instrumental playing over singing is the perfect reflection of certain unhealthy characteristics of modern “industrialized” society, in which all things technological (man-made) are glorified while all things natural are taken for granted (undervalued). This is a deeply entrenched philosophy of our times, leading not only to less singing but also ultimately to the ecological (and psychosocial) degradation that we are increasingly experiencing. The following dichotomies (contrasting pairs) reflect these same unhealthy, unbalanced values of modern society that we see in the “Instrument/Voice” and “Technology/Nature” examples. In each pair, which is the part that is more “valued” by our modern societies?
Think/Feel Have/Be Do/Be Individual/Group Memorise/Understand Art/Nature
Money/Worth Pleasure/Happiness Compete/Cooperate Medicines/Health Physical/Spiritual
Sex/Love Mass Communication/Intimacy Style/Substance Virtual/Real Religion/Philosophy
This is however an enormous philosophical digression……. so let’s sing our way slowly back to cellos.
Whereas singers are born with their instrument, instrumental players must choose – and pay for – their “voice”. For wind and brass players, choosing an instrument is like buying a car. Normally the newest is the best, quality is relatively standardised, and prices are closely related to quality. For string players, however, choosing and buying an instrument is more complicated and, for a good instrument, often much much more expensive.
WHY THE CELLO (OR WHY NOT)?
The cello is a truly beautiful-sounding instrument. Its pitch range is the closest of all the string family to the human voice. On the cello we have a wonderful mix of roles, sometimes playing the bass (harmony) lines, sometimes the mid-range accompaniments and at other times being the melodic protagonist. All this gives us many good reasons to want to play the cello. Unfortunately, however, it is a difficult instrument to play well, largely because of certain design characteristics (faults?) related to its large size.
Normally, an instrument with the cello’s string length (approximately 68-70cm) would be tuned in fourths, to allow the playing of any scale fluidly across the strings without the need for large uncomfortable extensions. This tuning in fourths, apart from being used on double-basses and bass guitars, is used on guitars and viola da gambas, both of which normally have a shorter string length than the cello. At the time of the development of the cello however (see Cello History), the gamba tuning in fourths was rejected in favour of the violin/viola tuning in fifths. This has a great intellectual logic: now the three instruments (violin, viola and cello) are basically just different sized versions of each other. But this tuning has no ergonomic logic. A normal-sized cello for a normal-sized cellist is just too large to allow a fluid easy command of all the notes of a scale under the hand in one position (see Hand/Cello Size and Extensions).
Apart from the frequent need for strained extended hand postures, the other main difficulty of playing the cello comes from the need to go up into the higher fingerboard regions where we are easily lost in space (see Positional Sense and Thumb Region). The arpeggione was a very inspired invention: tuned in fourths and with a higher E-string, it eliminated both of the main difficulties of cello-playing. Is it really surprising that Schubert was inspired to write his absolutely magical Arpeggione Sonata for that instrument, rather than writing one for the cello? The only disadvantages of the arpeggione compared to the cello were its weak sound and its lack of expressive glissandi (because of the frets). These problems could be easily remedied nowadays. Perhaps a modern, electric, amplified, fretless arpeggione (Yam[ah]arpeggione?) will one day make a hugely successful comeback and relegate the cello to museum-piece status??!!
OUR TOOLS: THE CELLO AND BOW
A surgeon needs sharp scalpels, a gardener needs a good shovel and wheelbarrow, an engineer needs a good calculator. In any profession, apart from knowledge, training and motivation, we need good tools in order to do good work. The cello, bow, rosin and strings are the tools of our trade, and the better their quality, the easier it becomes to sound good and to play with ease. It is possible of course to work with inferior tools, but it makes it much harder to achieve good results. It is so easy to get accustomed to playing with our own material that we can easily become unaware of the possibilities that other, better, material might give us. It is therefore very useful to try other people’s cellos and bows – it can be quite a mind-opening experience!
WHICH CELLO, WHICH BOW ?
The main complication for us is the pricing. Older instruments and bows are unfortunately not only valued as simple, functional “tools” but rather as collectable works of art or antiques. According to their pedigree (maker), country of origin, date of manufacture etc they now have more value as investments than as musical instruments. This means that the prices of older instruments and bows have absolutely no relation anymore with their ability to earn a musical income for the player, but rather with their ability to earn an investment income for the owner. This is a disaster for musicians, a welcome aid for modern luthiers and an absolute godsend for immoral predators in search of quick easy money.
We must be wary of choosing an instrument or bow according to price – it may have very little relation to actual sound quality. Unfortunately, the first question a dealer usually asks a buyer is “how much money do you have to spend?” Perhaps we could start off with a little lie and start with the cheaper options in the hope of finding an undervalued gem: an ugly and/or anonymous instrument may sound better than one with beautiful varnish and a famous pedigree, and will certainly cost much less. Another complication is that every instrument is different, even if made by the same luthier. And differences in the set-up (bridge, soundpost, strings etc) can make a good instrument sound awful and a bad instrument sound relatively OK (see below).
Cello sizes are quite variable – more so than violins, but less than double-basses and violas. The most important size factor is the length of the playing string (from the bridge to the top of the fingerboard) as this length determines the amount of stretching your hand will need to do. Small-handed cellists may be much more comfortable on a 7/8 size cello (also called “ladies cello”). A large cello may have a string length of 72 cm or more whereas for a 7/8 this size may be only 68 cm. These 4 cms, spread out over the whole fingerboard actually make an enormous difference for the comfort of the hand when it comes to doing extensions. See the article on Hand Size/Cello Size
The way a cello is set up makes a huge difference to both how it sounds and to how easy (or difficult) it is to play. A good cello with a bad setup can easily sound awful, while a good setup can greatly improve a mediocre instrument. Let’s look at some of these factors in more detail:
This is an extremely important element of setup, especially from the point of view of ease of playing. If the cello strings are too high above the fingerboard, everything to do with the left hand (vibrato, shifting, finger articulation etc.) becomes much more laboured, because of the high finger pressure that we are obliged to use. Excessive height may not necessarily be a consequence of a bad setup by the luthier. Humidity has the effect of raising the string height (by changing the fingerboard angle) whereas a dry atmosphere has the opposite effect. Changes of seasons often involve large changes in humidity levels. In colder climates it is often in winter that the cello gets too dry, because of the constant indoor heating that dries out the air and brings the strings closer to the fingerboard. Humid summers will have the opposite effect and we may find our strings way too high above the fingerboard. In hotter climates it may however be in summer that the instrument gets too dry, because of constant air-conditioning which, just like heating in winter, tends to dry out the indoor atmosphere. Often these changes are so gradual that we may not even realise why the left hand is becoming such hard work in the humid season, or why the strings are buzzing on the fingerboard in the dry season. In climates where the humidity changes greatly with the seasons, it may be useful to have two bridges: a lower one for summer and a higher one for winter. If the strings start to buzz on the fingerboard we can also try leaving the instrument overnight in a humid environment (bathroom, balcony etc).
The optimum heights for the strings above the fingerboard are somewhere between the extremes of:
- “too low” = strings rattle on the fingerboard, especially in pizzicatos and most especially in loud pizzicato chords
- “too high” = left-hand tension and exhaustion, laboured shifting, trills and articulations. Strings that are too high off the fingerboard create the biggest problems in the higher fingerboard regions where, because of the traditional fingerboard scoop (slight concave arc) the strings tend to be at their greatest distance from the fingerboard. This creates enormous strain for the thumb because one of the thumb’s roles is to maintain the strings stopped in order to facilitate the articulation of the higher fingers.
It may be interesting to note the height of the different strings above the fingerboard for each bridge that we have, although we must be aware that these heights can change significantly for the same bridge according to the seasonal humidity changes. It is also useful also to note at which string heights we are most comfortable. For comfort, we are certainly well advised to play with the lowest possible string heights at which we don’t have any rattling of the string against the fingerboard. Janos Starker, for his stunning recording of the extremely virtuosic Kodaly Solo Sonata, had his strings very low to the fingerboard. Recordings (or miked/amplified performances) do not require the same loud sound production and projection as live acoustic concerts in large rooms, therefore the strings can be lower.
The C and G-strings can be somewhat higher off the fingerboard than the top two strings because we tend not to use the higher fingerboard regions of those lower strings very much and also because they are looser, with a wider vibration and therefore tend to hit the fingerboard more easily than do the higher strings. So let’s take as a rough estimate of ideal string heights (measured at the bridge end of the fingerboard) as somewhere around:
A – 5-7 mm D – 6-8 mm G and C – 8-10 mm
If playing in first position is tiring, we should check our string heights at the nut. It should be just possible to slip a business card beneath the A and D strings at the nut; if the gap is any greater, the nut should be lowered. If this gap is too small then the string can buzz against the fingerboard there and the nut will need to be raised or replaced.
DISTANCE BETWEEN THE STRINGS AT THE BRIDGE
Widening slightly the distance that separates each string from its neighbours at the bridge gives us more vertical differentiation between the bow levels on each string so we now have more “room” on each string before hitting the neighbouring strings. Normally the strings are set at approximately 15mm from each other on the bridge. Increasing this distance by even as little as 1.5mm confers a notable advantage. I have yet to discover a disadvantage from this widening – so long as we don’t separate the strings so much that the A or C strings are so close to the edges of the fingerboard that our fingers fall off!
A different bridge can make a cello sound like a different instrument. There are two commonly delimited bridge types although these two types can morp into each other: the “Belgian” and the “French”. The Belgian model is very much the fashion but Alban Gerhardt believes strongly that the French bridge sounds much better, especially from a distance. The “french” bridge could hardly find a better ambassador. Each cellist needs to decide according to their sound preferences.
THE SOUNDPOST POSITION
Moving the soundpost can also have an effect comparable to changing our cello. The difference between finding “the sweet spot” for the soundpost (in which the instrument sounds gorgeous) and other less successful placements of the soundpost can be monumental. It’s such a shame that we players don’t normally learn about soundpost placement and manipulation.
THE C-STRING TUNING PEG POSITION
The C-string tuning peg can cause us neck problems and disturb our seating posture because of its unfortunate location, sticking out directly into our neck. The fact that the tuning pegs for the lower strings (on the right side of the scroll when we are in playing position) are lower than the pegs on the left side makes this problem worse. This relative positioning of the pegs is a very unfortunate tradition of violin making, copied directly from the violin but totally inapproriate for the cello. If the positions of the pegs for the higher strings were given to the pegs for the lower strings, our problem would be somewhat alleviated. The fact that cellos have been made “like that” for 300 years doesn’t mean that the design cannot be improved……… but 300 years of tradition is difficult to change. Until that happens, we can subsitute the C-string tuning peg for a version that doesn’t stick out of the peg box.
This ingenious invention does however need a tool to turn the peg and here is where the “solution” can become an even bigger problem. If we don’t have the tool with us, we are unable to turn the peg, and at least one of the models available requires a square non-standard turning tool that cannot be found anywhere. This means that we need to buy various extra tools from the peg-maker in order to have them safely available everywhere and anywhere that we might need them. This may be a good business strategy for the peg-maker but for cellists it is a source of worry and a potential nightmare waiting to happen.
Who would think that a simple wooden stick could be so important (and so expensive) ! A good bow can make the same cellist and the same cello sound suddenly a whole lot better. Even a good rehair, or something as simple as putting rosin on the bow, can make a huge difference to how we sound and to our enjoyment (and ease) of playing. We could compare a bow to an artist’s paintbrush: the artist can be brilliant and inspired but if his brush has no hairs, or if the hairs are somehow dysfunctional, then the painting will not please anyone (and the artist will be deeply frustrated).
Another, even better comparison for the bow is with the magician’s magic wand. In this comparison, the cello is the hat that the amazing rabbit comes out of ….. but it is the wand that does the magic!
Our choice of rosin – and how much we apply – is often overlooked as a potential factor in influencing our sound. Anybody who doubts the influence of rosin-type on our sound should try playing with the rosins of other string instruments (violin, viola and doublebass). While the bass rosin really glues the bowhairs to the string, violin rosin is quite the opposite, and viola rosin is somewhere in the middle. For cellists who tend to apply too much bow pressure (and therefore “scratch” a lot) it may be interesting to try playing with viola (or even violin) rosin. At the other end of the spectrum, cellists who play usually with excessively light bow pressure might benefit from trying bass rosin, or at least an “orchestral” cello rosin. Even amongst cello rosins there are great differences in sound. Bernadelle produces quite a “sandy, dusty” sound that seems to reflect its fine, powdery nature. Larica and Amadeus rosins provide a more sticky adherence and give a purer, less grainy sound.
Obviously, the quantity of rosin that we apply to the bow has an influence on our sound: no rosin = no sound, and less rosin = less adherence. A front-stand violinist once removed all the rosin from their bow for a rehearsal of a difficult piece which they had not practised. Unfortunately, the conductor, also a violinist, asked for their violin (and bow) to demonstrate a passage …….. !
In a study that was originally published under the title “The Role of Hair Structure in Sound Production of Bowed Instruments: A Study With Electron Microscope” Dr J. James at the laboratory of the University of Amsterdam examined new and “used” bow hair under an electron microscope. It was seen that for “old, used” hairs, the lack of grip was simply due to the fact that the microscopic “teeth” in the hairs were clogged up with old rosin powder. By simply soaking those “old, used” hairs in 70% ethyl-alcohol (or rubbing them with an alcohol-imbued cloth) those deposits of old rosin were dissolved and the hairs recovered their initial properties, becoming once again like new. These conclusions were presented in an article by Robert Lewin in the magazine “The Strad” in the 1980s.
So, unless we have lost a lot of hairs by breakage, it’s probably not necessary to rehair a bow. Certainly, it’s a lot cheaper to clean our bowhair than to change it. We do however need to be careful to not get any alcohol on the bow stick because it might damage the varnish.
The differences in sound and feel of different string types are truly extraordinary and the huge choice of available brands, materials and specialities (soft, medium, strong, soloist, orchestral etc) is daunting. In the same way that it is interesting to play on other cellos and with other bows, it is useful to try different strings on our own cello to see what differences they make. It doesn’t matter so much that a string might be well used – we can still get a feel for its basic sound and tactile characteristics.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD WE RENEW OUR STRINGS
Pinchas Zukerman changes his strings every three concerts …….. but violin strings last less long than cello strings and are a lot cheaper to replace. Certainly, our cello can sound suddenly like a different, vastly improved and rejuvenated instrument when we replace a set of tired old strings with a new one. The higher, thinner strings get tired and worn out faster than the lower ones, which means that they will need to be changed more often. This is fortunate because the lower ones are much more expensive.
Some strange things can happen when we replace only some strings but not others: replacing the two very old lower strings made the A string pitch go up by more than a semitone. Then, the necessary releasing of tension from that A-string (in order to bring the pitch back down) made that string instantly sound much much better – less shrill and abrasive. Perhaps this would indicate that old tired strings need more tension on them to bring them up to pitch ? This is a subject that needs to be explored more fully.