by Rex Weston – Cello Instructor
The first question for anyone beginning cello lessons is whether to rent or purchase a cello. Flexibility is key here as the student will upgrade instruments as they progress and with younger players, move from fractional size to full size cellos. This is of course simple with a rented instrument, but many dealers will give a significant value on a trade-in purchased from them. It is a good policy to ask the dealer what options they offer. Some dealers will also apply part of the rental to the purchase price.
The most basic distinction in beginner instruments is whether they are carved or laminate. Laminate (plywood) cellos have a much more muted sound. This muting is a problem – the cello student’s ear is being trained to recognize how their hands produce the full range of fundamental tone and harmonics. The laminate cellos will not produce the full range.
Reputable dealers will have instruments with a good set-up. This means that the strings are the correct distance above the fingerboard, that the bridge will be the correct shape, the distance between the strings will be equal, and the feet of the bridge will be in full contact with the top of the cello. A poor set-up can make the instrument unplayable.
1. The tuning pegs should turn, but not slip.
2. The fine tuners should move easily.
3. Some rental instruments may show cracks. Be sure that there are no buzzing sounds associated with the cracks.
The bow is very important and contributes a lot to the sound produced. It seems incredible at first, but the difference in the sound between bows is the reason master players are willing to pay $20,000 for a bow. The bow has to make the strings vibrate without damping them.
The least expensive bows are made of fibre-glass. These have excellent durability, but they produce a dead, dull tone. These are not recommended.
Carbon fibre bows have a wide range of prices and quality. These bows also have good durability. The sound characteristics and playability will vary considerably.
The less expensive wood bows are made of Brazilwood. Wood is more subject to wear, damage, and warping, but most of these problems can be repaired by a bow-maker.
The traditional material for bows is a South American wood called pernambuco. This has been used for centuries by bow-makers for its strength, flexibility, and acoustic properties.
I recommend all my cello students take time to consider the instrument on which they’ll pursue music lessons. Ultimately the instrument can have a great effect on how you learn and hear yourself play.