Cello 2.0

So, this week, I’m in New England for concerts with Ensemble Epomeo– our first show is at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival on Friday. This concert has an extra challenge for me- I have had to switch cellos. It wasn’t practical to travel this time with my Mariani, so I’ve brought my backup instrument. So, I’ve been very immersed with the Schumann on one cello, only now to switch to this very tricky trio program (Bach, Beethoven and a new work by Kile Smith) since the LCO rehearsal on Sunday. Monday wasn’t much help- I had a meeting with the record company about my upcoming Mahler CD with Orchestra of the Swan on Monday morning in London, then had a short meeting in Cardiff Monday afternoon and a rehearsal in Hereford  Monday night. That left Tuesday to recalibrate my fingers before flying here yesterday.

Lynn Harrell has a great piece on his blog about instruments and the insanity of letting families be bullied into trying to buy insanely expensive fine Italian instruments for student players.

What I take issue with is the implied necessity of one of these priceless masterpieces in making a career. So a young player before he/she is near full potential musically or technically or earning power is led to believe that without that Stradivari or Guarneri they will not be able to compete and their very career will be in jeopardy. Throughout the entirety of my more than 50 year playing career I have yet to encounter a string player under the age of 20 with enough knowledge, musicality, and technique to bring everything out of a master instrument…

The best new instruments are in many playing points superior to all but the most exceptional old instruments. Moreover, the cost is often laughably less expensive. The price range of $5,000- $50,000 will yield superb instruments. The renaissance of great new makers in the last 20 years proves this. It is therefore folly to assume at the onset of a career that one must have an old instrument to succeed. What succeeds is musical and technical brilliance.

There really is no snobbery like instrument snobbery (even wine snobs can’t compare)- of course the best Cremonese instruments have very special properties, but I think only the best players can really make the most of those. On the other hand, a great player can still do great things on a more modest axe, and where budget is an issue, there are ways of maximizing what a more modest instrument can do.

There is a new generation of budget instruments out there that are a far cry from the unplayable student monstrosities of the past. On one hand, dealers are happy to sell those (in volume), but they are not so happy to help you get the best out of them. I bought my second cello (Cello 2.0) when I was working in Oregon- I needed something that could live in the orchestra’s office when I was away, but that was good enough for concerts.

I bought a simple Strad copy Chinese-made instrument (I shouldn’t be telling you this!), but had it set up but a first rate luthier who made some simple modifications which improved the sound enormously- he also replaced the factory bridge and soundpost. I replaced the cheap strings with top-of-the line ones.  Most importantly, I use my good bow with it, which is worth more than the cello. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes!

This is something a dealer doesn’t want you to know- that a $2k-$6k cello with a bow of similar value might sound far better than a $28k cello with a $1k bow. More tellingly, buying a $50k or $500K instrument isn’t going to make you sound like Lynn Harrell. Young cellists and their parents should be well advised about how to get the most from their budget when shopping.

Sadly, many, but by no means all, teachers are not to be trusted in this task. For years, many top dealers offered kick-backs to teachers who persuaded their students to buy an instrument from them. They say it is a “thank you” for the time involved in helping the student choose an axe- it sounds more like a bribe, to me. If everyone in your studio is playing a Berlusconi from El Pomposo Violins, chances are, someone is getting a commission you don’t know about.  The fact that so many  people don’t know about this practice is pretty indicative about how well some of these teachers can separate out their financial interests from the needs of their students.

Anyway, I’ve used Cello 2.0 for high powered chamber concerts, several solo recitals and the Elgar, Herbert, Shostakovich and Chen Yi concertos with orchestra, and it’s held up quite well. There is a sweet comment about my sound on the website from Chen Yi– she’s talking about Cello 2.0, not the Italian one.

However, some people can’t trust their ears and others just won’t take such an instrument seriously. When I did the Elgar, I wanted some work done on it- a new bridge, in particular. I took it to the “top place” in Portland, and they mistook me for an amateur/beginner based on the instrument.  They then did a completely half-assed job, left the instrument sounding and playing like crap and told me it was un-realistic to expect any more from that instrument. When they saw a piece about me in the paper, they got a little more helpful, but the cello left their shop sounding like a student instrument. I had to find another luthier to fix what they’d screwed up.

When people used to compliment me on my sound with that instrument I’d gleefully tell them what it was, until I saw that most reacted with horror, as if I’d hoodwinked them into thinking they were listening to something they weren’t. How sad that they couldn’t trust their ears.

My teacher at IU, Fritz Magg, had a beautiful Strad which he had to give up at the end of his career. He had a fine copy made by a good but not famous luthier, and went on playing. Everywhere he went, people talked about the unmistakable glory of that legendary Strad, and Fritz just nodded and smiled. What they were hearing was the unmistakable glory of Fritz Magg, but if they knew he was playing on an in-expensive modern instrument their ears would have instantly closed. Fritz was wise enough to just nod and smile as folks talked on and on about the miracle of the Strad they handn’t just listened to.

Post script- In aiming for brevity, I don’t want to leave readers with the mistaken impression that all instruments are the same. Far from it! However

1- There  are decent instruments to be found in every price range

2- Many things affect price besides sound, such as pedigree, previous owners and the shop you are in

3- If the person selling the violin tells you it is  Berlusoni from the Ambrosian period, take the instrument for a second opinion from a dealer who has no financial interest in the transaction and who, preferably, isn’t trying to sell you something from their own stock.

4- If someone tells you that you have to up your budget by 10k to get anything decent, they would say the same thing no matter what you told them your budget was.

5- If someone tells you a good bow is wasted on a good but not great instrument, they are lying.

6- Keep looking- the best place to shop for an instrument is on your friend’s instruments. If somebody has something you like, try it and find out what it is.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

8 comments on “Cello 2.0”

  1. Erik K


    As the guy who plays on a horn which could at its finest hour be described as designed for beginning/intermediate high school ability, I support this post. I wouldn’t trade the sound I get on that miserable piece of sh*t for any fancy horn out there.

    Although everyone who’s ever near me probably would… 🙁

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Of course, in other fields, one often finds instruments that were originally cheap becoming priceless collector’s items because they’ve got some distinctive twang or bite or growl. Think of Seasick Steve’s 3 string guitar. Sometimes an interesting sound is more useful than a perfect one.


  3. Erin

    “Ken, what did the top shop do to your instrument specifically? (paragraph 11)
    My instrument is a 1962 Christopher Roth (German) strad copy that has several large cracks. Apparently it was damaged by an airline several years ago. My luthier refurbished it and I was able to get it for a song. I know if I ever had to replace it I would look at Chinese instruments – you’re absolutely right about some of them being more than serviceable for professional players. However, some people claim that they’ll never be as good as European instruments because of the low quality of Chinese woods.”

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Erin!

    They did a new bridge, planed the fingerboard, new nut and sound post. The fingerboard was a sloppy job, but worse yet, they took little care with the bridge and post- replacing ones that were well made but for a different climate with very poorly made and fitting ones, and they refused to take any care or time to do a proper setup when I left.

    After a busy weekend of concerts with it, I’m still happy. It’s got a great bridge now and feels and sounds good. Of course, it isn’t a “fine” instrument, but it is a very good one, mostly because it’s been solidly made, well set up and well looked after. Ralph Rabin is the friend who set it up for me in the first place- he’s in Madison but can ship things anywhere and he’s just the best.

    It’s hard to say how it will hold up over 20 years. I’ve had it 8 now and played it a lot, and so far so good. If it degrades or gets damaged on a gig, I can replace it for less than fixing a more expensive instrument. However, I’m very attached to it, and hope it doesn’t ever come to that.

    Hope you’re well!


  5. Parmela

    “Spot on Ken! You’re right about the instruments coming out of China: they really are something for the price. Up where I live, we have some fabulous makers (particularly for violas). The joy of the local instruments, is that the local wood is already used to the harsh climate and the instruments don’t suffer from open seams and cracks.
    I’m on a bit of a bow kick right now, having just found one that finally feels right for my arm and makes playing (almost) easy. It is french, but at the lower end of the price range (which is not where I expected to find such a stick). It’s a bit like finding a mate…”

  6. Kenneth Woods

    Of course, when I was young, student and starter instruments always sounded awful. I’m sure many young players gave up because they spent their first years sawing away on a horrible instrument that made a bad sound and was impossible to play. We’re so lucky that parents without a huge budget can set their kinds up with an instrument capable of making a professional sound- especially when set up by someone like Ralph.

  7. Parmela

    “and here, where arts and accessibility is a huge issue, the $ cost of orchestral string instruments does nothing to diminish the perception that W. Classical music is elitist…”

  8. Adrienne

    “Couldn’t agree more about the importance of having your cello set up by a luthier you trust, and of investing in a bow that works well for you and for the instrument. Much more “bang for the buck” than buying a top of the line cello. “

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