A couple of Saturdays ago, I was futzing around before practicing and happened to be online (cough, cough, procrastinating) er… looking at cellos. I stumbled on Hammond Ashley’s storewide sale, and since I figured I could just as easily spend my practice time with a bunch of cellos as one, TBF and I made the trek out to Issaquah.
Was it Zoe Keating that said something about how picking a cello is a bit like dating? What follows was a bit like speed dating, without the speed: we spent most the afternoon in that little booth trying cellos.
Matthew and the guys at Hammond Ashley are great. Matthew set me up in a private room, we talked about what I had and what I was looking for, and where I was at in my playing, then he started bringing in my dates, I mean cellos. Sometimes we’d have four or five clustered around my feet. TBF provided invaluable assistance adjusting endpins and keeping them in order as well as being my “blind” listener.
Two of my top three in the student category (the low end of the budget) were Chinese, including a Samuel Eastman. One was a pale varnish with these fantastic dark lines in the wood of the cello that we immediately dubbed “racing stripes.” I’m not as fond of the more blond varnishes, but the stripes had me. It also had my favorite sound of the three – light but resonant. Check it out:
I brought Cecelia along to see if there was anything they could suggest to fix the perpetual buzzing, but wound up playing her in blind tests among the others. It was interesting that in blind tests neither TBF or I could pick CC out of the lineup of student level cellos when I played. She’s not a bad sounding lady – there were brighter or more resonant models, but nothing jumped out in that price range. I was impressed to hear my little internet special holding her own amid the student models. So the good news is that going to another “student model” (even a more expensive, better made one) is a lateral move. I could get by with a new set of strings and a better bow and be better off.
However, CC does have some structural issues that are starting to impede my learning; notably, the “buzz” that comes from the action of the strings being too close to the fingerboard. It’s bad when I have to play anything pizzicato on the lower strings, and is the most common source of my cringing facial expression during orchestra. While we’re on fingerboards, Matthew pointed out that my fingerboard is actually painted wood – not ebony – and that also affects playability and sound. I noticed the difference in playability right away from the string action, even though the resulting sound wasn’t much different sounded the same among the student models. It took a bit of adjustment, but the neck/fingerboard angle was more comfortable and the fingering just felt easier somehow – even though it took a little more effort to move the strings.
There were no new suggestions for fixing Cecelia – besides total neck surgery – that would be remotely cost effective options or not result in a Frankencello. That means I’m still looking for new cello.
I didn’t start hearing the difference until we moved into higher level instruments (translation = more expensive) Once we started edging to the north end of the budget Cecelia couldn’t keep up: the differences in sound quality (clarity, sharpness of notes and resonance) became evident.
Two that stood out were a Andreas Eastman 305 and rebuilt unknown German model. Then there was my hands down favorite a Christian Zuber model made in Germany for Hammond Ashley.
The Eastman sounded very clear and bright. It was easy to play and I liked the varnish. Well in the price range. There’s a reason this is one of the more popular cello models out there. I just didn’t have an emotional response, or in dating speak: we had no spark. The unknown German was a big surprise. It had this incredibly big, clear but sing-y voice, totally unexpected. It reminded me of that cartoon frog that leaps out of the tin box with a top hat and cane and starts singing “hello my baby” when nobody’s around.
Last, the Zuber was my “price jump” (aka the a step up in price range that they throw at you as a curveball) Ostensibly, Matthew used my impressions of the Zuber to pick out the Eastman and the unknown German which ARE in price range, and sound lovely. Only it backfired, or went exactly according to plan, depending on who you talk to. Let’s just say, if this were speed dating, my response to the Zuber would have been the equivalent of drawing circles and hearts around my date’s name.
There was more than one Zuber, so I was able to play each of them. While I’m intellectually aware that all cellos sound unique (even two of the same model) there’s nothing like playing them back to back to prove exactly how different that sound can be. One of the Zubers had a more boomy deeper tone. The one I fell in love with was right in the middle: resonant, but still bright and somewhat more sing-y than the others. The Zuber felt good to play, and sounded even better. After the blind test, TBF said it was the one that sounded the best and that I played the best.
I didn’t take any home on trial – I know, I know! Commitment-phobe! – but that was because the only one I really wanted to take home was the one that was two grand more than budgeted (aka the Zuber). I decided to give myself a cooling off period (we were headed out of town for the long weekend and I wouldn’t have had much time with any of the three). My feelings about the Zuber could be infatuation brought on by two plus hours of playing – I was a bit delusional by then anyway.
If I still feel the same way after playing them again, and whatever else HA has lying around for me to try, then I’ll take it home and think about renegotiating my price range. I’d also like to try that unknown German rebuild again. I have a feeling he could be a little bit like the shy guy with glasses who turns out to be Mr. Awesome.