Sunday, April 9, 2017

What's the Best Sounding Cello?

By Andy Fein, Violin Maker and Owner, Fein Violins

In our shop, we're often asked "What's the best sounding cello?" Everyone wants the best sound, of course. Every player wants to have great tone, great projection, and fast response. Who wouldn't??? But..... (and there's always a but) I think two words have been left out of that question. The question really should be "What's the best sounding cello FOR ME?" Or, my child, friend, spouse, etc.

The 'King' Amati cello, made circa 1555

(If you read my previous blog post What's the Best Sounding Violin?, much of the following will sound familiar)

The wonderful cellist Myung-Wha Chung plays on what I consider to be one of the best (if not THE BEST!) sounding cellos I've ever heard, the 1731 'Braga' Stradivarius cello. I've also had the opportunity to study this cello in depth.

So much depends on your personal taste and how you plan to use the instrument. I constantly tell clients "No one hears with your ears except yourself".

What kind of sound do you like? I think that should be the foremost factor. If you love the sound you're making you'll enjoy playing and your audience will know that. The opposite is also true. If you don't love the sound you're making, your audience will perceive that as well.

Cellos can range in tonal quality from extremely bright like a Piccolo to very mellow (or dark) like a French Horn or a Bassoon. What is your taste in sound?

Another wonderful cellist, David Finckel, gives some great advice on choosing a cello. I don't agree with everything he says, but for advanced students and above I think his advice is excellent!

What's the BUT? I think that for a beginner, intermediate, or an adult amateur cellist, a bright cello such as David Finkel is advocating will be overwhelming and an unpleasant cello to play. Most players love the deep resonance of  the C and G strings. I've NEVER had a person tell me they want a cello that is very bright. Bright enough to rattle the fillings in their molars. So, for most players, a mellower sounding cello with a strong bass (C and G) side of the instrument seems to be most important.

There has been a myth among some players and teachers that a very bright cello will carry further. That is, if the cello is loud and bright right next to you, then it will project to the far reaches of a big hall. The reality is, the opposite is true. The purer the tone, the further the cello will carry. Very bright cellos can produce a lot of overtones and less of the pure tone of the note you're playing. Overtones die off quickly leaving your bright sounding cello sounding like a $50 "internet special" by about the fourth row of the hall.

On the other hand, very mellow and dark sounding instruments may produce an unfocused tone that sounds "muddy" a few feet away from the player. Not a desirable effect either.

Those are the extremes. In between is a range of sound that can be beautiful and projecting. What type of sound do you like?

Robert DeMaine, principal cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a fantastic soloist, wrote a piece on Facebook that he's kindly agreed to let me quote-
"Cellists, stop falling prey to "power". Too much Belgian bridge, high tension soundpost threatening to explode through the top. too many strings that could suspend the Golden Gate Bridge. For what? A couple more decibels. More old-fashioned setups and fewer options of string brands did not hurt Fournier, Du Pre', Rostropovich, et al. Stop wasting your money on 20 different high-gauge and high-tension strings, and for God's sake, have a French bridge cut for your instrument. The cello isn't a sax. Nor is it a violin. All cellos sound the same nowadays, and it's as disturbing trend. They're also HARD TO PLAY and bark back at you. There's one color to the sound: blinding yellow sunshine. Same color as the string winding, usually. But not the same sunshine as a louder-by-nature instrument (like the trumpet or bagpipes, which I both love). I, myself fell into this trap, and couldn't get out for decades, convinced the cello needed to be an Incredible-Hulk version of itself. Stop wasting resources, make your instrument easy to play again, and I guarantee you will thank yourself down the road. You will hate it at first, but the instrument loves it, and it will be easier and more enjoyable an experience to play. never in my life have I heard string players kvetch like cellists. let it be. let it settle. I followed my own advice, and will never go back. Overtones galore tickle the ear more than sheer power. What the ___ is that anyway? Your tone quality should be unusual, even unique. ?Don't be foolish. Cultivate your sound from that angle.

Here's Robert playing his Stradivarius cello and talking about strings, bow technique and expression

I just played Dvorak with the National Symphony of Guatemala-- French bridge, lower tension Thomastik-Infeld strings, and there were no problems. I didn't force, and I actually enjoyed myself so much. Find a bow that draws and liberates the sound rather than presses it further vertically. I'm luck to have bows which "free" the sound from the cello. "OK, DeMaine, you play a Strad and a Pajeot." Sure, it helps, but don't drink the Kool-Aid being promoted by the cello community at large. Don't end up with a viola with a pituitary gland disorder. Let the poor beast be a cello. The other stuff becomes an obstacle.

Addendum: convince yourself first. You'll be a happier person. And a better player and artist, and much more persuasive as a performer."

And, of course, if you can sound like Yo-Yo Ma your work and mine are done!

I think our Fine Cellos sound and play the best in each of several price and quality ranges. Contact us if you're interested in purchasing a cello!

1 comment:

  1. I agree. What's the point of having good "projection" if the only sound that cuts through the mix is a fizzy sound like a mosquito. These clips are great but these are all high end cellos. I'd like to hear clips of what a "normal" cello sounds like when it is in this ideal tone range.