Saturday, November 28, 2009


I've always loved musical instruments, that you could hold or touch this finely made object and use it to make nice sounds. Maybe because I was always so shy and quiet, speaking through an instrument was compelling.
Pianos didn't seem like instruments to me when I was a child -- they were more like furniture. I didn't exactly relate pressing the keys with the idea of a hammer striking the strings to make sound.

Fourth grade was when, in the DC public school system, kids could start learning a musical instruments. I knew I wanted to play the clarinet. But at the last minute, we were told they'd canceled the program. We did get classes on the tonette, a little plastic thing that was a cross between a recorder and a pitch pipe, but sad to say, I didn't become a tonette virtuoso.

We didn't have another chance to choose an instrument until seventh grade -- junior high. This time around,  I picked the cello. At first I borrowed one from the school; then my parents rented a three-quarter-sized cello from a Music and Arts Center. All I remember about it was that it was shiny. After about a year, I had grown enough to need a full-sized cello, so my mother and I went to Chuck Levin's to pick one out.

The store sold mostly guitars and band instruments, but they had a small selection of strings for students. My mother was pushing for the cheapest one, a plywood Kay.  It looked like this:

though of course it had a tailpiece, bridge, and strings; the name was emblazoned in chrome script on it:

I somehow knew that a real wood cello that was a copy of a Stradivarius would be significantly better. I think it was about $10 more than the Kay, so we bought that.

Other instruments acquired during this time:
  • A metal clarinet that had been used in a marching band by some relative of my piano teacher; I futzed around with this instrument for a while but couldn't get more than a squawk from it.
  • A nylon-string guitar from  Sears that I had a lot of fun with, playing chords and singing along.
  • A soprano recorder that I taught myself to play.
During my second year of junior high, I became interested in the flute and borrowed one from the school. Again, I taught myself to play it from a beginner's book and even played in the all-city band one year (last chair). I really, really wanted a flute, but my parents said they'd already bought me the cello, and that was enough. I kept looking at flutes for some years but eventually lost interest.

I kept that first cello until I graduated from high school. There was another cellist in the youth orchestra who also studied with my teacher and who was the same age as I. She was his most serious student and wanted a career as a cellist. He had picked out a cello for her when she was about 15 years old, a German-made solid instrument by W. Fuchs, with a dark, rather ugly reddish varnish. She hated it, and I think she must have pitched a number of fits until her mother bought her a better cello. The Fuchs was then passed around for trial among the teacher's other students and eventually ended up with me. I hadn't even thought about getting another cello, but for some reason my parents decided to buy it for me.

I don't remember thinking much one way or the other about the quality of this cello. It was a sturdy thing with a strong sound but not a lot of complexity or refinement, much like my playing at the time, so it was a good match. I kept the Fuchs for about five years, until my second year as a music major, when I started shopping for another cello. At that time, before the availability of inexpensive, well-made instruments from China, it was difficult to find anything decent at the price we were thinking of paying. I eventually tried a cello in a local shop that had an Italian label; It had a light gold varnish and a sweet tone, like a high operatic tenor. My teacher liked it right away; we even took it to another dealer to have it evaluated (though I suspect he wasn't likely to say anything bad about it because his shop was in the same building as the seller's). So my parents bought it for me. My teacher said this cello would last me through any career I would have -- and so it did.

I toted that cello around to every venue and location -- North Dakota in the dead of winter, Texas in the height of summer, playing indoors and out, in Carnegie Hall, on the street, on a boat, in nightclubs. It survived all that well. I always got compliments on its sound, and in fact, it was a bit of a joke to me, and sometimes irritating, how often people would say, "Your cello sounds really good!" (as if it played itself).

I had thought I'd never sell it. Italian cellos are not that easy to come by and are expensive; I knew I'd never be able to afford another one. Even though after I finished graduate school I was playing less and less, I kept thinking, what if I was asked to play someplace where it mattered? What if I had to play a concerto with an orchestra or a solo recital? None of these theoretically important events materialized, however, and for some complicated reasons I developed an antipathy to my cello. I could barely stand to play it at all.

At this point, I came up with the idea of buying a cheap cello to see if it would be adequate for my needs and then selling the Italian cello. I started haunting Ebay and various Internet discussion boards. I even considered, out of some twisted nostalgia, buying a Kay. During this time I thought more about cello construction, tone, and aesthetics than I ever had before.

This was also the time when I was taking viola lessons. I'd made a few forays into Internet buying, ending up with a Gliga viola (made in Romania; not at all bad, but nothing special). I finally gathered up my nerve and made a trip to a string shop to try their lowest priced cellos. Why did it take nerve? I suppose because the string world is small and gossipy, and I knew it might become "known" that I was downgrading, or something like that, but at that point, I didn't much care anymore. But the way I explained it to the salesperson was that I was looking for a second cello.

I tried all of the cellos they had that cost less than $10,000 (which, for those who may not know this, is considered a small sum to pay for a stringed instrument; it's what an okay cello for a young student might cost). There were several possible candidates, but then I saw one more sitting in a corner. It was a larger model, with a warm brown varnish and a smooth, deep, clear sound. I couldn't believe it, but it was actually perfect! I took it for a week's trial, but I knew this was the one.

The shop had put its own label in it, but someone had written "Snow Violins, Brooklyn, NY" on the edge of the label. Turns out that Snow is a Chinese luthier who makes a line of high-quality student and professional level stringed instruments: Snow Violin

One of these days, I want to take the cello up there and ask them which model it is (I'm sure it is one of their basic ones) and what it was doing in the shop here. My impression was that the local shop was having a hard time selling the cello because it was so large that young students and amateur players were not interested in it. They sold it to me for a very modest price and gave me a big discount on the extra-large case I had to get for it.

Next step: Selling the Italian cello. To be continued . . .

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