Saturday, April 7, 2012

Soul surgery

I bought my cello new 10 years ago. It had a warm, full, mellow tone and was even from bottom to top. I could play an open A and not have that characteristic piercing whine that is a tendency for that string on the cello -- any cellists out there will know what I'm talking about. Over the past year, I've felt the cello wasn't sounding its best and knew I should take it in to a shop to get looked at but kept putting it off, thinking I just needed new strings, like that visit to the doctor when you think maybe you only need vitamins or some cortisone cream but want to know for sure.

Also, I am bad with hardware type things. I don't seem to have an instinctive ability to grasp technical issues in relation to the eventual outcomes. When I have to choose an appliance or gadget or other object, it's hard for me to sort out these issues, and I dread falling into the hands of an incompetent or unscrupulous salesperson because I can't explain exactly what I want. In this case, I feared getting my cello messed up.

But there is a shop I have some confidence in, so I finally took the plunge last week and took the cello over there. After five minutes in the back room with the luthier, the assistant brought the cello out to me and gave me the diagnosis. He said everything was fine EXCEPT for the fact that the soundpost was too tight, and was actually pressing the wood of the top out in a little bump I could feel when it was pointed out to me. What had caused this? Perhaps settling, perhaps the wood drying out a bit and shrinking. I would suspect this last might be the reason because the wood was probably not aged as long as it could be before the cello was made, given that this was an inexpensive student-level cello.

In any case, they recommended replacing the soundpost. When I asked about  new strings, they said things might change with a new post, so they would rather wait until the post was in and I could try the cello, and then work on which strings would be best.

A soundpost, for those who don't know, is a little wooden dowel that is inserted into the instrument through an f-hole and wedged between the top and the back, and it serves to transmit the vibrations from the top to the back and amplify the sound, so shaping and placing it is a very important bit of luthiery. In fact, according Wikipedia,
The sound post is sometimes referred to as the âme, a French word meaning "soul". . . . The Italians use the same term, anima, for this. 
I had to leave the cello there for several days. When I went to pick it up earlier this week, instead of this being a simple matter of whipping out my credit card, I ended up spending about two hours working on adjustments. My first reaction was not happy -- the A sounded biting and harsh. The luthier moved the new soundpost a bit -- and it sounded worse! Moved it a bit more -- sounded horrible! So he put it back where it was at first and we moved on to choosing strings.

After years of buying strings hit or miss over the Internet, it was a luxury to be able to hear some different strings without having to commit to them -- well worth the higher price I had to pay for my eventual choices because I was buying in a full-service store. We quickly decided on the same type I have been using for the G and C (Obligato). But the A was a problem, and the D would be affected by the A. We started with a Larsen, then tried a Kaplan, then an Obligato, then a Dominant (yuck on that one! sounded like a piece of tin). The Larsen ultimately was best, and to go with that, the Obligato D was good.

I still wasn't 100% bowled over. It was like seeing a loved one after surgery -- yes, there he is, but he looks weird. So yes, this was my cello, but it sounded weird to me.

However, when I got up the nerve to get it out at home that evening, I started enjoying the sound. It definitely is different than it was when new; it's a bit brighter and more open, but it has some depth and power. It has lost its childhood softness and has more edge.

That's life, I guess; as soon as you get used to something, it changes.

The patient, resting comfortably.

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