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So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the cello? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

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The Cello

Family: String
Cost: from £269 (the cheapest price, including VAT, we could find for a new instrument)
Best age to start: any age from 6 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes, fairly easy

Many people consider the violoncello, or 'cello for short, to be the most beautiful of all instruments. It has changed very little for the last three hundred years. It consists of a beautifully shaped box of thin wood, with an elegant neck and scroll to take the tuning pegs at one end. Essentially it is a large violin, although proportionally the body is much thicker. The rather thick steel strings are tuned to C two octaves below middle C, then G, then D, then A. 'Cellists read their music from the bass clef (like the left hand of the piano) although more advanced players have to be able to read the tenor or C clef as well.
The bow is a stick along which is stretched a quantity of horse-hair. Only real horse-hair does the job because it has thousands of tiny scales that grip the string. You have to rub the horse-hair with rosin (from pine-trees) that makes it sticky.
You always sit down to play the 'cello, holding the instrument between your legs supported on the metal spike that extends from the bottom. Although the spike sometimes has a rubber tip to it, to avoid damaging the floor one of your first purchases should be what 'cellists call a "mushroom" - a round plastic or rubber gadget which grips the floor and holds the spike securely. They are easily obtained from any music shop and cost less than £5.
Like the violin, you create the sound by rubbing the horse-hair of the bow across the strings. The four strings make different notes (the "open" notes) and other notes are made by stopping the strings against the fingerboard with the fingers of your left hand.
Because 'cellos come in several different sizes from full-size through 3/4 and 1/2 to 1/4 and even smaller, it is possible to start playing at a very young age indeed. The famous "Suzuki Method" of violin teaching from Japan amazed everyone when it first arrived in the West twenty years ago by showing that children as young as 3 and 4 years old can play the violin perfectly well. Since then the method has been applied to 'cello teaching as well, although not all teachers follow the pure Suzuki Method which requires a heavy parental involvement.
You should not assume, however, that because it is possible to start so young, it is necessary to do so. Many fine players don't start until they are 9, 10 or 11 years old, and in some cases have by the age of 13 or 14 caught up with those who have been playing several years longer. There seems to be a process of "maturation" that determines how good you are going to be at a given age, however early you start.
The 'cello is not a particularly difficult instrument to start. The larger size and more natural playing position make it a little easier than the violin although it requires a similarly complex and subtle technique. For some time the sound may not be very satisfactory to adult ears as the fingerboard has no marks to indicate exactly where the fingers should be placed, and it takes a while for the hand to become accustomed to the best position. Pupils don't seem too bothered by this, but parents may have to be patient!
Although the 'cello is not a useful instrument for wind bands or jazz bands, it offers very good opportunities for group music-making because orchestras can accommodate a lot of 'cellists - 16 or 18 players is not unknown, compared to the flute, for instance, where the orchestra will not need more than 4 players at most.
If you have the opportunity to borrow a 'cello of the right size from your school, your teacher or the local Music Service, do it. There's no point in buying one if you don't have to, until you are ready for a full-size instrument. Besides, small size instruments are often difficult to sell again, and the very small ones are more expensive to buy. Once you do decide to buy, read our section on Upgrading your instrument. If you do not wish to buy, and cannot borrow, an instrument, there are some music shops that rent them out. There aren't many of them so they are hard to find, but this is a good option because they will usually swap the instrument for the next size when that becomes necessary - expect to pay about £50 a term.
Because the 'cello is an example of primitive technology and has changed so little over the years, there is quite a lot that can go wrong with it. Fortunately, for the same reason, most routine repairs are easy and cheap. Some of the most common faults are ....
• the bridge may snap or warp. This is the nicely-carved piece of wood that holds the strings up above the belly. For acoustic reasons it is made of a soft, very grainy wood which is strong in one direction and weak in the others, so this is a common breakage. It is quite cheap to replace although you'll probably need a repairer to do it for you as it has to be fitted to the curvature of the belly.
• The finger-board may come off. This is the black strip of wood under the strings, and is never glued on very firmly - sometimes the slightest knock will bring it off. A very cheap and quick repair.
• The tail-gut (which holds the tail-piece to the bottom of the instrument and is not, these days, made of gut at all) may break. This can be very alarming as the tail-piece, all four strings and the bridge will fly in different directions! It is not a major problem, however, and will be cheap to put right.
• The stick of the bow may snap. Cheap bows are not strong. Fortunately they are quite cheap! Often when this happens it's not worth trying to have it repaired as a new bow may only cost £20 - £30.
• The horse-hair of the bow will gradually wear out and start to drop off, so eventually the bow will need re-hairing at a cost of about £12 - £15.
More serious damage to the wood of the 'cello - knocks or cracks which may sometimes appear all by themselves - is also easily repaired by an expert. Your 'cello teacher should be able to recommend a suitable repairer, because she has to have her own instrument attended to sometimes ( ... or "he" and "his", of course ....). Whatever happens, if the 'cello breaks, do not try to repair it yourself. Remember, this is primitive technology with primitive materials. They still use the old-fashioned glue-pot, for instance, and repairs with modern adhesives can seriously damage both the sound and the value of the instrument.
Unfortunately the large size of the 'cello renders it vulnerable to accidental damage. This is not helped by the fact that 'cello cases are not rigid, but are made of cloth, canvas or plastic - they are not cases at all really, but covers. You should try to get a padded one if possible, but even so it will not provide the same protection to the instrument as a rigid case. Rigid cases made of fibreglass are available, but they are expensive (£200 upwards) and much too awkward and heavy for a child to carry.
'Cellos are far more expensive to buy than violins, and you should expect to pay at least £350. The strings are also expensive (from £5 each - the thicker G and C strings are more expensive than the thin A string) but fortunately they last much longer than violin strings and you would consider yourself unlucky if you had to buy a replacement more than once a year on average. Often they don't break at all, but need replacing because the steel outer casing has become worn and sharp edges have appeared.
If you want to learn more about the cello, try The Rough Guide to the Cello or The Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides - Cello. You can buy them online at discounted prices by clicking the links. A popular and very usable tutor book is Strings in Step. The excellent Cello Time Joggers comes complete with a CD which would be useful if you were trying to teach yourself the cello without a teacher. We don't recommend this. But if you're really determined, have a look at A Tune a Day for Cello. It's fairly old and may no longer be the best tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable for lone students.
If it would help you to make your decision, listen to this CD which features one of the greatest cellists in the world playing in a variety of styles.
• Moderately expensive instrument
• Fairly easy to start
• Fairly easy to find a teacher
• Excellent opportunities for group music-making
• Very prone to damage, though easy to repair
• Difficult to carry for a young child


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005