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
Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Violin & Viola
Trumpet & Cornet
Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
Links to other sites
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
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
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 -
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
Rough Guide to the Cello or
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
in Step. The excellent
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
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
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