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Caring for Your Cello

The cello is a very fragile instrument, and requires careful attention and maintenance to remain in good condition and at peak playability. Properly cared for, a fine instrument will last hundreds of years. In fact, many of the great instruments being played today were made in Italy in the seventeenth century.

Handling
When handling your cello be very careful not to bump it against anything. Doing so will likely damage the varnish, move or break the bridge, cause a seam to come unglued, or crack the wood. Never place the cello bridge-down, even in its case; lay the instrument on its back or on its side. If you have a hard cello case, make sure that the instrument is securely fastened and supported inside the case so that it will not knock around when being handled, and won't fall out when you open the case in the upright position. Also, make sure that the bow is securely fastened inside the case; if it comes loose it may break, or it may damage the front of the instrument. If you have a soft cello case, always remove your bow first and cello second, and do the reverse when packing up. This will prevent the bow from getting damaged or broken.

Cleaning
Each time you finish playing your cello, use a soft microfiber or cotton cloth to wipe away any rosin, fingerprints, sweat, etc, that may have built up on the body of the instrument, on the neck and scroll, and on the strings and fingerboard. The strings will last longer and respond better if they are periodically cleaned with isopropyl alcohol: take a soft cotton cloth (not the same one as you use to wipe the body of your instrument), apply isopropyl alcohol, and wipe down the strings and fingerboard to remove any build-up of rosin, sweat, etc. When doing this, be extremely careful not to get any of the string cleaning solvent on the varnish; it is perfectly safe on the strings and fingerboard, but will damage the varnish. Between full cleanings with isopropyl alcohol, remove rosin from the strings between the bridge and fingerboard by wiping with a soft cloth. Over time rosin and other dirt may build up on the varnish. This may be carefully cleaned using a specially designed instrument varnish cleaner. If you have a valuable instrument it is best to have this type of cleaning done by a luthier when you take the instrument to the shop for periodic maintenance and adjustment. In the Twin Cities, I can highly recommend John R. Waddle Violins, Inc. in St. Paul.

Pegs & Fine Tuners
To keep the pegs turning easily and working properly it is important that they be used regularly. Infrequently used pegs are prone to becoming stuck, especially when seasonal humidity causes the wood to expand. Pegs that are either stuck or slip easily should be seen by a luthier. Adjustments may need to be made to make the pegs fit better, and treatment with peg compound/paste or drops may be required.

To keep fine tuners working smoothly they should periodically be cleaned and lubricated as follows: completely remove the screw, firmly pinch the screw in a folded paper towel and turn it to clean the threads, put a few drops of light machine oil (like 3-in-1) on a paper towel, pinch the screw in the oil-soaked section of paper towel and turn the screw to apply a light layer of oil to the threads, re-insert the screw.

The Bridge
Without regular attention the bridge will tend to warp over time. The friction of the strings sliding over the bridge during tuning will pull the bridge to one side, usually toward the fine tuners. To minimize this friction, the grooves in which the strings travel should be smoothed with pencil graphite. The bridge should then be regularly checked to make sure that it is standing absolutely straight. To straighten, firmly pinch the string right up against the bridge and squeeze the bridge in the desired direction.

The Bow
When handling your bow, be very careful not to hit it against anything. Wood bows are prone to breaking, most often at the tip. Also, generally try not to touch the bow hair to anything but your strings, and never touch the hair with your bare skin; sweat and oils from your skin will build up on the hair. Always remember to tighten your bow before you play, and loosen it again when you finish—leaving your bow tightened will damage the stick. Also, do not over tighten your bow—the downward curve of the camber should still be obvious, even when the bow is tightened.

Apply a generous amount of rosin each time you play. I highly recommend Andrea solo cello rosinIn my experience, almost every time I play with a student's bow I find that it has far too little rosin to draw a strong tone and articulate properly. To test if enough rosin has been applied, run the bow hair over your thumb nail; it should leave a substantial white powder trace. To extend the life of your bow hair, periodically clean it using a clean toothbrush; simply brush the hair lengthwise to remove excess rosin. Your bow will periodically need to be rehaired; professional players typically have this done about twice each year at a cost of around $60–75 per rehair.

Just as with the body of your instrument, the bow (stick and frog) should be wiped down after each use to remove any accumulation of rosin, sweat, etc. The screw mechanism may require periodic attention to remove dirt that has built up around the screw and under the frog. To do this, remove the screw completely and gently separate the frog and the stick. Wipe away any visible dirt from the stick, frog and screw mechanism. Firmly pinch the screw in a folded paper towel and turn it to clean the threads, put a few drops of light machine oil (like 3-in-1) on a paper towel, pinch the screw in the oil-soaked section of paper towel and turn the screw to apply a light layer of oil to the threads. Carefully reassemble.

Temperature & Humidity
Cellos are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Even slight changes in these variables will cause the cello to go out of tune, and any sudden or extreme changes can do serious damage and should be avoided. Never leave your instrument in the car on a sunny or cold day; the temperature may crack the wood, damage the varnish, and cause seams to come unglued. Never place or store your instrument near a radiator. The harsh Minnesota winters are particularly challenging; the low humidity can cause cracking and warping of the wood and open seams. It is best to run a humidifier in the room where your cello is kept; try to keep the humidity from dropping below 40%. A Dampit may also be necessary during the winter. This device consists of a sponge-filled perforated rubber tube. The dampit is soaked in water, thoroughly squeezed and dried off, and is then hung into the cello through the f-hole, allowing the retained water to evaporate inside the instrument.

Set-Up Adjustment & Maintenance
Any cello will require periodic set-up adjustments and maintenance. Chris Dungey, the maker of my cello, recommends doing this every six months. Routine maintenance and/or set-up adjustments may include:

  • Professional cleaning
  • Varnish touch-ups
  • Gluing open seams
  • Repairing cracks
  • Replacing old strings (I do this three times a year)
  • Having a warped bridge straightened or replaced (replacement will mean choosing between a French or Belgian bridge: Belgian generally means brighter tone and more projection; French is generally associated with darker tone and less projection)
  • Having the string height altered to improve playability
  • Having the soundpost moved or replaced
  • Having your fingerboard planed or replaced to remove bumps and grooves caused by playing
  • Fitting a tailpiece of a different weight/balance to optimize tone and response and mitigate wolf notes
  • Altering the string length below the bridge to improve tone and response and mitigate wolf notes
  • Fitting a wolf note eliminator/suppressor (more about this below)

In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, I can highly recommend John R. Waddle Violins, Inc. in St. Paul for this type of work.

Eliminating Wolf Notes & Optimizing Set-Up

As any professional player will tell you, mitigating wolf notes on the cello is a vital part of optimizing playability. I won't get into the technical causes of wolf notes here, but all cellos have them (for more on technical causes, click here). A wolf note is an acoustical phenomenon inherent to the design of the cello. It usually manifests around and E, F, F# or G in first position on the D string, and is especially noticeable when the offending note is played on the G or C string. At their worst, wolf notes cannot be played smoothly—the tone stutters. Less severe wolf notes cause a note or register to feel dull, lacking in resonance, and effortful to play.

There are a number of solutions that work well individually or in combination to minimize or eliminate wolf notes, and there continues to be a great deal of innovation in this area. Here is a selection of both more established and newer approaches to suppressing/eliminating wolf notes:

New Harmony Wolf Note Suppressor
 
Lup-X Wolf Note Eliminator
The Wolf Terminator
Krentz Wolf Note Eliminator
‘Wolf Tuner’ by André Theunis
Wolf Note Resonator

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Dungey, the maker of my cello and one of the leading contemporary cello makers, has done a great deal of work on wolf note mitigation and on optimizing cello sound and playability. In my conversations with Chris he has emphasized the importance of proper set-up, including the optimal sound post fit and correct string length between the bridge and tailpiece, to achieve maximum power and response and to minimize the wolf note. Chris has even developed his own accessories including the ChrisP'IN and ChrisCABLE Hanger. His latest work also includes the development of a floor tile for the cello endpin that improves the overall response and projection of the cello and eliminates wolf notes.

My current preferred wolf note mitigation system consists of:

  • A sound post adjustment according to Chris Dungey's specifications (if this is done properly the wolf note no longer manifests on the D string)
  • The portion of the G string between the bridge and tailpiece tuned to a C
  • A 3 gram New Harmony Wolf Suppressor on the C string, with the portion of the string between the suppressor and bridge tuned to a D
  • Chris Dungey's acoustic tile (as mentioned above)
  • I have also recently started using Hideo Kamimoto's Wolf Terminator, a very effective device that can be tuned to eliminate a specific wolf note.

Good luck banishing your wolf note and turbo-charging your cello!

Cello Strings

The variety of different cello strings is mind boggling! The type of strings you use significantly changes the tone and response of your instrument. The essential difference between strings is in the material of the core and the material of the winding, which is wrapped around the core. Core materials range from gut, to various synthetic materials, to solid steel, to steel rope. Common winding materials are chromium, silver, aluminum, various alloys, nickel, and tungsten.

The two main challenges of the cello are slow response and insufficient volume. To maximize the speed of response and power in the low register, cellists typically seek out the thinnest possible G and C  strings.  The most popular G and C string option with professional players is tungsten wound  Thomastik Spirocore, a spiral steel rope core string.  The newer Larsen Magnacore G and C strings are quickly gaining popularity, and in many cases, are being preferred over tungsten Spirocores by professionals. I find that they sound  warmer and less metallic than Spirocore Wolfram, while still being very powerful. Traditionally the most popular D and A strings are made by Larsen and Jargar, solid steel core strings with alloy and chromium windings respectively. Other high-end strings used by many professionals include Pirastro Evah Pirazzi, Pirastro Permanent, Thomastik Belcanto the Pirastro Chromcor Plus D string, and D'Addario Kaplan Solutions. My current preferred set-up on my Dungey cello is a full set of heavy Larsen Magnacores.

It is important to change strings periodically. If you play a lot (several hours a day), you will likely need to change your strings two to three times a year.