For the professional who has likely purchased 3, and usually more, cellos in their careers, picking a lifelong cello is something that people rarely do the first time. Or the second. And very often, even the third. It all comes down to the criteria they used to make the decision. The trouble is often that shoppers haven’t really figured out their criteria and realized how that will effect their decision. A player desperately desires an antique instrument but they only discover the instruments flaws much later. Or, a player is after the loudest cello she can find, only to discover that it cannot make a variety of colors and might be hard to play. My experience is that players typically buy instruments for one of the other criteria than sound. Sometimes they are happy long term, but typically they’ve overlooked the sound and playability of the instrument, typically because they lacked the skill to assess the instrument when they bought it. It is the sound that you will be dancing with for thousands of hours. It is fun to take out an instrument that gets oohs and aahs from your colleagues, but it isn’t worth it making music becomes a struggle you deal with every day. Get that old or expensive instrument if you heart desires it, but remember to make sure it actually sounds great. Here are common criteria and my take on them:
- Sound. The sound and playability of one’s cello is that thing that keeps the relationship happy over the years. Read “How Not to buy a new version of your old cello.” And “What kind of sound will keep me happy.” Each cello I have regretted buying was a result of not having the right council on what is truly a great sounding instrument. My limited experience and my excitement to get something quickly allowed my affinity for the positive points of a cello to overshadow the flaws I would later grow to disdain.
- Age. No matter how many times it has been proven that modern makers can equal or match the old masters and that players, when blindfolded, can’t tell old from new, the beauty and allure of old instruments calls us. The heart wants what it wants.There are many many great old instruments to choose from, though they will cost a lot more than an equivalent modern instrument. But very often, players are so excited to finally get an old instrument that makes them feel like they’ve made it that they overlook its flaws. A mediocre instrument, old or new, is hard to get rid of sometimes.
- Country of origin. See “Bragging Rights”. Italian instruments and French bows are the name of the game. In the antique instrument world, this matters quite a bit and will add or subtract from the desirability and price. To a blindfolded player, any country is capable of making a great instrument, but since they were invented in Italy, the Italians got to define the traits we now call beautiful. They have a track record of creating beautiful things. But if you’re looking for the best deal, be aware that you’ll be paying extra for the honor of saying that it came from this or that country.
- Price. In the art world as well in the instruments-are-art world, the price of an object is based on its desirability, not necessarily its quality. I knew a now-famous maker who had a violin sit in a shop for a year before someone would buy his violin. It was a great sounding violin priced at $12,000. Students in that price range found it overly brilliant and powerful and so different from their instruments. Within a year and for various reasons, his violins began to sell at $20,000. The same shop sold as many as he could make for several years because players in that range understood how good they were.
Don’t mistake price for quality of sound.