How to Choose a Cello?

I was asked this question via @nparmalee & @Michael_Tuchman on twitter. (Shameless plug: Follow me [@emilyapeterson] on Twitter!) Anyways the big question on Saturday was: "How do I choose a cello?" This is a very good question. One that I'm happy to answer, but first...

I'll respond with a few more questions.

--- How much do you have to spend on a cello? (a decent beginner cello should cost at least $1000, I've found.)
--- Can you afford renting an instrument? (Most string shops in your area will put your first several months of rental towards the purchase of one of theirs. If that's the case, make sure they carry instruments you'll actually want to buy. To ensure this, go to a STRING specialty store. Please.)
--- If you end up renting an instrument, how long will you rent, before buying a cello?
--- What's your commitment level in this pursuit of the cello?

I won't go into the pros and cons of having or owning your own instrument...
that really depends on your personal budget, commitment to the cello and your technique. (Bottom line: If you don't have good technique, you won't sound your best on any cello regardless of it's price.)

But I will tell you how I help my students shop for a cello. Honestly, it's one of my favorite things to do with my relatively (6-9 months) beginner students!

"The Cello Ear Exam"

Similar to blind taste testing, I bring my student into usually Bischofberger's practice/cello room which usually has 12-18 cellos waiting to be brought home.

1. She (and the parent) don blindfolds and earplugs/earmuffs (to eliminate them guessing which side of the room the cello came from). I go and pick up Cello A.
2. Then, when I'm ready to play, I have her remove her ear protection but leave her blindfolds on & I play a C scale with the best tone possible. Two octaves, up and down.
3. She gives initial responses. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Description of the sound, etc.
4. She dons her earmuffs again, before I pick up the next cello, Cello B.
5. Repeat steps 2 & 3.
6. Decide which cello she prefers. (For this let's say she picks #2.)
7. She dons her earmuffs again, before I pick up the next cello, Cello C.
8. Repeat steps 2-6 with different cellos until 3-5 cellos have been identified as favorites.
[The idea here is to keep the identity of each cello a secret, so she can make a based truly on the favorite sound.]
9. Put each cello away, but I make a mental note of which cello was which.
10. Now it's the student's turn, we pick up each cello and go through the same process, blindfold still on, earmuffs worn between scales on each of the 5 cellos.
11. Narrow it down to 2 cellos using sound, feel, and ease of playing. BOOM! We've got our two favorite cellos in the room.


It's a fact of life. I can't afford a $15,000 instrument. still. I only wish I could. But my budget is a part of my life. This next phase incorporates that into the process.

I'll usually discuss price, payments, etc. with the student. We'll talk about her 5 favorite cellos, (drum roll please...) reveal their prices, and identify the ones in her budget range. Do we want to put down another $500 for a better sound? How much did she really like #4? Could she be satisfied, for now, with Cello #3?

Then we'll do the same thing with the bows.

One at a time, kind of like an eye exam. Which do you like better? A or B? B or C? A or D? A or C? What's your budget for a bow? Should you save up for a better one later?

That's usually an 1.5 hours worth of my time, so I usually bow out and let the store associate or luthiers take over from there. They talk further about the care of the instrument, payment options, etc.

Stella's the name of my cello. [The bartender at Dad Watson's saw me bring her into the pub to meet some friends after a show. He asked her name. I didn't have one for her at the time, nothing had ever seemed to fit. So 15 min later he gave me a napkin with 5 names on it. We picked Stella. It fits.] In the very near future, *cough coughtomorrowcough* I'll tell you how my adoption process was with her.

Has anyone else out there gone through the purchase process? What was it like? Do you have any regrets? New listening/purchasing methods?