Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

Tips for Buying a Cello

A few useful tips when choosing a cello to buy

In this video, Prof. Mendoes gives you a few useful tips to choose a cello for purchase. Whether you are a beginner student, a cello teacher, or a pro, you'll find this video very insightful.

Released on July 4, 2018

    
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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello everyone. This is Joseph Mendoes with another video for virtualsheetmusic.com. So today I'd like to talk about something kind of concerning logistics, buying a cello. Buying a cello is something that I know is really scary for a lot of people. Usually, it's a pretty decent-sized purchase in terms of how much money you're thinking about depending on what level you're at too, that can change. And I know also some people out there don't have a lot of help when it comes to buying a cello. It's always good to get your teacher involved when you're buying a cello, they can help you a lot in that direction.

But yeah, basically today, I'd just like to go over just a couple tips of what to look for in a cello, what to listen for at the various ranges. So first of all, let's just talk about beginner cellos here. There's quite a few brands out these days of beginner cellos that are really high quality, very good cellos. I could name some makers and things, but all you have to do is just go on Google and look at some reviews, there's quite a bit of information out there. And depending also where you're at, if you're in Europe or if you're in the United States or you're in Asia, the answer to that question will be a little bit different. But just do a pretty casual search online you'll be able to find some brands that seem to stand out.

Whatever you do, try to avoid buying a cello on eBay or through a private seller for your first cello. Very often, you'll find instruments there of really sub-quality. And so only if you really know what you're doing, if you really are familiar, for example, just with string instrument construction and what a cello really should sound like, if you're familiar with those things, obviously go buy from a private seller through eBay or some site like that, that's fine. But if it's your first time buying, if it's a beginner cello, I would not do it. So that's the first thing is go through a reputable dealer.

There's online dealers in the United States. I know there's several that are great. Johnson string instruments is great. Shar is a pretty good dealer, sharmusic.com, in Michigan. And, of course, there's many local dealers as well, they're not online, in your area. Again, just doing a good search of high-quality violin shops. Usually, they're in most major metropolitan areas, there's going to be at least one decent quality violin shop. So it's worth the drive certainly, if you're an hour, hour and a half away from a larger city like that, I would definitely spend the money to go out and go out to a shop like that instead of going to just kind of a local kind of small music store or maybe they only have one or two cellos or something like that.

So in terms of the cello itself, so once you get your to the shop and you're actually looking at various cello in your price range, which by the way, at least in the states, beginner cello's rank from anywhere from a little bit under $1,000, that's usually the least expensive that I would ever think about going, even that's a little bit low. Upwards, I mean, on beginner cello, you can spend really as much as you want, but $5,000, you can go that high. And so I recommend looking in that range, somewhere between $1,000 to $5,000 and see what cellos they have in that range.

First thing you want to do is gather just a kind of a general visual aesthetic impression of the instrument. The instrument should look not too terribly beat up, unless it's fairly old, but still if you see a tremendous amount of kind of ugly looking scratches or things that maybe look like they weren't repaired too well or something like that, then definitely you're looking at a cello that maybe is not, at least in this price range, is not something that you want to consider. Better to look at something that looks pretty clean.

Certain little things that I like to look for while I'm shopping for cello is actually...the construction of the scroll says a lot about the general craftsmanship of the cello, at least in my opinion. So if you look at the scroll, you can kind of see my scroll up closer, I'm not sure if the camera is focusing on, but the scroll should have a very nice kind of fluid shape to it. On very, very nice cellos like mine, the scroll will be really expertly carved, just obviously of one solid piece, and it'll just be a very beautiful thing to look at, it will look very clean, it'll look fairly symmetrical in most cases. So that's just something to kind of look at, if the scroll looks very beautiful to you, if it's something that looks kind of ugly and misshapen, then that's kind of a hint, this doesn't always tell you everything, but it's a bit of a hint as to the character of the whole instrument, the construction particularly in this price range.

The next thing to do is just again the kind of a once-over. I always like to first take a look at the top of the cello to see if there's any marks that look like it may be had a crack on the top of the cello or something at some point that was repaired. And there's two ways to do this. The first way is to kind of tilt it... you won't be able to see, I'm just kind of demonstrating, but tilt it against the light and you'll be able to see if the surface of the top of the cello is smooth. As you tilt it, as the light kind of catches, you'll be able to see if there's any kind of little dips in the wood or anything like that.

Another way to find this is to kind of run your fingers just kind of lightly over the top of the cello. If there's any little dips or anything like that then you know that it probably had a crack on the top. The crack on the top, that kind of thing can be repaired very well, but again, it is just something that you want to be aware of, and not all shops will tell you if a cello has been repaired in that way. So it's just something you want to have in the background. Of course, a cello that hasn't been repaired for your first purchase is usually the better way to go.

Okay. So let's move on to the sound. So the first thing that I always do is I just listen to the four open strings. So I'll just play a C, a G, a D, and A, and I'll just go back and forth like that and just kind of see what the open strings sound like. And then I'll just try playing a little scale just kind of back and forth like that just to see major scale, of course, I'll do it a little bit more slowly, but just to kind of get an idea of what the cello sounds like on all four strings. And then I might play maybe just kind of one long note on each open string just to kind of see how well the cello sustains and just to get a general idea of the character of the cello. Now, this is where most people get a little mystified because they're like, "Well gee, if I don't know how to play the cello, how am I supposed to do this?" Well, a lot of shops they'll do this for you, they'll have somebody there that can kind of put the bow on the strings and make a halfway decent sound to kind of tell you and give you an idea of what the instrument sounds like.

Now, another thing that I know a lot of people worry about is the sound of the instrument. How am I supposed to know if the sound is good or not? It's funny because my experiences is that, usually, when I was shopping with students, particularly beginners, for their first cello, they almost always know what sounds good. I try not to tell them as I'm kind of playing through say five or six cellos or something like that and I'm playing them, I try not to tell them what I think is right off the bat, I just want to see what they thinking and almost always they get it right. If a cello sounds kind of bright and scratchy, it's just probably not good, but if it sounds bright and nice and full, then it's very good. If it sounds a little muddy compared to the other ones, it's probably not so good. All these kinds of aesthetic judgments, these are all aesthetic judgments any of us can really make, even people who aren't that musical can usually make these judgments. So have a little belief in yourself there, and don't be so nervous when you are going to try cellos because you are really going to be able to hear the difference. And this is true at any level, not just the beginner level, is that the sound is something that you can really trust yourself to kind of figure out and to hear. And so basically that's it, if you're happy with the sound and you're happy with the visual aesthetic because actually I'm one of the few out there that thinks that's actually pretty important, to be happy with how you visually respond to the instrument because certainly if the instrument is something that has a kind of a visual appeal to you, then you're going to be more likely to probably get it out of the case more frequently.

If you're happy with those things, then the next thing is is obviously the price. Now, figuring out actually how much a cello should be, that's where things really get subjective and tricky. It has a lot to do with what you think the cello was worth. Again, you've made this visual assessment, you can tell first of all if it's been repaired or not now if you use that trick that I showed you. The overall look and feel and also the sound of the cello will tell you a lot, in the price range that you're dealing with, how much really you think it should be worth. And let's say the instrument is for $5,000, the one that you really like, but you didn't really want to spend $5,000, then find something else. You can always make those kinds of decisions. It's not that the only cello that's for you is going to be at a particular price range, it's not that at all. It's much better to just make sure that the cello that you're going to buy is something that you really like, you really love actually. In fact, in some ways, it's not exactly like a marriage, but it's a little bit like a marriage in that you're finding a partner that you're going to be with for pretty decent amount of time, and you'll want to make sure that everything about it just makes you happy just as a budding artist. At the higher level, intermediate to the advanced level, it's really just a lot of the same stuff.

Things get a little bit tricky when you start heading into the price range of around $14,000, $15,000 because what you'll see there is that, well, definitely, you can always almost tell what the difference is between a cello that's, say, $1,000 or a $5,000 cello. Usually, there is a pretty big difference there. It's a little bit harder to tell the difference between say some cellos that are like $15,000 all the way up to even $25,000. So that's a big spread, right, I mean, from $1,000 to $5,000 it's only $4,000 difference, and there's usually a pretty big quality difference, whereas you get into like $15,000 to $25,000 and you start getting into things that are usually a little bit more subtle. That's where you want to be, obviously if you're looking at an instrument that expensive, you're usually a little bit more advanced, so you want to take it into a large place like a church or if you can even get into a concert hall or something like that, you want to try the instrument in a larger space. Usually, you can hear a little bit more of the differences there, and that's where, really, things get a little bit more complicated.

Now, of course, when you get up into the level of instrument that Yo-Yo Ma is playing, which, of course, hardly any of us will ever see that kind of money, upwards of $2 to $3 million, then it becomes quite easy to tell the difference between something like that and say something that is, I don't know, $50,000 or something, there's obviously a really big chunk there. But yeah, in the intermediate to advanced cello range, that's where things do get a little bit more difficult, that's where I wouldn't do that alone, I would try to go with the teacher, and I would really take your time with that kind of purchase. But for most of you, I know you're looking for that range that is somewhere between $1,000 to $5,000 and $1,000 to $8,000, somewhere in there. And that's basically the best way to go, is make sure the instrument is pretty clean, and it doesn't have to look super fancy or anything, but make sure it's aesthetically pleasing to you, make sure that it's making good sounds, it's not squeaking, or it's not doing anything kind of strange.

And one more thing, be very open with the dealer about what you're looking for. If you're unhappy with the sound of a cello, tell the person who's selling it, tell the dealer. There are some adjustments that they might be able to do like changing out a particular string or adjusting the sound post a little bit inside the cello or something, they can kind of alter the character of the cello. So let's say you find a cello that you love almost everything about it, but there's this one thing that's like,"Meh," it's...I don't know. Bring that up to the dealer, because very often, they'll be able to make some sort of adjustment and change things around for you. But basically, trust your ears, trust your eyes. Most of us, at least in my experience teaching, most students at every level have actually a pretty keen ear and keen eye for these kinds of things and can really tell what they like and what they don't like. So yeah, I think that's it. I think I covered everything. Probably I'll talk about bows on a different day because that's a whole another animal unto itself. So yeah, so please leave your comments down below on Virtual Sheet Music, all the ones on YouTube, I cannot reply to, so I can reply to the ones on VSM. Also, I do have a few openings for online lessons, so if you're interested, contact me there, contact me on the website, the cellojunkie.com website. And I guess that's it. Once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for virtualsheetmusic.com.
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Cwhitfield * VSM MEMBER * on July 6, 2018 @8:57 am PST
Buying a case for the cello is confusing as well. Balancing the weight vs the protective features, internal support, composition (fiberglass, carbon fiber, ABS, hybrid), rigidity, adjustability for the dimensions of your instrument, and so forth is difficult. I would like to hear your thoughts on choosing a case.
Thanks
Jill Beer * VSM MEMBER * on July 4, 2018 @7:21 am PST
Thanks for this explanation. I am happy with my beginner cello for exactly the reasons you went through on your video.

I was wondering if you could explain a "wolf" in one of your videos. How do you know is your cello has one and what can be done about it?
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