Why is a Cello not like a Toaster Oven?

(I have updated and reposted this blog piece from a few years ago because I think it is good information to review)

That is because a cello is not anything at all even remotely like a toaster oven – not in the least! That should be very obvious but you would be surprised how often people miss the distinction. We live in a world that wants to quantify everything. If you are an analytical person or just a conscientious buyer and you want a toaster oven first you will research to find out what the best brand and model is in your price range. This should not be too hard because there will only be a few major makers. You will check customer reviews of that model and then you will comparison shop to find the best prices locally. The reputation of the store you buy from will also be important to you but you know that model Q of brand X is going to be exactly the same no matter where you buy it. That is because you are looking at a modern manufactured appliance made of uniform homogeneous materials, assembled primarily by robots and by the most modern manufacturing methods in huge factories. This is the same for stereos, blenders, plasma TVs, refrigerators, etc. The modern assembly line has given us a very high standard of living.

Unfortunately, you cannot choose acoustic musical instruments the same way you can an appliance. First, stringed instruments like violins, violas, cellos and upright basses are made of organic materials – primarily woods – that are not uniform and homogeneous. Every piece of wood is different. Second, although many student instruments are made in factories they are still primarily made by hand and most factories and shops are small. Thirdly, the set-up by a local shop is extremely important and can make the difference between a satisfying instrument and one that is a true nightmare. Let me digress here to a personal story.

When I was about thirteen I decided that I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. My mother had a guitar and as far as I knew they were all the same. I took a little time and attempted to play hers but it was just too difficult and very hard on my fingers. I gave up and did not revisit the instrument for five years. I later learned that she had a terrible instrument with a bowed neck, heavy strings and an action between the fret board and the strings that was high enough to slice bread with. Only a true martyr with fingers of steel could have learned that instrument but I didn’t know that. One of the little secrets of our industry is that a reputable small local shop will nearly always do a good set-up on the instruments they sell (I take up to two hours on each instrument) and Internet discounters almost never do and most student level acoustic instruments these days are not remotely ready to play out of the box. A local shop will also cull out any instruments that do not meet their minimum standards and ship them back to the manufacturer. Most Internet re-sellers don’t even open the box. Most true violin shops stand behind every instrument they sell and offer lifetime trade-ups. I have lost track of how many horror stories that I have heard about instruments that were bought on the Internet. Also, most Internet-only shops will never upgrade strings or even suggest the best upgrades for a given instrument.

By now your hypocrisy alarm is probably going off because Allegro Violin and Music does a reasonable amount of Internet business but we are a local shop and over 80% of our business is local. We have the same standards for local and Internet instruments and we do our full set-up on each one.

People will sometimes ask me what the difference is between two instruments where one is quite a bit more expensive than the other. Then, to answer their own question, they will often suggest, “Is it the quality of the wood?” The answer is that, yes, it could be the quality and aging of the woods but it could also be a hundred other subtle difference that are as much art and expertise as they are science. I have also sensed frustration from customers who try to quantify the best brands and models for a given price range and find themselves in a labyrinth with a multitude of different brands and models to choose from. Here again, a trustworthy shop can steer you to the best values in a given price range. This can vary over time. One year, one brand may offer the best value and then a couple years later it may be a different manufacturer. This is why I attend the national trade shows and also keep my ear to the ground. This is also why all of our instruments come with a lifetime trade-up. The instrument that works well for you or your child now may not be appropriate in three years.

The acoustic musical instrument market is one of the few places where bigger is not necessarily better. I have worked in this industry for many years in my own shop and others and I have seen large companies try to sell acoustic instruments the same way that big box stores try to sell appliances. It might work for a toaster oven or even a guitar pedal – it does not work for a cello.

Keep Practicing,

Craig Birchfield