The Cello Curmudgeon

I could have just as easily entitled this piece Violin Vexation. I thought that I would briefly revisit some important themes that I have touched on before centered on bowed strings and related to adult education, children’s education, maintenance and ownership. These points make bring your some insight but your mileage may vary. Enjoy.

#1) “I have a bad cello (violin, viola, bass) that won’t stay in tune.” That is like saying that I have a car that is a lemon because it has a flat tire. It is believed that the oldest surviving violin was made in 1564 by Andrea Amati but the origins of the peg and wood block tuning system that violins and cellos uses hearken back to the dim recesses of instrument history even to prehistoric times. In other words, you have a tuning system here that is thousands of years old. And it still works! But it has its limitations. As the weather changes the pegbox will expand and contract as the humidity and temperature rise and fall. Eventually a peg will work its way out. The question is not if the pegs will slip but when. I guarantee that there are Stradivarius violins out there worth millions of dollars that have slipping pegs from time to time. The problem seems to be exacerbated in cellos – especially on the high A string. Usually all that is needed is to lower the pitch of the string with the peg, push it in slightly toward the peg box and bring it up to pitch. If the peg continues to slip a quick trip into any competent violin shop can remedy the situation in short order. Now candidly, you may well have a lemon of a violin but a slipping peg alone is not the hallmark of a “violin shaped object”. Obvious poor workmanship, mediocre woods or lousy tone are far more of a red flag. A cautionary note: never wiggle a peg back and forth to get it to hold. That is like bending a spoon back and forth. You will break a string almost every time. Remember, if the basic instrument is sound any little difficulty with it can usually be quickly remedied.

#2) “We want to rent first because we are not sure if little Johnny is going to stick with this. He’s tried stuff like this before and quit.” I wish that I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a parent say that. I could go on a nice vacation, at least to Bend or Mount Hood. The trouble is that little Johnny is usually standing right there with his big ears wide open. Talk about programming a child for failure! Now we have nothing against renting at Allegro Violin – we rent hundreds of instruments. Indeed, little Johnny may eventually loose interest but please don’t put doubt into the child’s heart and mind by making a negative statement. There are so many better ways to phrase it. How about, “We are excited that Johnny has shown interest in the violin and we want to support him by renting him a nice instrument. We will probably purchase one down-the-road.” See how much more supportive that is. Don’t put doubt in the child’s mind by suggesting a lack of faith on your part that he or she will continue. Always motivate and not discourage worthy goals. And remember, your attitude and hands-on mentoring will make a huge impact on the eventual success of your child is music.

#3) “We want to make sure that this is something little Jenny will enjoy. We want to see if she really likes it before we invest much.” Radical Musician Ideology Alert!! Learning to play a musical instrument should be a right of passage for all children. Why wouldn’t a child want to play a musical instrument? And what kind of world would it be if everyone could play a musical instrument? I truly believe that it would be a better and more centered and kinder world. I don’t believe that music education should be an option for children any more than science, math, English or history should be optional in school. The note says, “Ms. Horntweeter, please excuse little Jenny from math the rest of the school year. She doesn’t like it.” Silly, isn’t it. Here are some of the benefits of learning music: self-discipline, a calmer mind, better social skills, better cognitive skills, better math and science scores, self-respect, better self-image and the list goes on. Exhaustive research by many different colleges and educational groups has revealed improved academic and social performance in virtually every area for children who learn an instrument. We are not suggesting that if a child shows absolutely no aptitude or interest that they should be forced fed a musical education if it becomes obvious that it is an anathema to them. On the other hand a musical education should not be put on the same level as a child playing T-ball or community soccer. It should not be their whim-of-the-moment. It is way too valuable an asset for that.

#4) “What is the absolutely the cheapest instrument you have? I’d like something under $200.” Then if I peek out the window I might see that mom and dad brought Johnny or Jenny in a late model Mercedes, Beamer or Lexus. Or maybe they tell me all about how they take a cruise every year and also jet to Europe. This could be none of my business and I know that often even an inexpensive instrument is a stretch for some budgets but does it make sense to pay $120 to $150 a month for private lessons and not be willing to spend $300 to $500 on a decent instrument on which to learn? Believe me, it will make a difference on how easily children (or even you if you are the player) are able to advance. This doesn’t mean that you need to spend $1000 or more on a first instrument unless, of course, you want to. It does mean that a good sounding and playing instrument is an asset to learning. At our shop that means something usually between $300 to $550 or so.

#5) “We don’t want to invest in a nice instrument for Johnny or Jenny because they will just outgrow it”. This is the number one concern for the majority of parents coming into our shop. We know that your children are growing and we are not going to make you buy a new instrument every year. We have a lifetime trade-up for upgrades. It is full value less a modest $35 clean-up and restring fee. The cost trade-up is $50 for cellos and basses.

Keep Practicing,

Craig