By Cliff Hall | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
When starting cello lessons, it’s important for beginners to have the appropriate instrument quality and gear. According to Emily Wright, the founder of Tamarack Arts, it’s best for students to have the nicest gear they can afford, within reason, when first starting cello lessons. However, she recommends that most students rent an instrument for the first few months for two reasons: one, to see if they’re going to stay the course, and two, because the kind of instrument outfit a reputable luthier will offer usually exceeds what they’ll find on sale at the entry-level budget of most players. In her words, “Please, please, don’t get a $300 cello online.”
Though a financially attractive substitute, buying instruments from untrustworthy sources is a common mistake that some parents make. Wright warns against buying instruments from Facebook Marketplace or similar platforms, as they often have not been set up properly and do not stay in tune. In her experience, “the odds of getting one that will function for you is about the same as winning the lottery.” Instead, she recommends finding a reputable luthier or larger shop that can offer a proper setup.
So, what does a student really need to have? “A student should have an instrument made of wood (or carbon fiber), with a bridge that has been carved to fit that specific instrument, a bow that is reasonably straight with full width hair that can loosen and tighten, fine tuners, and strings and pegs that can hold a tune,” says Wright. “Additionally, the cello should not have any open seams or wild improvised repairs that will fight the student.”
When it comes to “nice to haves,” Wright recommends an instrument that has been played for a while. “Unlike cars, with instruments—even those at the entry level—the more they have been played and taken care of, the better they tend to sound. As an example, I played on a completely beat up instrument in middle school: it had people’s names carved into it and the fingerboard was faded where the fingers had worn away the color. I’m pretty sure a cockroach once crawled out of it after going unplayed for a summer,” says Wright. “It sounded better than any of the new shiny orange instruments the other players clamored for!”
Beyond the instrument itself, Wright describes some other desirable enhancements. “Premium strings are another wonderful upgrade, and once a student is willing to spend more than a few hundred dollars for a bow, they can witness firsthand how much difference a better bow can make, both in helping their mechanics and in generating a beautiful tone,” says Wright. “Geared pegs are also a great addition, as they help instruments hold their tune and prevent over-tightening.”
When it comes to adults buying instruments for themselves, Wright says that there’s no such thing as too nice for a beginner. However, she has seen many students become obsessed with expensive gear instead of focusing on their development as a musician. While it’s wonderful to play a professional-level instrument, it’s useful to occasionally play on a less expensive instrument to maintain perspective.
Although sometimes beginners incorrectly see it as an accessory rather than a primary part of a cellist’s sound, a good bow is an important consideration as well. Not that beginners need an expensive pernambuco bow from the outset. “Some fiberglass bows are actually better than wooden ones in terms of weight and balance. Especially for younger students, I find a hardy bow helpful for the abuse they’re exposed to, like taking it on the bus or in a carpool, sitting on it, dropping it, having their pet abscond with it,” explains Wright with the experience of a teacher that has seen it all.
Even with a rental instrument, if a bow isn’t the right fit for the student (younger or more petite students can struggle with a heavy feeling bow or too-stiff stick), most shops will exchange until the right one is found. Also, if a student is serious enough, plenty of folks buy a bow first. It’s important for this to be under the guidance of a teacher or shop staff, so that a number of contender bows can be tried, and that someone objective can vouch for the sound at a distance.
Starting cello lessons can be an exciting but overwhelming experience, especially when it comes to choosing the right instrument and gear. But short-term solutions, like acquiring an inferior instrument or bow, often lead to short-term playing experiences instead of setting up the student for a lifetime of music making.
As for the goals of the first year of lessons, Wright emphasizes the importance of learning to read music in first position across all four strings. For most students who take lessons regularly, she encourages them to explore some of the other positions (second through fourth) in scales and pieces. She also wants them to have a good bow hold and an understanding of what both hands do and what the ideal techniques look and feel like. In addition, students should learn the way keys work, be able to play basic scales, and know how to work with a tuner and a metronome.
It can be slightly harder to learn the cello bow hold than the violin bow hold; the violin has the built-in benefit of being more horizontal in nature, and so it is easier to balance the bow on the instrument. The more vertical orientation of the cello can be a challenge for beginners as they tend to hold the stick too tightly out of fear of dropping the bow. Knowing how challenging that is, Wright is not looking for the perfect bow hold immediately. “I’m looking for a bow hold that roughly performs the function and resembles the form it will take over the next few years,” says Wright.
Once a basic bow hold is established, beginners can then start to explore the bow stroke itself. Again, Wright is not looking for mastery right away. “They’ll know some of the basic articulation names: détaché, legato, martelé, collé—because these are the strokes we use to create a strong foundation and relaxed arm,” she says.
Perhaps the most important goal for the first year of lessons is for students to have a real sense of how to practice. According to Wright, “With beginners, at least half of our time is centered around how to work on what is presented during the lesson at home.”