I have compiled a list that answers a few of the common questions new cellists have when beginning to play their instrument, as well as a few that new cellists should be told about, but often are not! If there are any points you feel that you still don’t quite understand, or anything I haven’t mentioned that you’d like to know about, please drop me a line in the comments section below!
WHERE TO STORE YOUR CELLO
I’ve put this point first because it’s not really an obvious one, but it’s one of the most important! Always keep your cello away from extreme heat, cold, dryness or humidity. Basically, keep it out of the sun and damp areas, away from heaters and very cold areas. It’s made from wood after all, and this expands and contracts depending on the temperature. The glue on the cello can also melt, leaving the cello to literally come apart at the seams. My luthier once told me that even the humidity accumulated in a bedroom from breathing at night can affect the cello adversely!
That’s why when summer or winter comes, the cello’s tuning can go a bit awry as it adjusts to the new temperature.
Cellos are very fragile and temperamental. Please don’t leave your cello standing upright, unless it’s extremely well protected and it’s guaranteed not to fall over. I’ve witnessed cellos smashed three times so far when colleagues have left their cellos standing upright, and someone’s bumped into them inadvertently or a gust of wind has toppled them over! Definitely not worth the risk. Keep it on its side away from foot traffic, bumps and knocks.
CLEANING THE CELLO
It is important that after each session you wipe excess rosin and dirt off your cello and bow. I have one cloth for the strings (the point between the bridge and the fingerboard where the rosin accumulates the most), and a separate microfiber one for gently wiping the wood of the cello’s body, the stick of the bow, and the cello fingerboard.
Cleaning the cello ensures that the rosin doesn’t eat into the wood of the instrument or harden on the strings, which can affect the sound.
BOW CARE AND ROSIN
When you tighten the hairs of the bow before playing, make sure that the stick still has some ‘give’ in it. It should still be flexible and concave, but maintain enough tension so that the stick of the bow doesn’t constantly rub the strings when playing. At the end of each session, loosen the hair a bit - not enough so that it’s flopping everywhere, but enough so that you’re unable to play on it. The reason for this is that we want to make sure the bow doesn’t warp or even snap from constant pressure.
To rosin the bow you first need to tighten it. How do you know if you have enough rosin? Well, if the bow is new, then you will need to run the rosin across the hair (on the side used to play on the strings and also on the side closest to the wood) around 30-50 times, or until the bow can make a sound and no longer skates silently across the strings. The first time you use a new or rehaired bow it’s ok for the rosin dust to go everywhere. The next time you go to rosin your bow however, you will need only about 4 strokes of rosin. If rosin dust is still flying around, you’ve used a bit much. I recommend rosining the bow once every couple of days, if you are practicing up to an hour a day - otherwise every day is best. Over time, you’ll develop your own preference for how much rosin you require. A good quality rosin will also last longer on the hair.
Another important point that a luthier recently told me - go quite slowly when you rosin the bow, about 1 second per stroke, or else the friction will cause the rosin to harden on the bow hairs!
What happens if a hair snaps? No worries! Just gently pull it off in the opposite direction to the rest of the hair.
Another important point about bow care - be careful not to touch the hair. The oil on your fingers can rub off onto the hair and leave oily patches. You’ll notice that after a while your fingers can leave an oily residue at the hair closest to the frog, where your fingers are - this is normal! When the hair is starting to get yellow, thin and/or you notice that the oil near the frog is getting to be too much, you should take your bow to a luthier to get it rehaired.
Do tune your cello before each session. If you don’t have a piano, it’s best to start out by tuning each string with the aid of a tuner. If your string is drastically out of tune, you will need to use the sound pegs. Tightening the string (clockwise turn) will make the string sharper (higher in pitch) and vice versa. Be careful when you do this, because the pegs should be turned incrementally (unless the string is totally floppy of course!) otherwise they could snap. I suggest half a centimeter at a time, and being careful not to go too sharp. It’s also important to push the peg in at the same time as you turn.
If your string is only slightly out of tune, you can use the fine tuners. Again, to make the pitch sharper turn clockwise.
If you need to restring your cello, I recommend asking your teacher for help. One tip - apply some pencil to the grooves in the bridge and the nut before restringing; this helps the string to slide easily when you tighten it!
How often do you need to change strings? This depends on your string quality and type and how often you play. Also, the higher strings tend to deaden before the lower strings do - the C can last a long time! If your string doesn’t ring when you pluck it, it’s time to change. For a beginner who practices up to an hour a day, I’d recommend every 9-12 months.