Two weeks ago, there was a series of synchronous events. This is not unusual in my life, but it’s rare that it happens so obviously. This is a long post, so be forewarned.
One day I woke up and wondered, apparently out of the blue, if playing a 7/8 cello would be better for me. There was absolutely no grounding for this notion; it literally popped into my head one morning. I thought about it for a few days, and decided that if things felt right, I’d ask one of my orchestral colleagues if I could try her 7/8 cello during a break.
I thought about it all the way to the next rehearsal. As we were setting up I asked my section leader if she’d take a look at my cello to confirm if it was laminated or not. She did, and to my surprise it isn’t: it’s fully carved. She asked about where it was from and when it was made to further confirm, and I told her that it was Hungarian and about forty years old. Then it was certainly carved, she told me.
And then, once she’d handed it back to me and I was setting up to play, she said, “Have you ever thought of trying a 7/8 cello?”
I put down my tuner and looked at her, partly amused, partly astonished.
“I ask because my luthier told me he has one in stock. I have a student who needs a new cello â€“ she put the soundpost through the back [ed: insert wince here] â€“ but I thought of you.”
“You know, it’s the oddest thing,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about trying a 7/8. I know M. plays one, and I was going to ask her how she likes it, and if she’d mind if I tried it. But won’t your student be wanting it?”
“Not for a while,” she said, “she has to work out exchange value and repairs with her current luthier, because hers is worthless the way it is now. It will be a few months. And he can always order another one.”
“What kind of cello is it â€“ I mean, where was it made? Do you know the price range?” I asked, steeling myself for a cascade of blithely unaffordable numbers.
“Bof, it’s Chineseâ€¦ maybe twelve hundred?” she said.
I blinked and fought the urge to grin madly. Chinese instruments had a bad rap about twenty years ago, but lately they’ve been dramatically improving in quality. My section leader wouldn’t recommend anything that wasn’t carved and of decent quality, especially as I’ve been playing for fifteen years. (In fact, her new cello is a Chinese instrument, with a remodel done by a local luthier.) Any new cello would need a proper set-up by the luthier, and if it’s a basic model then we’d need to upgrade pretty much everything to get it to the state I’d need it to be in: tailpiece, endpin, bridge, certainly the strings, possibly the entire fingerboard if planing it isn’t good enoughâ€¦ but even then, if it’s a good enough instrument, even with five to eight hundred dollars’ worth of upgrades it wouldn’t even come close my original estimate of what my next instrument would cost. Well, I’d need to find a good bow, too, but I have decent bow-buying luck (my recent at-home bow woes are a different matter entirely!) and so that wouldn’t be more than five hundred, I would think. And still the total would come to below what I was expecting to have to pay for my next instrument alone. There’s always the trade-in value of my current cello too, although now that I’m seriously thinking about a new one Iâ€™m becoming fiercely attached to it, for some silly reason. We’ve been through a lot in fifteen years and I feel somewhat responsible for it. (I feel the same way about our thirty-five year old family stove that died recently, as if giving it away is some kind of betrayal.)
So my section leader gave me her luthier’s card, and told me to call him.
At the break, I moved back and asked my colleague how she liked her 7/8. I knew she had been playing a full-sized one for two or three months while the 7/8 was in the shop, and I wondered how the difference had affected her. M. said that there hadn’t been a lot of difference in playing, really; she’d expected to have problems with the spacing and shifting, but had adjusted very quickly, almost intuitively. The one problem she’d had, she said, was with the body of the instrument, about halfway down. There was just more body in the way of her hands and arms. She readily agreed to allow me to sit and play about with it, and handed it to me.
To my astonishment, when I sat down and leaned it against my shoulder, the first thing I felt was that I wanted to hug it. The body was certainly smaller â€“ not so much so that it felt fragile or weak, just more compact. It tucked into my own body better. I ran through a couple of scales, then nudged her sheet music closer and played through some of the troublesome bits of the piece we’d just finished playing.
Every instrument is different, plays differently, feels different under the hands, but this 7/8 felt as if it were co-operating with me, playing with me instead of being played by me. It was neat, and it was compact, and itâ€¦ well, it fit better. It would be foolish to assume that any 7/8 would function the same way; every instrument has its own personality and quirks. Still, it provided food for thought.
I set it down carefully and went back to my own, picking it up and leaning it against my shoulder. Andâ€¦ I felt claustrophobic. It was huge. I could see immediately what M. had meant by the fuller body getting in the way of the hands. The 4/4 was deeper than the 7/8 had been. There really isn’t a lot of difference between a 7/8 and a 4/4, and there’s enough variation in the basic sizing anyway that you could find a 4/4 that is petite. True 7/8s are moderately rare and hard to find. The regular body length of a 4/4 cello is about 30″ and just under 18″ wide, whereas the 7/8 body is about 28.5 to 29″ long and 17″ wide. Overall it’s about an inch and a half shorter than a full-sized cello. But it’s not just about the length; it’s about the overall proportion. And having played both, one after the other, I could understand that in a way I hadn’t really understood before. Even that half-inch or so and the proportional depth makes a noticeable difference. There’s no difference in the pitch or power of the sound produced, of course.
“What made you think of mentioning the 7/8 to me?” I asked my section leader when she came back from break.
“I thought it would look better. You’re soâ€¦” And she gestured with her hands to indicate my petite build. M. is petite too, although Iâ€™m slightly taller than she is. I’ve never considered a 7/8 because I have very long fingers, and long arms and legs for my size, so making my way around the full-size cello has never been a problem for me. When she handed my cello back to me after looking at the top she must have seen how awkward it was in a way she doesn’t usually see, sitting next to me.
“If I were to try it,” I said, “would you come with me and give me your opinion? I’d pay you your regular lesson fee.”
“No no, my dear,” she said, “you would bring the cello here, and we would try it out together under real circumstances.”
“They would let me do that?” I blurted out, then laughed with her when she said, “But of course!” I never thought anyone would ever trust me enough to let me take a cello home for a trial. (In some ways I still think of myself as a young university student, the one who was deeply scarred by a bad experience with an arrogant and condescending luthier who, I hear, still treats his clients insultingly.) I expect that I’d have to leave a security deposit and prove that my insurance would cover it. Still, it’s an option I’ve never considered because I never thought it possible.
And then a few days ago Erin posted her thoughts about perhaps trying a 7/8. By this point I was already convinced that the universe was trying to tell me something; Erin’s mention just made me go “hmm” again.
So this morning I e-mailed the luthier, querying him about the 7/8 he had in stock. It can’t hurt to try it when I have a life again in mid-April. If it feels and sounds wrong, then that’s that. But ignoring the universe when it seems to be jumping up and down and trying to attract my attention about something would feel ungrateful. This may lead to something entirely different, or to nothing at all, which would be fine; Iâ€™m not in a hurry, or in dire need of a new cello. We can take our time. We’ll see.