This morning I went to Longeuil to test the 7/8 cello the new luthier had called about. I want to get all this down while it’s still fresh in my mind.
It is indeed an Eastman model 100, which is the higher-quality basic student model Eastman offers. Eastman is Chinese-made and finished/set up by the luthier. The website says “Entirely hand-carved from solid tonewoods; Spruce top and maple back, ribs, and scroll; Ebony pegs and fingerboard; Attractive and durable amber-brown varnish”, which pretty much covers it. It has an absolutely lovely warm golden brown varnish with amber highlights, sort of a chocolate caramel glow to it all. It has a silky finish, and a very feminine neck; I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s daintier than mine. In fact, when we’d installed ourselves in the practice room, I immediately took my cello out to lay it down next to the 7/8 and the difference in size was astonishing. The neck was significantly shorter, there was about an inch and a half of difference in body length, although the width was only a quarter-inch different. Depth-wise, the 7/8 was about a half-inch smaller.
Sound-wise, it’s warm and mellow and silky. The G string is a bit buzzy, but that can be adjusted. It’s currently strung with Helicores, a brand that most luthiers have tried to sell to me, and now I can see why: they’re velvety under the fingers and soft to play on. The tension is lower than my current Evah Pirazzis are. The sound is even and balanced across all four strings, and what I absolutely loved was that I couldn’t tell I was playing an open A string. My cello has that nasal open A; this one was just like all the other notes. The dynamics seem to respond well, but this is what I need another cellist to hear it for: there’s a world of difference between sitting behind it and hearing it from the front. Same with the projection. HRH said he could hear mine more clearly, but this is where his hearing problem might adversely affect the evaluation: mine has a sharper projection, the 7/8 was warmer and buttery, so he couldn’t hear it as well. I preferred the 7/8’s sound, but that may be the novelty of it, and I was in an unfamiliar room. It took almost no right arm power at all to draw sound out of it. It felt as if the bow was gliding along the strings instead of dragging them.
Physically, it felt like it fit better in the curve of my body, just as I’d felt when playing M’s 7/8 last month. The bridge and fingerboard were less arched than mine, so I kept bumping strings when I tried to cross. I’m used to making larger movements. The scroll sat almost on my shoulder, something else I’d have to get used to. It’s so easy to play; I can see how it would be less tiring to play it for long periods of time.
HRH and the boy were with me, and the first thing I played was ‘ZYX’ from TMBG’s Here Come the ABCs album, after which the boy applauded enthusiastically. Of course, he applauded after scales and the E flat major runs from Mozart’s third symphony too before he got restless and HRH took him outside to play. Wonderful for the ego. I played through some of the Gounod Symphony no. 1, and never got around to Valse Triste or the arpeggio exercises I’d packed.
It wasn’t an immediate “Oh I love it!” sort of thing. I like it, and it’s very comfortable to play, but it would be a sort of lateral trade. I was hoping to trade up, but one of the things the luthier told me was that he’s looked at other models, and that in his opinion after this kind of quality the next real step up is the Wilhelm Klier 7/8, which runs between $6000 and $7000. He said that if I really wanted him to he would order a 200 or 305 Eastman model, but that the difference in quality was really only going to be negligible and the price higher.
I need to take a moment and say how much the luthier himself impressed me. First of all, he was fluently bilingual, and didn’t make me feel as if I was beneath his notice. It was the luthier himself who sat with me and talked to me about the cello, not an assistant or a salesperson. And being much more confident in my people-judging skills now than I was fifteen years ago, I can say with confidence that he is one of the most honest businesspeople I have met. He’s one of those rare people who wants the best for a client, not what will turn him the most profit. He listened to me, took my comments seriously, and addressed concerns capably and reassuringly. And in turn I was very honest with him, and told him I was going to take my time, but that he’d already gained me as a client because I would bring my cello to him for its tune-up at the end of the month. (He did a quick exam and agreed that the bridge needed changing, and when I mentioned that it was greedy and needed a new one every two years or so he frowned and peeked inside, took an internal measurement or two, and said to himself “Yes, and that’s why” although he didn’t elaborate; I got the feeling there’s an adjustment out of whack). In the end, he didn’t want to sell me something or push me into making a decision I wasn’t comfortable with; he wanted to make sure I was going to end up with something that was right for me, whatever and whenever that was going to be.
The tentative plan at the moment is to talk to the principal cellist at orchestra, who originally told me about this luthier, and line up a date when I know she’ll be at rehearsal (or perhaps a single lesson date at her house, as she’s not playing in the Canada Day concert). Then I’ll sign the 7/8 out for a week or two, and let her pick it over and listen to it, and play it for me so I can hear it from the other side, as well as playing it at home myself. The trial period is unreal in its honesty and simplicity: all one does is sign a contract agreeing that the instrument is in my care and is my responsibility while anything happens to when I’m in possession of it. No security deposit; my cello doesn’t get left as collateral; nothing. If this 7/8 sells before I can take it home on trial or decide to buy it, he will order another one for me.
Before I could bring it up he also asked if I would be open to looking at smaller 4/4 cellos. I agreed immediately, and he went on to say that when he saw me take mine out he had been astonished, and immediately understood why my principal cellist had remarked on it: it’s larger than normal. It’s a big, boxy cello, square across the shoulders and wide across the bottom. So not only am I petite, my damn instrument is oversized. (Ah, the sweet taste of irony. Is anyone else rolling their eyes?) He took the full measurements to have them on file and confirmed that it was on the large side. He pointed out the difference in the necks especially. My current one is thick; the 7/8 is much slimmer depth-wise and width-wise, and it’s not just because of the proportion. So as he comes across smaller 4/4s he’ll call me. He said he’d order in a Wilhelm Klier for me too if I really wanted to try it, no strings attached (no pun intended!), but I passed. There are other places that $7000 needs to go.
What else, what else? We talked about the honeymoon period and both the instrument and musician settling in with one another’s quirks. We talked about playing lots of double stops in the sweet spot once it had been found to help vibrate the body and loosen it up to help everything become even mellower. Half a year after a new cello a new bow, probably, because as I know it’s useless to buy a new bow if you’re about to buy a new instrument. He looked at my current bow and liked the flexibility of the stick, sympathised with the cracked frog, and agreed that replacing the frog wasn’t cost-effective. He guarantees all adjustments and repairs (beyond regular-use wear and strings, of course) for a whole year. If the instrument develops dry cracks or separates along a seam, for example, he will repair it or order a replacement if the repairs wouldn’t absolutely solve the problem.
He asked what I would do with my current one, and we discussed selling privately versus through consignment at the shop, and even the option of not selling it at all and keeping it as a second or gigging instrument. This one’s seen battle, after all, and the trade-in value may not be worth it. I would be extremely hesitant about bringing the delicate 7/8 into a gig situation, and when I explained he said immediately, “I understand.” (Nice ringing G and C for the opening of ‘Rock’n’Roll Radio’, by the way! I forgot to try anything else, but next time I’ll run through ‘J’veux pas viellier’ and ‘Wheat Kings’, both of which have the tricky C on the G string that my cello swallows up.) He also warned me that I wouldn’t recoup much of what I’d paid for it, as instruments of similar quality are going for much less these days. This was what I’d expected.
I forgot to buy rosin, but I will when I take it in in two weeks for the bridge replacement and fingerboard adjustment. I pointed out a scratch on the side of the fingerboard around where the neck joins the body and asked if it was a crack or just a surface scratch; he sanded it lightly and said it was a crack, but he would fill it in when he adjusted the fingerboard.
I have never been treated so personally and directly in a luthier’s shop before. I like that he spoke to me very honestly about what had to be done and didn’t gloss over anything. He was direct and open, and at no time did I feel pressured or patronised. It may have had something to do with how young he was; I don’t know. I feel like we’re going into this new cello search together, instead of me trailing behind him as he holds forth on what is good or bad, talks down to me, or makes decisions about what I need without talking to me.
Now what I need to do is make a list of pros and cons about the 7/8 versus my current full-size cello. It would be a lateral trade, but I wonder if it might not net me a more enjoyable playing experience in the long run. I know how mine reacts, and I know that I can play it, but if it comes down to playability, comfort, and evenness of sound I might turn to the 7/8. The fibro’s not going to get any better, so smaller movements and less energy required to create sound might be a good thing in that respect too. There’s no rush. I can take my time.