The Cello

Introduction
The Cello
The cello is a very old instrument. It has been basically unchanged for hundreds of years. It is a bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. The plural of cello is either celli or cellos. It is a member of the string family of music instruments. The four major instruments in the string family, the violin, the viola, the cello and the double bass, are built the same way. The first known maker was Andrea Amati.


History
Cello comes from the Italian term violoncello, which actually means “little violone.” The violone is the lowest-pitched instrument in the viol family, a group of stringed instruments that were used primarily before the eighteenth century. During the twentieth century, it became customary to abbreviate violoncello as “cello.”  It is believed that the Celli were made as early as the mid-1500’s.The instrument grew in popularity throughout Europe in the 1700s thanks to Italian players although the French persisted to use the bass violin for several more decades.

Description and Construction


The cello looks like the violin and viola but is much larger [around 4 feet long], and has thicker strings than either the violin or viola. Cello is too large to put under your chin, thus you play it sitting down with the body of the cello between your knees, and the neck on your left shoulder. The body of the cello rests on the ground and is supported by a metal peg.

Cellos come in many different sizes. Standard or full-sized cellos are referred to as “4/4” and smaller cellos may be referred to in fractional sizes, such as 7/8, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/10 and 1/16. Smaller cellos are essentially the same as full-sized cellos, just proportionally scaled down for children and shorter adults.  While it is a bulky instrument, the cello is actually relatively light weight, weighing only five to 3Kg. It is actually the case that adds on most of the weight. 


The instruments [Cello] are made of many pieces of wood, although other materials such as carbon fiber or aluminum may be used, which are glued [never nailed] together. This glue is made from boiling animal connective tissue. It is strong, but malleable. The glue is weaker than the wood, allowing it to shrink or expand without cracking the instrument. A traditional cello has a spruce top, with maple for the back, sides, and neck. Other woods, such as poplar or willow, are sometimes used for the back and sides. Less expensive cellos frequently have tops and backs made of laminated wood.

While the top and back of the body of the cello are traditionally hand-carved, a less expensive cello may be machine generated. But either way, the body's beautiful curves are made by heating the wood, and bending it around pre-made forms.

While the top and back of the body of the cello are traditionally hand-carved, a less expensive cello may be machine generated. But either way, the body's beautiful curves are made by heating the wood, and bending it around pre-made forms. Internally, the sound and stability of the cello's body are enhanced with the bass bar and sound post.

The body of the instrument is hollow, thus becoming a resonating box for the sound. Four strings (sometimes five on the double-bass) made of animal gut, nylon, or steel are wrapped around pegs at one end of the instrument and attached to a tailpiece at the other. They are stretched tightly across a bridge to produce their assigned pitches.
The top and back of the cello has decorative border inlay known as purfling. While purfling gives the cello an aesthetically pleasing appearance, it also serves a practical useful purpose: it protects a cello against damage.
placing purfling around your Cello
The top and back of the cello has decorative border inlay known as purfling. While purfling gives the cello an aesthetically pleasing appearance, it also serves a practical useful purpose: it protects a cello against damage. Purfling helps prevent cracking of the wood due to playing, travel, weather, or being dropped or struck.  A crack may form at the rim of the instrument, but spreads no further. Without purfling, cracks can spread up or down the top or back.  Less expensive instruments typically have painted purfling.

Playing Cello
Like other string instruments the cello comes in just two pieces, the instrument and the bow. The bow uses horsehair or a synthetic material to vibrate the strings as it is drawn over the instrument. The bow should be tightened to just the right tension before it is used and loosened before it is put away. When a string is bowed or plucked to produce a note, the fundamental note is accompanied by higher frequency overtones. Each sound has a particular recipe of frequencies that combine to make the total sound.

The cello is played in an upright position with the left hand resting on the back of the neck and the right either plucks the strings or holds the bow. The player should be sitting with the body of the instrument resting between the legs.

The cello is played in an upright position with the left hand resting on the back of the neck and the right either plucks the strings or holds the bow. The player should be sitting with the body of the instrument resting between the legs. The correct hand position for both hands as well as posture and arm positions are critical at the beginning stages. Beginners should not practice extensively without guidance from a teacher. Developing bad habits at the beginning stages may be very difficult to break.

During the Baroque era, cellos were still held between the legs while playing. In the 1830s, Belgian cellist August Adrien Servais introduced the endpin which supports the instrument on the floor and also transmits the sound through the ground.


The modern cello is played as a solo instrument in chamber music, provides the bass voice of a string quartet, and is also a component of a standard symphony orchestra. Cello is the second only to the double bass in size in a symphony orchestra and was said to be the closest sounding instrument to the human [male] voice. Cello parts are generally written in the bass clef, but both tenor and treble clefs are used for higher-range parts. You play the cello in a similar manner to the violin and viola, using your left hand to press down on the strings, and your right hand to move the bow or pluck the strings. A person who plays the cello is called a cellist or violoncellist.

Maintenance
A small amount of maintenance and cleaning of the cello is needed. It is important to clean the instrument with a soft rag and occasionally change the strings. The most time consuming activity other than playing the instrument is tuning. The cello should be tuned every day or every time it is taken out of the case.
Older cellos or cellos that have not been well maintained can easily be in need of repair. A lack of humidity, temperature changes or just time can cause damage to the instrument. Small cracks in the wood develop which can be very costly to repair.


  • Do not try and tune the instrument yourself! It takes a while to learn to do this properly, and if you're not careful you may damage the instrument and/or break strings. Take your instrument to the teacher at your next class and have them tune it for you.
  • Do not leave your instrument in your car! Intense heat or cold can cause an instrument to come apart or crack, and will definitely cause it to fall out of tune.
  • Try to avoid exposing your instrument to sudden changes in humidity. When traveling with your instrument it is always better to keep it in the back seat of your car rather than the trunk.
  • Keep your instrument clean. Keep a lint-free cloth inside your case and wipe off all the rosin dust and dirt from your instrument after each time you play.
  • Pay particular attention to the fingerboard and the top of the instrument. Be careful not to knock the bridge out of place.
  • Never use furniture polish or alcohol to clean your instrument.
  • Always keep your instrument and bow in its case with the lid closed when not in use.
  • Be sure that you securely lock the bow in place and remove the shoulder rest or pad before closing the case. Careless accidents could leave your instrument seriously damaged. 

Rosin the bow regularly. For students it is probably sufficient to rosin the bow once a week. Too much rosin will produce a harsh tone and cause an excessive build-up of white rosin powder on the instrument.


  • Rosin the bow regularly. For students it is probably sufficient to rosin the bow once a week. Too much rosin will produce a harsh tone and cause an excessive build-up of white rosin powder on the instrument.    
  • Always loosen the hair on your bow after playing before you place it back in the case. Simply turn the screw until the bow hair is loose and the bow stick is no longer stressed. Be careful not to over-tighten the bow before use as this will warp the wood. The bow stick should still maintain a natural arch when tightened appropriately. (Remember: lefty = loosey, righty = tightie).
  • Never touch the horsehair on your bow. The oils from your skin will damage the hair and take away its ability to grab the strings.

Uses in Music
The cello is not as popular as a violin for beginners. This means that a good cellist will always be a very valuable member of the orchestra since the number of cello players is so small. However, the cello is still used in many styles of music throughout the world. It is well known for its use in symphony orchestras and occasionally performs in popular music groups as well. 

The cellos are a critical part of orchestral music; all symphonic works involve the cello section, and many pieces require cello soli or solos. Much of the time, cellos provide part of the harmony for the orchestra. Often, the cello section plays the melody for a brief period, before returning to the harmony. There are also cello concertos, which are orchestral pieces that feature a solo cellist accompanied by an entire orchestra.

The cello has a rich repertoire of concerti and sonatas. Arguably the most famous and important cello pieces are J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Cello. Vivaldi wrote 25 cello concerti, Boccherini wrote 12, Haydn wrote at least three, and Saint-Saens and Dvorak wrote two each. Other notable cello concerti include Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Bloch’s Schelomo. The most famous sonatas for cello and piano were written by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Poulenc and Britten.

Famous Cello
An instrument's notability may arise from its age, the fame of its maker, its physical appearance, its acoustic properties, and its use by notable performers. 

Some famous cellos include the “King,” which was built by Andre Amati between 1538 and 1560. It is one of the oldest known celli and is located at the National Music Museum in South Dakota. Yo-Yo Ma plays on the Davidov Stradivarius cello, which was formerly played by Jacqueline du Pre. Notable celli like these are not actually owned by the performer. These instruments are typically owned by some kind of organization or investment group, which loans the instrument to a performer. For example, Yo-Yo Ma’s cello is actually owned by the Vuitton Foundation.
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