Musical Instrument

Also known as the violoncello, this stringed instrument has its origins in the 16th Century in instruments built by such masters as Andrea Amati, Gasparo da Salo and Giovanni Paolo Maggini. These early cellos were a few inches longer than their modern counterparts, and had different tunings, to boot. One was described as being C-G-D-A, in ascending order, and another, tuned a whole note lower (Bb-F-C-G) continued to be popular in England and France into the 18th century. These early cellos were used primarily to reinforce the bass line in string ensembles, and only later developed as solo instruments.

Smaller cellos began to be made in Bologna in the 17th Century after the development of silver-wound lower strings to replace the gut strings previously used, and Antonio Stradivari began building instruments about 30 inches (75 cm) long in 1707. Some experimentation was carried out in the early 18th century with five string cellos, and it is possible that Bach may have written his 6th Cello Suite with such an instrument in mind.

The modern cello has four strings, tuned to C-G-D-A (beginning two octaves below middle C), and typically measures about 27½ inches (70 centimetres) long (47 inches, 119 centimetres with the neck).

Compositions for the cello are now legion. Its deeper note, clear and resonant tone make it a favourite solo instrument, as well as an accompanying instrument to the piano, and in string ensembles.

"Notable works for the instrument include J.S. Bach's six suites for unaccompanied cello, Beethoven's five sonatas for cello and piano, the concertos of Dvorák and Kodály, and the Bachianas brasileiras of Heitor Villa-Lobos, for eight cellos and soprano. Outstanding cellists of the 20th century include Emanuel Feuermann, Jacqueline du Pré and Pablo Casals." (EB)

Cello Construction

Cellos are formed from three types of components: exterior parts, interior parts and fittings. Taking the exterior parts first - the top (also known as the 'table', the 'belly' or the 'plate') is made of two pieces of pine or spruce. The sides (ribs) are made of six pieces of maple glued to the top and back. There is a triple line of dyed wood which fits along the outer edge of the instrument called the 'purfling', which helps to prevent cracking of the wood and serves as some small decoration. The 'button' strengthens the joint between the neck and the back and is sometimes outlined in ebony. Finally, slots known as "f holes" are cut into the top to allow sound to escape from the interior.

The fittings are attached to the outside of the instrument, and include the bridge (made of maple), which is not directly attached, but held in place by the pressure of the strings. It sits between the notches of the f holes is notched for the strings. Each bridge is made to measure for the contour of the top. The ebony tailpiece bears the lower ends of the strings, and is held in place by the 'tail gut' which wraps around a plug inserted into a hole at the base. The neck, peg box and the decorative 'scroll' are formed from one piece of wood, to which is glued the finger board, which is made of ebony. The tuning pegs are made of ebony or rosewood and are fitted into the peg box, and the strings are wrapped around them. The 'nut' is a piece of notched ebony glued to the top of the finger board, to maintain the even spacing of the strings. Finally, the strings are either steel, or nylon wound with aluminum or silver. Some cellists still prefer all gut strings.

The interior parts are the "lining", made of twelve strips of pine to which the top and back are glued. The sound post is a small cylindrical piece of spruce or pine which connects the top and back of the instrument, and acts as a sound conduit.
Encyclopædia Britannica


The cello is made of wood and metal, and also of varnish and glue. The cello is played with a bow, which is made of wood, metal, and horsehair. Some bows have pieces of tortoise shell, mother of pearl, amber, wire and leather. The bow is not vegan, the instrument probably is.

The cello has a neck and a body. The neck extends upwards from the body, and culminates in a scroll. On old instruments, the scroll is sometimes carved like a female head.

The body of the cello is shaped like a stylized female body. The top and bottom are wide and the middle is narrow. The tail-piece is mounted towards the bottom of the body, and the end-pin is directly below. Taken as a whole, the instrument looks like a fat woman with a long neck and a tiny head. Oftentimes, a cellist will name her instrument and talk to it. My cello is named Bird.

The bow hair is never taken from mares, as they urinate on their tails. This makes the hair weaker. By the time they take the tail off, the horse is dead. Many horses must suffer and die for our infernal habits.


Like a woman, the purpose of the instrument is to make pleasant sounds when it's fondled correctly. The cello is a difficult instrument to play, and a student will take many years to reach a stage of marginal non-suckingness. The technique is only somewhat standardized, and so different teachers teach even the basics in bat-shit loonily different ways.

Playing the cello is a good way to destroy the nerves and joints in one's hand. RSI and arthritis are common. Back injury looms threateningly, and blood runs forth into the street. Playing cello is a thing to do if you are hardcore.


Playing cello is like the Japanese tea ceremony in that it takes an extremely long time to learn and is more or less useless. Music schools are designed to force people into the profession quickly enough that they don't realize this; the instrument is difficult enough to learn without a vague but persistent sense of discomfort. To be successful, a cellist must spend the day practicing. At night, she can curl up in bed and cry, if desired.

Cellists are sexy. I have seen advertisements which feature pretty women playing cello, which makes them exotic and talented with a possible lesbian subtext. In the movie Truly, Madly, Deeply, a ghost plays the cello. This makes him intense and passionate, yet sensitive and human. It is strange symbolism.

In reality, cellists are boring people. They are also lonely and sad inside. Love them.

I was sitting in my favorite coffeehouse this past Sunday afternoon, whiling away a spectacular day over a bottomless cup of Kona coffee and the New York Time’s coverage of Michael Phelps’ eighth gold medal. Seeing as I’m old enough to remember Mark Spitz, 36 years ago in Munich, Phelps’ magnificent quest for eight has captured my complete attention this Olympic go-around in Beijing.

Well, that and women’s beach volleyball. But that’s another story.

The place is called Crossroads, and it is the best coffeehouse, bar none, in Richmond. The coffee’s great, the cups, as I said, are bottomless, and the crowd is an eclectic mix of VCU college kids and Soho-wannabes from the Fan. The guy who sold me my coffee had a triple-pierced lower lip, multi, multi tats, and little blue plates stuck in his earlobes. Oh, and there’s even a sign on the wall, extolling us to “Make Richmond Weird.”

A breath of fresh air for a guy like me, stranded in a starched-shirt, buttoned-down, old South town like Richmond.

As I looked across the shop, I scanned the multitude of flyers posted on the counter. A poster for a band called Face Down, Booty Up (gotta check them out). A flyer for a Kung Fu Film Festival at VCU (think I’ll pass). Then I saw it, tacked up between a “Roommate Wanted" sign and a "Food Not Bombs" poster.

"4/4 Hans Kroger Cello. Solid spruce top of tight grain, inlaid purling, two-piece maple back, beautifully flamed! Ribs and scroll similar. Well-balanced tone and easy response, fitting include ebony fingerboard and pegs, Wittner-style tail piece, D'Addario Helicore strings, endpin with rubber-coated tip.”

Now, as instruments go, I’m vaguely familiar with the cello. I could pick one out of a lineup. If pressed, I could probably identify one by sound, so long as it wasn’t being played too far out of its normal range.

They tell me that the cello, formally known as the violoncello, is the bass instrument of the violin family, classified as a “bowed lute,” if that helps you. Its full name means, in Italian, a “small, large viol,” a bizarre combination arising in large part from the instrument’s confusing pedigree.

Called a bass violin, or violone, in its earliest forms, the smaller model of cello with which we are today familiar did not become standard until the early years of the 18th century. It was apparently cut, literally, from its cumbersome predecessor with the advent of wirewound strings, which allowed for a fuller sound from a much shorter string.

Originally played while resting on the floor, held pressed between the musician’s legs, the modern cello is often outfitted with an endpin to elevate it, enhancing the instrument's tone while making it easier to hold. The neck of the cello is held and fingered by the left hand, at a slanted, oblique angle, with the thumb positioned behind the first finger.

Technique and formalities aside, though, I seem to remember reading somewhere that the cello is considered one of the sexiest of the classical instruments, and I would have to agree. That wonderful alto tone, mellifluous and full, neither too reedy nor too deep. The shape, so suggestive, a beautiful woman waiting patiently for the right fingers to make her sing.

And let’s not forget position and technique. Alone among the strings, the cello demands a mate, an artist lover to intertwine in sensual embrace, making music by making love.

I mean, Susan Sarandon, Witches of Eastwick? Hello?!?

For me, though, the cello will always belong to one person, and one person alone. Nobody you’d know. Her name was Heather, and she was one of my legal assistants back in the day when I commanded a troop of high-priced legal help to work my black magic in the courtroom.

In appearance, plain, in manner, severe, Heather was an excellent legal assistant, and an even better cellist. I still remember, as if it were yesterday, the first time I ever saw her play.

It was at her place, moving day. For her, not me. She happened to live in Cleveland Park, in Washington, D.C., about two blocks away from where I lived at the time. She was moving to a place a few blocks down the street because her old place had paper-thin floors, which made it difficult for her to practice.

That's how much this woman loved the cello.

Well, when we finally finished moving all of Heather's stuff into the new place, she couldn't wait to try out the thicker floors, rushing to open her case for an impromptu practice session. I sat down, a little condescendingly, willing to spend a polite fifteen minutes as Heather's audience while I planned out the rest of my weekend.

Then she began to play.

I sat there, motionless, speechless, watching this woman I'd worked with for years transform before my eyes. The calluses on her fingers, no longer rough, without feeling, but instruments themselves, willing those beautiful notes into existence. Her muscles, those strong muscles of her right shoulder, once so seemingly stringy, sinewy, now conferred the perfect absolution of this woman’s music.

And her face. Oh, her face. Once that of a spinster-in-training, now awash in joy. The woman could not have been more radiant had she been in the throes of orgasm, of that I am certain. She was transformed. I, transfixed.

In a phrase I would use years later to describe an awkward teenager coming to life on a chilly skating rink, Heather had become Suddenly Beautiful, a beauty found only in those giving free reign to the gifts a loving God has given them.

A collection of wood, varnish, and wire can do all that? I thought. There must be something to it.

As I stared out at the Cello for Sale sign, my mind ran away with my thoughts. I imagined the cello’s owner, agonizing over her decision to give up such an important part of her life. I pictured in my mind’s eye the dire circumstances that must have led to such a difficult decision. Lost job? Family emergency? Who knew?

So there I sat, lost in the middle of a dozen real human stories playing out right in front of me in that coffeehouse, a spy behind enemy lines fully engaged in an imaginary tale of someone I’d never meet.

I do that sometimes.

Resolving to do a little better this time, I stepped out of my reverie and walked across to the sign. Perhaps there was some clue in the fine print, something to put my little obsession to rest. Sure enough, as I approached the counter, I saw the words at the bottom of the sign.

"Outfit was purchased brand new in 2004. I have not devoted ample time to developing my skill, and so am parting with it."

There, I thought. That was so much better. No longer a grieving artist forced to part with her musical mate, the story was now an instrument on a quest to fulfill its destiny, to find a partner in creation.

That was a story I could live with.

Cel"lo (?), n.; pl. E. Cellos (), It. Celli ().

A contraction for Violoncello.


© Webster 1913.

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