Small-sized-but-full-sized cellos

Posted By on August 4, 2012

It seems to me that there are a great many people who are passionate about playing the cello, but who struggle with the physical size of the instrument . . . more commonly, with the left-hand stretches needed. Some, in their fifties, having played a normal-sized instrument all their lives, suddenly throw in the towel and purchase a seven-eighths size, and presumably live happily ever after.

I’ve had increasing numbers of requests for a “lady’s cello”. I dislike the expression; it reeks of sexism and is somehow patronising, as though the players of such instruments are not to be taken too seriously. But that’s ridiculous: there are many very fine players who simply do not have huge hands, and others who are just small. They shouldn’t have the handicap of feeling uncomfortable with their cellos. And yet it is astonishing how few players realise that instruments can, to quite a large extent, be tailored to their needs. A recent client found her ideal instrument, it was perfect in every way except that she found that the string stop – hence the stretches – a little too long for her, and the neck rather too thick. She was amazed to learn that both these things can easily be modified.

There are two ways to shorten the (playing) string length: the first is to move the bridge up, with the soundpost en suite. That’ll certainly do the trick, but it’s a rather brutal method. I don’t like to have the bridge moved more than, say, three millimetres on a cello. It looks wrong if the bridge is too high up the table, and anyway the acoustics of a cello are furiously complicated: compromise the bridge position at your peril.

Much better is to work on the other end of the string – the tuning-peg end. This does not need an expensive new neck: an extended nut at the top of the fingerboard is all that’s necessary: it’s cheap and effective. A centimetre extra is generally quite enough. It shortens the strings without altering the sounding body of the cello at all. It’s practically invisible yet makes a vast difference to the comfort – and therefore ability – of the player. Of course it’s true that it slightly alters the places where the player expects to find, for example, fourth position, but in practice players very quickly adapt.

Such things need to be done thoughtfully. If the string length is much shorter than standard then different tension strings may be necessary, for example.

And I know someone who found it painful to play in the high positions, because simply pressing the strings down upon the fingerboard was physically tough for her. Well, fingerboards can be raised, or bridges lowered, just a little, to make things easier. Overdo it, of course, and the strings will rattle against the fingerboard. But a combination of slightly thinning the neck, slightly moving and lowering the bridge, and having an extended nut can transform an uncomfortable brute into something that’s a pleasure to play.

Now, for those who just want a physically smaller – yet still full sized – cello, here are some examples in stock at the time of writing.

The first is an English cello by Thomas Smith of London, bearing its original label dated 1789. The body is 737 mm, which is a little less than normal, and the string stop, when it has been set up, will be 655 mm: comfy or what? It’s still in the workshop, so I can’t show images just yet. But here are two more.

small French cello

small French cello

small French cello

This glamorous instrument is French, 19th Century, and has a body length of 732 mm (about an inch less than standard, using old measurements) and a string length of 678 mm (about half an inch shorter than standard.)

church bass

church bass

Here’s a fascinating old English cello, circa 1810. It was made rather crudely, and may have been a “church bass”, for such things were common two hundred years ago. It has been thoroughly re-worked now, however, and is perfectly suitable for modern playing. Its body is only 729 mm long (again, about an inch less than standard) but the widths are narrow too. The string length , however, is almost normal at 692 mm. At present it would therefore suit sombody small but with normal-sized hands – but this, as explained above, can so easily be altered.

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