Friday, December 7, 2007

The Baroque Bow

I found a baroque bow!!

My two bows: Basil de Visser (top) and Roy Quade

In the past few months I have received several shipments of baroque bows from different makers. The shipping company really is beginning to know me!

But: WOW! They really are all very different.

There are no original cello bows left from the baroque era. That means that the few bow makers who specialize in bows from that era, have to loosely modify a copy of a violin bow, in combination with getting their ideas and inspiration from old drawings and paintings. The result is that I have not seen a single bow that looks even remotely like another one.

Tips left to right:
Basil de Visser, Stephen Marvin, Pieter Affourtit (2 bows).

Starting this project, I had no idea how much variety there was in baroque bows!

Of course I know how different one bow is from the next bow, with any bow, including our contemporary bows. I also know how much one bow can change the sound of an instrument so very much. No one will ever tell a player after a concert how much they enjoyed the bow, but will often compliment on the sound of the instrument. That the bow is for a very large part responsible for that does not cross many people’s minds. I experienced that strongly when I purchased my Roy Quade bow a few years ago. I suddenly got so many compliments on the sound of my cello!

Frogs left to right: Roy Quade, Basil de Visser, Stephen Marvin, Pieter Affourtit (2 bows). See how differently the baroque bow hair is attached in the frog?

When students, who just spent what is for them a significant sum of money on a cello, want to save money on a bow I usually strongly urge them to reconsider that thought and buy a better bow. It really does make a great difference.

Frogs Left to right: Roy Quade, Basil de Visser, Stephen Marvin, Pieter Affourtit (2 bows).

I can safely say that I did not expect an “easy ride” looking for a suitable baroque bow. But what I did not anticipate is that I ended up not only looking for a baroque bow that just “felt right” and brought just the right sound out of the cello, but that I had to decide what kind of “model” I would like to play. Would I want an early baroque bow or a late baroque bow? A low frog or a high frog? A short bow, a long bow? A clip in frog, a cremaliere frog or a screw frog? How “authentic” did I want to go? Did I just want a bow suitable for Bach, or did I want to play
Boccherini and Vivaldi with it as well?

Frogs, top to bottom: Pieter Affourtit (2 bows), Stephen Marvin, Basil de Visser, Roy Quade.

What I did not anticipate either is how competitive these baroque bow makers are. Most of them claim to be the only one who really knows what he is doing! Understanding a little bit of the history, that is a difficult claim to make. I am very happy that all of them are experimenting, and thinking about it though! It keeps the art of historic bow making so alive.

Bows, top to bottom: Pieter Affourtit (2 bows), Stephen Marvin, Basil de Visser, Roy Quade.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the bow changed every decade or so. Before they developed the screw mechanism in the frog, people clipped their frogs in. The frog was at one time very low, quite high another time. The sticks were longer, shorter, the tip very pointy or not so much. Most bows arch up (like a bow and arrow bow would). They are much stiffer than our contemporary bows, which are arching down even when tightened and made to be able to bounce more. The baroque bow has a very different weight distribution as well.

The wood used for a baroque bow is mostly different from our contemporary bows as well. Snakewood (letterwood) was very common and many bows have an ivory frog or button. The snakewood is a much stiffer wood than the pernambuco wood of our contemporary bows.

Tips: Basil de Visser, Roy Quade

I decided I wanted the higher frog, and definitely a screw frog. For some purists this would not be the thing to do, but for me convenience is quite important also. With a clip in frog you can not change the tension of the hair. Which is not so bad in climate with a consistent humidity. But here in Edmonton it poses a serious issue. I need to be able to loosen and tighten the bow according to the humidity. I also wanted a bow that could play a wider variety of baroque music, so perhaps a later baroque model would be more suitable.

Generalizing (which I really should not do, but it would take me 60 pages otherwise!) the baroque bow bounces less easily than the contemporary bow. The higher arch makes it really difficult to connect notes as smoothly as a contemporary bow does. This gives you a very different sound, without even trying, than with a contemporary bow. Generalizing again, you have to use a lot more bow with a baroque bow than we are used to with a contemporary bow. Of course the set up of the instrument plays a large role in that as well.

If you are a student playing baroque music, your teacher may have told you to hold your contemporary bow further away from the frog. It is often referred to by teachers as a “baroque bow hold”. This mimics the weight distribution of the baroque bow a little bit and you can’t quite “dig into the string” as much as when you hold the bow at the frog. You will also find that the bow changes are not as smooth, but a little lighter and more easily separated. Try it out the next time you practice Bach or play basso continuo: it really works!

My last shipment of bows I got from the Netherlands. Two bow makers, both friends, which is refreshing in this competitive business, sent me a few bows. Two were quite light and with a very high arch. They were really beautiful bows, but did not give the low strings on my baroque cello any attack. Like most bows I had tried, they were fuzzy on the lower strings. But one bow, by Basil de Visser, immediately responded. It is quite a heavy bow, has a little less arch (especially when loosened) than some of them and is very long. But it works great on both my baroque cello as well as on the Mirecourt cello. I guess it is the same with every bow after all: you really do know right away when you have the right bow!

Performance at the Sugarbowl in Edmonton (paintings by Erik Visser).

I had a solo performance only two days after this last shipment arrived and I decided to use Basil de Visser's bow for it. That is quite risky. Mind you; it was not a high stress performance, but nevertheless enough of a risk for a performer. It felt so natural, so easy! A good sign, don't you think?!

And the Jay-Haide baroque cello? It keeps getting better. I am very happy with it!

Performance at the Sugarbowl in Edmonton (painting by Erik Visser).

The length of the bow did pose one minor issue: it did not fit in my cello case! Nor did it fit in my bow case. I do happen to have a handy husband, who modified my cello case so that it now does fit!

Bows left to right: Basil de Visser, Stephen Marvin, Pieter Affourtit

The four bows that I had in the end, by Toronto maker Stephen Marvin and Dutch makers Pieter Affourtit and Basil de Visser, were all of a superiour quality. I did try many other bows and there were some very mediocre ones that were surprisingly high priced.

There were moments that I doubted myself. Was I being too critical? Had I forgotten what a baroque bow should feel and sound like? Should I change my expectations?

I am glad I was patient. I am also very grateful that the different bow makers were so willing to let me try their bows!

Basil de Visser and Roy Quade frogs

Some very informative sites are:

Stephen Marvin, Canada:
Pieter Affourtit, the Netherlands:
Basil the Visser, the Netherlands:

Roy Quade, Canada:

Roy Quade and Basil de Visser tips


If you are curious about my Mirecourt: I did have my luthier make a new bridge. And... It worked!!!

I have a very difficult time believing that something as seemingly simple could make that kind of a difference. It is true though: it is easy to play now! And I am loving every minute with it!

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Roller Coaster Continues

A difficult decision has made been made...

Andrew Carruthers Cello 44.

Let's start last week.
As you know, I had fallen head over heals in love with the Carruthers cello. A great instrument. The quartet loved it, I certainly did. And still do.

I took my old Mirecourt out of his case again.
And started crying.
What was I going to give up?!?

The Mirecourt has a very special sound. Rich, warm and something else magical.
However: I have not played it seriously for two years. The only reason for that is, that it is difficult to play.
I have always been willing to live with that, but after I played the carbon fibre cello, I realized that things could be much easier.
For a while, I forgot that I missed playing wood; it was just too comfortable.

The carbon fibre cello is a great "work horse".
It is great for teaching, for outdoor gigs, for endless symphony rehearsals: it almost impossible to injure yourself on them. But they lack the warmth of wood. I guess they sort of lack personality.

That is why I started to look for a different cello. Wouldn't it be great if I found an instrument that would have the carbon-fibre-type ease, and the depth and warmth that I was searching for?
I found it in the Carruthers!

But playing it against my Mirecourt changed everything...


I played the instruments at the next quartet rehearsal.
I played both of the cellos for my quartet friends, in a variety of pieces. I played Bach, Elgar, Andrix; they preferred the Mirecourt in all of the solo works.
But... as cello in the quartet they preferred the Carruthers! The Carruthers has a much more focused tone, very clean and easy.
The Mirecourt is more sluggish, obviously harder to play, which you hear.

That did not make things easier for me! I did not know a person could cry so much over such a thing!

I took both cellos to my luthier, Ross Hill in Calgary.
He restored my Mirecourt years ago and really loves that instrument. But he knew that I was looking for something else, and he is really honest.
He examined the Carruthers and really liked it a lot. It is obviously an instrument of the highest quality. A great buy, he assured me.
Then I explained to him my feelings about my Mirecourt...

A colleague of mine, who was there at the same time, played both cellos for me. He asked if I had considered a different set-up for my Mirecourt.
Ross agreed.
The bridge of the Mirecourt is a little soft and it has a tendency to "walk". This can make an instrument sluggish, unpredictable and difficult to play. Changing the bridge, possibly the sound post (the soul of the instrument) and tweak things like the tail gut, he figures he could make the instrument easier to play.

The current bridge on my Mirecourt.

I have decided to give that a try. I know that I could never buy this instrument back if I sold it. I need to know that I tried everything before I could give it up. If this does not work out, I will at least know that I have given it all that I can. Perhaps I will then be ready to sell it.

People have asked why it is so difficult, especially since I have not played the Mirecourt much and since I love the Carruthers so much.
I don't have a good answer except that I always knew that the Mirecourt was there anyway. I read a short story the other day, about a woman who had not had contact with her father for four years. Now he passed away. For four years she had not missed the man or even thought about him very much, but now that he passed away, she felt a sharp pain, missing him terribly. While missing a person like that is very different, I somehow felt that that story described to some extend what I was going through with my Mirecourt.

I consulted more colleagues. They all agreed: first give the different set-up a try.
I will.

Mirecourt bridge.

I do have to say that it is with pain in my heart that I will send the Carruthers back. If only I could afford both: they would have such a different place in my performances.
I also can not say that one is better than the other. Perhaps, if I am perfectly honest, the Carruthers is better in many ways. But I have such a history with my Mirecourt. It is such an extension of my personality....

Carruthers bridge. Nice bridge!

One of my students said something, completely intuitively that stuck with me. When she heard me play the Mirecourt, she said:
"Grandpa has experience, but he is sure stuck in his ways".
It does describe it well. The Carruthers has a youthful energy that the Mirecourt does not have. The Mirecourt has "experience", character perhaps, that maybe the Carruthers does not yet has.



No, none of this has been in vain. I have needed this to reconnect with my old friend Mirecourt.
I am, however, not willing to permanently injure myself. I will give this an honest chance, and if the Mirecourt will still prove to be a difficult instrument... well: I do know where to find Andrew Carruthers (!


Monday, November 5, 2007


Two cellos are safely at home.

It arrived in one piece!

Customs did give me some minor grief at the border when they searched our entire car. At least they did let me handle the cellos. The Jay-Haide cello is very heavily "antiqued" to make it look 300 years old, so the customs officer didn't quite believe me when I told her it was brand new! They looked inside with a flashlight, to check the actual year it was made, but probably also to check for drugs or so. They also researched the cellos, to make sure that I told them the truth about the price. After all; I could have brought home a $400,000 cello, right?
We have driven 6600 kilometres in 9 days, and stayed only in the San Francisco Bay area!

The first bow strokes...

The Carruthers cello is my new big love!!
It is absolutely amazing. I briefly pulled my bow across the string when I came home, but sat down seriously on Sunday and played it all day.

I was a little nervous:
  • Would it still be as great as I thought it was when I played it in Santa Rosa?
  • Is it really better than my Mirecourt?
  • Is it better than (or at least equal to) my Luis and Clark?
  • Would it like my Roy Quade bow?
I am happy to say: YES!!!

It is so easy to play. It is powerful, yet warm. It projects so easy. It is a great match for the bow.

I really drove down to San Francisco for the baroque cello.
While I was there anyway, I figured, I should try some "contemporary" cellos.
The purpose of trying all of these cellos (and I played about 45 of them while in the San Francisco Bay area!) was:
  • to see if my Mirecourt is a good instrument in its price range.
  • to see if the Luis and Clark instruments are indeed so much better than most instruments up to about $50,000
  • to justify for myself that perhaps playing the carbon fibre cello was all right, so to stop feeling guilty about not playing the Mirecourt.
To answer those questions:
  • The carbon fibre cellos are competitive, and they are much cheaper.
  • My Mirecourt is a very nice instrument.
None of the 45 or so instruments that I played spoke to me. Sure, they were nice, some were very nice, but so is my Mirecourt and I was not playing it.

But the Carruthers... now that is a different instrument alltogether!
I fell in love with it after the first bow stroke.

This morning I took it to my string quartet rehearsal. I was a little nervous again, because they all like the carbon so much. They have found it easier to play with than the Mirecourt.
Their advice? "You'd be crazy not to buy this cello!"


The difference with the carbon fibre cello? That instrument sounds like it always has a built in re-verb. That makes it sound like you are always in a big concert hall.
The Carruthers is as big (or perhaps bigger) in tone, but much warmer and without the "echo". And the bass of this cello is un-equalled!
What I have missed on the carbon fibre cello is fine colouring, and subtle soft playing. It is great for playing big and it is easy.
This Carruthers cello will do whatever I ask it to do. And I have only played it for two days!

Andy Carruthers said before I left with his cello: "please don't tell me if you find the carbon fibre is better than mine; make up another excuse, but don't tell me when it is better!". He can breathe easy: his cello is far superiour than any cello I have played!

Playing the Carruthers. To the side are: Jay-Haide, baroque cello of a colleague, Luis and Clark, Mirecourt.

My Mirecourt? I had some good laughs with it yesterday. As I played it against the Carruthers, he was cranky and difficult. But at the end of the day, when I wanted to record the instruments to listen on a distance, it sang like it hadn't in a while. I laughed and remembered that this is so typical for him: he is a moody cello.

Playing the Mirecourt.

Our violist this morning had an interesting comment about the Carruthers. He said: "this instruments really likes you". That made me feel good!
Perhaps the Mirecourt is just too moody for me? It may be different in the hands of someone else. And once again: it is a very nice cello. Of all the instruments I played, the Mirecourt is still nicer than most!

Needless to say I am exhausted and excited. It is such a personal and emotional journey! The Mirecourt has been such a friend for almost 19 years, yet I hadn't played it in two years. I felt guilty about that! As I had mentioned before: I have no personal bond with the Luis and Clark; while I really like what I can do with it, it is very replaceable. My husband always jokes that the carbon makes his life easier, since I am not so "paranoid" about it. He can put it in the car without me worrying. He is even allowed to carry it!
The Carruthers cello is great. I am really happy that I know who made it too. It makes even more personal. And he is such a nice man!

Having such a strong connection again with an instrument is great. A colleague who recently sold a cello and bought another one said that letting go of the old instrument was like getting out of a bad relationship, where you didn't realize that it was bad until you were out of it. I think I know what he meant!

The Luis and Clark, the Carruthers, the Mirecourt, the Jay-Haide

I have not yet spent much time with the baroque cello, but the hour or so that I played it I found it beautiful! Rich and warm.
I have commissioned Jay-Haide to build me a piccolo cello as well. It will take about 3 months. I will be curious how it turns out!

Now: back to the practice room: I will be playing Bach!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New cellos

I am in San Fransisco and... I bought 2 cellos!

I first met with builder Andrew Carruthers in Santa Rosa. It was the first cello I played and... I fell in love! But I did not trust it. How could I: it was the first cello I tried after all!
I immediately connected with the instrument though. He had another cello, which I did not like at all.
I left him after playing the cello for quite a while. I had many more to try!

Next on my list was Ifshin in Berkely, for the baroque cellos. They had four instruments set up for me. Two had the Stradivari pattern and two a Montagnana pattern. They were all very different. I did not like the Strad instruments as much.

Generalizing, the Strads sound higher and lighter. The Montagnana's sound deeper in the bass and have lower overtones. For those of you who know me, it is pretty obvious which I liked better!

The two Montagnana's were very different, but one was significantly better. I decided to buy it. For that price I could not dream of owning an instrument this good!
I talked to the co-maker, Mr. Haide.

He knew I was going to bring the instrument into Canada and that it would probably suffer in the dry climate. (his sister lived in Edmonton, but he had never been there: "o no!, no!, no!; I just always bought her a ticket to come here. Too cold there, too cold").
Leave the cello with me, he advised. He would take the top off, dry the instrument and glue it back together, so that it will not go through such a rough transition.

He is also willing to build me a piccolo, as long as I tell him the specs.
As far as I know I want a 3/4 size baroque cello, wider neck, thicker/wider ribs (for more bass). I understand that there is some debate how large or small the body of a 3/4 is! I guess I need to figure that out first, but we are at least a step closer.

While I was there, I tried a dozen or so "regular" cellos in my price range. None that I liked at all.

A highlight of the trip was a visit with Bill Lazar from Lazar's Early Music in Sunnyvale. What a nice man! He has everything a person could want for early (medeval, renaissance and baroque) music. From the weirdest looking old wind instruments to an amazing collection of Viola da Gamba's (viols).
How unfortunate that he did not have a baroque cello that suited my needs. I would have really wished him my business!
Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures as well while were there.

Another day of cello hunting followed. I must have played at least 40 cellos at different shops. I tried 21 in one shop only! Yes, sure they were nice, but... not like the Carruthers...! Could this be it?!?

I have decided to bring the Carruthers home... I am so excited and afraid at the same time. Will this be my new voice, my new identity?

Getting the instruments across the border may pose a slight challenge, but we will cross that bridge when we get there!

Well... decisions, decisions...! If anyone wants to buy a nice 1870 mirecourt cello...?!

Friday, October 19, 2007

California here I come!

It has been a few weeks, and the project has taken me places I did not expect. Where to start!?

I still have two bows from the Quebec bow maker, and am expecting another one from a Toronto maker any time now. I have gotten re-acquainted with baroque playing and am loving it.

I am starting to realize that I have really missed type of the baroque performance practice that I grew up with. In Alberta I miss hearing baroque music performed the in a manner I can identify with.
We do get rare visits from leading baroque performers such as the Tafelmusik orchestra (from Toronto) or a soloist like Anner Bijlsma. But those performances are far and few between.

I have started to practice the 6th suite! No I do not have a piccolo yet, (more on that later) but have felt the urge to start practicing the 6th.
While somewhat awkward without a 5th string, it certainly is playable on a regular cello. Great fun even! I had a chuckle when, after I read through it the first time, at the end if the gigue, in the Henle edition, it said: "end of the 6 suites"!
Rostropovich called this suite "a symphony for solo cello" and characterised its D major tonality as evoking joy and triumph.

I practice it on the baroque cello, so that I will at least keep it in the baroque tuning ( a=4:15HZ, rather than 4:40HZ).
This suite has a much more free form than the other suites.

It is also the only one of the suites that is partly notated in the tenor clef, and even the treble clef! None of these clefs are used, or even necessary, for the other five suites since they never go above the note g4 (g above middle c; the 4th finger in the 4th position for the cellists among us). That will certainly help in performing it on 5 strings. For those on the inside: a little trick some beginners at the use of the tenor clef use; the notes in the tenor clef are played "a string above" the notes in the bass clef. While that involves some more advanced "geography" on a regular cello; it becomes very logical on a 5 string.
For me: it will probably confuse me for a while. I am excited to find out though.

Which brings me to the highlight of the week: I am going to California shortly, to try out several baroque cellos! There are four baroque cellos set up for me in one location. I am so very excited!! There even is a chance that I am going to commission them to build a piccolo for me! It depends on the quality of the baroque cellos that I find. I am eager to find out.

And while I am there, I am going to...
Dare I say it out loud?!?...
Look for a possible replacement for my Mirecourt...

PHEW!!! That was difficult to write down!!!

And I haven't even told my parents yet! My father helped me find this cello... O! I won't even go there!

My Mirecourt has been my faithful companion, my musical identity, for almost 19 years.
I have always loved its sound. Loved its warmth, its depth.
I have always struggled with its moods. I struggled with its size (it seems very large!). I also have found it difficult to play. And I am not getting younger and instrument related injuries are accumulative. Do I sound as if I am trying to justify it? Perhaps!
But I have always accepted all of its flaws, because I was so in love with the sound.

Over the past two years, my faithful Mirecourt and I have grown apart. (My husband jokingly wonders if he is next, since I started dating both my husband and my Mirecourt in the same week in 1989!).
I blame the perfect Luis and Clark carbon fibre cello. While that instrument certainly has its flaws; it will mostly do whatever I ask it to do, without much complaining. The weird thing is: I have no personal bond with the instrument. I feel so very closely connected to my old Mirecourt, I feel totally blank with my Luis and Clark, but... I am only playing the carbon fibre...

Lat week I had a performance, which was also recorded by the learning channel (TV), for a documentary on the maker of my contemporary bow, Roy Quade. I had decided that I should probably play the Mirecourt for this, since the instrument would not distract from the craft and artistry of a conscientious maker such as Roy.
I was sincerely excited about it: I had not performed a solo concert on it in nearly two years! I played it all of the week, also during my string quartet rehearsals. I got mixed reactions there. Our first violinist was disappointed that I used my Mirecourt: it was so much more difficult to play with, so much fuzzier!

I asked her to listen to my solo piece on both instruments. She found it no contest: the carbon fibre was far superiour in clarity, sound quality, even character in her opinion. I asked several people, all with the same answer.
In the end I decided against playing the Mirecourt!
I justified it by telling myself that I would be playing in a very dead space (the heavily carpeted ballroom of a hotel), with about 200 guests, finishing their dinner, so I would need to project with ease, and compensate for the dead space. The only answer: Carbon Fibre...
I performed, it was great fun, I was glad to have the carbon fibre.

But this sent me on a completely different train of thought...
Perhaps I should look for a different wooden cello?!?!
Perhaps I have now been somewhat spoiled with the ease of carbon fibre that I finally realize that perhaps I should sell my Mirecourt and buy a different instrument?
Perhaps this isn't my instrument, my voice anymore?

And thus: I have approached several luthiers in California. I was going to go there anyway, right?!
I will visit them while I am there. There is much more choice there than we can possibly dream of here.
It will make for some very long hours in the car! My husband, who will go with me, just planned the trip, based on the addresses of luthiers that I gave him, and figured we would drive at least 6000 kilometres. At an average of 100 kilometres an hour that is 60 hours. And that is not counting any stops.
It better be worth it!!

I am hoping to fall "head over heels in love" with an instrument, so that I will feel no regret letting my old friend Mirecourt go.

I have strayed so far from my original blog idea of talking about baroque interpretation, performance etc. I will certainly come back to that; My world is currently in such upheaval.
  • Trying to justify and getting used to the idea of replacing my cello.
  • Possibly buying a baroque cello.
  • Perhaps commissioning the building of a piccolo.
  • Choosing a baroque bow.
It is quite the emotional roller coaster.

I should say that in my search for instruments and bows I have had the most interesting conversations with musicians and luthiers all over the world. It is great fun!
Talking to a leading baroque specialist, a cellist, just this week, I discovered a lot of common ground.
It will be fun to share my experience and thoughts on interpretation and performance practice with you in the coming months. I will be so excited to share the enormous differences the instrument and the bow makes in the interpretation! This project makes me such a different player and teacher already.
It is important for any artist to keep challenging themselves!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


A shipment of 3 bows from a bow maker in Quebec arrived this week. It is so very exciting!

Finding the right bow is a very difficult journey. It is often underestimated, but a good bow is almost more important than a good cello.

(The bows were shipped in a large tube).

Given the choice between a mediocre bow and a great cello or a great bow and a mediocre cello, most serious performers would choose the better bow over the instrument. This is, after all, what you make all of your sound with!

No one will ever say :"wow, your bow sounds so great!" I do remember when I bought my "modern" bow a few years ago, I suddenly got many more compliments about my cello than I ever had before.

All performers understand the value of a good bow. The journey to find one is difficult and personal. Not only does the bow have to feel good and do what you want it to do; it also needs to be the right bow for the instrument that you play. When I bought my modern bow it was a great match with my Mirecourt cello. When I bought the Luis and Clark, I had to find the right cello to fit with that bow!

I remember having to play my husband's cello for a few months when my Mirecourt was being restored. The bow that I had at the time sounded great on my cello, but really terrible on his!

Many students have to buy different bows when they buy a different cello. When the instrument doesn't quite sound the way they think it should, it is often difficult for them to understand that sometimes their bow doesn't "match" the cello!

Now I am repeating the journey that I took a few years ago with my modern bow, but with a baroque bow this time. Since it has been so many years since I have seriously played with a baroque bow, I had forgotten which qualities to look for in a baroque bow. It took me a few hours of playing to remember and be so very excited about it again!

This time I shouldn't be looking for a bow that easily sustains sound, or makes quick transitions from legato to spiccato. It has to be a different type of playing that it compliments. It is hard to describe. Since the weight of the baroque bow is so differently distributed, it makes the types of bow strokes very different from the contemporary bow. The down bow is definitely a much stronger stroke and the sound tapers to the tip. It is so easy to play "inegal" or uneven with it for example. It takes no effort!

While I am trying to simplify it here in an attempt to explain it; it goes much

deeper than that of course!

It is so exciting to hear the baroque bows bring such different overtones out of the instruments!

I am having fun with it right now. All these bows are very different. I will keep you updated.

Gut Strings

I put all Oliv's on my Mirecourt. I had forgotten how terrible these strings sound when you first put them on!

But have they ever changed already! The cello sounds better than it has in years and I enjoy practicing it!

I really enjoy the different approach. On gut strings you have to work a little harder, because the strings have such a different tension. They vibrate so much wider! This brings out all sorts of different sounds. The vibrato requires a different approach as well. Colouring with the vibrato on gut strings is so much more effective!

(In this picture you see the difference in thickness between an Evah Pirazzi C-string and an Oliv.)

Totally off topic: I suddenly have to perform a solo piece by George Andrix next week at an arts council conference. A camera crew from the learning channel will be there to film the performance as well, because they are making a documentary about the bow maker of my contemporary bow; Roy Quade. I really should play the Mirecourt, since playing it on the carbon fibre would be making too much of a statement. But since I just put these gut strings on, the instrument squeaks and squacks a lot!

I have my work cut out for me in the next week: I have many practice hours to look forward to, not only to practice the piece (which is great!), but also to try to speed up the "play in time" of the strings!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bows, Piccolo, Baroque Cello


Let me start with an update on the piccolo.

This project is becoming more and more interesting! I am communicating with people from all over the world, trying to find what I need! I have emailed with builders and performers and have received so much new information! I don't know where to begin.

I wrote to several builders and performers in Europe. At least now I know what the instrument should look like. Or at least: what I want it to look like!

More or less.

Apparently Bijlsma plays a piccolo as small as a 1/2 size cello. Wispelweij's is a little larger: 3/4 size.

But there is also a full size 5-string cello in the instrument museum in Vienna, built by Posch in the 18th century.

It is therefore still uncertain for which instrument the 6th suite was written.

Some research suggests that it was likely written for the Viola pomposa/da spalla, which I briefly talked about in the "first steps".

I know that last instrument will not be what I am going for. I am now searching for a nice small (half or 3/4 size) piccolo.

I have several emails out to more specialists, now that I am narrowing down my search. I will get there eventually!


Now... All of this is great fun. But... I need a bow! I am borrowing my colleague's bow, but it is terrible!

A few years ago I went through a very emotional and exciting experience of buying a new (contemporary) bow. I love that bow. It was built by Roy Quade in Calgary. I contacted him, hoping against hope that he would make baroque bows, which, of course, he doesn't. He did give me some names of good baroque bow makers though.

So now begins the unexpected (I should have seen this coming though) emotional search for a nice baroque bow. I talked to two makers in Eastern Canada. Very nice people. I will expect a shipment of bows to try out soon.

If you want some interesting reading on the complications of building a baroque cello bow, take a look at this website: . Read some of the articles too. There is so much we don't know yet!

Baroque Cello

I am running into another unexpected issue, which I am afraid to say out loud (let alone write it in a blog for the whole world to see!)...

I don't really like the baroque cello I am borrowing...
When I first got it a few weeks ago it seemed so nice, so sweet. But now that we are becoming more intimately acquainted we don't seem to get along so well...

I am obviously beginning to remember what I want a baroque cello to sound like. This isn't it!

So... (my wallet does not want to talk about it any further!)...


Some more interesting reading (follow the links also)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Strings and Piccolo


I ordered new strings! They'll take a while to get here (from the States). I ordered all Pirastro Olive (silver wound gut string) for my wooden cello. It has been years since I have used gut on it! That should be fun! I know that my cello likes it.

For the carbon fibre I ordered Jargar Forte a and d and Obligato G and C.

Those Obligatos sound great on the Luis and Clark, but terrible on my Mirecourt! It is always interesting to see that it makes such a huge difference from one instrument to the next! What sounds great on one cello, sounds really terrible on another. It is trial and error. Too bad that my pocketbook doesn't allow me to keep experimenting unlimited!

I also took my Mirecourt to my luthier, still with the Eva Pirazzi on. The instrument has been sounding very tight lately, especially on the top. He moved the sound post and I have to say that it is a huge improvement! I look forward to the gut strings on it.

While looking for the right strings to order, I came upon some interesting string making sites. Check this out:

Piccolo Update

The saga of the piccolo continues. While I did get a response from a builder in the States that he is willing to build a viola da Spalla/ pomposa; this is not the instrument for me. Only violinists and violists can play it. It has to be played using violinists' fingerings and will have to be held against the shoulder. Not very practical or useful for us, cellists. Siegiswald Kuyken, a phenomenal baroque violinist, has taken this instrument on.

I touched base with a friend form university and asked her if she could recommend some luthiers in the Netherlands who might sell or even build a piccolo (and what does it look like?!).

This is the response I got from one builder:

"Hello Josephine,

I make two models of violoncello piccolo, a small Castanieri en a larger Stradivari model.

Currently I only have the larger model available, but it has 4 strings. And of course you do need a C string!

It costs 8000 Euro and I could change it into a 5-string instrument.

(BTW: It sounds very beautiful!)".

While this is all nice: I don't have 8000 Euros laying around (too bad!) and I would have a slight preference for the smaller size. The larger size has a string length of 68 cm (instead of 72 cm for a regular cello). The smaller size has a 63 cm string length.

At least I am one step closer to understand the actual size. Or am I?!?... My friend in the Netherlands wrote me the following:

A short while a go I played a gorgeous little piccolo cello at a colleague's house. She had the instrument on loan for a little while, which was exceptional, since the particular luthier does not habitually loan out instruments. Only Anner Bijllsma has been able to borrow it from time to time. It was a very small instrument; almost as small as a half size, looking absolutely awful but it sounded heavenly!"

A half size eh...

So the search continues.

I may need to take the suggestion to purchase a small regular cello and have it rebuilt to a piccolo. I don't know yet.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

First Steps

You can comment on this blog at the bottom of the page.


Let me start with a description of what this blog will be all about. I will elaborate after that.

The project I will be working on for the next 10 to 14 months will be the preparation and performance of all six cello suites by Bach on four different cellos:

  • a baroque cello
  • a “regular” wooden cello
  • a carbon fibre cello
  • a violoncello piccolo (a 5 string baroque cello, slightly smaller than a regular baroque cello).

As far as I know this project is unique, even worldwide. Tracking down a violoncello piccolo will be a challenge. That journey I will share with you in the coming days, weeks and months. The instrument is seldom played in North America. Bach wrote his 6th suite for the violoncello piccolo, which is why I find it necessary to include it in the performance. Later I will explain more about the instrument.

Preparation of the performance requires an unusual amount of time. I will need to learn to play six suites on four instruments.
I will need a lot of time to get to know all of the instruments intimately, so that during the performances, I will be able to switch back and forth between each cello without compromising sound quality and intonation!

Every instrument will be very different in its approach and set up:

  • The baroque cello, built between 1600 until about 1780, has a neck that is set in differently from the “regular cellos”, the rounding of the bridge is different, and it uses gut strings, which have a tendency to dry out, squeak and be generally temperamentful. In addition, the tuning is lower than the current practice. In the dry Alberta climate I will have to replace the strings at least once a month.
  • The violoncello piccolo is a much smaller instrument and has a fifth (e1) string. The strings are quite different and so is the playing technique. It also uses un-wound gut strings. Including this instrument poses some challenges, but more about that later.
  • The “regular” wooden cello that I will use is my own French cello built in 1870 and is quite a large instrument. The strings I will be using on that cello for this particular performance are silver-wound gut strings, which are stronger than the un-wound gut, but still very vulnerable to humidity- and barometric pressure changes.

All three above mentioned cellos will have to be kept in a perfectly humidified (50% minimum!) environment to protect them from cracking or warping.

  • The carbon fibre instrument is made by Luis and Clark in Boston and is a very new instrument. Over the past 500 years violin builders have experimented, trying to improve the cellos sound and manageability, without much success, until now with Luis and Clark’s carbon fibre cellos. I play cello #117, built in 2006, which on a global scale means that they are still relatively unknown. The strings on this cello are 2 steel and 2 “perlon-core” strings. This instrument is totally unaffected by outside influences such as barometric pressure changes, humidity or cold. (Phew!)

There will be four different cellos from different time periods and eras, with very different sound and playability, but the music is from one composer, one era.
At the performances, I will show the audience (and myself!) how much the instrument that you play may affect the interpretation of the music.

In my musical career I have always had a strong affinity with baroque music and with the solo suites by Bach in particular. Over the years I have performed all of the suites, except the 6th one (which, to do it justice, should only be played on a 5-string Violoncello Piccolo), on various concerts.

I have never played a violoncello piccolo, which will be a fantastic challenge for me.
As a musician is essential to stay current on music performance practice. That also means staying current on development in “period” performance practice (performance in the style of the period that the music was written). While I have kept current as much as I can, this project will inspire me to become more prominently involved.

The challenge to perform all the suites on four completely different cellos is very exciting! I will learn so much in attempting to handle each instrument so differently.

I will need to do a lot of research in the use of the different instruments, their strings, bows, style and approach.

And this is where I will start my journey with you. I am looking forward to hearing your feedback and sharing my experience. It will be educational for all of us!

So I have started.

I ordered, and received, several copies of the Bach suites. I have always worked with the Barenreiter edition. In 1998 I bought Anner Bijlsma’s book “Bach the fencing master” which gave me a different inside in the interpretation and the bowing of the suites. In the past few years new editions of the suites have been released, such as a scholarly Barenreiter edition which includes several different old editions and comparing their differences. The other one is a Henle edition, which appears to my delight to be quite close to Bijlsma’s bowing ideas. I am sure that I will share many insights and out loud thoughts with you about that in the coming months: I am just starting!

The next step, of course, was the instruments. I own a beautiful Mirecourt cello. It is not easy to play, but has a warm sound. I also own a Luis and Clark carbon fibre.

The Baroque Cello

A colleague was so generous to lend me his baroque cello! I am so happy about that. It is one less worry. I do not know how long I can use it for, but I am really happy to start on it and may be able to complete the project on it. It sounds very deep and mellow. I will tune the a to 415, the tuning common in Bach’s time, rather than the 440 we are accustomed to today.

My first hours on the baroque cello were, to put it mildly, a disaster! I had forgotten how the different tuning can upset your ears! I must have played the prelude of the first suite a thousand times before, and the suite has a certain ring to it. But on the baroque cello I felt so lost! A g did not sound like a g! The ring is different; the overtones are so completely different!

Oddly enough I did not find the string crossings to be a problem, even though the strings are much further apart on this cello, the bridge is much lower, and they are gut. Nor did I seem to have difficulty with the action on the left hand, again in spite of the greater distance between the strings. The measurement of this particular baroque cello is very large, which will cause me some intonation grief in the coming months, I am sure!

Day 2 on this cello was much easier, and I have to say that now, after a little over a week with the instrument, my ears are getting used to making the switch to the lower tuning and it is getting easier!

On Friday played with some colleagues. Violin with basso continuo (harpsichord and cello). Such great fun! That too, started with quite the intonation issues, partly due to the fact that the harpsichord was out of tune, but it gradually got better as the violinist and I got used to the different type of intonation.

I have decided to play the suites all in one concert (probably a Sunday afternoon) as follows:

  • Suite 1: Baroque cello
  • Suite 2: “Classical” wooden cello


  • Suite 3: Baroque cello
  • Suite 4: Carbon fibre cello


  • Suite 5: “Classical” wooden cello, with a scordatura (the a-string tuned down to g)
  • Suite 6: Violoncello Piccolo

Pieter Wispelweij once said in an interview: "Instruments are not all the same, so one's technique varies from instrument to instrument. But certain things become very clear, like the fact that intense vibratos, pressing deeply into the strings, and certain attacks are not feasible on baroque instruments."
As I said; it will be an interesting journey to see how my own interpretation will vary on all the different instruments.

The Violoncello Piccolo

When I decided that I needed to include the piccolo cello in the performances, it was a decision based on my musical upbringing. My teacher in university was an avid baroque musician, being an amazing baroque cellist as well as a gambist. During my years with him, it became understood that one does not play the 6th suite unless one plays it on a violoncello piccolo. In the Netherlands there was (and still is) a very strong period instrument and interpretation tradition, where the piccolo regularly appears on the stages.
So my decision was made without much thought. But… WHERE TO GET ONE? All right, that is what local luthiers are for, right? Well… they are all very enthusiastic, but have no clue where to get one, or even what it would look like!
Ok, so onto the internet to baroque specialty string stores, right? Hmm… no piccolos there either, except for the odd very cheap Chinese one. This may be a terrific instrument, but I can’t risk it.

More internet research suddenly makes the whole instrument dubious!
There is a lot of controversy about it. It has been referred to as a Viola Pomposa (pompous viola), viola da spalla (spalla=shoulder) and violoncello piccolo.
At this point in my research I certainly do not claim to be an expert yet, but let me try to share the controversy with you. I will start with some photos and drawings, which will probably leave you (as did it leave me!) with a lot more questions:

Yes, this is what we all imagine a piccolo looks like, isn’t it?

Hmmm… odd way to hold a cello…

Wait a minute…: a VIOLA??!!!

Gee-whiz, that must be challenging!

Ok, so that confused us, didn’t it?

The violoncello piccolo appears to have been an invention of Bach, who wanted to have a cello that could play higher. As it was not custom in Bach’s time to use the thumb on the string, it was uncommon to play above the g1 on the a string. The first five suites never venture above that g1. Some scholars have noted that this may be proof that the instrument that we call cello today, may have been held on a shoulder (likely the right, since the instrument was too large to fit on the left shoulder like the violins), much like the other members of the violin family.

When you consider that it was also not customary to play one single instrument, like we do today, but more, this makes sense. It is much easier to move to another instrument if it is held in a similar matter.

There are, however also drawings and paintings that show the instrument being supported on a stool or table, standing on the ground, or even held between the knees.

And then there is the name. There is some evidence that Bach called the violoncello piccolo a viola pomposa. It also may have been called a viola da spalla (shoulder viola).

Viola da Spalla by maker Dmitry Badiarov:

Most sources are unclear, since little appears to have been written down about it.

So here I am: looking for a “regular” violoncello piccolo”. An instrument that I have always simply referred to as a “smaller cello with 5 strings”.
So what do cellists such as Bijlsma and Wispelweij play? Why are there no pictures of them on the web? Yes, of course I have seen many piccolos in the past, but never paid close enough attention to their actual size!

Is it as small as a ¾ cello, as some builders tell me? Or more like a 7/8th size, as others are certain of? Or is Mister Badiarov correct in suggesting it should be more like an “oversized viola” and played on the shoulder?

For now, I am looking for what I always believed a piccolo to be, but who knows where that will lead…