Sunday, April 20, 2008

My Violoncello Piccolo

I now officially own a violoncello piccolo.

(My first seconds with the new piccolo)

Last week I picked up the piccolo from Ifshin at their new store in El Cerrito, California. They had just moved there from Berkeley.
(The new Ifshin building in El Cerrito)

Haide Lin had arrived with my piccolo from China on April 1, and on April 10 I arrived on their door step to pick it up.
This was unusually soon after it had come from China. The instrument was built in China in the shop of Ifshin. Their luthiers over there work much the way they would have in the shop of Vuillaume in Mirecourt in the 1800's: one highly skilled person carves only scrolls. The other one carves top plates and yet another bends sides and one person makes varnish and applies it. Because they do only one thing, these people are remarkably good at it. Haide goes there every few months to help and instruct.
They make a lot of different instruments, most of them are more or less mass production.

However; my violoncello piccolo is another story. As I have told you in previous blog entries: very little is known about the violoncello piccolo. The exact size remains unknown. There are violoncello piccolo's as small as 1/2 size cellos, and some as big as 7/8 size cellos. People such as Dmitri Badiarov seem to have discovered proof that the piccolo was really more like a huge viola played on the right shoulder of the performer. Cellists of course, love to dispute that, since the Bach suites are sacred to us and certainly a violist should never touch them! I guess we cellists shouldn't be too protective of the suites. After all: it is such beautiful music: who wouldn't want to play them! The whole debate about the violoncello piccolo is great. The more people are talking about it, the more it will get researched!

I had opted to have a piccolo built that is roughly 3/4 the size of a baroque cello, but with the sides as thick as that of a regular cello, so that there is more air volume inside. This increases the chance that there is a decent C string on the cello, with enough depth.

For the people at Ifshin, both in California and in China this seemed an exciting challenge.

It worked!
It is great.
It is exciting.

When Haide arrived in El Cerrito with the instrument the beginning of April, he first put it in a kind of dryer to make it suitable for the ridiculous climate it would be going to. It stayed there for 4 days until there was not a drop of moisture left in the instrument. He made a fingerboard, soundpost, two bridges (he liked the 2nd one better) and set up the cello.

As I said: I arrived the afternoon of April 10 and spent a few hours with Haide moving the soundpost and bridge until it seemed right for the moment.
(Haide works with me on the perfect set-up of the violoncello piccolo)
I brought the instrument to my hotel in San Francisco and played it for a few hours. I was to be back in El Cerrito the next day to tweak some more.
Playing 5 strings for the first time was so interesting! Can you imagine: I have never played the 6th suite. Sure: I have tried to "plough through it" on numerous occasions, only to be frustrated by the difficulty. On this Thursday evening, in my hotel room in San Francisco I played it without interruption from the beginning to the end! I couldn't help wondering: why don't all cellos have 5 strings?!?
The biggest challenge was not even the new high e-string; it was trying to find the d and G strings! More about that in later blog entries.
It turned out that the C string was hitting the fingerboard too much when I played.
The next day at the shop of Ifshin, we decided to put a resonator inside the instrument to take care of the small wolf and Haide would take the fingerboard off the cello that evening and shave it down. This meant leaving it overnight for the glue to dry. It also meant we would have to leave a day later than we had planned to drive back to Edmonton (yes: we drove down to San Francisco).
(Jay Ifshin and Haide Lin are debating what to do next)

On Saturday we were back at the shop in the morning. Haide usually does not work on Saturday but ended up being there all day to set up my cello well. He made a new soundpost. That worked. The only thing was... the C string still didn't vibrate freely. Gut strings vibrate very wide and it kept hitting the fingerboard.
And that surely wouldn't get any better in Edmonton.
(In Haide's workshop on Saturday morning)

Eventually Haide cut a small incision in the neck, where it connects with the top plate. The neck now came forward and the fingerboard dropped. It worked. In order to do this he had to open the top plate seam and of course glue it back together once he was done. It had to stay in the glue clamps for a while: preferably overnight. But we were leaving the next morning at 6 am!
We took the cello, clamps and all, and dropped the clamps off on Haide's door step on our way out the next morning!
Of course playing it at home is so different. Now it is suddenly real! I have started practising the Prelude and Allemande of the 6th suite. It is so much fun!
I also rushed in an order for some e-strings! They are so thin: I am sure this e string will break soon.

I had (shallowly perhaps) requested that the piccolo would look different from the baroque cello that I have from them. The varnish did not quite turn out as dark as Haide had wished but it is still quite different from the baroque cello that I have.
They also antiqued it differently, so to the untrained eye it really shouldn't look like I am playing the same instrument when I play them back to back.
(The baroque cello and the piccolo together)

I also have sight read through some Boccherini sonatas. They are difficult! But not so much on a piccolo. How fun!

While in California we went to visit Andy Carruthers and spent a great day with him and his family.
I also got to play "the" cello again. It is still so great!! It is such a powerful instrument. And so intimate at the same time. Someone will fall so in love with that cello! It made my heart beat faster and ache, that is for sure... I seem to have such connection with the instrument. Unfortunately my bank account won't allow me to have yet another instrument.
When I do some performances of the suites in California I will certainly include a Carruthers cello in the series! (I secretly hope it will be this one, but for Andy I hope it will sell before that time!).

The other thing about going to California in this time of year: THEY HAVE FLOWERS!!
While I love Edmonton, there is a two month time that I would rather skip every year.
From mid March to early May. It is brown. While it is usually sunny; I do miss the flowers.
(Calla Lilies are really tall!)

And this weekend here in Edmonton is ridiculous: it is snowing... (yes: that is unusual, even for here)! I feel energized though, by the spring that we had there. And it sure is less busy here!
(California Poppies)


For those of you wondering how my England experience was: I had a lot of fun.
The performance was fun. It is difficult to imagine that no one even noticed that I had a carbon fibre cello!
But I was sure glad I had brought it.
Even though Air Canada had promised to hand carry the instrument in and out of the plane and put it on the belt for fragile items: it came tumbling down the regular luggage belt and even landed on the bridge...
Needless to say that I nearly had a heart attack.
But the cello was not even out of tune!
(Performance at Canada House on Trafalgar Square in London, UK)


  1. Congratulations :)
    This is a fantastically well looking instrument! You are really lucky. Right now I am developing a model for a violoncello piccolo which can be played either da gamba or da spalla. It looks like one of the violoncellos cited in my Galpin Society Journal article.
    Pictures of it shall be soon on my blog, while the article can be downloaded by subscribers to my newsletter.
    Dmitry Badiarov

  2. what a great story! Must be fun to play. Have a great time with the Picc.


  3. my name is ishmail. i have nothing to do with my life so i sit on here and read stupid stories all day long. wooo! I LOVE YOU

  4. What a unique instrument. I played the violin as a child and love all things musical.

  5. SUPER dat je nu een piccolo hebt! :D Van de 6e kan ik voorlopig alleen maar dromen. Mijn barokdocente & vriendin Elske speelt 'm ook op piccolo - en het is zo prachtig en vooral zo natuurlijk op 5 snaren!

    Misschien wil je hier een keertje een filmpje of geluidsfiles posten? Dat zou leuk zijn!

    Veel liefs van Martine


  6. What a great blog! Such interesting posts. All I know about the violoncello piccolo is what I read in Anner Bylsma recordings.

    I have a question, though, where do you buy e strings for your piccolo?


  7. I buy e strings from Aquila USA. All the strings on my baroque instruments are Aquila, and I love them. I was warned that the e string would break frequently, since it was stretched to its maximum, but that has never happened!
    I use "medium gauge" on my baroque cello and heavy gauge" on the piccolo.

  8. I will take a look at that company. Thanks for the reply!

  9. Enjoyed the details about the Haide brand and all the set up problems.

  10. Hi!

    I found your blog really interesting. I just interviewed the cellist Pieter Wispelwey for and he told me that his violoncello piccolo was orignally a four string instrument dating from the 1700s which he had converted. I'd read your blog a few weeks ago when you said you were having trouble finding a violoncello piccolo, so I asked him how he acquired his. Glad to see you've found a similar solution! Good luck with your venture!
    ( is a website for children learning the cello - the interview will be posted in the next few weeks.)

  11. Hi Deborah,
    Thanks! It is such a fun cello to play! All cellos should have 5 strings; no more awkward shifting! :-) Good luck with your site; looks super. Josephine

  12. Hi Deborah
    I am reading Eric Siblin's book about the Bach cello suites when I reached the part chronicling his encounter with 'Dmitry Badiarov' and his theory that the suites where intended to be played on the violincello piccolo. I went on the internet to find pictures and information on the violincello piccolo. I found your site very interesting. I would very much like to hear and compare the suites played on this instrument. Good luck.

    David Ashworth

  13. Hi David,
    I have recorded the suites, so if you are interested you can buy it at CDBaby or on my website,