Travels With My Cello

  • Damage, Part 2: Home Cello Repair for Dummies

    Marianne Ide

    Warning!  The following story is not for the faint-hearted: It involves the graphic description of  cello maiming by amateurs!

    Before I begin, I feel you should know two things:  First, the story ends well.  Second, from the moment of my very first bow stroke across my old Cremona, all I ever wanted was to play the cello well—not brilliantly, just well—and my long-suffering husband has only ever wanted to support me.  I think it’s important you know these things, because in this story we appear to have a little less sense than Laurel and Hardy.

    That year, summer ended as it always does, and when fall arrived, I spent most of my afternoons in the orchestra room with the music students. The group was bigger that year.  Along with a fresh crop of beginners, we added several musicians who actually knew what they were doing:  a terrific pianist, a hotshot violinist playing the coolest cherry red violin I had ever seen, two guitarists, and wonder of wonders, another cellist.  Better still, both my son and my daughter were playing in the violin section, so I really couldn't imagine a more wonderful place to hang out.  One afternoon, as I was staring idly out the door watching the dust devils race around the parking lot, I was running my hand over the smooth belly of my cello, enjoying its glossy finish.  That’s when I felt it: an alarmingly pronounced ridge of unevenness where my beautiful cello had once been smooth.  I looked under the fingerboard, and sure enough, from the very top of my cello descending about 6 inches was a rift.  My heart sank;  loose pegs were one thing, but my cello appeared to be literally coming apart at the seams.   I showed Tanya and I think she said something resembling “You are totally screwed” in Russian, but I can’t be sure. 

    That is when the enormity of my problem hit me full in the face.  There were rumors of luthiers in the Emirates, but no one really seemed to know for sure.  And while Israel has a plethora of luthiers, any attempt to get into Israel with a cello and a passport full of Yemeni visas would likely cause an international incident.  Plus, I had no flight case.  I had been so unbelievably stupid.  In my naivete  I believed that if I were just careful enough in the handling of my cello, I wouldn't need a luthier.  As I sat there, running my fingers over the seam, I wondered if it would continue to open all the way to the end pin.  Indeed, what would stop it?

    Tanya went and got my husband, who happens to be the greatest, most unbelievably supportive husband in the free world.  He never once balked at the craziness of my playing cello in Yemen.  He can also fix just about anything, and when he fixes things, they work.  Even better, his father had been a carpenter and had taught him quite a bit about woodwork, so Christopher felt confident with problems involving wood.  He came to the music room with Tanya, took one look at my face and immediately began sizing up the extent of the damage to see how he could help.  He ran his fingers over the rift, thought for a few moments, and then declared: “I can fix this!”

    What happened next is not for the squeamish.

    We didn't know anything about cello repair, period.   Even if we had, we didn't have the tools to do it properly.  But Christopher saw this as a carpentry problem, and, as such, he tackled it like any good carpenter would: with C-clamps, 2 x 4’s, and wood glue.  We acquired the necessary tools and went home to begin the operation.

    After stripping off the strings, bridge and tail pin, we wrapped the back and the face with beach towels in order to protect the finish.  Then Christopher set to work with the C-clamps.  He carefully laid the 2 x 4's on either side of the fingerboard, front and back. 

    Then he attached the C-clamps, slowly tightening each side, applying even pressure.  The goal was to force the rift to even out, so that we could apply enough wood glue on the seam to hold it closed and prevent it from separating further down the cello.  We figured that if we distributed the pressure evenly, we could avoid damaging the cello in new and different ways.  He tightened each clamp slowly, checking to see if we were making progress. He tightened some more.  The rift diminished, but did not totally disappear.  I wanted to stop at this point and put on the wood glue, but Christopher is nothing if not tenacious.  He gave both screws one last turn, and suddenly, a horrible cracking noise like a gunshot filled the room.   By all indications, something had gone horribly awry underneath the beach towels, but we could not yet see what it was.  The good news was that the rift had nearly disappeared, so we began applying layers of wood glue to the seam.  As each layer dried, we applied another, until we had quite a ridge of wood glue built up.  We prayed it would hold.  I prayed we hadn't totally destroyed my cello.  Then we waited. 

    Two days later, Tanya came over for the unveiling, so to speak, and to help me reset the bridge—and, of course, to figure out what else we had ruined.  We removed the C-clamps, and miracle of miracles, the glue held.  It looked ugly, but it held the rift flat.  Then we saw the unfortunate results of the last turn of the screws:  a new crack, about 4 inches long, extended from the top of my right F hole toward the fingerboard.  My heart broke, but there really was nothing more that could be done other than restring it and give it a whirl.  So we did.  I picked up my bow, took a deep breath, and began tuning my embattled cello.  

    So, how did it sound?  At first, I couldn't really hear any difference.  No doubt, this was partly because I was expecting it to sound god-awful.  While I am sure a pro would have gagged in horror at what my husband and I had done to this poor cello, the only real difference I could detect was that it sounded louder.  And so I began playing with a little more confidence, and realized that against all odds, we had somehow averted disaster.  The glue on the seam held the rift closed, and my resurrected cello was back in business.  I dug out my Christmas music, and began practicing in earnest.   For, after all, the holiday concerts were fast approaching. 

    Marianne Ide is an international schoolteacher and amateur cellist currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  When not playing her Artist cello, she teaches government and economics

  • ← Next Post Previous Post →