Upgrading cello for a teenager

June 4, 2018, 9:01 AM · My niece is 14 and her parents are considering a substantial upgrade on her cello, and have asked for my advice. She is in an elite private school for the arts in Seoul and dedicated to a future as a cellist. While she needs an upgrade, the amount being considered for the new cello (up to fifty thousand dollars) seems extreme for a teenager, who is not a prodigy or fully grown physically. Critical auditions and concerts are upcoming in the next years, but it seems to me that there is too much an element of "keeping up with the Joneses." I am trying to gauge a price range of cello that would make sense for a teenage player who will be keeping this instrument through college until, hopefully, she advances to professional level. I would very much appreciate insight and advice from teachers and professionals. Thank you in advance.

Replies (28)

June 4, 2018, 10:38 AM · It is best to get advice from her teacher(s). Her teacher will know what she will need from her her next cello and can help avoid the pitfalls that often befall insufficiently-informed buyers (I know - having been one more than once).

Cello utility (i.e. playing quality) can be all over the map at any price point. I have played some modern (current makers) cellos from Cremona, Italy in the past few years that were priced up to $30,000 and I thought that with one exception they did not impress me more than my Chinese-made Jay-Haide "a l'annciene) cello that was made in 2004 and sold to me for just under $5,000. The professional cellist who coached our string quartet 10 years ago (and demonstrated using my cello) thought it was a French cello worth about $20,000. The only really remarkable cello I ever played (for an entire summer over 50 years ago) sold for $10,000 in 1960 and is probably worth 50 times more now (I was told it had been the cello used in the Hollywood String Quartet - and if that is true it did have remarkable provenance).

Edited: June 4, 2018, 11:44 AM · I am not a teacher or pro, but I recently bought my daughter who's younger than her a cello like they're considering. She's a good player not a prodigy; since she's had this she's won two significant state level competitions.

As long as it's not a stretch for the parents, why not? Especially if they audition many instruments and buy smart. It's the high end of what a new instrument from a well-known maker runs these days. For me it's not keeping up with anyone, rather nothing makes me happier than hearing my kids play together on beautiful-sounding instruments.

Of course you don't have to spend that kind of money; one of her teacher's former students just went through Northwestern (starting Juilliard next year) with a mid 1800s Markneukirchen Strad copy that cost a fraction of this which has a beautiful laid-back old-instrument tone that can't be matched by a modern cello. It depends on what's available to you that you like when you happen to be looking.

There are some things they can do in terms of size. Although we liked the tone of some Strad and Goffriller copies we tried, Strads are fairly long and Goffrillers are just big :-). She was much more comfortable with her Ruggieri - slightly shorter string length and back with wider bouts. It fits her well now and will still fit her well regardless of whether she ends up closer to me or to my (much shorter) wife in height.

June 4, 2018, 12:37 PM · I agree with Andrew about asking the teacher what to look for in her next cello. That said, price does not completely correspond with sound quality, playability, or feel. Try a bunch of affordable cellos and see what you think. Then, make further decisions. Make sure you involve the teacher in the process, and allow the teacher to look at the cellos you're trying.
Edited: June 4, 2018, 1:10 PM · The teacher should definitely be involved. We got good advice on where to shop from her teacher and symphony colleagues; once we'd played everything locally and talked with makers and traveled some and narrowed things down, her teacher and the other two principals put final candidates through a pretty serious workout in a larger space. Having a great luthier to consult with will also be a big help.
June 4, 2018, 1:40 PM · It doesn't matter if she's not fully grown, as long as she can use a full-sized instrument.

It makes sense for students aiming for professional careers to play on the best possible instrument they can during their teenaged years, because an excellent instrument will help in the development of more precise technique and expand the range of musical nuance. $50k is not a lot for a cello, and is very reasonable for a good contemporary cello.

June 4, 2018, 3:12 PM · Thank you all very much for your input. I will relay all of your responses to her parents. I truly appreciate your time and insight. Thanks again.
June 4, 2018, 4:05 PM · What currency are we talking in? $50K USD is quite a bit of money. Can you afford that?
June 4, 2018, 10:12 PM · Yes, $50K USD, my concern exactly, as it is a lot of money, but per Lydia and Stan, it is not an unheard of sum. The price of instruments all being relative, I am trying to gauge a price range or at least a point of reference.
June 4, 2018, 10:17 PM · At least $10K USD, and perhaps $30K max. Don't go broke!
June 4, 2018, 10:37 PM · Duly noted. Thanks much, Ella.
June 5, 2018, 4:25 AM · Some very approximate ranges for new instruments here: good Chinese cello like Jay Haide runs $5-10K. Excellent eastern European maker like Jan Szlachtowski maybe 12-18K. Higher end German workshop instrument like Bernd Dimbath 15-25K. Younger and less established US and European makers still making excellent cellos maybe 25-35K. Well known makers $35-50K+ (averaging maybe 40-45K) for commissions. For a good bow almost everyone wants $5500-6500 for silver.
Edited: June 5, 2018, 8:44 PM · OK, speaking as someone who is actually involved in this, real world, as a place that sells this stuff, to real people in this situation: most of what we sell to serious students who will enter college in music school, with the intent of becoming professionals is in the 50 to 100K range. I don't personally know of many cellos under 35K or 40K or so that would reliably hold up to scrutiny as a professional instrument, and I haven't seen very many that I would personally own, if I were still actively playing. Such things do come up once in a while, but in actual fact, they are mostly the mythical creation of people who aren't faced with finding one, and certainly not recently, haven't tried to buy a good cello, and probably, on forums, don't play the cello, anyway :-).

I think that it is essential to have the teacher involved in the choice, and I suspect that the teacher will be pointing in the same direction. the chances of finding something for $10,000 that meets a conservatory standard are. . . zero.

June 5, 2018, 8:52 PM · Listen to Michael.

Ella, I don't know if you've gone shopping for a cello lately. I suspect not. They cost a lot more than violins.

June 5, 2018, 9:55 PM · Ok, I get the picture. So $100K is not crazy. I needed the confirmation. Thank you all so much.
June 6, 2018, 2:14 AM · The buyer should be very careful spending 50-100K on a cello for a 14 year old (unless money is no object). I have played around 100 cellos in this range and very few stand out even so, and how will a 14 year old know which is the one even with a teacher's assistance if their time is limited? I have encountered 2 cellos in a reasonable range of $16K and $25K that were worth playing (after a year of searching), but less expensive, well setup instruments of the right dimensions and build have worked well for dedicated students for a long time. A hard working teenage student can excel on a decent student instrument while spending a few years developing their preferences for a finer cello, provided that they have wealthy family to buy it for them. Only two contemporary cello makers stand out in my opinion, being William Whedbee and Michael Fischer. Best wishes.
June 6, 2018, 3:55 AM · at least they can know that their investment will only gain value provided it isn't stolen or damaged.
Edited: June 6, 2018, 5:06 AM · Ji, I actually do think 100K is crazy for a kid :-). My daughter's teacher has a beautiful Degani that might sell somewhere in that range, and I just don't think you need that kind of instrument in conservatory or as an early professional. One of my daughter's teacher's colleagues told a story though about a kid at school with her with a real Strad whose dad ran an international shipping company, my point being that what the family can comfortably write a check for should determine what to spend. And I agree with J S, you have to play a bunch of cellos over a period of time, because regardless of what you decide to spend, even 100s of thousands of dollars, most will not be her sound or fit her comfortably.
June 6, 2018, 7:47 AM · I certainly do agree about Will Whedbee. . . . but those are close to $40,000. He was part of the reason I drew my line at that point.

I sold a Degani cello for $100K once. . . that was 20 years ago. Now that cello would be worth considerably more.

The problem with people's specific personal tastes--the one cello they found and love--as recommendations is that they don't necessarily represent a choice that anyone else would have made in the same situation, and you don't know the playing qualifications of the person making the recommendation. That's why I'm trying to give an overview based on what I've actually seen done by the group under discussion.

Edited: June 6, 2018, 8:01 AM · We just bought a gorgeous cello made by Haide Lin for $30k. It won an award at a recent VSA competition. Jonah Kim plays a similar Haide Lin with a customized bass bar (he also plays a Vuillaume). Other cellos that we tried in this range were much less interesting but I think it's possible to find something good for under $50k. $100k sounds like a lot to me but I guess it depends on the student (and available inventory).
June 6, 2018, 8:34 AM · Thanks Lydia. I had a feeling that cellos were more expensive, but didn't think the price jump was so big. I was just worried that money would be a problem, even though it sounds like they're a wealthy family. Most of us are pretty modest to my mind.
Edited: June 6, 2018, 9:46 AM · Michael, point taken, I haven't shopped seriously for antique cellos, noted that two of Degani's violins sold at Tarisio in the 30s and 40s a few weeks ago, but hadn't seen a cello sold recently.

There are many great modern makers selling under $50K though - ours is from Kelvin Scott, and I spoke with Larry Wilke a number of times (his son won an award recently and was close to half that, bet that's a fantastic cello for the money). Played a nice Aitchison in that price range, and really liked a Guy Rabut just over 50 but see these offered for less. A great local shop has a David Caron at that price. Instruments like these are played professionally in symphonies all over the US.

Edited: June 6, 2018, 9:41 AM · Katie, your husband got a cello! Yay! (Weren't you asking about this a few months ago?)
June 6, 2018, 12:38 PM · There are really three reasons to buy the best instrument that you can afford for your pre-professional kid.

One is the purely utilitarian: It helps, in competitions and auditions, to have a better-sounding instrument. Yes, an amazing player can manage to pull a great sound out of a not-great instrument, but at the cost of greater effort. Yes, an experienced panel can mentally adjust for, "This person is not playing on an instrument that fully allows them to showcase their talents", but it's obviously better if they don't need to do that.

The most significant one is facilitation of learning: Better instruments response more quickly and more precisely, and offer a broader range of colors. If you want to maximize precise technique and interpretive range, you need something that can respond properly. (Yes, you can ask a great painter to work in just four colors with one broad brush, and they'll probably still produce something impressive, but it's likely going to lack the greatness of a full color palette and range of brushes. And if you take an art student who has always been limited to four colors and a broad brush, they are going to have a huge amount of ground to color to adjust their artistry for many brushes and colors.)

The last is future investment. Buy something above student-grade now and it will appreciate. Even if the instrument isn't the perfect one for the future career, its appreciation will help fund a lateral trade or another upgrade.

Arguably learning on a good instrument during the formative pre-professional years, and having that instrument to audition and compete with during these high-stakes years and the early-career years that follow, is far more valuable than having that good instrument in the later professional years.

June 6, 2018, 1:23 PM · Supporting Lydia; the best reason I have seen for involving teachers in selecting instruments is that a student will unavoidably pick an instrument that they can understand and be comfortable with at that moment. A teacher will hopefully pick the instrument based on where the student will be going in the future--the instrument that will provide the things the teacher is hoping to teach that the student will be able to eventually utilize, but which the student isn't currently aware of, and therefore wouldn't know to want in the instrument they are buying.
June 6, 2018, 2:34 PM · I don't think of any new instrument as an investment though, rather as a really good tool. 30 or 50K will get you a nice investment bow though :-).
Edited: June 6, 2018, 3:16 PM · The business would be better, I think, if dealers were more truthful about it. A new instrument is not an investment until the maker dies and his long-term value shakes out, then you find out. Up to that point, it's just a commodity of unlimited supply. At best, if you buy it from a dealer, he will take it back in trade on something better, allowing you your purchase price. Not if you got it somewhere else, though (from the maker, for instance, and that's why virtually every violin I have sold has been through a dealer--for the customer's ultimate benefit) because it's a service to take it back, not a profit.

But even with old ones you have to wait until the value goes up equivalent to the commission added by the seller's shop (20%-30% at least, or more) to break even, before you even think about making money.

However, buying well initially, then keeping it for an entire career, that makes a certain amount of sense. Giving away your profit in a series of commissions paid for incremental upward bumps does not. That's why making that initial big stretch is a better long-term strategy.

I wonder why people who will buy a car for $50,000 and watch it drop in value to just about nothing in ten years get so greedy when it comes to violins that they won't buy unless they can maintain the illusion that the purchase will make them rich some day?

Run that idea of making a killing on your Mercedes purchase past your car dealer next time, and see what it gets you. At least a well-chosen violin is playable by someone long after the car is a heap of rust! THAT is value.

June 6, 2018, 4:26 PM · Okay, thank you everyone. Going back to my original question, I think I can surmise that a cello up to $50,000 is not excessive. $50,000 is a large amount of money and a big investment for us, which is why I asked in the first place. I am trying get some idea of price range. I will advise her parents to consider all the points that were brought up here. I appreciate everyone's time and advice. Thank you much.
June 6, 2018, 8:45 PM · If I were you, I would advise her parents to only consider the more knowledgeable points of view on this thread. ;-)

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