Friday, April 03, 2009


A fool for a customer

A musician (wannabe) who acts as his own luthier has a fool for a customer.

My A-string has been sounding "pinched" lately and I noticed the string was practically buried in the parchment tab on the bridge. So, in a classic example of picking the worst possible time to do something about it, I decided to replace the parchment tab before our spring recital tomorrow [my orchestra and Cellocracy will be playing].

Replacing the tab is not really a complicated task, I've done it before:
So, after I cut off the old parchment I noticed the bridge was leaning slightly toward the tailpiece. I've realigned my bridge several times, but always with all four strings holding it in place. This procedure is also fairly simple, although a little more risky. From the bottom of the cello facing the tailpiece side of the bridge, I grasp the bridge with one hand on either side, bracing the feet with my pinkies and ring fingers at the base on the fingerboard side. Then I use my thumbs on the tailpiece side to gently push the top towards the fingerboard until it's perpendicular.

Without the downward pressure of the A-string, I apparently braced with a little too much force and pulled the base of the bridge back toward me: suddenly everything collapsed with a loud bang - followed by the sound of the soundpost gently rolling back and forth inside the cello case....... :(

Most fortunately there was no physical damage. This Jay-Haide cello is already antiqued (a l'ancienne) with lots of nicks and scratches, so one or two extra nicks wouldn't even be noticeable. The bridge was OK, the carbon-fiber tailpiece was OK (and the fine tuners didn't gouge the face of the cello), the strings were OK but slack. The big problem was the soundpost. What to do?

I'm no luthier, nor do I have one of those special soundpost setting tools; even if I did, I had no idea where exactly the soundpost was supposed to sit. I knew that in general it should stand somewhere near the A-D foot of the bridge. There was no mark on the inside of the case to show where the soundpost had previously been. It had never been adjusted since I bought the cello just over 3 years ago.

The nearest luthiers (there are two) are in Anchorage, 160 miles away. Even if I had scrambled everything together, by the time I got there, they'd would have closed for the weekend. I was on my own; it would be up to me to make this cello playable in time for tomorrow's recital. In my shop I found a pair of laboratory tongs, that looked to be the right size and shape to fit through the f-hole, grab onto the post and maybe manipulate it into place. But where to set it?

"Tipbook: Cello" was no help - all it said was that this had to be done by a skilled luthier (thanks, guys, I think I want my money back). "Comprehensive Instrument Care" was no help either. Then I remembered that unusual booklet I bought a few years ago, titled "The Health of the Violin and the Viola and the Cello: practical advice on the acquisition, maintenance, adjustment and conservation of bowed instruments" by Lucien Greilsamer. Written in French in 1910, it was translated into English by Henry Stroebel in 1991. This has a wealth of technical information and measurements about all these instruments as well as an interesting discussion about buying old instruments. Here's what Greilsamer says about the soundpost (p. 17):

The position of the post and its length play a great part in the final adjustment. The center of the post should be on a line parallel to the axis of the instrument, passing through the middle of the right foot of the bridge (on the side opposite the [bass] bar), 4 to 5 mm behind it for the violin, 5 to 5.5 mm for the viola, and 7 to 8 mm for the cello. Its length must be such that, placed perpendicular to the two tables, it will stay in this position without force.

After discussing the theoretical adjustments, he presents the following principle of adjustment:

If the post is moved toward the bridge, the higher strings gain in brilliance to the detriment of the lower, and if it is moved away, the opposite happens.

Armed with this practical information, I slipped the tongs inside, grabbed the soundpost and maneuvered it out through the larger round hole at the bottom of the f-hole. The soundpost is beveled the same direction on both ends, and it had a gouge in the face from the first luthier's soundpost setting tool. The gouge was on the shorter side of the post (as defined by the beveled ends), which made it easy to see how it was supposed to be oriented inside the box. I used a ruler to guesstimate the center-line of the bridge foot and to find the center-point for the post, 7-8 mm behind it. Then I reinserted the post into the box and managed to stand it up, oriented in the proper direction. I removed the endpin to look at the post through that hole to check if it was perpendicular. More than a few adjustments finally made it perpendicular and left it more-or-less in the proper place. And, best of all, it "stay[ed] in this position without any force".

Then I reinstalled the bridge with its new parchment tab in place, and restrung it, carefully tightened the strings in order, each one a little at a time. As I was doing this I had to readjust the bridge a few times to keep it perpendicular to the face of the cello. Finally, it was all back together. After tuning, I hesitantly tried it out...

O..K..., well it sounds a little brighter, especially the D-string. A is OK, and C and G sound just fine. I ran a few scales to make sure it was playable for tomorrow and then put it away. Now, I'm going to have to schedule a visit to one of the luthiers in Anchorage in the next few weeks to get this adjustment fine-tuned by an expert. Until then, I'll have to live with it, because there's no way I'm going to risk making any more adjustments myself.

What a relief to have it all back together so I can play it tomorrow in the recital!

I read your post with eyes wide and hand over mouth from about the second sentence. Folks who live in the middle of nowhere must be resilient. Excellent save.
I am impressed with your resourcefulness! (and love that photo) My soundpost fell a while back, and I know the sense of doom, though there are far more luthiers around here than where you are.

Thanks for the detailed account, just in case any of us need to do the same one day. :-)
Oh my! You are brave!! Very impressive.
Wow, most of us don't have laboratory tongs lying around! You're a lucky dude.
The next morning I reinspected it and discovered the soundpost was still not perpendicular, so I loosened the strings, took my tongs and tapped it at the base into a place. The top strings sound a little diminished, but the bottom strings are really vibrant. I am resisting the temptation to tinker with it any further, and I made an appointment with a luthier in Anchorage.
I know it's lame to comment on your own post (twice, even), but...

I couldn't resist tinkering with my setup again, since I have to wait another 10 days before seeing the luthier.

The upper strings were sounding fuzzy - as if they were being muffled somehow. I noticed the bridge was positioned a bit forward (toward the fingerboard) than it had been before this all started. Remembering Greilsamer's comment about moving the soundpost closer to the bridge to brighten the A & D strings; today, I again loosened the strings and moved my bridge about 2-3 mm back (toward the tailpiece and closer to the soundpost).

I could hear the improvement immediately.
Oh my goodness! A fallen bridge I can imagine correcting, but a soundpost? It's like you performed home heart surgery or something. What a miracle of resourcefulness!
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