To tune a cello, you play its strings two at a time and listen for the magic interval: a perfect fifth. One string stays constant, and you adjust the other by twisting a tuning peg, loosening to lower the tone, tightening to raise it. When you hit just the right pitch, the strings emit a buzzing overtone; this emergence of the “perfect perfect fifth” engenders a feeling akin to a champagne bottle being uncorked with a satisfying pop. The interval’s magical quality is due to simple physics. The bow dragging across two strings tuned to perfection causes the higher string to vibrate three times every time the lower vibrates twice. It is the simplicity of this ratio of vibrations — three to two — that appeals to our ears.
If the violin (my instrument, once upon a time) sounds like milk chocolate, silky and sweet, then the cello’s sound is dark and deep, too rich to consume in large quantities. The one and only time I played a perfect fifth on the cello, I felt small and overpowered, as vibrations seeped through my skin and hummed their way to my bones. A virgin cello player, I was unused to the thick strings. They’re necessary to produce so deep a sound, but they’re more difficult to coax into vibrating. On my first try, I pulled my bow too quickly; instead of digging into the core of the string, the thin stick of wood and horsehair skated and slipped.
Nancy Matlack — cellist, doctor to wounded instruments, member of an indie/folk/rock/string band called Good Night Blue Moon, and now, for 45 minutes, my cello teacher — sat next to me. My fifths, though they seemed resonant and rich when I first played them, were an afterthought compared to hers, which poured from her cello to fill every crack and crevasse of the small and crowded Audubon Strings of New Haven.
Nancy’s relationship with the cello long predates my visits and her tenure at Audubon Strings. Before her current cello (whose case she calls the Great White Whale), Nancy owned Wilbur. She bought Wilbur in high school — “junior year, when I proved to my parents that I was serious.” Her parents didn’t want her to pursue music, even though her mom was a music teacher and they’d sent their daughter to cello lessons, music camp, and competitions since she was in second grade. “They wanted me to get a real job,” Nancy says.
“So, I majored in something totally useless, and still didn’t get a job!” She giggles. Nancy came to New Haven to pursue a Master’s in African Studies at Yale. She stayed because she met someone. “My husband,” she says. “Erik with a ‘k.’” When Nancy talks to Erik, her voice goes down a third. Erik plays wind instruments, composes, and sings in the same band as Nancy. Although Erik teaches music at a local boys’ school, his beard and his flannel shirts keep him looking like the barista who used to flirt with Nancy every time she bought a cup of coffee.
When Erik proposed to Nancy, Good Night Blue Moon’s mandolin player helped him set up music cues for the proposal. But the mandolin player, Crowley, couldn’t sneak out of the apartment in time, so he hid in the bathroom while Erik got down on one knee. Good Night Blue Moon got its name because Nancy, Erik, and Crowley used to drink a ton of Blue Moon beer. The band plays gigs around Connecticut and as far as Massachusetts. In their videos and recordings, Erik’s voice is light, sweet, and always on pitch — no hipster flatness for these classically trained musicians. In one clip on the band’s website, Erik croons as Nancy’s peaceful smile peeps out from the left-hand corner of the frame. She’s not watching her husband, though. She’s smiling down at her cello.
When Nancy meets her youngest students, six- and seven-year-olds who are about as tall as the instruments they play, she first teaches them how to sit. The cello’s body must rest against the inside of the knees, and its neck must lean back against the breastbone. Only by standing and sitting over and over again, by learning and relearning the correct body position, does the unnatural posture become instinctive. To counteract grade schoolers’ short attention spans, Nancy conducts parades, prancing about the room with her students, then directing them back to their chairs and their cellos.
Used to tucking a violin under my chin — a cocked head was all it took to keep the fragile instrument upright — I was acutely conscious of the cello’s wide, flaring bottom (its hips) against my knees, its narrower top curve (its shoulders) against my collarbone, and its thick neck rising far above mine. Uncomfortable and nervous, I looked to Nancy for cues. Still, though the cello fell to my torso at the same angle as hers, and though I was holding my knees the same width apart as she was, there remained a fundamental difference. I held the cello like the carved piece of wood that it was; Nancy held hers in an embrace.
That’s probably because Nancy has chosen to spend her life playing the cello, while I have chosen not to spend my life playing the violin. At Audubon Strings, Nancy sells and rents instruments, deals with public schools (the shop’s biggest customers), and does small fixes on the instruments. She is at ease there. As I stand between rows of cellos and violins and a sea of music stands, inhaling the familiar smell of wood and glue, I realize that I haven’t played the violin in over two years. The last time I set foot in a violin shop, it was because I’d gone too long without playing the damn thing, and the bridge had caved in. After getting it fixed and playing a quick scale to test the sound of the new bridge, I returned the violin to its place under my bed.
Although Audubon Strings has its own luthier — a craftsman who makes and mends stringed instruments — he only works on Mondays. Nancy has informally apprenticed herself to a couple of luthiers over the years. “Most luthiers are pains in the ass,” she says. Still, she has picked up enough skill along the way to deal with many of the problems common to fragile instruments in a rough world. She can retouch a paint job, sand a bridge, fish out a lost endpin (the piece of a cello that rests on the floor and sometimes falls into the instrument’s body), and mix varnish. What jobs does she do most? I ask.
“Repairing and rehairing,” Nancy says.
Rehairing means replacing the horsehair that stretches tight from one end of a bow to the other. Huge bundles of the stuff hang in the back of Audubon Strings. Nancy remarks that the hair came from specially-bred Mongolian stallions. Next to the horsehair lies the belt sander. A string instrument’s bridge (the thin piece of wood that keeps up the strings) needs to be sanded down to perfectly fit each violin, viola, cello, or bass. The belt sander makes the bridge thinner, one millimeter at a time. As I watch in horror, Nancy holds her precious fingers close to the belt — a tiny treadmill that whirs with demonic noise.
“I’ve sanded off a few fingertips, yeah,” Nancy says, her eyes intent on the bridge. “And I’ve put a few bridges into the wall.”
Nancy doesn’t like sanding; it’s too easy to make a mistake. She much prefers varnishing, the next step to preparing the arched wood for its eventual place beneath the strings. Painting on this outer liquid layer is surprisingly crucial; varnish does not simply determine the sheen and color of an instrument, but also decides whether the sound it emits will be mellow or raw. Nancy’s hands unscrew a squat jar filled with brown goop. Once open to the air, the varnish emits a cold, sterile smell; acrid, almost, except for an undertone of sweetness. The mixture is turpentine, linseed oil, and oil paint, she explains while dipping the bridge of a child’s violin into the liquid and watching as the wood’s light color deepens. But every luthier mixes the proportions differently.
Nancy loves the smell and how it influences her mixture: too chemical-y, and there’s too much turpentine; too goopy, and there’s too much linseed. “That’s how you can tell it’s right,” she says.
Andrea Amati constructed the first modern cello in 1538; it has since earned the nickname “The King.” The near-mythical instrument maker lived in Cremona, the cosmopolitan hub that was home to the three great Italian music houses: Guarneri, Amati, and of course, Stradivari. One Guarneri cello has survived the ages, and one Amati. Meanwhile, sixty-three Stradivari still exist. Yo-Yo Ma plays on one. Another lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A third was actually built by Antonio Stradivarius’s supposed teacher, Nicolo Amati, in the form of the smaller and now obsolete viola da gamba. Stradivarius resized the instrument, and the modern cello was born.
Originally, musicians and audiences appreciated the cello because its low voice, devoid of edge or harshness, blended in ensembles. The violin, considered the more virtuosic instrument, hogged all the solos, while the patient cello provided background accompaniment. As the 17th century dawned, however, luthiers began using wire-wrapped strings (instead of the traditional sheep gut) on their instruments. This innovation made the cello’s sound even finer and clearer than before, and began the tradition of solo cello repertoire.
The cellos, violas, and violins of Stradivarius, Guarneri, and Amati are revered in the music world, and regarded as having near-magical properties. But even though the Italian masters made beautiful instruments, they did not necessarily build the most flawless instruments mankind has ever played upon. A study in 2009 found that the varnish used on a Stradivarius violin was nearly identical to Nancy’s recipe, complete with linseed and oil paint. In 2012, a group of professional string players engaged in a blind test, playing both a Stradivarius and a high-quality modern instrument. They were almost universally unable to tell the difference.
The truth is that the luthiers of Cremona did not somehow create instruments more perfect than all others to come after. Instead, they perfected the form itself; they were the first to get it right.
After practicing sitting, Nancy and I begin the basics. The cello nestles into her body as she plays a scale, the deep growling sound of the open C-string (the lowest on the cello) giving way to the smooth upper registers, each note made fuller by wide, even vibrato. The ladder of ever-higher pitches carries with it a momentum that makes even this simplest of musical exercises compelling. I strive to mimic the nimbleness of Nancy’s left hand and to match the graceful weight of her right. Yet again, what looks natural on her body is anything but on mine. Nancy’s fingers easily span the intimidating length of the cello’s thick neck; mine stretch and stumble. Her right elbow traces a gentle arc through the air with every bow stroke; mine makes a clumsy sawing motion, my right shoulder hiked up and tense.
When I used to play violin, I sometimes cried from the cramping it caused in my back. Practicing would leave my hands numb and tingling. After my junior year of high school — during which a swollen tendon robbed my right hand of mobility three days before my PSATs — I dialed back the playing. My three hours of daily practice slipped to two-and-a-half, then two, then ninety minutes. By the time I got to college, I barely played at all. My fingers have lost much of their old skill now, more accustomed to typing on a laptop than tapping on a fingerboard. And the question isn’t whether or not I’ll play my $5,000 violin again, but whether or not I’ll sell it to a luthier. I tell myself that the negative physical effects forced me to stop playing, rather than simply my lack of dedication. That I physically couldn’t continue to play, despite the hours I’d slaved over scales and exercises, despite the aching beauty of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Gluck’s Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice, and despite my perfect pitch. I used to love it when my friends would sing notes for me, and I would identify them correctly. But by the end of high school, I had started calling my perfect pitch a “party trick.” I never mentioned it to Nancy. I was no longer a musician, and it no longer mattered that I had perfect pitch.
Nancy was diagnosed with carpal tunnel last December. She didn’t miss an elementary school concert, a holiday party, or a church service. Now she wears a brace to sleep every night, and still plays cello every day. “You should really keep playing the violin,” she told me every time I mentioned that I no longer practiced. She didn’t mean to guilt me; she simply couldn’t comprehend why I — or anyone — wouldn’t.
To call the cello an appendage of Nancy’s body would be inaccurate; she does not romanticize it in this way. Her love is more matter-of-fact, rooted not in the idea of the cello, but in its physical form. She has, in her years at Audubon Strings, seen violins tossed and smashed by elementary schoolers, and a cello whose ribs were decimated by a six-year-old’s foot. To repair such damaged instruments, she must disembowel them, removing strings, bridges, and even soundposts (a thin rod of wood within the hollow body of a string instrument, meant to transfer sound vibrations from the front of an instrument to its back). “It’s weird to see them all put together, at this point,” she says. “I’m so used to seeing them naked.”
When I met Marshall, who is in his sixties and is Nancy’s oldest student, he was obsessing over the ideal shade of blue for his new cello case. He does this every week, staring at the cases in the window and commenting on the variations in their materials and colors. “Don’t judge him,” Nancy told me. Marshall, a gregarious lawyer in a monogrammed yellow shirt, told us about his daughter, his arthritis, and the time he saw Midori perform. When he began to play, though, it became clear that while there might be a perfect shade of blue cello case in the world, there would be no perfect cello notes in this lesson. I began to stop listening.
Everything he did with and on the cello required effort. It didn’t sit right between his knees, nor did it fall back onto his chest. He had trouble reading music, and his strokes were halting, slow, and small. Because of his arthritis — this was the reason that he started cello in the first place, because he couldn’t manage the smaller violin — he used a large grip on his bow, which Nancy called “the elephant,” and which was, indeed, shaped like an elephant. Even then, his grip was gingerly and loose; this was the real reason that he couldn’t get any traction on the strings.
Nancy, next to him, was all ease. Although Marshall is far taller than his five-foot-two teacher, he treats the cello as if it is burdensome, cumbersome. Nancy, meanwhile, mirrored the cello’s shape with her own body, her back extended in order to lean into her instrument, and the wide vibrato on her left hand matching the vibrations of the strings. Of the three of us, only she was comfortable exactly where she was.
Before my own lesson with Nancy, I wondered how she would go about teaching me. I was no Marshall, after all, picking up the cello late in life as a hobby. Nor was I a raw beginner requiring games and cello parades. But Nancy knew her audience. Whenever she spotted something wrong in my nascent cello technique, she responded by comparing my motions to those of a violinist. I needed to use my right elbow to pull the bow to its fullest length, rather than my right wrist. To keep my fingers still rather than bending and flexing them with each bow stroke. To skip the second finger on the highest string while playing a scale. My intonation, Nancy commented, must be a remnant of my violin-playing days. I didn’t mention my perfect pitch.
I asked Nancy what piece a beginner would learn first. When she answered, I realized that I should have known all along: “Twinkle.”
“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is the first piece in every baby string player’s repertoire. On my deathbed, I’ll remember its pattern of open strings, perfect fifths, and scales. I used to show off by playing both the melody and its accompanying harmony simultaneously, my bow pressing my strings into double stops, and my fingers flitting from note to note two at a time. But on the cello, I found myself confronted with an unfamiliar “Twinkle” full of notes that petered out instead of flowing into each other, a jumble of fingerings that left my digits lost and fumbling. Halfway through the piece, Nancy began playing along. I relaxed in relief as her clear, true tone augmented my chicken scratching.
It hurt my hands to hold the cello up, and my legs to be so spread apart. As soon as I finished the piece, I laid the cello down on the floor, placing its bow on a nearby music stand, and rose to stretch. Nancy told me how much she enjoyed teaching people with musical talent; how she thought I could pick up the cello in no time. “You should really keep playing the violin,” she said. I looked back at her. She was still seated, her head craned around her cello’s neck, both body and instrument at ease.