A Cello Conundrum

Richae Williams’s husband offered to buy her a cello for her birthday. She came to the the MENC Forums seeking advice:

“As an adult beginner, I know next to nothing about buying cellos. I am a general music teacher, so I obviously value good instruments and sound more than cosmetic beauty. My husband has a fairly tight budget because we didn’t plan this present until recently and prefer to never use credit. A few options:

  • The local cello teacher I will be taking lessons from recommends ronaldsachs.com cellos from Atlanta, Georgia (2 hours from my house), where I could go to hear and see the instruments. The problem is that the lowest-priced instrument costs $1,200, which is really more than my husband wants to spend, but you can rent to own new cellos with no interest.
  • There is an “educator’s series” from Nashville Violins for $750 (includes bow/case) on Craigslist. We would drive one hour one way to meet owner with intent to buy because the owner would be meeting us halfway. It looks very well taken care of, and the owner seems responsible, but I think she bought it new for $1,000 at most (I compared prices online).
  • The rest are on eBay (which scares me, because they could be terrible) and go for about $500. Also, the instrument would travel in the mail before it gets to me and could be damaged if not packaged properly. This price range is better for his budget, but I’m concerned about repair costs, although the instruments look great in the pictures (no evident cracks, etc.).
  • Last, a local luthier will sell us a really good-sounding slightly over 100-year-old cello marked “Nikkon” (probably from Japan). The original owner passed away and had used this luthier to maintain her instrument before she died. The daughter sold it to him, and he wants $1,200 or might trade my husband for his new Martin guitar, which my husband says he’ll do. This cello has had a lot of wear and tear and has some shady-looking features, but its sound is awesome. The guy will fix it up however we want and lower the action, as it is currently too high. The previous owner played the instrument in the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra years ago.

Please give me blunt and honest advice—no need to be nice.”

Michael Blakeslee, MENC’s deputy executive director, weighed in to say that the local luthier’s offering was probabaly the best choice, and he concurred with Williams that sound trumps appearance.

In the Washington, D.C. area, you’re lucky to get a good student cello for $1,200, so the exchange for the guitar might be the best deal.

Richae Williams teaches general music at Antioch Elementary School in Dalton, Georgia, which is a part of the Whitfield County School District. She’s shown in the above picture, taken by her husband, Robert Williams, with her new instrument.

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–Ella Wilcox, August 3, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)