A few months ago, I received an email from the owner of one of my slightly smaller cellos, that she bought on resale ten years ago. In Rebecca’s own words, this was the situation:
In 2015 I sustained an injury to my left wrist which severely impacted my ability to perform. After taking some time off, I spent the next few years addressing my technique and physical condition. By 2021, although I had made significant progress and was able to play again, I felt as though I was reaching a limit with the tools I had available to me.
I contacted Helen earlier this year to enquire about the possibility of trying an even smaller cello, but she suggested making adjustments to the neck and fingerboard of my own cello instead. Adjusting the width and depth of the neck was something I hadn’t considered before – I assumed string length (and potentially bridge height) would be the most significant factor in an injury like mine.
As I’ve gained experience over the years, I’ve become increasingly conscious that neck shape is critical to the comfort of the player, and that one size most definitely doesn’t fit everyone. With commissioned instruments I take time with the player to check on what will suit them. The standard measurements we were given as violin-making students now seem over-engineered to me, and I pick from a range of measurements to suit the individual player.
After discussing the problem and how I could adapt her cello, I gave Rebecca ‘homework’ to check the measurements of any instrument she could find that felt comfortable.
A point to note here is that we all have our “défaut professionel” – meaning that musicians assume that if they have a physical problem, they should tackle it within their sphere of knowledge; a change of technique, a different practice regime. On the other hand, violin makers look for solutions in the structure of the instrument. Whilst I’m far from suggesting that either group should tell the other their job, we do need to interact closely so that makers can understand the needs of players and adapt their work in the light of a better understanding of the challenges they face. And musicians can learn more about how the instrument functions and can be changed, to enable them to approach makers with confidence, to ask for help if they are experiencing pain or discomfort when they play.
Back to Rebecca; I gave her this diagram to show what she needed to measure, instructions about how to do it and a basic vernier calliper which is essential for accurate measurement.
Over a period of a few weeks, Rebecca was able to try enough instruments to find what suited her. She wanted the width of the fingerboard at the nut (D) reduced to 29, and the thickness (A – B) reduced to 27.5 – 29. As her hands are small and her fingers slim, having less thickness for her thumb in first position seemed to make a big difference. We also discussed the profile of the neck, which should be oval rather than semi-circular in cross-section, narrowing quickly from the maximum width of the fingerboard.
The shape of the fingerboard is another factor. I had used the standard shape with a Romberg, the flat surface under the C string. This was invented in the 19th century by the cellist Bernhard Romberg, to give greater clearance for the C string; the covered gut strings used at that time had a large amplitude (size of vibration), and this was a way of giving extra space for the C string.
However, with modern steel strings, less clearance is needed and the Romberg is falling from favour. Below are my templates for the curve of each type of fingerboard. The overall curve of each fingerboard isn’t so different but the non-Romberg is less peaky so slightly reduces the thickness of the neck.
The final consideration for the fingerboard is the hollow along its length, under the strings. Without it, the cello would risk buzzing when the player stops a note; the string could be in contact with the fingerboard past the note, and the string would rattle. The gentle scoop under the string ensures that the fingerboard is always dropping away past the note. But too much hollow and the strings become hard to press down. So I paid attention to keep the hollow to the minimum necessary.
I ended up taking a fair amount of wood off the fingerboard to achieve the new profile, which certainly helped to make the cello feel easier to play.
All that done, with careful attention to leaving the neck finished as smoothly as humanly possible, I re-stained the neck, refinished it and retouched the neck root.
Lastly I revisited the nut and the bridge. I took the nut height down as low as I dared, and reduced the string spacing (F) to 22mm. I also looked at the bridge height and took it down as low as is safe to avoid the string slapping against the fingerboard in fortissimo passages.
Rebecca was excited to come to collect the cello. Fortunately she found it much more comfortable to play, and noticed the difference even just handling the instrument. This is her verdict a few weeks later:
I picked up my cello in August, two weeks after dropping it off at Helen’s, and was immediately surprised at how much of a difference the adjustments had made. The neck felt much more comfortable under my hand and the reduced depth allowed my left thumb to fall more naturally.
Reshaping the neck of my cello has been the final step on the path to recovery. I am thoroughly enjoying my ‘new’ cello and the confidence it has given me – after only a couple of months, I am almost entirely pain free and can play for long periods of time without excess tension or pain.