Thursday, September 22, 2011

String Tension

Over the decades, I've lugged my horns around quite a bit and seen them get their modest share of dents, dings, scratches, etc. They're metal. They can be fixed. I tend not to stress about it too much (though I did have to put on my Exceptionally Angry voice the other night when my younger son whacked my euphonium with a yo-yo. A yo-yo, for chrissake!!).

It's a very different story, however, with my cello. I just don't have that comfort level. Wood is such a tempermental and unforgiving material. Something goes wrong and it often can't be undone. I see experienced string teachers and players handling instruments like they're some kind of big ol' sacks of taters or something. Not me. This thing is like a giant glass slipper. If I had an enormous felt pillow to lay my cello on, I would.

And this sense of a cello's delicacy isn't instinctive to me. It's learned. I had a cello shipped by UPS across the country. It arrived with a big crack in the back.

By far, my worst cello mishap: I set the cello down on a cello-stand and looked away too quickly. I turned back just in time to watch (in slow motion) as the instrument fell, face-forward, onto a concrete floor. The fingerboard popped right off and the scroll was kind of scuffed up. All things considered, it was a fairly inexpensive repair, but the image still sticks in my mind and fuels my nightmares.

The scariest part of cello's anatomy is the part I interact with the most: the strings. Again, my fears are learned. On an early attempt at string changing, I thought I was installing a D. It was really a G. Turn, turn, turn, turn, POP! Oh, that horrible cracking sound of a snapped string.

My neighbor recently had me fill her car tires with air. Her fear is that the tire is going to explode in her face under the pressure. THAT'S the feeling I get when turning a peg.

I was once tuning--not even changing a string. I was tuning the D string with the fine tuner--SNAP! The bridge snapped in half! I'm still puzzled as to how that even happened. The luthier who did that repair suggested that the bridge could have been ever-so-slightly misaligned. I guess. I sure didn't see the misalignment.

Just tuning the cello raises my blood pressure. That krk-krk-krk creaking as I struggle to turn the pegs. It's blood curdling. On my most recent string change--maybe 2 weeks ago--(Helicores on bottom, Larsons on top) I was meticulously careful. I took the advice that I thought I heard at a string shop--you don't want to force the peg in--it should just stay put from the way the string coils across the peg toward the inside of the pegbox. That advice seems to have worked. That and a little peg dope seem to have made for a rare, trouble-free string change. Incidentally, for me, the Larson/Helicore combo is by far the best string configuration I've tried. I had used that setup a few years ago, then tried a variety of other strings--nothing else came close.

Mandolin is not as scary to handle. I suppose it helps that my instrument cost me $40 and if the whole thing exploded I could by a new one with minimal impact to my checking account. Also, a set of strings costs me about nine bucks. A cello set is in the $150-200 range. The big danger with the mando is the blood letting that tends to occur. The top ends of those strings are lethal weapons. I haven't changed a set yet without spilling a few red drops.

Back in the early 90's I worked at IBM doing tech support. We had a project where we had to change a chip--I think it was a processor--deep inside the guts of ThinkPads. I probably did two- or three-hundred of those over the course of a few weeks. I also had so swap out memory cards all the time. In both cases, the first few times I did it, it was terrifying--pushing that fragile little item just until (and not beyond) you got that perfect click. After a while, I could do that work blindfolded without a care in the world. I'm hoping the hardware of a cello someday causes me equally little stress.

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