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Wendy Law – Comparing cellos: Bach Cello Suite No. 1

An evening pause: She plays the same Bach piece on three different cellos, valued respectively at $5,000, $180,000, and a $1 million. Can you tell any difference, and if so, which do you like the best?

Hat tip Phill Oltman.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


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  • David Eastman

    This one is rare for these kind of videos in that you actually can tell a difference. Usually with these kind of “can you hear the difference” videos, the answer is “no, what I can hear is that you have a $30 microphone, and youtube compressed out any difference it let through.”

  • John C

    I can tell a difference. I actually like the $1,000,000 one better, but not enough for the price tag.

  • Mike F

    180,000 was smoother , the million about he same. Not that you tube and my ipad hvae the best audio

  • Diane Wilson

    I would hope that for purposes of comparison, all three cellos had identical sets of strings, and that she used the same bow. These also make a difference. but yes, the “cheap” cello sounded harsh. (I grew up playing a cheap cello, $300 in the 1950s. But I made it to first chair in the All-State orchestra with that cello!)

    I don’t miss playing cello too much. They need space for storage and playing; it’s a lot of work to haul them around; they require maintenance; and they wouldn’t get along well with cats. But I have a decent piano, and that keeps me going.

  • janyuary

    Diane, cats have no ear for music. I find that they want to leave immediately when I get out my violin, but the dogs in the yards on either side of my practice room love to sing along when I play! Especially when other neighbors join in with their leaf blowers, routers, and bandsaws.

    I know a (semi)pro bass player, classical and jazz, who by good fortune got a double-bass that had been built when Mozart was four years old. My friend played a nice sampler of jazz and classical on both his modern and ancient bass for me … you could definitely hear the dif and as well you could tell that the venerable bass, who had survived world wars, ocean voyages, earthquakes, the industrial revolution … happily sung jazz as lovingly as classical.

    But then my music teacher (we shared a passion for Bach on strings and keyboard) told me that if Bach was alive today (back in the ’70s) he’d be a jazz player.

  • janyuary

    Forgot to mention what I came here to say … one can certainly tell the difference between instruments EVEN ON A LAPTOP with lousy speakers. There is a profound dif in the sounds between all three. AMAZING how these “dead” trees breathe and live again.

  • Diane Wilson

    @janyuary, Bach would be an extraordinary jazz pianist. Improvisation was a huge part of performance in his day, as it also was for Mozart. That pretty much ended with Beethoven.

    I’ve been exploring jazz piano and pianists recently. The number of jazz pianists with a classical piano foundation is amazing. Oscar Peterson credits the standard classical books (Hanon, Czerny, et. al.) for much of his technique. Chick Corea plays, and improvises on, Mozart, Chopin, Scriabin, Bartok, and others. Dave Brubeck studied composition under Darius Milhaud. Hiromi started with classical before discovering jazz; when asked whether she plays jazz or classical, she simply says, “yes.”

    Brubeck tells a story about class under Milhaud. Milhaud asked how many jazz players were in the class, and five people raise their hands. Milhaud told them they could write their fugue and counterpoint lessons for jazz.

    Love the story about the old bass from Mozart’s era.

    The problem with cats and cellos is not that cats have no ear for music. (They don’t.) They would find a cello bow to be an irresistible cat toy.

  • Jay

    I agree with Mike F., the $180k one is smoother.

  • janyuary

    Ah … I bet you’re doggone good on that there pyana. You bring joy and healing to listeners, you know. I was weaned on Desmond and Shelly Manne (the drummer) … I like Brubeck’s piano okay but Oscar Peterson (and bass player Nels Henning Orsted Peterson, a pure nuclear monster on double bass!!!!) is sublime … may I recommend pianist Bill Evans. I didn’t get hip to him until I was in my late 30s, and missed out on much. As a woman, I look at Bill Evans’ CDs like shoes: It’s impossible to have too many.

    It’s so intriguing, what you’ve pointed out about classical and jazz. Bill Evans was deeply trained from childhood as a classical player. He describes jazz not as a what, but as a how. And when Miles Davis added him to his jazz combo (Bill Evans is on the legedary “Kind of Blue”), the other players — all black — were pretty ticked. Bill Evans broke a race barrier the other direction.

    I knew a professional studio double-bass player (everyone reading who has listened to movie scores has heard his playing) who, when playing in an amphitheater concert once, discreetly tied a rubber tarantula onto the end of his bow and artfully dangled it over the shoulder of the lady cellist in front of him, just to see how cool she could keep during a crisis in live performance! Cat’s ain’t in it with some bass players!!

  • janyuary

    Diane … my comment above was for you, but forgot to say so! Lucky neighbors you have, to hear you play piano. I have a hunch you’re pretty accomplished, and I bet many readers here are. Science in particular seems to have a lot of amateur (and highly accomplished) musicians in their ranks; look at the makeup of better players in any community orchestra.

  • Diane Wilson

    @janyuary, I was a classical pianist growing up, then didn’t play for decades. Just started again about 4 years ago. I’m just beginning to look at (written) jazz, and trying to play some. Right now it’s Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs. I just got a book of jazz exercises and etudes by Oscar Peterson, and I’m really looking forward to exploring that. Unlike a lot of other “getting started” books on jazz piano, he doesn’t spend pages and pages on theory; he just goes right to the playing. That’s good.

    I agree that jazz is a “how,” not a “what.” It’s like Robert Fripp says about his rock band, that “King Crimson is a way of doing things” and that “when there’s music that only King Crimson can play, King Crimson will be there to play it.” Bill Evans hasn’t really clicked with me so far, but I haven’t given up on him. Pianists that intrigue me right now include Corea, Hiromi, Jason Moran, Ahmad Jamal, Michel Camilo, Erroll Garner, Brubeck, just to name a few.

    Are you familiar with Marilyn McPartland? In addition to being a jazz pianist, she hosted a series of “Jazz Piano Radio Broadcasts” on NPR (yes, NPR is good for something). Some of them are available now on CD, including guests like Bill Evans, as well as Brubeck, Corea, Peterson, and others. These have been tremendously entertaining, and you get to know the musicians as people. I need to get the Bill Evans session soon; it’s been on my list.

    Joe Zawinul was another white pianist who broke the race barrier, playing in Cannonball Adderley’s band in the 50’s, as well as 60’s Miles Davis, before founding Weather Report with Wayne Shorter. Zawinul wrote the title song for one of Adderley’s albums, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

    Love the story about the bass player and his tarantula. I’d love to have seen that!

  • janyuary

    Diane, how I loved Marian McPartland’s show! I was especially delighted when she talked about how jazz was forbidden, being caught playing it was a punishable offense, at schools that taught classical, including her own as a kid, if I remember right! And there she was “hanging” on an internationally broadcast show with such musical reprobates as Oscar Peterson! I didn’t hear every word of her show ever, and didn’t hear every show, but loved what I did hear. Disclaimer: I worked for about ten years in the ’70s – ’80s at an NPR affiliate that had the highest per-capita support of listeners of any public radio station in the US, impressive when it’s understood that the station was located in a rural region of average middle class income. The format was about half jazz, half classical. I should have had a much broader jazz knowledge than I did, but I was also morning drive jazz DJ for about a year there. It was fun.

    However I came away convinced that the placement of public radio stations killed jazz and folk music in a free market. No commercial radio stations had incentive (with some wonderful exceptions, like KKGO in LA) to provide a jazz format; advertisers in average-sized markets who wanted to place service or products in front of those kinds of people, were denied access on the commercial-free “listener supported” government enabled classical and jazz station, although they were welcome to provide underwriting and support. Sure, some listeners took care to patronize the businesses that made listening to the music possible, but at the station were prohibited from talking about what great services, products, that “underwriter” had. So of course jazz, classical, alternative and folks were taken off the menu as profitable formats except in the most condensed metro regions, like Southern California listening pool of 16 million plus from Ventura to San Diego.

    Grrrrr. Government is a very dangerous servant and a fearful master … its dangerous job in a perfect world will be limited to establishing my rights and defending them when they are infringed, and to provide for the common defense. I am inclined to think the phrase “general welfare” was a mistake on the Founders’ part.

    Were you very young when you started playing cello? Is it, or the piano, your navite (first) instrument? Mine was violin, very young, formal piano began a year or two later. I played and practiced piano much in my youth and loved it, played violin only when I had to (often), and never practiced out of indifference. Almost 40 years later, I am passionately in love with my violin and view the keyboard as a mere tool for visualizing the marvelous, lovely theory.

    I too could never play jazz on piano though I tried, and playing jazz or anything else on violin came very easily as a kid. Today … to my utter amazement I find I can play jazz (not well, okay, but it’s jazz) on piano BECAUSE I am not reading music, I am only reading chord progressions, and I never did that as a kid. Funny how age makes old music skills like good wine in life.

    I hope you get a cello just the same!!!!!!

  • Diane Wilson

    Oh, the rant about music and the music industry, government, and culture in general could run for DAYS! I grew up in rural Arkansas, in the Ozarks, where the radio stations had “both kinds of music – country and western!” I never developed the radio habit. This was well before NPR. I did develop a rather eclectic taste in classical because early on, I got exposed to a lot of 20th century classical, and got to play a fair amount of it as well. I was always the one who listened to, and played, the “weird stuff.”

    I started piano at 6, and cello at 8. Then abandoned both when I decided not to go into music as a profession. From limited visibility that I had in Arkansas, it looked like a music career would most likely involve teaching band in high school. There were a lot of possibilities that simply weren’t visible over the horizon, and that’s one thing that technology has certainly changed. I did get to play in a university-level orchestra for a couple of years while in high school, and got to play a lot of amazing music that I would not have learned otherwise. But piano was still my primary instrument.

    I can play piano again only because I discovered that digital pianos let you practice with headphones. My partner likes a quiet house, and doesn’t care for classical music. Jazz is more of a common ground, but she doesn’t want to listen to me practice, so headphones it is, most of the time. You can’t do that with a cello, though, which is another reason for not going with cello. (Also, physical space for storage and practice, cost, the cat menace, etc.)

    So piano it is! My skills have recovered enough to justify a good piano, one that fits the “hybrid” category with a mix of acoustic and digital technology. The keyboard and action are straight off the grand piano production line, but the sound is digital, and Yamaha went to great lengths on this piano to come very close to the “grand piano experience.” Which, by the way, makes it an excellent piano for jazz as well as classical. Yamaha has long been a favorite of jazz pianists.

    You can listen to some of my piano at .

  • janyuary

    Diane — wow. Thank you. Piano-wise it’s hard to decide (I think, though, the Debussy) which I like most, the composers were perfect picks for that discordant kind of classical, grim even at times, so when serene harmonies and resolutions come, they are so much more rich. And I know how difficult that is to play, especially well, and you did that. But I really liked the Bartok and the duet because then I could see the real you, not that it matters! Music is for ears, not really eyes, IMO, but I still like to see sometimes!

    I started violin at 7, piano at 9. You certainly advanced beyond my accomplishments, but basically the same kind of story, my high school orchestra was exceptional, state champions etc., and we toured. We had an unusual teacher some of whose students went on to make great names for themselves musically, mostly in classical. I had zero aspirations to playing classical the rest of my life; we played a wide variety including Bartok, Copland, Philip Glass, as well as standard orchestra and chamber music classics, it wasn’t lack of exposure, we even played Peter Schickele, that’s how far ahead of his time my teacher was in the ’70s! He also encouraged us to explore other areas of music, and exposed us to it as much as possible in concert trips and such.

    I didn’t know then that if I’d wanted to move to L.A. and So Cal, there was constant work [then] in music, if I was good enough, and there was lots of competition. Clients were “the industry,” movies, TV, entertainment. Bach wrote great music, and it was for the church, Beethoven and Mozart wrote for royals; in our lifetime, Capitalism has commissioned some of the best classical music ever written or played!

    On the whole, I’m glad it worked out the way it did and I am reunited with my old friend … well, bigger than the one I played when I was seven, but you know what I mean … it’s something isn’t it, to be able to play so well with an old pal who understands you!

  • Diane Wilson

    @janyuary, thank you for the kind words! Debussy is a new exploration for me; I really enjoy his music in a different way now that I’ve played some of it.

    There is a very real difference in performing for an audience, and recording alone. The camera gives no feedback.

  • janyuary

    I hear ya on lack of feedback, and that you were playing in front of a live audience perhaps made the Debussy all that much more powerful. I am dismayed at things like videos that show the same person duplicated but playing different instruments as if that one person populates a quartet. Technology allows them to do that but necessarily precludes playing, working, crafting, listening and watching with others, in a group, getting feedback and making better music. Today I am improvising solely, and practice by turning on the radio and playing with whatever is on, by ear. It is very good practice but doing the same thing with a live group at jam sessions when I can be in them is totally different.

    Thank you for sharing those videos and I hope you’ll alert when you add more!

  • Diane Wilson

    @janyuary, my Debussy recording had a live “audience” of exactly one, a friend who managed the recording. But it is a powerful piece.

    I completely agree that music written for a group, needs to be performed as a group, just as much as any performance improves with an audience. Music is about communication, once all the practice is done.

    Some musicians are fighting to keep live music going; one of them is the jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara (professionally, she just goes by Hiromi). If you haven’t yet come across her performances, I highly recommend a youtube search, but here is an amazing sample of her collaboration with tap dancer Kazunori Kumagai. .

  • LocalFluff

    It’s been claimed that Stradivari sound better as they age. I wonder how they know what they sounded like in the 18th century? I call BS and see a ridiculous collector investment bubble.

    I’m not a musician. I’ve never had any problem with the sound quality of the instruments (in a Good Friday concert in the local church, I blame the amateurs not the instruments). But the tempo, for baroque music, is almost always waaay too fast. Which is horrible. The musicians seem to compete to end it all as soon as possible and go home. I had links to a conductor who used the original tempo, but Youtube has killed all those multi year old links now.

    Compare this stressful noise:
    With the majestic tempo required, compare the clocks:
    (The best arrangement of Lully’s Te Deum that I know of.)

  • LocalFluff

    The noisy version is about 20% too fast. And there’s no small choir and orchestra required, it is not set up too often. And they waste it to save a few minutes!

    Lully’s Te Deum is by far the best of all Te Deum (God, we praise You). Carpentier’s popular intro is brilliant, but then it is as if he is just doing his homework reluctantly. And by the way, compare Lully’s Te Deum with muslim stone age “music” and tell me which God is actually greater!

  • LocalFluff

    Oh, my first post here waits moderation because I included links. So they should be read in opposite order, I suppose, depending on where the first one finally appears.

  • janyuary

    Diane: Hiromi– HOLY COW!! Man o manichevitz!!!! She awesome and original! I did a little more exploring and found more vids of her. Wow, such incredible familiarity with the critter she’s playing and such natural, comfortable confidence!

    Improvising, pianists at any given time can play ten notes simultaneously, ten choices. Guitarists typically play three to six notes simultaneously. An orchestral instrument, such as a violin, is designed to play two notes max, the bow limited to hitting only two strings at a time.

    The orch beast player has by far the easier job improvising as he/she only has to choose two notes. And unlike the piano or guitar, without even moving one’s hand up and down the neck, the violinist has directly underfinger, in an area averaging a little more than an inch wide by five inches long, 29 individual tones (30 if one stretches the little finger a bit more); the same octave range would require two and a half octaves of piano real estate, and the guitar I know is wider, and I think requires a lot of moving the hand up and down the neck. Violins (and violas … I want one …) are unique.

    I am coming to realize that many an illiterate musician masters theory (I love the Milhaud ref, to jazz players writing their own lessons on fugues and counterpoint … it explains a lot of things for me, a Bach freak) without recognizing it as theory.

    I am so glad to have met you here, Diane. I look forward to more music on your vimeo page.

  • janyuary

    Local Fluff — excellent point about the tempo and orchestra size for baroque music. Big orchestras are better advised to play something else. My multi-lingual teacher from Tbilisi told us kids that “baroque” meant “odd shaped pearl,” and that baroque was best played as chamber music, small intimate groups. ALWAYS at a stately tempo, but he often also reminded us, when we got draggy, that baroque represented a whole new era of optimism and enlightenment, discovery, even happiness allowed where it was squelched before, and should be played thus.

    I’d be inclined to agree with you about the “collector investment bubble”, except I absolutely believe what I hear with my ear even if it conflicts with skepticism. I have heard/seen first-hand demonstrated often enough now, how well-made instruments that are old, sound fundamentally better (tone, richness, expression) than well-made instruments that are new. The skill of the player is the most important, though, you sure got that right!

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