Photo: Nikolaj Lund
As a piano student, I took the competition, master class, and piano exam route, which meant my main concern was learning to adjust to whatever instrument was available on site, and making adjustments very quickly upon the first few notes. That is the life of a pianist – jiving with a strange instrument, and sometimes not having access to practise when you’re on the road. It wasn’t until I befriended some string players in university that I learned about what THEY went through – the search for the perfect instrument, and finding the means to borrow or purchase it. Then there were other things, like carrying it around, and not losing it (like the 1999 incident when an exhausted Yo-Yo Ma left his cello, worth nearly 3 million US, in the back of a New York City cab. He got it back the same day). It seemed like a search for a soul mate, and once you find it, it’s precious cargo you must keep an eye on. It’s a foreign concept to this former piano student whose worst nightmare may be a distractingly squeaky pedal.
I spoke with a few musicians in this five-part series all week, about the trials and tribulations of finding “the one”. For the third of this five-part series, I chatted with cellist Cameron Crozman, a lovely, super-polite musician I had the pleasure of chatting with extensively in the back of a van as we were shuttled from Montreal to Orford last summer. (He speaks fluent French, too.)
Finding the right instrument isn’t a matter of walking into a store, trying a few out, and buying one. There’s more to it than that. What’s involved when finding the right instrument?
It can actually be a pretty intense process, which can take a lot of time, sometimes years. To start, there’s the debate between purchasing an older instrument or commissioning a modern instrument. Modern makers do exceptional work these days and are almost always a safe bet, but I think that there is still something magical about an older instrument. I’ve always found it interesting how strings are the only family in which older instruments are not only still used, but are actually coveted! Then it really comes down to personality, and luck. You need to find the instrument that has the feel, sound, and comfortability that you’re looking for, which isn’t always obvious to find. Sometimes it involves traveling to many different cities and trying out instruments in different shops. In the end, I still believe that there is an element of luck, and of being in the right place in the right time. Of course, then there is the question of price, and with many old Italian Instruments going for over a million dollars, it adds a whole other layer of complication. But if you find something that you think that you can spend the rest of your life playing, then you find a way to make it work.
When did you realize the instrument you used as a student would not be adequate for a concert performing career?
It honestly wasn’t until I spent some time with a really fine instrument. I’m extremely lucky to have had the loan of the ca. 1696 “Bonjour” Stradivarius cello from the Canada Council for the Arts Instrument Bank over the past three years. Before that I played on a modern instrument by Canadian maker Christopher Sandvoss, which I was and still am very attached to since it was made for me and I had known Chris for quite some time since he is my first cello teacher’s husband. Because of this, I was always a bit reluctant to move to something else, but after a couple months playing on the Bonjour, I was home for Christmas, pulled out my cello to see what it felt like, and was immediately aware of the difference. I still feel a little bad for my cello though; being compared to a Strad isn’t really fair!!
It almost sounds like you were “cheating” on your cello! Do you have different instruments for different concerts or even different pieces within the same concert program? Or just one that you use for everything? I sound like I’m asking about winter tires vs. all-weather tires.
I haven’t ever used more than one instrument for a concert, but I like the idea! I do think that certain instruments are better suited to certain repertoire. I’m actually using an affordable cello, made in China, for one of my current projects, a premiere this June in Paris of a new work for cello and live electronics with dance. For the electronics, we have to attach a bunch of microphones to the body of the instrument and the composer wants a lot of the sounds to be made from running my hands and nails across the body of the instrument – not something you’d want to be doing on a Strad! So the inexpensive instrument actually works really well for what it needs to do.
So you’ve answered my question already about being loaned a valuable instrument that you must return. Think it’ll feel like a break-up of sorts …?
I have the “Bonjour” Stradivarius on loan, but I still have a couple of months before I have to return it to the Bank. I think it goes without saying that it won’t be a particularly fun experience to let it go.
Like batteries, the bow is not included with the instrument. Is that a whole other search altogether?
For sure! I once had an expert tell me that the bow can make a plus or minus 20% difference in the sound production, so you definitely want to find the right one. Each person has their own tastes with bows, heavy or light, supple or firm, etc. In my experience, playing on a great bow is one of the most amazing feelings, you truly feel like it’s just an extension of your arm and that it can react instantly to anything you want to do.
Tomorrow: bassoonist Michael Sweeney