Case by case: a review of my Accord Standard cello case

After my recent purchases of a new cello and a new bow, I needed a new case to put them in.

My requirements for cases have changed since the last time I bought my Stevenson Original when I was still a graduate student. Even then, I typically bought a second airline ticket for my cello when I was travelling, but I wanted a really something really sturdy in case I couldn’t afford to. Or if I had one of those nasty incidents in which you do buy a ticket but the airline staff won’t let your cello on the plane because of some ever-changing rule about bulkhead seats.*

I digress. I’m good at that. Cases.

My Stevenson case is sturdily made, and built to last. After ten years of use, its latches, hinges, and wheels are still in perfect condition. The “shell” of the case fits together beautifully. It’s super-protective: once, my daughter pushed it over on its nose from a standing position, and my cello not only emerged without a scratch, it didn’t even go out of tune. Nicholas Gold’s recent video of what Southwest Airlines did to his cello illustrates just how great Stevenson cases are at doing their job, even if we cannot say the same for airline employees.**

But there’s a reason I wanted a different kind of case this time around. Ten years ago, I couldn’t afford one of the lightweight models of the Stevenson case, so I got the fibreglass version, which weighs 8.7 kilograms, or 19.2 pounds. Add a cello, and that’s a lot of weight to be lugging around on planes and trains. If you’re a person with long, skinny, non-muscular arms, it’s murder to wheel around for more than ten minutes. Also, its bulk makes it hard to get into the backseat of my not-exactly-small Ford Fusion, which it has to share with a toddler car seat, and more often than not, an outraged toddler.

So I was in the market for a new case.

My new requirements:

  • It must be lightweight, so that I can carry it on my back. No wheels necessary, although I would consider them.
  • It mustn’t have junky hinges and latches that I may not be able to replace.
  • Furthermore, it must have at least five latches, so that if one breaks, it doesn’t make the whole case unusable. I’ve seen a few cases with as few as one to three latches, which is just asking for trouble.

As always when purchasing new equipment, I asked over 20 cellist friends for reviews and recommendations. On the strength of their experiences, the cases I considered were:

  • The Accord Standard case, 2.8 kg or 5.8 lbs (I didn’t consider the Ultralight, which is even lighter, after several reliable sources told me the shell was so thin that it became rather flimsy over time)
  • The Brack cello case, 3.5 kg or 7.7 lbs
  • The BAM Hightech, 2.9 kg or 6.4 lbs
  • The Musilia S3, 2.5 kg or 5.5 lbs

All of them had various pluses and minuses. I dropped the BAM from consideration almost immediately, because I’d had BAM cases in the past and there was always some issue with the latches, and the shell on the model I had never fitted together properly without a lot of fiddling and coaxing. Unless BAM are making much better cases than they were five years ago when I last used one of their products, I wasn’t going there.

The Brack had the best appearance, in my opinion, and I heard that the latches are modular (i.e. if they break you can simply buy identical ones from the manufacturer and fit them yourself), but it was the heaviest of the cases I considered, which is why I dropped it from the list too.

The Musilia seemed to be most popular with young students, whether or not this is because of the dazzling range of colours it comes in. This ended up coming second with me: I bought the Accord Standard in 3-D Blue. After much shopping around, I was offered a brilliant deal by Meilin and Steve Koscica at String Emporium in Arizona, and they threw in free five-day shipping too. Big win!

Stevenson and Accord cases side by side

Stevenson and Accord cases side by side

This is a picture of my Accord Standard case next to my Stevenson, so you can see just how tiny it is. The first thing I noticed was that the Accord is a little wobbly on its bearings when standing upright on carpet, compared to the completely stable Stevenson. Of course, that’s partly because it’s smaller and lighter.

The Accord Standard is certainly lightweight, which is of course what I bought it for. The latches—there are seven—seem fine, as do the hinges.

The Accord Standard bow holding strap

The Accord Standard bow holding strap

However. Then there was this. The bows are held in with a strap that’s fastened with a sort of industrial-strength snap, the kind you’d find on a denim jacket. OK, they keep your bow in place, but they’re annoyingly hard to unfasten and refasten one-handed, and have caused me to reorder my usual ritual of getting my equipment in and out of the case. In my Stevenson case, the bows are held in with some high-grade velcro, which works extremely well when you take your bow out first and put it away first, as I do. After a certain amount of messing about trying to fasten the snap with one hand while pressing against the top shell of the case with my right leg, I eventually gave up my old methods and started getting my cello out first and putting it down before getting out the bow, then putting my cello away first after playing, and my bow second.

Interior compartment of the Accord Standard case

Interior compartment of the Accord Standard case

Which was just as well, because then there was this.

Now, all cello cases have a little bag for storing your rosin and a cloth. On my Stevenson case, it’s inside the top shell of the case, opposite where the scroll of the cello would go. There’s no fastener—it’s simply held together with strong, stretchy elastic under the fabric, so that you can reach in and out with one hand. The pocket of the Musilia S3, by contrast, is in the space next to where the C-bout of the cello would go—an ingenious location, I thought.

In the picture, you can see that the pocket in the Accord Standard is in the lower shell of the case, under where the scroll of the cello goes. It is held shut by a piece of velcro, and for reasons I do not understand, it opens upside down. This is lunacy. First off, you have to take your cello out if you want to get at your rosin, and that’s annoying, because rosining your bow is a two-handed activity, and you can’t do it if you’re holding a cello, so the cello has to go back in while you rosin up.

Secondly, if you take the cello out and fumble one-handed at the compartment, your rosin falls out because the compartment is upside down.

Thirdly, the compartment is barely usable anyway, because if you put too many things in it, you can’t fit the cello in the case properly because it’s in the way of the scroll. I figured out a way to get the rosin in comfortably by pushing it to one side, but I still can’t even get a cloth in there. I solved this problem by storing my cloth under the fingerboard of the cello, but it’s still irritating. Now, I don’t want to jam everything but the kitchen sink into my case’s compartment—I can deal with not being able to store spare strings or endpin solutions—but you do kind of expect that you can keep rosin and a cloth in a cello case, don’t you?

And there’s one more thing. Unlike other cases I’ve had, where the two halves of the shell fit together effortlessly, the Accord Standard needs quite a lot of wiggling to close it, unless you lay the case flat on its back to put the cello away, which is annoying, and requires that the surface you’re laying it on is clean.*** The carbon fiber seems oddly bendy for something that’s supposed to be so strong, and I’ve already managed to scratch the finish. (The Accord website informs me that I can fix this by applying car wax to it, so I shall try this.)

Am I going to send the case back and try something else? No. It does all the things I wanted it to do, and it’s certainly as light as a feather. But for over two thousand dollars, you kind of expect the makers to have solved a few problems that seem rather obvious to me. I might try a Brack or Musilia next time.

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* I promise to write a tell-all memoir about airlines and cellos one day, naming names. United Airlines employee Melanie P., I’m talking about you. That thing you did, where you wouldn’t let my cello on the 10:29 a.m. flight, and made me spend my entire thirtieth birthday in Minneapolis-St. Paul airport waiting for the 11:39 p.m. aircraft that had what you considered the right kind of seat for my cello? I haven’t forgotten.

**I’m still talking about you, Melanie.

***Which is not a given, unless your gigs typically have much cleaner backstage venues than mine do.

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Outsmarting the TSA: a review of my new Coda Diamond GX bow

The frog of my Coda Diamond GX bow

The frog of my Coda Diamond GX bow

The life of a travelling cellist isn’t easy. Since 9/11, it’s really been impossible to check your instrument with luggage in the hold of an aircraft, because you can have virtually no control over its safety, so you have to buy a second seat for the cello, usually at colossal expense. Even then, this is no guarantee that either you or your cello will be allowed on board, since the rules about where the cello may sit vary by airline, aircraft model, and the capricious whims of the staff.

Even new rules for taking instruments on planes don’t entitle your cello to a safe passage on its own ticket. Two years ago, Alban Gerhardt had a valuable bow broken by careless TSA employees at Washington Dulles Airport. This month, Southwest Airline baggage handlers broke Nicholas Gold’s cello and his virtually ironclad Stevenson case by using an alarming level of force, as demonstrated in this video.

You really can’t win with these transportation people. Their latest act of blatant philistinism has been the confiscation of any instruments or bows that have material from endangered species on them, including elephant ivory. Mere days after announcing that bows and instruments containing small amounts of ivory that had been purchased before February 25, 2014 would be allowed through U.S. Customs, the TSA confiscated bows from seven violinists of the Budapest Festival Orchestra at JFK Airport, even though the players all possessed documentation for the bows.

Now, even if I think the above incidents are sheer madness on the part of the TSA, I’m all for discouraging the ivory trade. But here’s my problem. I have a beautiful and valuable nineteenth-century English bow that has ivory on it. Ivory, and pernambuco, and mother-of-pearl. It is my pride and joy, and has carried me through many successful auditions and competition wins. It also has no papers. There is no maker’s stamp on the frog. No expert I’ve shown it to has been able to identify its maker. I can’t document anything about this bow.

Can I have the endangered materials removed from my bow? With the exception of the pernambuco stick, yes, and I plan to do so soon. But this whole business has me sufficiently spooked that I haven’t taken it out of the country for two years, relying instead on a less satisfactory bow made without controversial materials. Which is, by the way, dismal. I took this second bow on a recent tour to the French Riviera and Catalonia, and I was very dissatisfied with its capacity for attacks, articulations, and note shapes. I couldn’t make the phrases I wanted, and this put me into a frustrated rage.

These feelings, combined with the fact that I’d just bought a Luis & Clark carbon fiber cello, led me to look into getting a carbon fiber bow too. There are several makers, and I looked into all of them, trying out their different models and pestering the manufacturers with all my questions. The one I settled on was from Coda’s Diamond Collection.

The GX model, Coda’s website explains, doesn’t have any endangered materials on it; in fact, the only parts of it that came from an animal are the Moroccan goat skin tip plate (are Moroccan goats superior to goats of other nations?) and the “Gold Medal Stallion Hair.” (And to think I’d thought all these years that bow hair came from the tails of unicorns! Life has so many disappointments.)

At first, I wasn’t sure what differentiated the GX model from the much-cheaper SX, even when I was trying them, but when I called Coda, a very helpful cellist employee spent half an hour on the phone with me, discussing her own experiences with both models. Now, of course she was going to say that she liked the GX better, since she works for the company, but after more playing around, I concluded she was right to prefer the GX.

When I’m trying out a bow, I want the following things: a sensitive attack that doesn’t require me to have to work too hard to produce tone on the lower strings; the ability to sustain a long, singing phrase; and the “bounce” that will enable me to play short bowstrokes such as the uncontrolled spiccato, chains of upbow staccatos, and so on. Strong and sensitive…it sounds like the hero of a romance novel.

To find out all the things I want to know, I try the bow out on excerpts from the following pieces, which tell me a lot about what a bow can do.

  • Schubert, “Arpeggione” Sonata, first movement: what’s its legato like? Can I get around the difficult bow distribution issues on the A string without making ungainly “lumps” and “holes” in my sound?
  • Prokofiev Sonata, first movement, first theme: can I make a big sound (Prokofiev instructs us to be piena voce, or “full voice”) on the C strings?
  • Same piece, second theme: can I make a dolce tone on the A and D strings to contrast with the majestic opening?
  • Beethoven, Sonata in A major op. 69, first movement: can I get a sensitive, stylistically appropriate tone for the opening solo on the G string?
  • Elgar, Cello Concerto, second movement: can I get the bow to “bounce” with relative ease?
  • …and as always, many movements from the Bach suites, to get an idea of whether it can sing and dance the way this music, the cellist’s lifelong challenge, requires.

In all respects, the Coda Diamond GX bow performed almost as well as my cherished wood bow, and definitely better than any wood bow of a comparable price. (After extensive shopping around, the best deal I could find the week I bought the Coda Diamond GX was from Shar Music for $913.50 plus free shipping.) Is it going to replace my wood bow in my concerts and my affections? No. It doesn’t have the same capacity for sweetness. It also lacks it swan-like beauty, even if the carbon fiber weave has its own charms. But it’s going to accompany me on all my international travels from now on, and hopefully make it safely home too.

The way of the future? A review of my new Luis & Clark cello

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Playing my Luis & Clark cello at home

Over ten years ago, when I was a graduate student at UT-Austin, I met the Boston Symphony cellist Luis Leguia, who had come to make a compact disc recording with our university symphony. He brought with him a prototype of a cello made from a very strong, very light kind of polymer reinforced with carbon fibers. He explained to his eager audience and our professor that he’d had the idea for the cello after noticing how light and durable fiberglass boats were. Together with Steve Clark, an expert in carbon fiber and boatbuilding, he’d invented this intriguing instrument. (This video shows how they make them.) He generously let all of us play it, while we oohed and aahed over its huge tone, quick response, and charmingly space-age appearance.

I must admit, I’d been pining on and off for a Luis & Clark cello ever since this encounter, but a number of things prevented me from buying one. The chief reason was that soon after my doctoral graduation, I co-founded the Tasman String Quartet, where we had the privilege of loaned instruments, so there was less need for me to buy a cello.

After I left the quartet in 2010 for my current position as a cello professor at the University of Idaho, it became obvious to me that my own cello, which I’d had since my undergraduate years, wasn’t going to be adequate for my needs. I tried to find instrument foundations and sponsors who might help me with acquiring a better instrument, but I appeared to be too old and too employed to receive priority consideration for any of them.

The Cello Problem, as I call it—the fact that any wood cello I like seems to cost a six-figure sum, which is an irresponsible level of debt to take on when you have a family—bothered me for some time until I remembered Mr. Leguia and his robotic-looking cello. I called Luis & Clark and spoke to Stephanie Leguia, his wife. She patiently answered my dozens of questions—could I request a custom order? (Yes, but she didn’t recommend it, because then you couldn’t return it.) Could a regular luthier make repairs to the bridge and soundpost? (Yes.) What kind of strings worked best on it? (Jargar Forte on the A, a medium-gauge Jargar on the D, Spirocore Tungsten on the lower two; don’t use Larsens because they make the wolf tone worse.) What kind of endpins did they use? (Incredibly sharp carbon fiber ones: don’t cut yourself!)—and I thought and procrastinated a while longer.

Then I called my friend Rachel Johnston, who’d had a Luis & Clark cello for years, and she raved about it. “The only problem with them,” she said, “was that you’ll never want to go back to playing a wood cello.” This woman, by the way, used to play on a Guadagnini.

Then my husband said “Look, this is just silly. I know you never make spontaneous decisions, but you’ve wanted one of these for a decade, and they cost barely more than seven thousand dollars, as opposed to a cello that costs as much as our house. Just get one already.”

So I called Mrs. Leguia and said I’d like one, and the next day (free next-day shipping!) it arrived in a coffin-shaped cardboard box.

Once I’d freed it from its bonds, I found that the cello was perfectly in tune, even after its 2,800 mile journey from Boston to Idaho. I played one note, using the kind of arm weight I’d normally use for pianissimo on a wood cello, and this giant resonance sang out of it like a…like a…like a nightingale. I have barely put it down since.

I’d initially thought I’d reserve my virtually indestructible carbon fiber cello for playing new music, since my wood cello really can’t take some of the extended techniques I want to inflict upon it. But when I started playing all my repertoire on it, I realized it actually worked brilliantly for solo Bach and continuo playing, two of my top activities as co-artistic director of the Idaho Bach Festival. The Luis & Clark cello has a kind of hollowness to the resonance that can sound almost like a viola da gamba when you play it with a Baroque bow and minimal vibrato, and this can blend beautifully with a harpsichord.

At the same time, it can also stand up to a concert grand piano. I experimented with a pianist friend last week, and found that she could play with an unreservedly huge sound without drowning me out, even in densely chordal repertoire. The balance problems that plague cellists in the big Romantic sonatas–Brahms, Franck, Rachmaninoff and so on–are more or less non-existent when you use a Luis & Clark cello.

I have long arms and, after many years of experimenting with logical ways to play the cello, don’t experience pain when playing, so I can’t comment on Mr. Leguia’s claim that the smaller size and ergonomic shape of his creation can prevent injury. But I can say that it’s much less of an effort to make a projecting tone. It’s true that I’ve had to adjust my technique in several ways to accommodate the different resonance of the instrument, and one thing I haven’t quite figured out yet is how to get the kind of soft-edged Impressionistic pianissimo you need for, say, the Debussy sonata. I’m working on it, however.

Two weeks in, I’m completely converted, and so are my college students, who beg me to let them play it. The more I think about this, the more I feel quite strongly that these instruments are the way of the future for any young cellist who isn’t from a financially privileged family. The market for fine wooden instruments is, in many ways, a complete racket, with the top Italian instruments becoming so expensive only millionaires can afford them–and musicians themselves only getting to play them on sufferance, since the millionaires would rather lock their investments up in vaults. I often read the memoirs of musicians from the mid-twentieth century, when it was still possible to buy a wonderful old instrument for a reasonable sum. Those days are gone. Cellists are now winning international competitions on carbon fiber instruments. It seems like everyone’s got one.

Is the Luis & Clark cello better than a $2,000,000 Stradivarius? Of course not. But you’re also not going to mortgage your family’s future buying one, and they’re one heck of a substitute for one of those $100,000 wood instruments I used to long for. Their enormous, powerfully beautiful tone fills up a concert hall. You can safely check them in the hold of an aircraft without fear that the airline will pulverize them. They don’t go bananas when the weather is hot or dry or damp. You don’t have to worry about scratching them.

I still have questions, such as whether their value decreases the minute you get them out of the case, the way a car’s does when you drive it out of the dealership. What will happen to the resale value if the technology, materials, or manufacturing methods change? What happens if a larger company buys the business one day?

This is all academic for me right now, because I see my Luis & Clark cello as a tool of my trade more than as an investment. I don’t intend to sell it at any point in the foreseeable future. Why? Because you’d have to pry this thing out of my cold, dead hands.