Featured Article, May 2019

Cello Chat at Potter Violins

If you have attended any of the past Cellospeak workshops, you will surely know Potter Violins, a company that has been a benefactor of Cellospeak for many years. The company was founded by Dalton Potter, whose reputation as expert of string instruments spans more than 30 years. He dedicated his business to the notion that one can succeed in life by helping others to succeed. After two decades in Bethesda, Maryland, Potter’s found its new home in the historic Blair Mansion in Takoma Park, Maryland. It is delightful to visit this new store, which is run by musicians for musicians, and which includes 12,000 square feet of showrooms, large work spaces for luthiers, a sheet music library, repair counters for cellos, violas and violins, and a large recital hall. Potter’s also has an extensive nationwide rental program.

Everyone at Potter’s is either a professional string player or teacher. Many of you have met Louis Roberts, whose deep knowledge of music and everything related to cello we trust. He represents the company during Cellospeak’s Ensemble Workshop and has manned the Potter’s vendor table for the past several years. You may have also noticed him tucked into the last row of the Cello I Section during cello choir rehearsal or as a regular at the late night sight-reading sessions in Goodhart Hall at Bryn Mawr. We had the opportunity to sit down with Louis and discuss many topics that are of interest to amateur cellists. Here are some excerpts from our Cello Chat.

How do you help a cellist choose an instrument?

Louis tries to find out what musicians are looking for in a cello. Are they looking for a specific sound, one that they are familiar with, or do they look for a cello that they want to “grow into”? Louis mentioned that his role is “to help cellists figure out what speaks to them and what will help them achieve their voice.” He notes that since music is such an emotional force, he needs to be very sensitive and non-judgmental. We call him a Matchmaker!

How can you help someone who considers buying a new bow?

Finding a bow is mainly about the preferences of the player, how the bow feels, the balance, and what best works with the cello. Louis is able to help you identify what you strive to achieve – or change – with a new bow. You need to take into consideration how, what, and where you play.  If you have a preference in regard to bow weight – whether it be an overall lighter bow, or one with a heavier tip – be open to trying out bows with a less familiar feel. Also listen to how the bow sounds when someone else plays with it.

What advice do you have regarding strings, and how do you know when you need new strings?

Once again it is all about sound quality. Do you want a brighter sound or a darker one? Do you need to project, or do you strive for a chamber sound? Even the type of bridge has an effect on the string; sometimes a French bridge needs a brighter string, and a Belgian bridge might require a warmer string. As strings age, their sound gradually becomes tinny and whiny, and the strings may not respond as well. This is most noticeable on the A-string. While it depends on a number of variables, you may want to think about replacing your strings approximately every year. Ideally all of them, like a set of car tires.

How do you know when a bow needs to be rehaired?

The common perception is that as the bow hair wears out it is less resilient. Louis explained how most players put uneven pressure on the stick and the hair. Some play with the all the hair flat on the strings, others tilt their bow a bit, which stretches the hair unevenly. Of course it depends how much the cellist is using the bow, but over time, bow hair will become yellow and brittle and needs to be replaced.

Given these complexities, it can be daunting for an amateur cellist to select a cello, a bow, or even strings. Louis encourages all cellists to trust their senses, to listen and to hear the differences in sound quality and timbre, and to ask questions. More than the expertise that Louis provides, visitors to Potter’s welcome his sensitive, encouraging and non-judgmental manner. Louis is also passionate about helping musicians find out more about the repertoire available for cellists – which he says is vast and not nearly as limited as many believe. We look forward to having him share some of these musical discoveries at Cellospeak this summer!

As the Coda of our Cello Chat, we would like to thank Louis Roberts for spending the afternoon talking cello with us. We also thank Potter Violins for being a Cellospeak Benefactor, notably Dalton Potter and Jim Kelly for their long-time support of the Cellospeak workshops.

Agnes Manley and Eileen Street
Cellospeak Board Members

Sign up here to receive our newsletter!