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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Our next story is about a man who makes an instrument that you've probably never heard. It's played by hundreds of musicians but only behind closed doors.

He is a civil engineer who never thought much of his own musical talents. NPR's Andrea Hsu has his story.

Mr. ERNEST NUSSBAUM: So anyhow, this is my factory.

ANDREA HSU: Ernest Nussbaum's one-car garage reveals a lifetime of activity. There are rakes and leather suitcases, also a drill press, a band saw and a wall of woodworking tools, things the 82-year-old amateur cellist needs to make his Prakticello.

(Soundbite of music)

HSU: Three decades ago, Ernest Nussbaum had an idea: What if you had a cello that you could take apart and pack into a box, something you could take on vacation?

Mr. NUSSBAUM: So I thought it would be fun to fool around and see if something could be made of that sort.

HSU: So the man who years earlier designed bridges for the Washington Beltway set out to distill the cello into its essential parts. He began with his own cello, a beautiful instrument built in Vienna in the 18th century.

Mr. NUSSBAUM: All I did was I took that very cello, put it on a big piece of brown packing paper and traced off the areas where it actually touches one's body when one plays.

HSU: Assembled, Ernest Nussbaum's creation looks like something Picasso might have painted in his Cubist period. There are two wooden boards that rest against the chest and knees, four more boards for the long, rectangular frame that is the body. Other things, such as the neck and fingerboard, he purchases and adapts as necessary.

All of the pieces fit inside the body and into a vinyl case, something you might roll up a poster in. It's tiny compared to a regular cello and small enough to put in the overhead compartment on planes.

(Soundbite of music)

HSU: The Prakticello sounds quieter and thinner than a regular cello. There's no body for the sound to resonate through, but it's still audible.

(Soundbite of cello)

Mr. NUSSBAUM: People are usually pleased at the tone quality because they expect it to sound horrible, and then they find it doesn't sound horrible, so that's good.

HSU: Now, it's not something a professional musician would ever play in public, but...

Ms. JANET FRANK (Cellist, National Symphony Orchestra): You can learn a piece of music. You can practice scales. You can practice arpeggios. You can do everything you need to do when you're practicing the cello

HSU: Janet Frank is with the National Symphony Orchestra here in Washington. She's had her Prakticello for more than 20 years. It's gone with her on vacation and on tour.

Ms. FRANK: Well, it's been in China, all over China. It's been in Korea. It's been in Japan, Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark.

HSU: She plays it in hotels when her real cello is being shipped.

Since the early '80s, Nussbaum has sold about 450 Prakticellos to amateurs and professionals. Other buyers include Joel Krosnick of the Juilliard String Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma and Sheri Greening of the Lake Charles, Louisiana, Symphony. This spring, she took hers on a snorkeling trip to Honduras shortly before a wedding gig.

Ms. SHERI GREENING (Cellist, Lake Charles Symphony): So I took this thing down to this little hut on stilts, and I practiced every afternoon. I probably played about three hours a day.

HSU: On the way home, she did have a hiccup at airport security: The strings and end-pin looked suspicious in the X-ray. To complicate matters, she'd packed her undergarments in with the cello parts for extra padding.

Ms. GREENING: So here I am in Honduras in the airport with all of my unmentionables all over the countertop, and I'm pantomiming playing the cello and just having to finally convince them that it wasn't dangerous. They didn't really ever know what it was, but they let me get on the plane anyway.

HSU: Back in his garage, Earnest Nussbaum is starting on another Prakticello. In all it will take about 40 hours to make. Nowadays, he sells them for $1,275; the materials alone cost nearly half that.

Ms. NUSSBAUM: It's an up-and-down business. For two months, I'll hear from nobody and go around moaning and groaning that the business has come to an end. Then I'll get three orders within a week or 10 days.

HSU: So it keeps him busy but not so busy that he doesn't have time for his main hobby: playing chamber music on his regular cello with his friends.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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