“Wisdom comes with winters”
The transformation of season for many is a long-awaited relief to the scorching sun of summer. However, as we reach for our warm coats and pumpkin spice lattes, as string players we should also be reaching for instrument humidifiers and be actively checking the temperature for our instruments. Without proper winter care of violins, violas, cellos, and other string instruments, we may unintentionally damage the integrity of our instrument. It is imperative that we are wise about our string instruments as the winter season descends upon us. Below is a list of the winter dangers to your instrument how to to best mitigate and protect it.
Strings instruments are hygroscopic, which means that they readily take up and retain moisture. The colder the air, the less moisture air can carry. 100% humidity occurs when the air reaches it’s limit on how much moisture it can retain. Only by increasing the air temperature can the air hold more moisture.
Thus, the change in temperature directly affects the humidity of the various places you take your string instrument. The fluctuation in humidity is what becomes dangerous to your instrument. A string instrument will expand or contract depending on the humidity of the environment. When we take our instruments from a warm building to cold air, we are providing a real shock to our fiddle.
Because string instruments are made out of wood, there is not consistent uniformity to the composition of the instrument. The microscopic cellular structure of the tree varies along the individual pieces of wood. This affects how the individual piece of wood will expand and contract. Additionally, different types of trees contracts and expands at variable rates. The back of the violin is usually made of maple and the top is made of spruce. The multiple factors of expansion and contraction of individual instruments makes it essential that you monitor the humidity for your string instrument.
What can you do to help prevent a problem? Many musicians use a humidifier called Dampit, which is a small tube that is placed in the F hole of your instrument. It is an inexpensive protection for your instrument and simple to use. A humidifier for your house can also be a good investment to protect your string instrument if your home is frequently dry. Although there is some disparity among experts on the exact humidity level, string instruments are at their most comfortable state from around 30%-60% humidity. However, as you humidify your instrument, be careful to not go to the other extreme and over humidify which can also damage your instrument.
Cracks & Splits
Watch for small cracks that may appear along the seams of your instrument. The glue in the joints is susceptible to the winter conditions. You may see the instrument spilt apart at the seams. You will certainly hear it if it does! If you find a crack developing along a seam get it to a luthier as soon as possible. Do not play on your instrument as soon as you realize that the seams have split! This can cause more damage. The sooner you are able to get it fixed, the less traumatic it is for your instrument.
Although not as common as humidity issues, certain extreme temperatures can damage your instrument. For example, leaving your instrument in the car in the winter or underneath an airplane (whatever the season) is quite dangerous. Under no circumstances ever let your instrument be checked underneath an airplane! I often tell my students that their instrument is a baby and to a point should be treated as such. Just as you would not leave a baby in the car during the winter in any situation, do not leave your string instrument in the car where temperatures can often become the extreme of outside temperature. It may seem like a trivial matter to leave your violin in the car for an hour, but you are causing real strain on your instrument.
The weather will affect the tuning of your instrument. Continuous tuning can start to pull your bridge from its upright position towards the fingerboard. It is important to check your bridge daily to make sure that it is not slanting in the wrong direction or your bridge may become warped or suddenly snap in half. A massive change in temperature can make your pegs shift so much that the strings will completely lose their tension. The result can be that either your bridge or sound post either move or fall over. The position of the sound post, even miniscule, can greatly affect the sound of your
instrument. It controls the timbre of the sound and can affect the response time. If your violin suddenly does not sound the same, or has an almost muted quality to it, it may be that your sound post has shifted. In the case of a moved or fallen sound post, always take it to the luthier to fix.
Changes to the Bow
It is also imperative that you monitor the tension of your bow. The hair on the bow can contract and create a lot of tension. Add in the lights of a stage, you can have a real catalyst for danger for your bow. One great down bow can cause your bow head to snap. (The author has experienced such a catastrophe!)
Life happens and sometimes your violin can get cold even if you are working diligently to keep it protected. If your instrument case is cold to the touch, wait before you open your case. Your instrument case can be your greatest line of defense for your instrument. Let the instrument case warm up to room temperature before opening it. After it has warmed up, open up your case and let the instrument feel the new temperature of the room. Once your instrument has adjusted to the temperature, only then attempt to tune or play your instrument. Do not attempt to tune your violin if the wood is cold to the touch.
After reading this article, you may become terrified to ever take your string instrument out of your case at all this winter. But have no fear! Prevention and wisdom about your instrument is the key to protecting your string instrument. If you provide a little extra TLC for your string instrument during the colder months, you should have another pleasant season of music.
About the Author...
Sophie Genevieve is an American violinist, earning her master’s degree in Baroque violin at the Royal Academy of Music, London and a master's degree in modern violin from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London. In addition to her UK studies, Ms. Genevieve studied at the Starling-Delay Symposium at the Juilliard School of Music in NYC and l’Académie du Domaine Forget in Québec, Canada. She has appeared in various concerts, including a performance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelle (Brussels, Belgium), a four-violin concerto solo with Laurence Cummings at the Duke’s Hall (London), and a concerto on a Landolfi violin on loan from the National Music Museum (USA), Royal Festival Hall (London), Wigmore Hall (London), St. Martin-in-the-Fields (London), Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles (Brussels, Belgium), Holland Performing Arts Center (Omaha), le Salle Françoys-Bernier (Québec), and the Kennedy Center (Washington D.C.). In London, she was part of the celebrated Kohn Foundation Bach Cantata Series, which is highly reviewed by the London Times. She appeared live on the radio internationally, including on the BBC (UK) and on KVNO (Omaha). Sophie was a founding member of the Keats String Quartet in London, which performed extensively across the UK and frequently at Cambridge University, accompanying various Cambridge college choirs. She was a member of the early music group, Risonanti, which was the only ensemble in the United Kingdom to perform early Italian music solely at high pitch (A=465). Due to the technical demands and historical integrity of the music, Risonanti’s repertoire included many manuscripts that have not been performed for hundreds of years. Ms. Genevieve also enjoys playing the viola and trumpet.