Handling Your Instrument and Avoiding Accidents
“A little care and maintenance can go a long way to keeping your instrument in the best shape possible.”
J. L. Harne, luthier/violin maker, instructor, and performing violinist
Violin/Viola: Before addressing your instrument’s care, let’s discuss safety issues regarding rehearsal breaks and the stowing of instruments. I’ve seen players hang their violins on the stand shelf from the scroll. I cannot imagine putting my instrument in such a precarious position while people mill about unaware of the various plausible catastrophes tempting fate. I also see many instruments resting across the chair seats during break. The safest measure to take with your violin/viola when not being played is to put it back in the case. Put it completely away as if readying for travel. The bow should be loosened and tucked safely in place, the shoulder rest removed, the top closed. Avoid the unpredictability of people walking through areas where cases line the walls or are on tables, et cetera. It may seem tedious, but it’s worth it to not have accidents damage your instrument.
While onstage or rehearsing, don’t put your instrument or bow down. Over time, one becomes adept at holding both the violin and bow while managing other tasks. If you need to put your bow down, remain conscious of it. In general, your sense of personal space and body awareness within it is a skill that will keep your instrument from accidents. Typically, when “bows down” is indicated, the bow is placed across the knees or lap; it’s unfair if one player uses the shelf of the music stand. It is inconvenient, and is easily bumped or jostled.
“I joke that we should have a little red flag flashing light attached to the tip of the endpin.” Deidre Vaughn Emerson, cellist/professor/instructor/conductor
Cello: As with the upper strings, it is best to stow the cello when not using it. Place a cello on its side with the endpin in. The endpin is a hazard; someone will trip and all manner of damage can occur. Be aware of those walking near the cello section, and what may be in their path. Make ample room for people to pass around your instrument or arrange with other members of the section to stay with the instruments during breaks. With chairs; only use them if at an outdoor event in which the ground is turf or soil. In such situations, lean your cello on its side so the hook of the bout catches the chair. Bows usually balance on the cello.
Double Bass: Basses tend to lack hard cases. The standard bass cover is typically a gig bag and protects against wet weather; providing options for securing the instrument in its’ environment (via bungie cords, handles, or other creative harnesses bass players come up with). When transporting in a vehicle, the side or shoulders should support the weight of the instrument, not the neck or head. Even with the instrument placed well, drivers need to be vigilant to avoid bumps in the road might which may send the sound post through the back of the instrument. When carrying by hand, have the bass upright with an arm around the back (grasping the rib or case handle), perpendicular to the body. Keep the fingerboard over your shoulder near your neck and angle the bridge towards the “inside” of your grip. In general, know the height of the ceiling (including ceiling fans), be aware of headstock clearance when passing through doorways, and (my favorite), walk upstairs backwards.
“To prevent cracks in the plates, bowed instruments are made to come apart...” J. L. Harne
Inspecting the Instrument
Seams frequently open in the winter when lower humidity causes wood to shrink. Sometimes you will notice that your instrument has a buzz or sounds different. You know your instrument’s temperament best, so when something sounds wrong, it’s prudent to examine it for those problems most likely to cause issues.
Some things to look for are: open seams, cracks, looseness of the fingerboard, chin-rest, pegs, and endpin. If you any of these cause concerns, addressing repairs sooner rather than later increase the chance your luthier will be able to make the necessary repairs without altering the tonal and playability characteristics unique to the instrument. Until you can get your instrument to its’ doctor, do not play it! The vibrations which define our instruments are harmful to them when something is awry.
Here are a few suggestions of how to manage an instrument’s emergency until you can get it to the luthier:
• Place a paper towel under the tailpiece to prevent it from scratching the top of your instrument and then loosen your strings’ tension.
• Avoid touching any open cracks or exposed wood with your fingers. Oil from your hands can make the repair more difficult for your luthier.
• Old injuries which are not actually “open” can cause anxiety; it is difficult to discern between the safely closed and previously repaired inconsistencies unless you have been trained to do so.
The type of crack which elicits horror and distress often occurs on the top of the instrument due to the woods used for the top plate. Carefully determine if the wood is or is not flush (uneven heights on either side of the crack). If the edges are uneven and not flush, you now have an instrument in crisis, and emergency care is called for. However, if you find yourself weeping and wailing in a state of panic and crisis, keep the following words in mind:
“The great thing about violin family instruments is that they are actually made to be repaired. The way our instruments are constructed and the types of glues that are used, means that an experienced luthier can fix just about anything on your instrument, and keep it playing for centuries!”
David Wascher, owner of Nashville Violins LUTHIER CORNER
Words of Advice and Comfort
“Some care and maintenance will require a trip to the luthier. Common repairs (such as gluing seams) are inevitable and should be expected to arise during the life of your instrument.” J. L. Harne
Rosin buildup: This is one of the easiest, cheapest, yet most disregarded preventative measure anyone should incorporate into the ritual of putting an instrument away after use. Both the strings and the instrument collect rosin powder, creating a sticky residue on both the varnish and the strings. I have found the strings easy to clean, despite the degree of neglect. The violin itself is not so simple to clean once it has been repeatedly coated with layers of residue (cleaning fluids and polishes tend to smear the rosin goo around; any more penetrative compound would be possibly unsafe for soft varnishes and older instruments).
“Most commercially available violin cleaners and polishes are fairly safe to use, as long as you don’t have any open seams or cracks, but they can be ineffective at removing old rosin buildup. On instruments with a fragile finish, polish can actually damage the finish.” David Wascher
Wipe down the instrument and strings with a “treated” or untreated microfiber cleaning cloth. Many instruments come with a cloth and rosin in the pocket of the case. Be sure to have several cloths: one for cleaning the strings and one for lightly wiping the surrounding wood. Wash them regularly and find a way to keep track of which is which. It would be unfortunate to clean rosin off the strings only to smear it back onto the instrument
“Some people wear their rosin buildup as a badge of honor, but for the sake of the varnish, this is not the thing to do.” J. L. Harne
Strings: These are a few things to look for when concerned or string life. Turn the violin/viola so that the light hits the string in a way that almost gleams along the edge to see if you see any inconsistencies with the winding (usually around the spot where first or third fingers fall, or at the nut). Sometimes if the string is exposed to a lot of sweat, rapid and repeated climate or environmental inconsistencies, has inappropriate tension placed on it due to problems within the instrument’s setup. The string’s winding or core material will feel strange under the fingers due to various kinds of disintegration as it unravels.
“A way to tell if it is time to change the strings is to look at the E string. This string can turn black and look tarnished when the strings are too old.” J. L. Harne
Bridge: Check the angle of the bridge after you change your stings. Tightening a loose string tends to pull the bridge towards the fingerboard. Your bridge should be centered on the instrument (positioned near the notches of the fholes) and should lean slightly towards the tailpiece; bridge feet should fit the top of the instrument with no visible gaps.
“Once a bridge starts to warp, it will continue warping until it gives out. That could cause cracks or damage to your instrument if it breaks. If your bridge is warped and won’t straighten, get it replaced.” David Wascher
Fine Tuners: Be aware of how close your fine tuners are to the belly of the instrument. When it starts to get too close to the top of the wood under the tailpiece, use the peg to allow the fine tuners reasonable leeway to tune in either direction. Many students are not comfortable tuning with the pegs, so it is important for teachers to keep an eye on this. Make sure you have fine tuners of good quality that are reliable, turn easily and accurately, and do not slip out of their track under the tailpiece, rendering them useless. Student instruments often do not have removable fine tuners that are fitted to the tailpiece. They cannot therefore be individually replaced or removed. These fine tuners are a feature of the tailpiece, built directly into them. As you graduate to finer instruments, at some point, making decisions on the fine tuners becomes a significantly important factor.
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