Protecting Your Instrument – Part Two

Mike Lawson • String Section • April 7, 2017

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Expenses quickly accrue to levels not all musicians’ families can manage; it is probably the most obvious of factors cited again and again by those who discontinue serious study.

Progression and advancement on an instrument can be financially daunting. Sometimes, frankly, it is impossible for some families to manage their child’s instrumental and musical financial needs.

Substantial expenses are a natural aspect of seriously pursuing professionalism and success. Regardless of if the goal is career oriented, the tools of the trade are usually integrated and paced by the instructor to make the burden more manageable (making it likely your student will continue lessons!); but still, it is painful to observe the lack of resources available to many students (especially those whose musical education relies solely upon what public school orchestras must work with). I would like to share some less expensive alternatives that I have found useful. For this article, I will primarily focus on instrumental care and playability.

Temperature and Climate Control

Instead of purchasing hygrometers and humidifying products to control the environment inside one’s case, I like this “two-in-one” solution:

Most grocery stores stock baby carrots; a handful of these can be put into a snack or sandwich-sized Ziploc baggie. Poke or cut small holes in the baggie to let out moisture. When you notice the carrots starting to look shriveled up, they need to be replaced.

As to where in the case one should place the bag of carrots, that is something that will vary with case design and shape. I have used a strip of black Gorilla duct tape, attaching to the topside of my accessories pocket. Tape tends to lose its’ adhesive quality with fabrics generally used inside cases; but it is adequate. You may get a bit of sticky residue after several swap-outs, but it is not much more than if you discontinue and remove commercial case humidifiers. Another option is to use Velcro. Purchase a long role and snip off a new strip with each baggie; be sure to get the kind that has adhesive backing.

Using Graphite:

• As weather changes, pegs may get stuck or become too tight to effectively tune.

Instead of buying “peg dope” (which looks a bit like a tube of lipstick), you can use soft graphite. Woodless graphite pencils (4B-8B are best, but any lead above 2B) will effectively “grease” bands around the pegs where they fit into the peg box. If instructors or public school teachers have one of each of these pencils in their studios or classroom, it can be on hand to as needed or as a class lesson. The featured items were purchased at Michael’s Crafts. They are sold individually.

Graphite can also be used to lubricate the grooves in the nut so the strings can more easily adjust to tuning and tension. Shaping the tip into a wedge works best. If applicable, one might also apply graphite to the string grooves on the bridges of celli and bass.

The same graphite is useful to mark the position of the bridge’s feet for reference directly following setup adjustments done by a Luthier (slight changes of bridge positioning can alter the instrument’s timbre and tension). Accidental bridge movement occurs after or while changing the strings or from any other alterations involving strings or the bridge. Incorrectly placed bridge feet can put too much weight on a spot in which the sound post and bass barr are unequipped to manage the added tension.

Instrument Set-Up

• Cosmetic powder “puff” applicators come in various sizes and shapes. The large, thick round ones are great for making comfortable adjustments to the way in which the instrument settles on the body. Placed between the shoulder rest and the elastics that secure them, they become tools of adjustment for the angle, alignment, and tilt of the violin.

Undue tilt negatively affects the students’ posture; compromising proper use of the neck, head, upper body, and the four major arm positions (especially the “E” string angle). Generally, I instruct students to match the angle of the stick with the angle of their upper arm, keeping them on the same “plane”. For this, the violin needs to be as parallel to the floor as possible. The black cosmetic item illustrated below has several uses. If the width is cut, it becomes a great chinrest cushion for multiple instruments.

Chinrest adhesive cushions can be made from several products. The easiest to manage is made of shoe inserts. Get the disposable type without arch or gel shaping; the best is the type intended for tracing and trimming to fit the shoe/ foot size and shape. Draw your chinrest shape smaller than the actual size. Remove adhesive backing and apply. One set of inserts can be used for quite a few chinrests. This is a great alternative to foams that come with chin rest covers. Personally, I take out the foam and just hook the cloth on my chinrest with the adhesive cushion already applied.

There is nothing more annoying than a shoulder rest that routinely falls off the instrument. There is an amazing product made specifically for securing the shoulder rests on violins and violas which is sold either separately for $0.60, or with a surprisingly apt foam product for $7. I buy the elastics in bulk. They are an ultra thin synthetic non-latex elastic band that does not dry out, crack, and so far, I have never had one break from overstretching or age. Alternatively, rubber bands work well once you find a suitable width, size, and proper tension for your instrument.

Cleaning/Maintenance and Care

Fingerboard safety blocks are placed snuggly between the fingerboard and the top of the belly when not being played (nearthe end closest to the bridge). To make one, all one needs is cardboard or thick cardstock (i.e. such as is used to back sketch pads/steno pads) and the type of medical cloth tape that has a soft and fuzzy surface quality. The desired thickness is easily customizable by adding layers before wrapping with the cloth tape.

Instead of buying branded cleaning cloths for your instrument, a soft, worn cotton t-shirt cut into squares will do. A good standard size for a cleaning cloth is around 7” X 11”.

There are products available for cleaning strings that are unnecessary. Instead, I buy a box of alcohol swabs individually packaged (typically $2/100). When using these, wrap the square pad around the string and slide it up and down areas of rosin buildup without letting it touch the belly of the instrument. Be careful if your fingerboard is not true ebony, as it can also remove whatever black paint or finish was used.

This bow refurbishing kit is perfect for teachers for use on student bows typically worth less than a standard rehair (~$60). The price of this product is $13 from Southwest Strings. I would recommend this for keeping in your classroom or studio; it will prove well worth the cost. This kit is also useful for secondary or hobby instrument bows, or when teaching a general strings course. Upkeep on more than one or two serious instruments is quite expensive (i.e. I have a cello bow I use this product on).

Some bows can, for one reason or another, become difficult to tighten and loosen. I have been told of an interesting home repair one can use if comfortable removing the screw using candle wax. When it has cooled enough to retain its integrity, use a slim scraping device to separate the wax from the surface it has dripped on, and deposit the pieces into a plastic baggie or container. The wax may sit unused for years, but when you find your bow’s screw becoming too tight, it is the perfect item to have on hand.

Teaching/Students Misc.

Pictured here are two examples of electrical tapes that come in a package of six different colors including standard black. I like to use black on the fingerboard to encourage tactile and aural feedback vs. looking at the fingers (which, I think, is encouraged by the “fingerboard stickers” and causes a handful of problems). The colored tapes are great for multiple spacings on the bow as you can use different colors to represent different distribution assistance. The package will last a long time. They can be found with other vehicle servicing items, in hardware stores, or bargain shops like Dollar General.

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