Stringed Instruments: Winter Weather Helping Students Handle Instrument Maintenance Needs from a Distance

Mike Lawson • String Section • March 2, 2018

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This January found many students without adequately functional instruments (as can most winter months).

To an untrained eye, the visuals of a slack or popped string bears the sad look of something quite broken. The ability to control string tension and pitch may not be of serious concern for experienced musicians – we usually manage on our own. Yet for musicians unable to repair, or adjust as necessary, it actually cripples their ability to play. There are usually elements of unease from unknown time frames and worries – of the degrees of appropriateness. Which brings us our truth: as long as there are teachers, instruments, and respect of and for both, we will be needed, and our expertise called upon. It is a good idea to be prepared in the case of emergency.

It is my hope that when your area has significant weather issues– perhaps school is cancelled or perhaps a call will reach you and someone will really need your help – that help is satisfying for you to give. I consider the chance for us to leave relief where there was fear, and the peace that we find in problems well-solved to be of great value. I enjoy participating in a student learning self-reliance, which results in success. I love my job. That is worth writing for.

Extreme Weather

Strings/pegs: Before all else, guide the student through a visual inspection to identify the location and nature of any damage and its source. In most cases, strings are ok. Cold weather usually causes quite the out of tune episode (the pitch ends up sharp when affected by cold and flat as it climbs back in. or sharp as the temperature drops.)

Check to see if the string is actually broken. If it is, it will need replacing. Hopefully the student will have a spare (or even old) set handy for such emergencies. If they cannot get access to a string, the best thing to do is remove the broken ends from the peg and tuners (or tailpiece) so they don’t scrape the top of the instrument in the case, have them use the pegs to mildly detune the strings. If necessary, have them use a tuner and specify a safe pitch for each remaining string.

Emergency String Replacement, Restringing for the First Time: Things to Know

Preparation: Something I recommend anyone do before making any adjustments to their instrument is to (very lightly and with care) mark the exact placement of the bridge’s feet on the top of the instrument with medium to soft lead. This is very important reference in general and specifically should be done to avoid some of the possible accidents that can occur while you change strings.

Additionally, it gives you some concrete lines to use against the lay of the f-holes, fingerboard, tailpiece, sound-post etc. So, if your bridge has already moved sideways (or any which way), you can probably tell by comparing angles.

Wind well: A well-installed string is wound such that the string does not overlap itself on the peg. Optimally, the strings would not cross each other physically in the peg-box, but that is unavoidable in many instruments and may not compromise vibration along the string.

Bridge: The bridge should always be leaning slightly back (towards the tailpiece). New strings need to stretch out in regular use before they settle. Often the bridge can start to lean forward towards the fingerboard by the time strings settle. When adjusting the tilt, err on the side of caution if necessary and detune the strings before pulling back on the bridge. It is quite a shock when the bridge collapses while adjusting the tilt under full string pressure!

When all is said and done, look at the feet of the bridge; make sure each contact point is flush with the wood of the belly.

A Few Words on Prevention and General Winter Weather Instrument Care

Temperature control: inside the case

There are two components involved when addressing a controlled environment inside the case. The first is a tool to assess the environment’s humidity levels. The standard instrument to do so typically is built into the lining of the inside lid and is called a “hygrometer.” These do not tend to be very accurate, but they do give you a general sense of your instrument’s needs at any given time. There are a host of products ranging in price and function in which a musician can determine humidity levels in the case. In a pinch, a small (and cheap) digital temperature/ humidity device found in homes and at most any department store can be placed in the case or secured safely with Velcro adhesives to an area that will not be at risk of touching the instrument while stowed. Any reading below 40 percent is cause for intervention.

There are also many kinds of case humidifiers. As long as there will be no leaking droplets of water coming into contact with the wood, you can safely bring the levels up and replenish moisture as needed (keeping the case closed and zipped). If you have a case cover (I call mine “winter sleeping bags”), this is a good time to make use of it to add another level of insulation. I occasionally will use a spray bottle of water to dampen the outside of the case cover with the arrival of the first bout of cold/dry weather each season. Most Mooradian and Cushy black case covers can benefit from a bit of a scrub with a wet once a year anyway!

Temperature control: inside the residence

The residence/home where our instruments rest should be carefully evaluated. Whether or not the musician stows their instrument in the same location regularly on the manner in which a person uses their familiar space(s). Either find a suitable spot for it to own or be familiar with the variables affecting each area of your living space.

Where you keep your instrument is important

Attempt to avoid areas around (and above) any vents using centralized heating and cooling systems. If you have controlled heating and cooling units specific to each area or room of the home, you may opt to climate control a whole area of space for all things strings. Even if you do have central heating, you can put heavy tiles or boards or similar items over the vent in a room that has dangerously low humidity readings (I do this any time the readings start to hover around 20 percent).

Drafty areas are sometimes not so bad if the environment is fairly consistent and moderate. Aim for consistency within the environments in which you and your instrument spend significant time. If you are creative, attentive and vigilant, you will notice problems early and are likely to avoid scary surprises when you do finally open your case.

I caution those who use “string swings” and instrument stands (i.e. the industry standard “Ingles” type etc.) in the home year-round. They are so effective as ways to assist motivation or for “practice inertia.”

However, care must be taken, especially in winter months, to monitor the home and room’s environment. In the instance of central gas heat: I would recommend discontinued extended lengths of time in which the instrument is separated from favorable conditions.

Jennifer began studying violin at age three with her father in Alberta, Canada. After receiving a B.M. in violin performance and a M.A. from Middle Tennessee State University, she returned to university to properly study the viola. Currently, she performs with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, the Murfreesboro Symphony, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra, the Parthenon Chamber Orchestra, Wire Cabal, and with her quartet the Tulsianni Ensemble.

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