Maintaining your instrument and bow

Cleaning and varnish
Set-up
Accident prevention
The bow

Keeping your instrument clean and protecting the varnish

  • Always wipe dust, sweat and rosin off the instrument and fingerboard after playing with a soft, non-scratching, lint-free cloth. There are commercial cleaners and polishes available, but they contain solvents and abrasives that might damage your varnish. If you already have a build-up of dirt and rosin on your violin have it cleaned by a violinmaker. Stay away from the varnish with household cleaners and anything containing alcohol.
  • Try to handle your instrument mostly by the neck to avoid getting dirt and oils on the varnish. If you always rest your hand on the same spot of the body in playing pauses you can wear the varnish away or dissolve the glue with the moisture of your hand. The right upper rib, which you already touch when you play in high positions, is often affected by this kind of wear. A violinmaker can protect this area with a layer of protective varnish or in bad cases with some plastic foil. Some makeup and aftershaves can also damage the varnish near the chinrest. Try changing the product or covering the area with a cloth when playing.
  • Confine stickers, tape etc. to non-varnished areas if possible. They can take pieces of varnish with them when you remove them.
  • Finally, make sure your shoulder rest doesn't scratch the varnish. The little rubber tubes on the feet can be replaced at low cost if they wear out. On a tailpiece with fine tuners make sure they are not turned in so far, that they touch the violin. Turn the screws of the fine tuners out and retune the violin at the pegs once in a while.

Keeping an eye on your set-up

The bridge

Make sure your bridge is straight. It takes a lot of pressure and is submitted to a forward pull when you tune your strings at the pegs. As a result it can start to lean forward, warp over time and eventually fall over or break. The back side of the bridge (towards the tailpiece) should be flat and at a right angle to the violin top. The front is slightly arched for more stability. Have your teacher or violinmaker show you how to straighten your bridge. If it's already warped your violinmaker might be able to bend it out. The tendency of the strings to pull the bridge forward will be bigger when they have cut deep grooves in the bridge, because they can't slide through the grooves easily enough (this can also damage the strings). Especially on the thin strings, have the groove protected by some parchment and/or use the little protective plastic tubes provided with your strings. Sometimes, usually after receiving some kind of knock the bridge can also move sideways. You'll notice that, because the strings will be moved to one side of the fingerboard. Take a note of where your bridge is and show it to a violinmaker if you think it has moved they can easily correct it.

The soundpost

You can see your soundpost when you look through the right F-hole of your instrument (treble side).It should stand straight and a small distance behind the bridge. The position of your soundpost can have a substantial effect on the sound of your instrument, but never try to adjust it yourself as you can cause serious damage. If your soundpost falls over immediately loosen the strings to take the pressure off the top of your instrument. (Always put some cloth under the tailpiece when you do this to prevent it from scratching your instrument). It is a relatively simple operation for a violinmaker to set the soundpost up again.

The pegs

Changes in humidity can make pegs slip or get stuck. Pegs and pegholes as well as the holes for the strings also get worn out over time. If a peg slips try wiping off excessive peg dope or rewinding the string, but be careful, don't force the string against the pegbox, you could damage both the string and the pegbox. If the peg keeps slipping, it probably fits badly and you should see a violinmaker. Generally, don't push the peg into the pegbox using force or forcefully try to remove a stuck peg, you could crack the pegbox. Lubricate pegs that creak or are hard to turn with a bit of peg dope. A quick fix is rubbing them with a bit of dry soap but as soap attracts moisture this is not ideal. A first aid for a slipping peg is a bit of chalk, but it's not ideal in the long run either because it's abrasive. If you use steel strings you'll generally have a hard time tuning with the pegs, because steel strings need less stretching to change pitch. Make your life easier with fine tuners.

The fingerboard

A good fingerboard is made from hard, dense ebony. Even so you will eventually wear grooves into it and the fingerboard will need planing to prevent buzzes from developing and also just for better playing comfort. The fingerboard also needs to be slightly hollowed to give the strings room to vibrate. Eventually the fingerboard will get too thin to get planed and will need replacement. This doesn't happen very often though, so your fingerboard should last you a long time. Unfortunately you will wear out your fingerboard faster when you have somewhat acid sweat. Washing your hands before playing and keeping your nails short and smooth helps prolong the life of your fingerboard and strings. If your fingerboard falls off, loosen the strings (as for a fallen soundpost), otherwise the neck of the instrument can deform.

Changing strings

Depending on how much you play and which strings you use they will probably need replacing every half year or year with your e-string needing replacement more often. Gut strings need replacing most frequently and steel strings last the longest. Change strings that show obvious signs of wear like loose windings, corrosion and flat areas. Strings that are getting too old will also start to sound dull or the fifths might be out of tune. When you change strings, change one string at a time and keep an eye on the bridge, it will probably bend forward a bit. Rub some graphite from a soft pencil in the string grooves in the bridge and upper nut, as it makes the strings slip through the grooves more easily. When tuning the new string up avoid tuning it up too high, it can snap. This happens especially easily for some cello a-strings. Finally, if a new string keeps breaking make a note of where it snaps. There could be a rough spot in one of the string grooves, the fine tuner might have a sharp edge or it might rub somewhere in the pegbox. As with straightening your bridge it's probably best to have someone show you how to change strings for the first time.

Accident prevention

  • When in an orchestra or a similar situation with lots of people around: make sure your instrument is out of harms way. The safest place for a violin or viola in a playing break is in the case. Don't let them lie on the chair or floor where people can sit or step on them. The same goes for your bow. Don't put it on your music stand either, it can easily fall off. Put a cello down on its side and stick the endpin back in to prevent people stumbling over it. Your bow is reasonably safe lying on the ribs of the cello. Be also a bit careful when you pick the cello up again. Over time the floor material can damage the edges. It sounds funny, but thick carpet can actually be bad as fibers can get stuck in rough spots in the wood and tear splinters out.
  • When putting the instrument in its case: It's easy to forget to take the shoulder rest off when you put your instrument in the case. If you meet any resistance when closing the lid, stop! Also make sure the bows are secured so that they can't scratch the instrument. It's a good idea to wrap the instrument in a cloth or put a cloth on top of it for extra protection. Finally make sure the case is actually closed before you pick it up.... With a cello in a soft case keep in mind, that the bow is only safe with the cello in the bag. Always take the bow out before the cello and put it back in after the cello. Some cello bags also have unprotected zippers that can scratch the cello. Pull them away from the cello when you open or close them or get a different bag.
  • Transporting your instrument in the car: a good place for your violin is on the floor in front of the back seat: it's in the shade and can't move around. The trunk is a dangerous place, especially in summer. It can get so hot that the varnish forms bubbles and the glue disintegrates. Like with any valuable item, don't leave your instrument unattended in the car.
  • Airplanes: So far I have always been lucky with taking my violin along as hand luggage, but you can't rely on it, since the case is generally longer than allowed for cabin baggage. Check with your airline before you go, if you want to be sure. Bam does produce a case (the Hightech Overhead Violin Case) that does meet length restrictions and might be a worthwhile investment, if you fly a lot. It does not have space for a bow however. I have sown a 'sock' for my violin from polar fleece, which I could use in the cabin, if I had to check the case in. I would still have to cradle the violin during the flight, but my idea is that it would be better than nothing. Airplanes are dry places, so it's probably a good idea to use a Dampit or humidifier in the case. Also make sure that the bow hair is well relaxed. The situation is more difficult for a cello. You'll probably have to pay for an extra seat, if you want to take your cello into the cabin (if you are allowed to take it at all), otherwise it has to go in the hold. In that case use as solid a case as possible. If you fly a lot you might want to invest in a flight case. Put some padding under the tailpiece and around the bridge and stuff out empty space around the cello. The neck is also quite vulnerable, so pad that area well. You could ask your violinmaker to remove strings, tailpiece, bridge and soundpost. With the string pressure gone some more serious damage might be prevented. But then you need to have it reassembled again at your destination and you might not get the exact same set-up again. Double basses seem to get the roughest handling on planes. I wouldn't travel without a really good flight case. Maybe there is a bass that you can borrow at the other end instead? In any case it's a good idea to make sure that you have up to date insurance cover, the airline will probably not have cover for loss or damage of your instrument.
  • At home: Keep your instrument in a safe place away from heat and direct sun. If you don't have a cello stand put your cello on the side, even if you keep it in the case. The case can fall over too. If you want to hang your violin on the wall choose a dry inside wall and hang a cloth behind it. You can also hang the bow on a nail. If you do, hang it with the frog pointing down, there will be less damage when it falls off.
  • Storing your instrument away: If you don't intend to use your instrument for a while, have your violinmaker remove strings, bridge and soundpost. Make sure the bow hair is loosened and store instrument and bow in the case in a place where it isn't subjected to extreme temperatures or humidity. A closet could be a good place. Don't put it in a place like the garage or attic. Check it once in a while for cracks, open seams and bugs. You could add some mothballs to keep bugs away.

If an accident has happened

Don't touch or move fresh cracks and have them repaired as soon as possible. The repair will turn out nicer if there's no grease or dirt or frayed edges. If a piece breaks off keep it and any splinters you can find in a box and have it reglued as soon as possible. It will save you money if the violinmaker doesn't have to fit a new piece. Take the stress off the affected area: loosen the strings, don't force a peg in a cracked pegbox etc. Finally, it might be tempting, but don't try home repairs, you can make things worse.

Earthquakes

If you live in Canterbury you will by now probably know more about how to keep your instruments safe in a quake than you ever would have cared to learn, but I thought it would be worth adding a chapter from my own experience.

The damage I saw generally resulted from either objects falling onto instruments or the instrument itself falling. It seems cellos were especially exposed, obviously because of their size, but also because they often have no hard case or are left standing up in a stand or leaning against something. It's also probably a bit more of an effort to take a cello out of its case or bag, so some people like to leave the cello out because it motivates and reminds them to practice more often. The safest place for your cello is in a hard case, but if you only have a bag or want to leave it out make sure it's sitting on its side and make sure there's nothing around that can fall on it. A stand may be all right, as long as it cradles the cello quite securely so that it won't fall over if it gets shaken around a bit. You could also check, that your cello won't fall on anything hard if it was to fall over.

Violins and violas seemed a bit better off from my experience, mainly because most people seem to store them in their cases. Don't store them on top of your wardrobe, obviously. I saw a viola that had survived such a fall virtually unharmed after the September quake, but that wouldn't be typical! Most violins I saw only needed minor corrections to the set-up after their cases fell onto their sides. Store the case in a safe place where nothing is likely to fall on it. Under the piano seems to be a popular and reasonably safe place. Seeing what we know about the geology here now, I wouldn't recommend hanging a violin or viola from the wall any more. That said, I know one person whose instruments survived fine on padded, wall-mounted hangers. If you do store your instrument like this, check that the instrument can't rub or bang against anything if it was to swing about and that it is securely held on its hook or loop.

A last thing that I noticed is what I would cell the human element. If after an earthquake your instrument just doesn't seem or sound right, but there's no obvious damage, dont fret. By all means have it checked out by a violinmaker as soon as possible, but also keep in mind that you have just been through a pretty traumatic experience yourself and may not be in the best frame of mind for serious practice. Cut yourself some slack and just enjoy your instrument for the great stress relief it can offer and it might come right again by itself.

Finally, if you find yourself in the middle of an earthquake with your instrument nearby, don't take any risks trying to save it. We all know this in theory, but it can be hard in practice. Your instrument, no matter how much you love it is replaceable, you are not!

The influence of the weather

Wood expands when humidity is high and shrinks when it is dry. This can cause all kinds of problems. The wood of the plates behaves differently from the ribs and tension develops at the seams. As a result you get open seams. This is actually supposed to happen, because if the seam doesn't open you'll get a crack instead, which is much worse. Cracks also often appear next to the lower nut and neck. Another problem that develops when it is dry is that the fingerboard rises closer to the strings, this is especially noticeable for cellos and basses. Some players use different bridges in summer (usually more humid) and winter (usually dryer). I already mentioned pegs slipping or getting stuck. Your instrument will generally be fine in the same environment you feel comfortable in. Avoid extreme temperatures, dryness and humidity and sudden changes. 50 to 60% is often given as a good level of humidity. I find heating in New Zealand homes in winter quite erratic and haven't really figured out how to keep my instruments happy in this environment yet. I'd be very happy to hear from anyone who has found a good system.

If your main problem is dryness, Michael Bauer, a cellist from Yukon Canada has suggested a solution that works well for him in his semi-arid climate: I solved the problem quite successfully by constructing a humidor. Starting with a base plate of 3/4 inch plywood 15 inches by 20 I fastened four upright broomsticks (actually 1 by 1ns) 68" long to each corner with a 2" wooden screw and placed another plate, same size as the floor, to the top. This allows the cello to hang free from a wire loop in the center of the top plate. Then I wrapped the whole structure with thin plastic from the hardware store. After stapling the four corners I am using a fifth stick to the end of the plastic as a door opener, wrapped and stapled. To hold the door closed I use a short bungee cord hooked into eye screws. To maintain a constant humindity I placed a one gallon or so ice cream bucket in the back corner of this humidor with a double arch of coat hanger wire in this bucket and draped a tee towel over it. To monitor the humidity I use a cheap hygrometer which I can check right through the plastic. This contraption has worked well for me for the last 20 years. To keep the water in the bucket from getting moldy I use a little bit of hydrogen peroxide occasionally.

If your temperatures are a bit up and down though, be careful about condensation. He suggests adjusting humidity by leaving an opening in the closing partition of his humidor and adjusting its size.

Looking after your bow

  • Always loosen the hair of your bow after playing. If you leave the bow under tension all the time the stick will eventually deform and you also stretch the hair prematurely. The hair of the bow is also very sensitive to humidity and shrinks quite a bit in dry air. If you don't loosen the bow hair it might get so tight that the bow tip snaps off!
  • Your bow is pretty delicate and the head breaks quite easily which substantially reduces the value of the bow. Don't rap it against the music stand, gesture (or play-fight) with it.
  • Wipe the rosin off the stick after playing and avoid touching the hair with your fingers. Your hands are naturally a bit oily and that can make the hair loose grip.
  • If you find you can't tighten the hair enough any more don't use force or you can split the stick. Maybe the bow hair has become too long and the frog simply can't be moved back far enough on the stick any more. You can test this by loosening the screw and pushing the frog as far forward as it will go. The ribbon of hair should just be slack. If you have a loose loop of hair hanging down your bow, it's too long. It will also cause the thumb to rest on the wood of the stick instead of the thumb leather and you'll eventually wear the wood away in that spot. Another reason might be a worn eyelet. The bow screw runs through the eyelet which attaches to the frog. It wears out and must be replaced once in a while. A worn or loose eyelet can also cause the frog to wobble on the stick.
  • Have your thumb leather replaced when it gets worn to prevent damage to the stick. Some people actually prefer putting the thumb on the wood of the stick, but that's not good for the bow. Try asking your violinmaker or bow repair person for a thinner leather if that feels more comfortable. For added comfort, or if the edge of the frog irritates your thumb, you can use a product like the Bowprotect, which is basically a rubber tube that fits over both the stick and frog. A version of this can also be made from leather. It does add bulk though, so is not for everyone.
  • If part of the faceplate on the tip of the bow comes off, have it replaced as soon as possible. It's not just ornamental, it also protects the tip from wear.
  • Bow bugs (I think they are officially called museum beetles): They are some tiny beetles that sometimes infest bow hair, usually bows that have been sitting in the case undisturbed for a while. Once the case is infested they can also attack more recently rehaired bows. Telltale signs are several hairs broken off in a line and broken hairs with frayed ends. You might also see the larvae or shells. Have the bow rehaired and vacuum the case thoroughly or throw it out. Bugs of all kind are usually not a problem when you play regularly.

When is it time for a rehair?

That depends largely on how much you play. Professional players might need quite frequent rehairs. As a student or amateur you might be fine for a year or even longer. It is time for a rehair when you feel the hair looses grip and you want to rosin it more and more often. You shouldn't need a lot of rosin to keep the playing quality consistent. Once every couple of times you play should be enough. If you have rosin dust collect on your instrument and strings every time you play you are using too much. If the hair is fairly new and the ribbon intact and you still loose grip the hair might just be dirty and can be cleaned (I offer this service for free for bows I have rehaired). Another obvious reason for a rehair is a lot of broken hairs. Since bow hair is so sensitive to moisture, tell your bow person before a rehair if you'll be using the bow in a very dry or humid environment, so that they can adjust the length accordingly.