[EN] How to take care of your instrument during the winter
In November I start to answer more and more calls from students and their parents, shocked that their newly bought instrument is already "broken". It seems that I'm having the same conversation over and over again. Vast majority of my clients is just at the beginning of their journey with music and they are often surprised that their new, lovingly treated instrument is starting to get out of tune very often, and sometimes it can even unglue. Why is it happening?
Wood is one of the few materials that are in constant movement. It is hygroscopic - meaning that it attracts and holds water molecules from the surrounding. When the temperature or humidity is changing, invisible to the naked eye pores are opening and closing.
Despite the fact that the tree has been cut to pieces, turned into plank, snipped, polished and glued together again, you may say that it's never stopped living - well, at least it never stopped moving. Unfortunately, different types of wood swell and shrink unevenly at different rates. This irregularity may cause a change in pressure on particular parts of instrument, and further - crevices and crackings of wood.
To prevent this, luthiers use a special kind of rabbit-skin glue that bonds together every part of instrument, but it breaks under pressure. For example - dry wood of the top, instead of breaking in the weakest spot, will unglue from the ribs. It's easier to glue it back on than to make a new top all over again.
When the evenings are getting longer and the days are getting colder, the micromovements of the wood become more and more important. External temperatures are dropping, and in the interiors there are radiators and fireplaces being concentrated source of warmth. The ideal conditions for an instrument - 15-25 degrees and humidity at a stable level between 40% and 60% are harder to keep, when we travel couple of times a day from a warmness of our houses to a music lesson or rehearsal.
The instrument is constantly adjusting - to the temperature indoor (even if you know that it is absolutely forbidden to leave your instrument near a radiator!), and later to the conditions inside a car or a tram - and lastly, to a classroom or a stage.
Your case is your first line of defence, but even the best one may not provide the most stable conditions possible.
Not all instruments are so vulnerable and prone to changes of weather conditions, but it’s worth to protect it, just in case. I know that during short lessons with your music teachers it may be hard to find the time to talk about this. That’s why I gathered handful of information that will most likely help you avoid many unpleasant situations.
The best thing you can do is to be patient. Before opening the lid of a case, wait a while. You’ll have to come a bit earlier for a lesson or a rehearsal, but the time spent waiting is worth not having to tune every five seconds. After couple of minutes, you can open your case and check the strings. There’s a possibility that nothing happened, because this time your instrument didn’t go through a “thermal shock”. But if you want to make sure that it’s protected the best way possible, there’s another simple way to do it: You surely have an unneeded towel, unused scarf or an old cloth. It’s a good layer of isolation.
Cellists with soft cases sometimes cover their instruments with quilt – for a violinist or a violist putting a thin layer of material on top will make a huge difference. Secure your instrument the best way possible and don’t worry – even if it will get out of tune sometimes, most probably there’s nothing wrong with it.
Humidity of the surrounding affects the movements of wood massively and yet it’s very simple to control it. You can do it by buying a small hygrometer that you can put inside your case. If the humidity stays at stable 40%-60% level, it means you have nothing to worry about. If it’s excessively lower or higher, there’s a few simple solutions that may help. The market is full of devices that control the moistness of air. Air dryers or dehumidifiers may seem unnecessary, but if you own a good instrument it may be worth it to invest in keeping it in a good shape. For a beginner musician a good solution may be to put a small, plastic tube inside a case and if needed, fill it with wet cotton or some absorbent. A bow is also prone to the changes of humidity. Of course, you should always be cautious if the hair is loosened after practicing and not too tightened during, but in the winter you should check it a few times more, even during playing.
If, regardless of every effort you put to keep your instrument in stable conditions, something disturbing is happening, it can imply that it’s time to check your accessories. Are your strings older than a year? If so, changing is absolutely needed. If you play more than 3 hours a day, it can be necessary to change your strings more often, even to 4 times a year. Changing strings by yourself isn’t hard, but you should keep in mind that only E and A can be changed individually. If D or G breaks or is worn out, it’s better to change them both. When you put a new string, gently coat the tiny dips at the top nut and the bridge with graphite – the string will “slide” better during tuning. If you will take off all the strings at once, there’s a chance that the soundpost will fall, so take it off one by one, every time putting a new one before taking off another. With a tipped soundpost, you must pay your luthier a visit – and we’re kind of want to avoid that at the moment. When changing your strings it’s always good to check the position of an arch. And if your pegs aren’t working correctly, you can apply a peg compound – preferably every time you change the strings.
If you follow this advice, you will most likely avoid many nuisances, and maybe you will save your instrument from an extensive damage. But, if it happens, I’m always there to help – you can e-mail me, send pictures and I will be more than happy to discuss it with you.