Proper Care and Feeding– Violin and Viola

Today’s post comes from a guest poster: clarissaClarissa Lunt is an orchestra teacher at Mar Lon Hills Elementary and Municipal Elementary in Weber School District, Utah. She is the Viola Section Leader with the Davis County Symphony in Utah and serves as the Public Relations Representative on the Symphony Board. Clarissa also teaches violin and viola lessons from her home in Ogden, Utah. Clarissa has a degree in Music Education emphasis in String Orchestra from BYU-Idaho and has played the viola for over 15 years. She worked at Ferguson Music Company as the Rental and Repairs Manager for four years while earning her degree. There she learned valuable lessons on string instrument care, maintenance and repairs. Clarissa has two beautiful daughters and loves being a mother. Her hobbies include reading, swimming, and mixed martial arts.

No Assembly Required!

One of the great things about stringed instruments is there’s no set up requirements to play. You can simply take it out of the case and play. For beginners I always recommend you put the case face up on the floor before opening. Then take out your instrument by the neck or shoulder. Cellos and basses need to remove the bow from the case first. For all stringed instruments, remember to hold the bow by the stick – don’t touch the bow hairs. That’s it, now you can play! Violins and violas should attach a shoulder rest to the back of their instrument. Attach the feet securely to the back of the instrument. Adjust the shoulder rest so you’re most comfortable, for most this is when the scoop of the shoulder rest is underneath the chinrest. strings Tuning & Re-stringing I don’t recommend trying to tune or re-string a stringed instrument until you have been playing long enough to understand responsibility for your fragile instrument and have developed an ear for tuning. One thing to understand is that the pegs are actually slightly more cone-shaped than cylindrical. You need to push the pegs into the peg box while supporting the scroll when turning the pegs to get them to stay in tune. Turn the peg towards the scroll to make the string sound higher and towards the body of the instrument to lower the sound. It’s a pretty simple concept. However, developing the dexterity in your hands to push and turn and cradle the scroll at the same time is difficult for younger kids. Also, a quarter turn of a peg can adjust the sound as much as two whole steps (two white keys on a piano) depending on the size of the instrument. A whole turn could break a string. It’s best to start tuning with fine tuners to develop your ear before learning how to tune with the pegs. With fine tuners, turning right makes the string sound slightly higher, and turning left lowers the pitch of the string. Also, make sure you’re tuning the correct string. When I was in 8th grade, I had learned to tune my viola fairly well and a violin playing friend needed help tuning their A-string. So, I started turning the peg that would have been A on my viola, which was the E string on his violin and I accidentally broke his string. Oops! At least E strings are the cheapest string. If you are already experienced at tuning your instrument, re-stringing is easy. It’s easier to show you how to re-string than to explain it. Ask your teacher or someone who works at a violin shop to show you how to re-string. If you cannot learn in person, a video is the next best thing. Here’s an informative video on re-stringing a violin.

The Dos of Instrument Care

Do check for damage when you get your instrument and continue to check for damage routinely. When you first take your stringed instrument out of its case, check for cracks, scratches, dings, broken strings, etc. If this is a rental (either from school or from a store) notify the manager or teacher to make note so you are not held responsible for these scratches if/when you return the instrument. If you are renting from a store, sometimes you can talk the price down with the sales rep because of scratches. Cracks will need to be repaired. Sometimes cracks are hard to see. The hard-to-see cracks look like a lighter line in the grain of the wood. Press down firmly but gently with your finger next to the line, if it gets wider, it’s a crack. If it stays the same it’s either a crack that’s been repaired or that’s just what the wood of the instrument looks like. Sometimes cracks are an easy repair, sometimes they’re more expensive – it depends on the size and location of the crack. I regularly check for cracks on my violin and viola whenever there is a change in seasonal weather – that’s when wooden instruments are most prone to cracking. Broken strings are an easy fix and most stores will restring a violin for only the cost of the string. If you’re renting from a music store and the instrument has a broken string, sometimes they’ll replace it for free.

Do keep your instrument stored at room temperature. String instruments are made of wood. Wooden instruments are susceptible to temperature changes. Just like when the weather changes outside your wooden front door is hard to open, string instruments change with weather change. If a stringed instrument gets too hot, the varnish will melt. If a stringed instrument gets too cold, the wood can crack. My recommendation is if you wouldn’t be comfortable with the temperature where you’re leaving your stringed instrument, don’t leave your instrument there either, even if it’s in its case.

Do use rosin. Rosin (dried tree sap) is essential to playing with the bow. Rosin sticks to the horse hair on the bow and makes the horse hair sticky. The horse hair is then able to pull the string to produce a sound with the bow. I rosin my bow for approximately every three hours of playing. If I’m practicing three hours a day, then I rosin every day. If you’re a beginner and only playing about three hours a week of combined class and practice time, then you only need to rosin once a week. If you have a new bow, or it has recently been re-haired, you will need to rosin a lot to get your bow to play correctly. Here’s a video explaining how to apply rosin to your bow.

Do use a shoulder rest or sponge. Shoulder rests help support the violin on your shoulder. They add padding for shoulder comfort and fills the space from the shoulder where the violin rests to the chin (which helps stabilize the violin on your shoulder ) so you’re not straining your neck trying to clench the violin onto your shoulder (clenching is bad). As much as I LOVE my students to own a shoulder rest, there are some brands of shoulder rests out there that areshoulderrest prone to scratching the instrument. Make sure the feet or prongs of the shoulder rest that attach onto the lower bout of the instrument are plastic or rubber. Some shoulder rests have metal feet that scratch the wood of the instrument. If you cannot afford a good quality shoulder rest, I recommend getting a soft sponge and using that as a shoulder rest by attaching it to the instrument with a rubber band connected to the back corner and the end button. I used a sponge as a shoulder rest for the first couple years of playing viola and it worked quite well. If you’re looking for a shoulder rest and don’t know where to start, I like the KUN brand shoulder rests. They’re the easiest to adjust to your comfort needs and also the easiest to replace parts if they break.

Do wipe off the rosin dust and finger prints. All you need is a soft cloth. It doesn’t have to be a special instrument polishing cloth that music stores try to sell you for $2. Any cloth or rag that is soft, lint-free, and clean will work. I use a clean burp rag that my babies have outgrown. Gently wipe off the rosin from the wood of the instrument. Then gently rub the rosin off the strings too. It is best to wipe off the rosin daily to avoid having rosin dust caking on the strings or the wood and causing the strings to wear quickly or the wood to become permanently sticky.

Do put away securely. A lot of damage I’ve seen to instruments in the classroom happens when students are putting their instruments away or if their instruments are left unattended (which rarely happens in class). Make sure you latch all the latches, stick all the velcro, zip all the zippers, etc. All students, make sure you loosen the bow before putting it away. The tip is very fragile and if left tightened while stored, it puts lots of strain on the bow and will crack and break over time. Violins and Violas make sure you remove your shoulder rest before putting your instrument in its case. If the lid closes on the instrument with the shoulder rest on the back, it will crack. Put the shoulder rest in a shoulder rest compartment of the case, or if your case does not have one, in a music bag. Also, make sure your bow is latched in place before closing the lid, the bow could scratch the wood.

The Don’ts of Instrument Care

Don’t leave your instrument in the car. There are three reasons not to leave your instrument in the car.

  1. It could get too hot and the varnish could melt which is irreparable.
  2. It could get too cold and the wood could crack which is expensive to repair.
  3. It could get stolen.

Don’t leave unattended. If you’re done practicing your instrument, put it back in its case securely. Be especially careful if you have dogs, cats, or young children in your home. Students will put their instrument down for a second to get a drink of water and the next thing they know their dog, cat, or baby sister is using their violin as a chew toy.

Don’t try to fix the instrument yourself. When I worked at Ferguson Music Company, I would get rentals returned with screws or super glue holding the wood together. Even wood-glue is bad for a stringed instrument. Stringed instruments are works of art that appreciate with value if made and maintained with care. In order to get the best acoustics from an instrument, violin makers use special glue, varnish, and tools to create an instrument that sounds beautiful and will continue to sound beautiful for thousands of years. Some people may know what they’re doing with nails, screws, super glue, and wood glue, and it may even hold the instrument together and it might even play, but the vibrations from playing on these repairs cause even more damage to the instrument. Often the damaged caused by fix-its is more expensive to repair than the original damage to the instrument.

Don’t use household cleaners on your instrument. Along the same lines of “don’t fix the instrument yourself.” Household cleaners cause irreparable damage to stringed instruments. Even pledge and wood polish are bad for instrument varnish. One time, when I worked at Ferguson Music, a customer brought in her violin and the varnish had melted. I asked what had happened and she said she had used Windex to clean it. The varnish was irreparable and we had to strip all the varnish off along with a layer of wood and re-varnish the instrument. If you need to clean your instrument, use special violin cleaner and polish. Don’t polish too often though, too many layers of polish deaden the sound of stringed instruments. I only polish once a year.

Don’t touch the bow hair. The horse hairs on the bow have many microscopic ridges on them. When applied with rosin, the horse hairs grip the instrument’s strings and pull causing it to vibrate and ring with sound. Our skin has many natural oils. When you touch the bow hair with your hand, the oils from your hand fill up the ridges in the horse hair making the bow ineffective, or at least making it not sound so pretty. Bow hair that has been touched too many times turns yellow, then brown, then black and it sounds scratchy.

Don’t touch the pegs until you learn how to tune. The number one reason a string breaks is a student has turned the peg too far. I don’t teach my kids to tune their own instruments until they’ve been playing a year or more. They need to show responsibility for their instruments and learn how to tell if they’re in tune. They need to demonstrate the ability to tune with the fine tuners before I’ll let them use the pegs. Your teacher can tune you in your lessons. If you need your instrument tuned in between lessons, take it to a music store – they usually tune it for free.

Resources:

“Violin Bow Parts Diagram.” Becuo. September 2009. http://becuo.com/violin-bow-parts-diagram

“Kun Original Violin Shoulder Rest” Shar. 7 February 2015. http://www.sharmusic.com/Accessories/Shoulder-Rests/Kun-Original-Violin-Shoulder-Rest-fits-3-4—4-4-size.axd#sthash.9l2Dt5OC.dpbs

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