Learn to prevent seasonal damage from temperature and humidity changes
by Erin Shrader
AS SOON AS WINTER sucks the last bit of humidity out of the Midwestern air, the cellos start making their way up the stairs to the violin shop at the Indiana University School of Music. Tom Sparks, who teaches violin making there, knows what to expect before they even reach his workbench: cracks, seams that have come unglued, necks that are moving. Stringed instruments are prone to these ailments, especially in harsh climates where the contrast between indoor and outdoor temperatures is extreme.
Bloomington, Indiana, where the cold Jet Stream meets the warm Gulf Stream, is home of the largest music school in the country. It is also one of the worst places for stringed instruments, with moldy, muggy summers and several weeks of bone-cracking winter weather. After decades as a player and violin maker in this harsh climate, Sparks has developed some advice for surviving the winter with your instrument intact.
Wood expands with humidity and contracts when it dries out. Instruments can withstand both dry and humid environments, given time to acclimate, but quick changes invite trouble. The worst thing you can do, says Sparks, is to over-humidify your stringed instrument in a dry environment.
If your apartment or studio is too dry and you have a valuable instrument, invest in an atomizer and an accurate hygrometer. In-case humidifiers are all right, too, but don’t over-soak the sponge no matter how dry it gets. “If the sponge gets bone dry in 45 minutes it’s telling you that you’re in a dangerous environment.”
Over-humidifying is worse than not humidifying at all.
The best thing you can do is keep your instrument in silk, a tip he picked up by watching the older members of the faculty at IU. Real silk, or tightly woven cotton, seems to slow down the transfer of humidity. Synthetics don’t have the same effect. Although he doesn’t have any scientific evidence to prove it, many repairs he used to need on his own violin stopped completely when he started keeping it in a silk bag inside the case.
Sparks suggests keeping your instrument’s environment as consistent as possible. A relative humidity of 35 to 50 percent is comfortable for homes. If you know you will be rehearsing or teaching every day in a comparatively dry building, say 20-percent humidity, consider keeping your home a bit dryer, perhaps 25 or 30 percent. If you usually walk or bicycle with your instrument, consider driving or taking a cab on the bitterest of days.
“Use yourself as an indicator.” If you are comfortable your instrument probably will be, too. “Then ask, how long would I survive in this environment?” If you’ll be comfortable outside or in a parked car for about five minutes, so will your instrument. The environment comes into the case after about five minutes. And remember, unlike you, an instrument doesn’t its own internal heat source! If your fingers are stiff or the skin on the back of your hands is dry and cracking, use that as an indicator.
Give the instrument time to acclimate when you arrive in a new place. Build that time into your schedule: don’t arrive just in the nick of time and whip out your instrument. Smooth the transition by letting it sit in its case for a few minutes after arrival. “Have a cup of coffee, thaw out your fingers,” Sparks advises. Then open the case, but leave it in the silk bag, under the blanket, for another five or ten minutes.
Putting your instrument away is another opportunity for mindfulness and common- sense care that can reduce repairs and extend the life of your strings. “Watch the older players,” Sparks advises. “They have a routine.” They clean the strings and fingerboard with a chamois; dirt attracts humidity which corrodes strings. They also clean the chin rest, which collects sweat and dirt, then wipe off rosin with a soft cloth, carefully inspecting the whole instrument. The clean instrument is put into its bag or wrapped in a silk scarf laid open in the case. Small items of memorabilia might be laid on top of the folded scarf or bag, and the blanket is put over that. Then the chamois and soft cloth are neatly folded and placed on top of the blanket near the scroll, where there’s the most room, and the case carefully closed.
“It’s a relationship, and the older players were very aware of it,” Sparks concludes.
Awareness of your environment, careful cleaning, and mindfulness can reduce or even eliminate trips to the repair shop. “Franco Gulli never needed a new bridge or soundpost adjustment,” says Sparks, and neither did Josef Gingold, even though both players lived and worked in one of the harshest climates in the country.”