By James N. McKean

One night, many years ago, I was having dinner at home—a Saturday, and as luck would have it, my birthday—and I made the mistake of answering my phone. Rather than a family member with congratulations, it was a violinist in near hysterics. He lived just around the corner; there was no putting him off. When he arrived and took out his violin—a lovely Gagliano—the reason for his distress was readily apparent. Most of the violin was in his right hand, but the left side of the top, from the middle of the soundhole to the edge, was in his other.

After 250 years, how did the two happen to become separated?

He had a recording date the next day; he was checking the violin for openings. It looked a bit loose at the lower edge, under the chinrest; he wiggled it, and suddenly—there it was, in his hand. Or so he said. It turns out that he hadn’t just wiggled it to see if it was open. He finally admitted that he had, well, you know, tried to glue it himself.

He hadn’t seen the crack in the top. . . .

But I only got the whole story when I pulled up the lid to glue the top back together. My professional violinist (and amateur repair person) apparently had his own soundpost setter, too. The inside of the top—soft, unprotected spruce—had been so gouged by the sharp edges of the end of the soundpost that the violin now required a soundpost patch. He was not alone; after the celebrated violinist Mischa Elman died, his Strad had to be patched, too.

Maybe it’s just me, but there are a few things I wouldn’t try—like going out onstage to play a Bach partita, or doing my own dental surgery. Repairing and adjusting a violin requires as high a level of skill as playing it. Only after three years of violin-making school was I admitted to the repair shop and taught to do the most basic maintenance—and it was a lot longer before I was given a six-figure instrument to work on.

In the case of Gagliano, what had begun as a minor problem turned unnecessarily into a 911 call. My violinist friend was right to keep a careful eye, checking for openings (although maybe not right before a performance, when it’s too late to do anything); but that’s the limit to what he, or you, can do. And there are limits to what the untrained eye can see, like that crack in the top.

Warning Signs

So what can you look for that will prevent problems from escalating? Bare wood. Varnish is like the enamel on your teeth—once that thin protective layer is gone, your sweat will erode the wood like waves lapping at a sandcastle. Openings. Sometimes it takes an expert eye to find one—you might have a buzz but can’t find the source—but if you can see it, then it needs to get glued. Do it soon because dirt and oil can get into an opening, making it much harder to glue back together.

Accidents happen. You trip on the stairs, or slip on the ice, and your case lands with a sickening thud. Get your instrument checked out, even if you don’t see anything. Let’s try one of Albert Einstein’s mental visualization experiments, violinwise: take a small hammer and rap it sharply against the top of the bridge (remember, this is just a visualization). The shockwave travels exactly like the sound waves through the bridge to the top and then through the soundpost to the back. But these pressure points—the top, along the length of the bass bar and over the soundpost, and the back, where the bottom of the post rests, are designed to be flexible, in order to conduct and amplify the vibrations. But that flexibility makes them vulnerable to a sudden impact, which can result in a crack. And because of the way it happens, the crack might be inside, and visible only to a trained eye. Also, the bridge or the post might have shifted. You’ll have to get it checked as soon as possible, because a misplaced bridge or post can also damage the top. This kind of accident has happened twice in the past year to cellists who called me. Luckily, neither they nor the instrument were harmed, although one did need to have the bridge and post reset.

A few years ago, a cello I made suffered a drop that resulted in both a soundpost and a bass-bar crack. It happened out of sight—after landing, the cellist was handed his travel case by the airline luggage clerk; not a ding on it, but inside, carnage. This was not an isolated incident; I’ve seen the same thing happen to a gorgeous English cello, and then, once, another of mine.

“But it was a travel case,” is the plaintive cry. Well, travel case equals 911 plus acrimonious and usually fruitless arguments with airlines and insurance companies.

Accidents do happen—and often when you’re far away from home and your trusted repairman. Who ya gonna call? Don’t waste your time with the Yellow Pages: phone home. Call your guy or gal and get a referral. It’s a small world—wherever you are, your repair person will know someone to help you out in a pinch. Maybe not on a Saturday night, during a birthday dinner; not everyone is foolish enough to pick up the phone. And if you can’t reach the person you trust for a referral, ask a local musician—a member of the orchestra, or someone who teaches at the music school.

But these things happen rarely; and the good news is that with just a modicum of care your only contact with 911 will be if you happen across it while you’re surfing channels back in the hotel room after the performance.

When to Call 911

There’s pretty much only one circumstance in which you have to stop everything and find a shop: if the soundpost falls down. And this happens very rarely. You might open the case after the weather has turned cold and dry to find that all the strings have come loose. Check the post. With the pressure of the strings released, the post might have slipped or fallen down. The post can also fall due to impact.

Violins don’t bleed to death, but in this case, you have no choice: take off the bridge and put a cloth under the tailpiece to prevent the string adjusters from denting the top. It takes an expert hand to set a post; it might seem easy, but it’s not—think how much practice it takes to make the Chaconne seem effortless. An untrained hand can gouge the soft wood inside the top and not even know it. And, worse, if the post is not set properly, it can even crack the top.