By Greg Cahill
What’s the best violin or viola case? The answer is, well, complicated. Cases come in a variety of shapes and sizes and prices. There are hundreds of options and much to consider. For instance, if you’re looking for a case that suits your travel needs, you must decide if you need a sturdy flight case that can withstand the rigors of international baggage handlers, or if you’re just looking for a lightweight gig bag that is easy on the shoulder when you’re traveling on the subway. Or maybe you’re just looking for something economical? Or are you looking for a flashy case that makes a fashion statement? Do you need to store more than one bow? And don’t forget about humidity control.
In general, the least expensive cases are made of industrial three-ply cardboard or molded plastic, and feature velour interiors, one or two bow holders, and one inner compartment. More expensive cases have better suspension systems and insulation, higher-quality hardware, more strength and durability, and built-in hygrometers and thermometers. Top-end cases combine comfort, durability, and craftsmanship—these are cases with fine wooden interior accents and bow spinners, Celsius and Fahrenheit thermometers, and steel-reinforced outer shells.
But when you get right down to it, all of these cases share certain characteristics. Here are six basic features you should consider when purchasing your next case.
1. Weight. How often and how far will you be lugging your case? Because of their durability, hard-shell cases tend to be popular with musicians looking for assurance that their instruments will be protected—their traditional disadvantage has been a tendency to be heavy. But there are more and more lightweight cases on the market (such as the Bam Trekking case), including those made of lightweight, durable carbon fiber, designed to hold your instrument tightly in place while providing a good deal of protection. If you’re just traveling to your lesson, a simple soft-shell gig bag might even do the trick.
2. Durability You can find durable cases for under $250: The American Case Co. Continental, sold by Shar, features five-ply laminated wood construction that has been known to withstand a fall from a moving vehicle. Bobelock, Bam France, Howard Core, and Calton all offer affordable and durable hard-shell cases. Do you need something that will stand up to heavy air travel? Consider a case constructed of carbon fiber. Manufacturers’ approaches to air travel range from cases that squeeze under strict carry-on guidelines to the virtually indestructible. The federal Transportation Safety Agency guideline states that passengers must be allowed to carry a small musical instrument, like a violin or viola, and stow it in a suitable baggage compartment, which includes the overhead bin and under the seats, in accordance with TSA safety regulations.
3. Storage. Think about how many interior and exterior compartments you need. Will you be traveling with a portfolio case? Sheet music? An iPad? Cases generally have between one to four inner compartments and one outer sheet-music compartment running the length of the case. Some include gusseted outer pockets for extra storage and others feature a detachable exterior pocket for carrying portfolios. Do you use a number of different bows? Some cases have only one or two bow holders, some four. And even if you have only one bow, be sure to bring it to the store to make sure that it fits in the holders provided.
Adjustable cases are a good investment for growing students who may need to switch to larger instruments throughout the course of their careers.
4. Instrument Fit. Be sure to investigate your prospective case thoroughly. Look at everything from the instrument padding or suspension system to the hardware. Suspension cases have become the norm with most companies. They are well padded and prevent your instrument from resting flat against the bottom of the case, which can be dangerous if the case receives a blow or is dropped. The instrument neck should be held in place with a Velcro flap or string tie, and it should have padding that hugs the instrument tightly in place. Suspension systems—like hardcover cases—are almost always preferable. Also, if you are a violist, you may have difficulties properly fitting your instrument, since violas can vary in length. More and more companies are offering cases in various sizes, but another option is an adjustable case. Adjustable cases are a good investment for growing students who may need to switch to larger instruments throughout the course of their careers. But watch out for exposed adjusting hardware that could scratch the back of your instrument. Also be sure that the hardware holds the adjustable shoulder block securely in place so that there is no danger of your instrument slipping.
5. Comfort Does your case include a shoulder strap, which can free your hands while you fumble for car keys or a subway pass? If you’re content with your current hard-shell case and only wish it were easier to carry around, you might want to look at a case bag, which provides additional padding and makes heavy cases more manageable via comfortable handles and backpack straps. Those also can provide a level of additional protection, if they’re made of tightly secured, water-proof fabric.
6. Safety Keeping an instrument safe while traveling is an overwhelming concern. A good guideline is the harder the outer case and the softer the suspension system, the better. Most cases include a zipper-and-lock system. For security, look for two zippers that start in the back and meet at the center front. Some of the better cases have weather flaps that shelter the zippers, and Velcro or snaps encasing the vulnerable spot where the zippers meet. Zippered cases may or may not lock, but those without zippers generally do—sometimes one lock at the center of the case below the handle is the only way to secure the case. In other instances, two or even three locks are mounted along the sides of the case, with an additional snap-down weather flap to cover the hardware.
7. Humidity Do you live in an area that subjects your instrument to extreme weather changes? Even in “sunny” California, temperatures can swing 30 to 40 degrees within a single day. Changes in temperature and humidity can wreak havoc on your instrument, so if you live in an area with an extreme climate, consider adding a hygrometer and a humidifier to your case wish list. Hygrometers measure humidity levels, letting you know if your instrument is too damp or too dry; humidifiers correct dryness (a common problem, especially in winter), usually in the form of a small tube filled with water-saturated material that releases moisture at a controlled rate. If a hygrometer and humidifier are the case features you are most concerned about—and if you are looking for the most accurate equipment—you might be best off buying a stripped-down case and installing a hygrometer and humidifier yourself (you may also want to look into having a music shop do this for you). You can purchase specific hygrometers and humidifiers to fit your needs through most music shops and distributors.
PRO TIP: A velvet or satin-lined blanket laid over your instrument while its snug in its case can help insulate your instrument from temperature changes and provides protection should that coveted François Nicolas Voirin bow get loose and start rattling around the case. And it’s an inexpensive way to add a splash of luxury to your case.
Heath K. Scott contributed to this article.