You’ve just brought home your first stringed instrument. You might be tempted to take it out of its case just to admire it, to imagine all the happy times ahead, to reaffirm that after all that time spent in the violin shop, you’ve brought home a splendid musical partner. And so you undoubtedly have. But don’t forget that, like anything, a stringed instrument requires some basic care. Here are a few must-dos to keep your new violin, viola, cello, or bass safe and healthy.
1. Keep It Clean
Using a microfiber cloth to wipe down your instrument after playing it can help keep your instrument free from dusts and excess rosin—most violin shops carry these, and if not, look for them at eyeglass or sunglass retailers.
Personally, I have a favorite t-shirt from junior high, shredded into squares and kept reverently in different fiddle cases.
If your instrument is filthy, and if long years of neglect have formed a sappy mess of the varnish below the bridge, let a professional handle that.
2. Don’t Leave It Out
When you’re not playing, put both instrument and bow back in the case. During a break in rehearsal, you often see cellos left on their sides next to the chairs. It’s not infrequent that the next time you see them is in a repair shop. They’re big, and you’d think it would be unlikely someone would step on one or kick it over, but it happens. “In the case” means out of harm’s way.
—James N. McKean
3. Close and Latch the Case
A violin case with the top up is an invitation to help yourself. If not the violin, a bow can vanish in the blink of an eye. And bows all look pretty much the same, so it might be hard to claim it before it’s gone out the door, even if you notice it’s gone in time.
Lids can also fall and can crack an instrument or snap a bow in half. A friend of mine discovered this recently, but luckily, his Seraphin violin also has nine lives. He had put it and the bow away properly, so when the lid fell nothing got hit.
And latch the case. Yes, every single time. Make it a reflex, like putting on your seatbelt. Why? It helps prevent theft; but also, every now and again, someone will pick up their case, forgetting it’s unlatched, and then out everything tumbles—shoulder rest, photos, mutes, cloth, violin—onto what is usually a concrete floor. Ouchies, as my young son used to say.
—James N. McKean
4. Don’t Force the Pegs
Be gentle with your pegs. The scroll is as delicate as your instrument gets. If a peg isn’t working well, take a close look at the peg holes. There should be no gaps, and no oval over-rounding where the shaft of the peg goes into the wall of the scroll. Pegs have to fit well to turn—and stop turning—well. If peg fit isn’t the problem, you can get a little tube of peg compound, known colloquially as peg dope, which helps a stuck peg spin and a slipping peg hold. But only use peg dope, and be sparing with it. There’s only so much gunk that a peg shaft can handle before it loses control.
5. Don’t Leave It in the Car
You know how you can get arrested for leaving even your dog in a car with the windows up on a summer day? Well, that heat is enough to melt varnish, too. And most instrument case covers are black or dark blue. And as we all know from the new push for passive solar energy, that’s a good way to maximize the heating effect.
—James N. McKean
6. Keep an Eye on Humidity
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 luthier Tom 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.
Want more instrument and bow care? Try Strings’ Violin Owner’s Manual. We also offer a handy series of web guides: Care & Repair of Violins or Violas, Caring for Your Violin or Viola Bow, Care & Repair of Cellos, and Caring for Your Cello Bow.