By James N. McKean | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings
You never forget your time working in a repair shop, or the lessons you learned there. In my case, it wasn’t long before I realized that, to misquote Tolstoy, while every unhappy violinist was unhappy in his own way, still there were just a few basic categories of ills that required attention. If you know what your repair person is really thinking when you call, you might be able to avoid ever having to make the call.
1. My violin needs an adjustment
My immediate thought: recital or audition? Because the truth is, violins don’t need adjusting. Once the soundpost is in the proper place, it stays there (unless the violin gets knocked around—see “My instrument has a crack,” below). Yes, violins do sound better on some days than on others. Your violin is made of very thin wood, which is sensitive to humidity, and the weather is constantly changing. Most of the time, it’s gradual, and not that extreme, and the conditions in which you live and perform are usually pretty well climate controlled. So most of the time, you don’t even think about your violin. But then it gets very hot and damp, or it rains for a week, and suddenly your violin isn’t its old self. But it’s not out of adjustment—it’s just out of sorts. When the weather gets better, it will, too.
You can be out of sorts, too. Or under stress (that audition or recital). Your violin is the most highly refined amplifier ever invented. But it doesn’t just amplify the strings; it also reflects and magnifies your mood. I wouldn’t say it out loud (although I guess sometimes it did slip out), but my reaction was always, “You need a break. Put down the violin for a couple hours and go for a bike ride, or to the gym, or on a hike: Just get out of the house.” When you pick up the violin—hopefully not until the next morning—you’ll be amazed at how much better it sounds. You could always go get it adjusted—I know someone, ahem, who bought a lovely cottage upstate on adjusting instruments before concerts. But why not save the money and just take your kids to the park for a few hours?
2. My bridge is warped
Yeah, well, that’s kind of sloppy English. The correct phrasing is, “I wasn’t paying attention and I let my bridge warp.” Making a bridge takes hours. It’s hard, precise work, but a lot of fun. But what’s totally no fun at all is seeing all that work go to waste. Especially when it’s so easy to not let it happen. One: Don’t change all your strings at one time. Let each new string stretch for at least a few days before putting on another. And lubricate the groove with a soft pencil. The other three strings will hold the top of the bridge from pulling forward. Two: Look at the bridge from the side on a regular basis. If it looks like it’s pulling forward, pop by the shop and ask. Any repair person worth his salt would much rather spend a few seconds pulling it back than take hours fitting and carving a new one. These days, I won’t even make a replacement bridge.
3. I’d like you to take a look at a violin I’m thinking about buying
You’re kidding, right? Let me get this straight: You’ve gone to a different shop, a competitor, and you’ve found a violin you want to buy, and you want me to tell you if you’re making a mistake. Aside from the fact that you might wonder just how objective your repair person is going to be in this appraisal, these days he or she would have to be crazy to even think of doing that. Product denigration is a very real thing that people get sued for all the time. And most of what could compromise your new find is out of sight, inside; and even if you could see it, you would have no idea of how well the work had been done. As for authenticity, no verbal opinion in the world is going to be worth anything the day you (or your heirs) put it back on the market; then all that matters is its provenance. If you are thinking of buying a violin, then you need two things: as much written provenance as possible, and a written, precise, detailed schematic drawing showing all the repairs and retouching.
4. My instrument has a crack
This is a call you will never have to make if you exercise just the minimum of preventive care. I’m amazed at the cases now on the market, compared to what musicians were using even when I went to violin-making school back in the ’70s. They are lighter, ergonomically designed to be carried easily, and offer a quantum leap in protection. But here’s a helpful hint: They only work if the instrument is in the case. And if the case is securely latched. And, if it’s a cello case, not left standing up. Think of your violin as a baby. Incredibly durable, right? But would you leave a baby lying out on top of a piano? I knew a student who did; she had opened a window because it was so hot in the practice room, and when she opened the door the rush of air blew the viola against the wall and onto the floor. Think of your case as being like a child car seat: latch it in. And keep an eye on it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, cracks or other damage happen because the owner (that’s you, by the way) was being careless, or not paying attention.