String players know there are two nerve-racking words when it comes to summer: HEAT and HUMIDITY. Violins, violas, cellos and basses are extremely sensitive to drastic weather changes so when the heat hits, it’s time to take some precautions to protect your instrument.
Heat, Humidity and Stringed Instruments
So, just what kind of damage can heat and humidity do to your instrument?
In a nutshell, heat causes an instrument’s wood to swell. This causes the bridge to sit higher than it normally would, raising the strings higher off the fingerboard. For beginners, this is no big deal, but seasoned players who spend lots of time in the upper positions will find themselves hitting more than one string at a time. For this reason, luthiers suggest replacing the bridge every six months, exchanging the regular, “winter” bridge for a slightly shorter “summer” bridge. Though mainly an issue of playing comfort, it’s always a good idea to keep a close eye on your bridge, just in case.
Here’s where the real headaches begin. When exposed to heat and humidity, an instrument’s wood expands and the glue that binds its seams can melt, resulting in — GASP — cracks and open seams. This type of damage not only weakens the instrument, which is why you should never play a cracked instrument, but affects the sound quality as well. Instrument cracks need the attention of a professional luthier and can be a costly, time-consuming fix. For string instruments, prevention is always the best cure. Besides, an instrument that sits in a repair shop can’t be practiced.
A string instrument’s varnish can soften when exposed to summer conditions. Pliable varnish is more likely to retain rosin and finger prints but the real concern is fabric contacting the instrument. The lining of a violin case, or any other piece of material touching the varnish, can leave permanent impressions on the instrument’s surface. Perspiration and skin oil will also wear away varnish so be sure to only hold the instrument by its neck.
If you’re playing and suddenly, it feels as though you forgot to tighten your bow, you’ve been afflicted with “wet noodle syndrome.” A humidity-stricken bow is about as responsive as a water logged piece of macaroni and if you’ve ever tried to bounce the bow…well, then you know the outcome. Humidity can make it impossible to either loosen the bow completely or alternatively, reach the proper tautness.
Summer weather can cause warping, either to the bow, the bridge, or the instrument itself.
- Bow: A bow is crafted by taking a straight stick and applying heat to form the camber, a necessary component for good string playing. Unfortunately, heat can also distort the bow, causing it to bend, twist or even conform to the shape of the case where it is stored.
- Bridge: Because the strings place constant pressure on the bridge, it can warp really any time of the year but heat and humidity will accelerate the process.
- Neck: The instrument itself is also susceptible to warping, particularly in the neck, which can twist to one side or the other (and not necessarily as pictured on the right ;)).
Summer Protection Tips for Violin, Viola, Cello & Bass
Okay, so string instruments can be a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears — not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, not too soft — but not to worry, a bit of precaution will remove summer’s thorn from your side. Follow these tips to keep your instrument protected and in good playing condition:
1. NEVER EVER LEAVE YOUR INSTRUMENT IN AN ENCLOSED VEHICLE, and especially not in the trunk.
A vehicle left in summer heat is an instant violin sauna and can wreak major havoc on your instrument. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving a child in the vehicle, then don’t leave your instrument either. Think: hundreds of repair $$$.
2. Avoid exposing your instrument to direct sun or heat.
If your summer schedule entails outdoor playing, your instrument needs shelter. A pavilion, overhead tent, or large shady tree are all great ways to protect your violin from the blazing sun. While indoors, instruments should be kept away from sunlight pouring into windows and doorways.
3. Avoid humidity at all costs, or consider using an alternative instrument.
Humidity doesn’t fare well with stringed instruments, period. However, when we do find ourselves in a humid situation, we opt to use lesser quality instruments and bows, with at least one backup bow in stock, should “wet noodle syndrome” occur. Whether you own a Strad or a $99 factory violin, no instrument is exempt from humidity worries so take precautions, regardless. As professional musicians, our violins are our third arms. A crack or open seam on an inexpensive instrument is far more palatable than one on our pricier, more valuable instruments.
4. Store your instrument in a temperature controlled room.
String instruments are best stored in moderate conditions, much like Goldilocks’ preferences. The room should be not too hot or cold (ideally between 65-75º) and not too humid or dry (ideally between 40 – 55% humidity). Never store your instrument directly next to an air conditioner or heater. Instruments transitioning from one extreme temperature to another should be tempered, or gradually allowed to adjust to the new climate to avoid shock.
5. Consider using humidifiers/dehumidifiers.
Humidifiers and dehumidifiers can be a string instruments best friend as they have the ability to add or subtract humidity, respectively. A space humidifier/dehumidifier is great for controlling humidity in the room where an instrument is practiced or stored. A case humidifier/dehumidifier, often standard on better instrument cases, works somewhat to control in-case conditions but an actual instrument humidifier/dehumidifier, such as a Dampit, is the preferred choice.
A Dampit is a piece of tubing fitted with a sponge that slides directly inside the f-holes of the instrument. In winter, the sponge should be dampened daily to add humidity and in summer, left dry to absorb humidity. Of course, the seasonal climate may vary in your region, such as in hot dry climates, so use your best judgement. Because we are extra cautious about keeping our instruments in both temperature and humidity controlled conditions, we haven’t found the need to use a Dampit.
The final word?
When it comes to summer weather, if you’re uncomfortable, your instrument is too. The best advice comes from Benjamin Franklin:
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
By the way, he played the violin too :).