"Don't practice your backhand with your Strad" and other tips on violin care.
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
A while back In Edmonton, Canada a heavy flyaway juggling pin collided with the most unlikely of targets: a rare 270-year-old Italian violin. The Flying Karamazov Brothers juggling troupe were performing alongside the Edmonton Symphony when the bizarre accident occurred.
"All of a sudden, one just flew out of the juggler's hand and landed on a violin just behind him," said Jerrold Eilander, the orchestra's publicist. "Some people were confused, some people didn't know what was going on… They just carried on the show and went on to the next thing." Luckily the player of the violin, incidentally also the concertmaster, was reported to be unharmed, and only the violin’s bridge was damaged.
This is one of the many violin accidents I hear of all the time. Just last week one of my students’ mothers called me, her voice drenched in a painfully familiar tone of awkwardness, followed by a sickly sentence that induces instant panic in the psyche of a music teacher: “The violin broke.”
This wasn’t the first time I had heard those three little words slammed together in such a dreadful combination. A particularly traumatic instance was a couple years back when a student accidentally (really, how often do people break expensive antiques intentionally?) dropped one of my violins.
My mind triggered a survival reflex not used since my primitive ancestors fought off sabre-toothed tigers. This alone kept me from keeling over from the shock. “Remain calm,” I thought to myself. “Just don’t panic,” came my next thought, closely followed by, “I’m going to kill him!”
I maintained my composure and explained in my most reassuring voice possible, as not to make him feel worse, that I was sure the violin could be repaired. I forced my teeth into a stiff smile when he showed me the violin, scroll broken off and strings splayed out in all directions. Funny, but in the end it really wasn’t anything to get upset about. The violin was repaired and only an expert could see the fine line where the break occurred.
A reputation for fragility precedes violins to the point that people are nervous, almost superstitious, around them. I see the anxiety in a student’s eyes when they hold the violin for the first time, afraid that the instrument will spontaneously combust or shatter as soon as they touch it.
Though you shouldn’t practice your backhand with your Strad, violins are amazingly robust and will live a long time if you take the proper precautions. For starters, don’t leave your violin laying on the floor, sitting on the couch or perched precariously on top of a stack of books. Cellist James McKean once said, “Always fasten your seatbelt, never trust someone who calls you ‘pal,’ and don’t leave your cello lying around to get tripped over. It’s the single most common cause of damage to an instrument or bow.”
I suggest that players hang their violins from a hook high up on the wall or simply put it back in its case when it’s not in use. Don’t leave it in the car, especially in extreme hot or cold weather, and always keep it in the cab rather than the trunk. Oh, and don’t forget your fiddle on the roof of the car when you drive off. Believe it or not, I know someone who did just that!
In the event that something does happen to your violin, you can usually get it repaired. If the damage is such that it cannot be repaired, most home insurance policies cover loss of musical instruments. It’s a good idea to give a written appraisal of your instrument to your insurance company so you get fair replacement value.
A final word on violin care: Try your best to avoid airborne juggling pins!