Winter With No Strings Attached
Cold, dry weather is perfect for polar bears and penguins but fierce for fiddles. Canada's Rhiannon Nachbaur offers advice on how to keep violin strings and instruments from breaking in winter.
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
A single snowflake glistens and swirls past a row of crystaline icicles then lands gently on a blanket of lovely white powder. The air is warm and dry in my cozy music room as I sip rich hot chocolate and sigh at the calm beauty outside my window.
Ahhh, Canada in Winter.
TWANG! Fizzzle. SPROING!! Snap. Thud.
My violin, resting on my desk, is exploding! A peg slips, the D-string unwinds. The other three pegs follow suit thus all four strings sag pathetically. The sudden lack of tension simultaneously causes the bridge to fall off to the floor and the sound post to collapse inside the instrument. In only an instant my violin went from an expensive piece of art to an expensive train wreck.
(Expletives courteously deleted for your reading enjoyment).
Suffice to say, Winter's not so pretty anymore for this violinist.
When the temperature drops to below freezing, as it inevitably does in Canada each winter, there is zero moisture content, or humidity, in the air. This extreme lack of humidity, which is responsible for chapped lips and unmanagable, frizzy hair, also causes wood to dry out. This is all fine and dandy if you're curing firewood for a romantic blaze by the fireplace, but it's murder on violins.
As violins are made almost entirely of wood they are very suceptible to dry air. This is because wood is full of tiny pod-shaped pockets which serve the purpose of storing water for the living tree. As the cut wood ages, it naturally dries and shrinks. Older violins which have had time to dry out or new violins made with old, cured wood do sound better because these pockets are not dense with water but now dried out and the dry spaces create a more resonant tone.
The problem arises when there are sudden changes in humidity. As the air dries rapidly, the tiny moisture pockets are emptied of water, causing the wood to shrink a tiny bit. But when it becomes suddenly dry the wood shrinks so rapidly as to cause potential damage to the instrument.
The classic violinist's winter dilema of the instrument seemingly "exploding" apart. This is caused when the wooden pegs which hold the strings shrink and become loose inside their wooden hole, which has also shrunk away from the peg. The enourmous amount of tension the strings pulling at the loose peg in a bigger hole causes the peg to spin, instantly unwinding the string until it has no tension.
As one string loosens, the pressure has become higher on the remaining three strings. These then loosen and unwind under the sudden increase in pressure. Soon enough all strings have become floppy and the bridge and soundpost, without any pressure to hold them in place, will fall. Sometimes the pegs will even fall out of the peg box or shoot across the room from the quick unwinding.
This is the violinist's cue to swear loudly.
Even more horrifying yet is when the violin's top plate, or belly, shrinks too far inward yet the saddle, or piece of wood inlayed inside it and against the grain, does not give. The shrinking wood will strain under the pressure and a grain crack can occur. This "saddle crack" can spread as far as your soundpost, which can affect your instrument's tone. They can be repaired, naturally, but it's not cheap and may affect the value of the instrument. Of course a violinist's first course of action is to shout a few crude words.
It's never a pretty site to open your violin case to find it stringless with a post rattling loose inside the instrument, but thankfully you can avoid it. Start by keeping your violin warm. Take your violin into the supermarket rather than leave it in the trunk of your vehicle, even if only for an hour. Wrapping your instrument in a scarf or covering it with a case blanket adds an extra layer of insulation and also helps keep it protected. Even better is to purchase a case cover or a good quality case with extra padding or insulation.
Then comes the issue of dryness. Players with older violins, violins with cracks or instruments with more likeliness to crack are encouraged to use a violin humidifier. The best kind is the type which inserts into the violin's f-hole. Referred to as a "Dampit," the device is simply a long sponge inside a rubber tube. The moisture is slowly released into the body of the violin and keeps the air moist but not wet.
A drawback to the dampit is that the player must remember to re-wet it every couple of days or so to be effective. Most Guarneri-style violins' f-holes are too narrow to accommodate the tubes, so this solution is limited to Strad copies and other instruments with a larger opening. It also does not keep the pegs from slipping while you play, but is effective in protecting the entire instrument while in storage.
Humidifiers which stay in a case are a good idea for players who are keeping the instrument in storage. The drawback to these is the moment you open the case you have released the moisture. As it is, the best place to keep a violin during winter is in the case unless your home is temperature and humidity controlled.
The poor-man's case humidifier is an apple or potato slice wrapped loosely in a sandwich bag and kept in the case. (Just change it every so often so it doesn't rot and stink up your fiddle...)
Resist the temptation to run out and purchase a huge room humidifier for your fiddle. I've seen violin collectors over-do it and the violins have become swollen and nearly moldy with extra moisture. A couple house plants (spider plants are great) create enough moisture in a room to it ideal for a violin and are just a good idea for air quality in general.
As for heat sources, try not to leave your violin in a room with a wood stove or fireplace. Heat sources will speed up the drying and are bad for varnish as well. Most players leave their violin in the bedroom where temperature is more likely to remain constant 24-hours a day.
If your pegs continue to slip there are a few final things to consider. Perhaps they need to be wedged further into the pegbox during cold months and pulled out a tad during the rainy season when the wood expands. Some pegs need a little extra help with "peg dope." (Really, I'm not making this stuff up). "Peg dope" is a compound which holds a grip and stops slippage in pegs. Ground up rosin powder around the pegs does the trick for some old-time fiddlers, but is sticky and not great in the long term.
When all else fails your violin may need the help of a luthier. If your pegs are misshapen they will not stay fixed in the pegbox and will need to be properly fitted. Older violins' pegbox holes can be ground until they are too large to fit the pegs snugly and would have to be re-bushed, or carefully filled in and re-drilled. Re-bushing is expensive, so pray a bit of peg dope will do the trick.
With some planning you can avoid the worst-case scenario of a cracked violin or one which has come apart due to pegs slipping. Unfortunately everyone seems to have to tune their violins more often in winter. It's just a part of life. Just take your time when you tune your instrument using the pegs as over tightening the pegs is the number one cause of string breaks.
I can always tell when there's a big change in temperature by how many E-strings I sell in a week! The more strings go out of tune, the more likelihood they will be broken by inexperienced players. Invest in an electronic chromatic tuner and pay attention to the pitch by strumming the string as you tighten it. As long as you don't go above pitch your strings will last all year long.
And remember, even the worst damage to a violin can be fixed. Even the aforementioned predicament is easily overcome by a trip to the violin doctor to reset the soundpost and isn't the end of the world (just a pain in the butt). Try not to get neurotic about your fiddle and spend the time instead making music.
Keep warm, keep in tune and keep well! Enjoy the winter.
**Rhiannon Nachbaur operates award-winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio in Kamllops, BC, Canada and is a regular contributor with BC Musician Magazine and Music Teacher International Magazine. Read more articles and shop online at www.Fiddleheads.ca