Your violin (viola, cello),
carefully made with special woods and tools by skilled craftspeople, needs
special care to keep it in good playing condition. Given proper treatment, these
instruments should outlive their owners. Indeed, instruments from the 18th
Century are still played on a regular basis. However, owners must guard
against hazards. Remember that others will use these instruments after we
are done with them.
· Seek properly made instruments from a reliable source. These have
good setups so you will avoid problems with tuning, playing, and sound. Instruments
require regular maintenance, so choose a local shop that you are
comfortable with. Avoid internet items which cannot be checked prior to
purchase, are poorly adjusted, are difficult or impossible to return, and
have poor resale value. Items are
put on craigslist because they have problems. Avoid these!
· If your player is a “beginner”, I recommend giving them something a
little better than a cheap “beginner” instrument. Low-quality instruments make players want
to quit. Lower intermediate level
instruments don’t cost much more and have superior outcomes because they are
fun to play, easy to tune, and sound good.
· The single best thing you can do to get the best sound from your
instrument is to use good fresh strings. The next thing is to have a good
bow. Of course, working with a skilled teacher is required to get the most
out of your music making.
· Violin and viola are sized according to arm length, not age or
height. So it is important to start with
a reliable arm measurement with the help of a professional shop or
teacher. It is best to play the
smaller size if there is any question about being between two sizes.
· Look for a shop that will accept trade-ins when the time comes to
move up to the next size, or to better quality as you become a more
Handle with Care!
· Preserve the appearance of the fragile softwood top because it has a
lot to do with an instrument’s value. It must be guarded from scratches,
dents, and heavy rosin buildup. Clean
the top often, and use a blanket in your case.
· Handle an instrument by the neck and chinrest areas rather than by
the fragile scroll, and avoid touching varnished surfaces with fingers.
This will help to prevent fingerprints on the varnish, as well as cracks
caused by too much finger pressure, especially near the fragile ff-hole
· Instruments and bows are delicate and must not be handled roughly or
· Avoid placing an instrument or bow on a chair or leaning it against
something. Do not temporarily lay a
tensioned bow on a music stand rack because it will easily fall and the
bow’s head will break off. The
safest places are cases and instrument stands.
· Do not let non-musicians or unsupervised children play your violin.
Untrained hands might easily drop the violin or bow.
· Where possible, keep instruments in the open. Place them on an instrument
stand, table, wall rack, or piano, or keep in an open case. Make them
easily available for playing!
However, keep them away from direct sunlight, air vents, and heat
· Remember that cases are mainly for transporting instruments, rather
than long-term storage. Instruments left in cases for long periods are
subjected to mold growth, bug infestation, metal tarnish, and other
problems related to high humidity and lack of air circulation.
· Avoid fastening tape or other adhesives to an instrument that
doesn’t belong to you; they cannot be removed without damage and may remove
varnish. You can usually substitute
a small white chalk mark for position marking tapes used by some teachers.
Transportation and Storage Hints
· Invest in a well-padded case that fits your instrument
properly. Older cases provide poor
protection and in some cases cause damage.
· Use a blanket in a violin/viola case to protect the top of the
instrument from sharp metal edges on the bow's frog. Avoid storing loose shoulder rests, spare strings, or other
items touching the instrument, as this may cause damage.
· Avoid leaving instruments in cars, because
they can easily get too cold or hot, or be stolen by breaking a window.
· Store violins in living quarters, not in the attic, basement, or
· For long-term storage, loosen fingerpegs slightly (1/2 to one turn),
retaining enough force to hold the bridge and soundpost firmly in
· Store bows in open air, because beetles may feed on bow hair in
· Change strings every six months for daily
players, or yearly for occasional players.
Change them if they show much tarnish or dirt buildup.
· Change strings one at a time, to avoid
upsetting the bridge and soundpost.
· New strings always stretch and may need an
hour or two of "playing-in" time before they will hold their
· Violin, viola, or cello strings should
rarely break. If your string breaks repeatedly, it means that the string is
being tuned too high or else a sharp edge or friction spot needs to be
corrected on the tuning pegs, nut, bridge, or fine tuner.
· The type of strings used on your instrument may affect the
instrument's health as well as tone. Inexpensive steel-core strings exert
high tension whereas synthetic (perlon-core)
strings are low tension. I think
steel core strings are a main cause for warped and broken bridges, open
seams, cracks, and sunken necks. Older instruments were designed for gut
strings and are often damaged by the use of high-tension steel strings. Many
people think perlon-core (Dominant, Pro Arte, or
equivalent) strings have a warmer and deeper sound than steel-core strings
on violin and viola, besides causing less damage and being easier to tune. However,
steel strings are generally used on cello and bass.
Cleaning and Polish
· A good rule is to "clean often, polish little,” and leave
difficult cleaning jobs and polishing to the violin shop. Always clean before applying polish.
· Rosin is your fiddle's enemy because it sticks to the strings,
fingerboard, and varnish, where it deadens tone and eventually turns gummy
and black. Keep a soft cotton
flannel or microfiber cloth in the case for gently cleaning rosin from the
violin and bow stick after playing. If you need to remove rosin or dirt
build-up from the instrument’s top surface, use only water on a soft
· Avoid oil- or alcohol-based polishes that enter cracks and seams and
make future repairs difficult. Milky white wax-type violin polishes are
preferred, although even these can build up into a gummy coating that is
opaque and difficult to remove. Do not apply any product, especially
furniture polish, that was not formulated for
· Most cracks and open seams are caused by dryness or large changes in
temperature. A good rule to prevent
damage is to treat a musical instrument like you would a living thing like
a plant, a pet, or a child.
· Ideally, instruments should be kept at room temperature at 55%
· Invest in a digital humidity gauge (hygrometer) so you know when a dryness
problem exists (most dial-type hygrometers are inaccurate).
· If room humidity falls below 35% (the greatest danger is in winter),
there is a risk of wood shrinking, causing cracks and open seams. Protect the instrument from drying by
putting it, case and all, in a plastic bag, or take steps to introduce
moisture. Case humidifiers or room
humidifiers are preferred to “dampit” tubes,
which leak water and cause damage inside the instrument. If a crack or open seam appears, loosen
string tension and have it fixed immediately or it will lengthen and become
more difficult and expensive to fix.
· Tighten the bow stick enough so that the stick does not scrape along
the metal string or else bow hairs will break, pinched between wood and
metal. Do not overtighten,
as it risks damage or breakage and does not help sound.
· Use fresh, good-quality rosin. You should not have to scratch it! Quality rosin has no inert fillers, which
create dust and don’t help sound. Avoid
using too much rosin--you don’t need to apply it every time you play. Once/week is probably enough for most
players. Too much rosin causes a
harsh sound and falls off creating a cleaning problem.
· Bow hair needs to be
replaced if it becomes old, dirty, or worn, does not hold rosin, does not
produce a strong tone easily, or no longer fills the full width at the
silver part of the frog. Bows used every day should be rehaired
every six months, or yearly for bows used less often.
· Avoid touching bow hair because skin oil prevents rosin
from adhering to hair.
· Loosen bow hair when finished playing. Too-tight hair might cause a warp or
broken stick, especially if heat or dryness causes the hair to shorten.
· Cut off broken hairs with a blade rather than yanking hairs out of
the bow with your hand, or else fewer strands in the knot may cause the
knot to fail.
· Don’t let a carbon fiber bow get hot (as in a closed car on a hot
sunny day). The stick may soften, change
shape, and be ruined.
· Avoid dropping the bow when it is tightened, or the tip and (or)
head may break off! Where possible,
play above carpeted floors rather than hard flooring.
· Replace a cracked bone tip because it provides protection for the bow
· Align the feet of the bridge with the inner notches cut in the
· Your bridge should appear to tilt slightly towards the tailpiece.
However, as strings are tightened during tuning, the bridge may be pulled
slightly forward and need to be pulled back. Bridge
feet should stand flat on the top, without gaps.
· Lubricating string
notches with pencil graphite helps the strings to slide over the wood,
reducing problems with keeping bridge in position.
· If the bridge has a parchment protecting the string notch, remove
the small tube that comes with new strings so that it will not rattle on
· Allow only trained, seasoned, skilled repair people handle
your instrument's needs. Avoid music
stores that sell guitars and pianos.
Try to talk to the actual repair person, not counter staff (avoid
shops where this is not possible).
· Get a check up once per year for adjustment and help keep
small problems from becoming worse.
Instruments should be checked for cracks or open seams, and tuning
pegs and fine tuner screws need regular lubrication.
· Listen for buzzes and rattles while playing and have
· If the soundpost or bridge falls down, the
fingerboard comes loose, or a crack or open seam is found, loosen strings
immediately and insert a paper towel under the tailpiece so fine tuner arms
do not scratch the soft spruce top.
· Cracks and other damage are easier to repair if they
are found early, and if all pieces are preserved. If an instrument or bow
breaks, do not allow anyone to apply household adhesives to cracks (it is
unlikely to help, and it makes the problem more difficult and costly to
repair properly). Please collect all pieces, including tiny slivers,
and take them to a repair shop. Often
the repair is routine and inexpensive.