Music for a lifetime: Educating musicians to create a better world

Stringed Instruments Care

Basic Equipment

Each YOPW string player should have the following materials in his or her case:

  • Rosin
  • Dust Cloth
  • Pencil
  • Extra strings (used strings are OK for emergencies)

Each student should also have a mute, since music assigned at all levels of our program occasionally calls for one. An inexpensive Tourte-style mute is preferable, since it is stored on the strings below the bridge when not in use and is hard to lose!

Every Time You Play

Always give your bow hair a few long swipes of rosin whenever you take your instrument out of the case. If you don't use rosin, your bow will be slick, and you will get a poor, weak sound. Don't overdo the rosin either. Too many swipes will give you a scratchy or whistling sound and will deposit more rosin dust on your violin. If the rosin starts to build up on your hair and become a little gooey, you can use a clean toothbrush to remove the build-up. Buy a good cake of rosin. It will last for years and provide a consistent resistance to create a beautiful sound. Rub a new cake of rosin with a little fine sandpaper; do not scrape with a hard utensil/tool, and especially NOT with the screw of the bow. Don't lend your rosin to someone else. Nine times out of 10, you will end up needing to replace it!

Tighten your bow to the correct tension. Generally, for all bows except a German bass bow, the distance between the bow and the hair at the middle of the stick should be the same as the thickness of the bow stick. There should be a curve in the middle of the stick towards the hair. If you tighten your bow more than this, your bow will be too straight and will lose some of its performance, and it will be more difficult to play some strokes, such as spiccato, which require the bow to bounce.

When you are finished playing and are ready to put your instrument in its case, loosen the hair, so that there is no tension on it. This will help keep your bow from warping. Also, wipe any rosin dust off your instrument, strings, and bow stick with a soft cloth before you put them in the case. If you don't, the sticky rosin dust will build up into a crust that will harm your sound and damage the varnish.

If you must put your instrument down, always put it in its case. Never leave your instrument on a chair, a table, a couch, the floor, or hanging by its scroll from a stand. We have seen a number of accidents that easily could have been prevented by putting up an instrument in its case. Don't let someone try your instrument. No one is ever as careful as you are with your own instrument.

Strings

Strings start to wear out from the moment you put them on your instrument. They can wear out in a variety of ways: Their tone deteriorates over time. They will eventually go "false," which means their pitch will not be accurate, even if you tune them properly, or they will vibrate to two pitches at once! Violin E-strings go false faster than other strings. The metal winding on strings will also eventually break and unravel, which will hurt your fingers and scratch your fingerboard if you continue to use such a string.

If you play an average amount - meaning YOPW, your school orchestra, daily practice, and maybe also a private lesson each week - a good rule of thumb for violinists is to change your strings once every six months. Violinists should change their E-strings once every three months. The strings on larger stringed instrument generally last longer than violin strings, but should also be replaced at slightly longer intervals. A good general purpose string for violins, violas, and cellos is a synthetic, perlon-core string, such as the Thomastik Dominant, which is relatively inexpensive and widely available. Your teachers may have some other suggestions for you.

Basses should expect to change their strings about once a year. A good time to do this is in August, so you have a fresh set of strings when school and YOPW start up. Good options are the Thomastik Spirocore weich string -- which has a steel spiral core and provides good results for both bowed and pizzicato playing-- and the D'Addario Orchestra medium gauge, which provides a quick response for bowed playing. Your teacher may have some other suggestions, as well.

With a little care, anyone can mount a string properly. First, apply a little pencil lead to the grooves in the bridge and in the nut next to the peg box. This deposits a little graphite to lubricate these contact points. Then attach the string securely to the tailpiece or fine tuner attached to the tailpiece. Thread the string through the hole in the peg, extending the string far enough through the peg to fold down over the shank of the peg, but not so long that the end touches the peg box. Make sure to fold the end of the string, so that it faces the knob of the peg. Then begin to wind the string onto the peg by turning the peg away from you. Carefully wrap the string evenly over the extended end, from the center of the peg box toward the knob of the peg, making sure that the string does not touch the actual edge of the peg box. When you are finished mounting your strings, your bridge may have been tilted towards the scroll of the instrument. Grasp the top edges of the bridge between your thumb and forefinger on each side, placing the heels of your hands against the instrument, and carefully pull the bridge vertical again. If you have never done this before, please ask your teacher or a coach to show you how.

Change only one string at a time. If you take all your strings off at the same time, the sound post inside your instrument may fall, and it will also be difficult to get your bridge into the proper alignment. If your sound post falls, you will have to take your instrument to a violin shop to have it reseated, before you can tighten your strings. It is easy to avoid this problem by changing only one string at a time.

Basses have a winding mechanism, which makes the procedure a little more complicated, but the same general rules apply to changing your strings. If you are uncomfortable changing your bass strings, please ask your teacher or a luthier to do the work and/or show you how it's done.

Bow Maintenance

Bow hair wears out over time and needs to be replaced. Your bow hair is past its prime if you notice any of the following:

  • The bow doesn't grip the strings as easily as it used to, or produces a softer tone.
  • The bow hair is a darker color closer to the frog, due to a deposit of oil from your fingers.
  • The hair on your bow does not extend all the way across the metal ferrule that holds the hair onto the bow's frog. You may notice a number of broken hair stubs where the hair used to be.

Never touch the hair of your bow. You will leave a slick spot from oils on your fingers that will make it difficult both to produce a good sound and for rosin to stick to the hair. New bow hair should perform well for six months to a year, depending on how much you play and the quality of hair on the bow. We recommend that you have a violin shop or bow maker rehair your bow, to make sure that good quality hair is used, that it is placed evenly across the frog, that it is cut to the correct length, and that the correct amount of hair is used. Ask to have your bow checked for warps while it is being rehaired. The shop should be able to straighten any bad curves in the bow and make any other repairs, such as broken tips, or poorly fitting end screws.

The bow can be fragile, and the string player who has not broken the ivory tip of the bow or even broken off the head of a bow is rare. Do not wave your bow around, and avoid knocking the head of the bow against anything. Bows can be repaired, but the expense of repairing a broken head is often more than the value of the bow itself. Even with this repair, the value of the bow will never be the same as it was before it was damaged. The ivory tip is not simply decoration. It protects the head and should be repaired, if it is broken.

The Bridge

Proper alignment of the bridge is important to get the best sound out of your instrument. Looking at the top of your instrument, the bridge should be parallel to the end of your fingerboard -- otherwise you won't be able to play in tune! -- and should be placed on or near an imaginary line that runs between the notches in the f-holes of your instrument. The strings should also be centered over the fingerboard and not “skewed” to the left or right.

When you look at your instrument from the side, the face of the bridge that faces the bottom end of your instrument should form a right angle with the body of the instrument, and bridge should not have any curves in it. If the bridge tips in one direction or the other, the feet of the bridge may have a gap on one side, which will prevent it from transmitting sound to the instrument properly. (The bridge will often be tipped after you have changed strings.) A tipped bridge may warp over time (have a curve)and will need to be replaced.

Depending on the season, the distance between the strings and the fingerboard may change, making it more difficult to play the instrument in the summer. Some players have a summer and a winter bridge, but this is not necessary in most cases. Because of the size of the instrument and the large changes that often take place in this distance, basses are often set up with a bridge whose height can be adjusted with built in screws. You should ask your teacher or a luthier who specializes in basses to help you with this adjustment, if necessary.

If your bridge is out of alignment, we can often help you get it back into roughly the position it should be in at rehearsal. Please see your conductor or one of the teachers helping at rehearsal for help. However, you should go to a violin shop for expert adjustments to your bridge or to have a new bridge cut, if necessary.

If your bridge should ever fall over completely, do not attempt to reset it yourself, and do not attempt to glue the bridge to the instrument! The odds are good that the sound post (see below) may also have moved when the bridge collapsed, and you will need to take your instrument to a violin shop to have them position the bridge and check your sound post alignment.

The Fingerboard

Your fingerboard will need some attention from time to time. It will gradually build up a deposit of dirt that should be cleaned very carefully with a cloth moistened slightly with alcohol. Be very careful not to let any alcohol come in contact with the varnish of the instrument. In the summer, higher humidity can make the fingerboard swell and bend slightly towards the body of the instrument. You may need to place an arch protector between the fingerboard and body when you are not playing to help maintain the proper position of the fingerboard. Ask your luthier whether you need an arch protector and how to use one. Finally, over time, the fingerboard will wear where you place your fingers and will start to develop shallow recesses. These indentations will make it difficult for you to play in tune, because the string may be stopped at the edge of the indentation and not where you place your finger. Inspect your fingerboard from time to time, and when you notice that it is not perfectly smooth, take your instrument to a luthier and ask him to plane the fingerboard. This repair should last several years before you have to have it repeated.

Pegs

The tuning pegs on your instrument may either be too hard to turn or may not stay in place after you have tuned your strings. In most cases, these problems may be corrected by unwinding the string from the peg, removing the peg from the instrument, and applying a little inexpensive peg compound to the surfaces that contact the peg box. Replace the peg on te? instrument, move it back and forth to test how well it turns, and then rewind the string onto the peg.

If peg compound does not solve your problem, a poorly fitting peg or uneven wear in a peg box hole may be causing the difficulty. These problems may require replacement of pegs or rebushing the peg box holes. You will need to consult a qualified luthier to diagnose and correct these problems. Never attempt to force a peg that is severely stuck and won't move. Rather than risk damaging your instrument, take it to a violin shop, and ask a technician to fix the problem.

Fine Tuners

It is best to have tuners that do not have a lever under the tailpiece. However, if your instrument is equipped with this kind of tuner, make sure that the tuner(s) on your tailpiece are adjusted, so that they do not touch the top of your instrument. If they touch, they will scratch your instrument and interfere with proper tone production. Adjust the tuners, so that they are at about the middle of their range, so that you may adjust your strings up and down easily. If the tuner is hard to turn, remove the screw top, and apply the smallest bit of vaseline or lithium grease to the screw threads.

Chin & Shoulder Rests

A wide variety of chin and shoulder rests is available for violins and violas. Every player is built differently, so we can't recommend any specific model. A combination that works for one musician may be uncomfortable and awkward for another.

Chinrests

Chinrests come in a variety of sizes, shapes, heights, and mounting positions (over the tail piece or to its left), so you may have to try several to find one that is comfortable for you and makes it easy to have good posture. (For example, shorter players sometimes find rests that are mounted over the tailpiece a better option, since this will allow you to use more of your bow.) Some chinrest models come in a variety of woods. Don't select yours based simply on appearance, since the density of the chinrest wood and the size of the rest can have an effect on the sound of your instrument. Try several comfortable rests, and see which one makes your instrument sound the best.

A few do's and don'ts:

  • DO be sure that the chinrest is on securely and does not touch the tailpiece. (Otherwise, you might experience a very unpleasant buzz!) If your chinrest is loose, take it to a shop to have a technician tighten it, or invest in an inexpensive chinrest key, so that you can tighten it yourself. On the other hand...
  • DON'T overtighten your chinrest. Tighten it so that it is secure but no further. Otherwise, you may restrict the vibration of your instrument or damage it.
  • DON'T use tools that weren't designed for chinrest adjustment. Otherwise you are likely to scratch or otherwise damage your instrument.
  • DO let a technician at a violin shop mount your chinrest, if possible. A technician will be able to adjust the cork feet under the rest to fit your violin or viola perfectly and will know where to mount it. The feet of the rest should sit over the rib and not further in over the arching. where it will restrict the vibration of your instrument.
  • DO keep the chinrest clean and free of dust, dirt and sweat. A dirty chinrest can result in an infected neck area.

Shoulder Rests

Teachers and performers can have very different opinions on the type of shoulder rest to use, or whether to use one at all. (Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, for instance, don't use shoulder rests; Joshua Bell does use one.) Without getting into this debate, there are generally three types of shoulder support:

  • None. The instrument sits on the collar bone.
  • Firm shoulder rest that clips onto the edges of the instrument. The Kun is a good example.
  • Soft rest or sponge that sits on the back of the instrument. The Playonair is a popular model.

A wide variety of shoulder rests is available online, and you may want to inspect a website to get ideas. However, we strongly recommend that you get advice from your teacher and work with a technician at a violin shop to fit a chinrest and shoulder rest combination that will be comfortable for you.

A shoulder rest that has “legs” should have enough clearance so as to not touch the back of the violin or viola. Check all hardware (screws, etc.) and make sure that they are properly tightened. If rubber tips are torn or severely worn out, replace immediately. Failure to do so can result in a scrape on the back of the instrument. If using a pad, foam, or air pad, check rubber bands to make sure they are in good shape and not about to break or snap.

Adjustments

Your instrument may need adjustments from time to time. There is a wooden dowel inside your instrument that is force-fitted between the top and bottom of the instrument, near the right foot of the bridge. This is the sound post, and its placement affects the strength and quality of your instrument's sound and the balance between strings. If the instrument is seriously jarred, the sound post can be moved out of alignment. Also, as the seasons change and your instrument expands and contracts, your sound post may need to be realigned. Do not attempt to make these adjustments yourself. Take your instrument to a violin shop, and work with a trained technician to make this adjustment. You will need to try out your instrument after the adjustment, and often it takes several tries to get the balance between strings, the resonance, and the brightness of the sound just the way you want it. You should be able to accomplish this in a single visit to the shop.

If the soundpost ever becomes completely dislodged and rattles around inside your instrument, immediately loosen your strings and take the instrument to a luthier to have the soundpost reseated. If you do not loosen the strings, the tension of the strings may push the unspupported bridge through the top of your instrument and result in a nasty and expensive repair.

Structural Damage

Since your instrument is made of wood, its parts will expand or contract when it is exposed to changes in temperature or humidity. Try to protect your instrument from extreme changes in temperature, to avoid damage. Don't store it in an attic or a cold or damp basement. Don't leave your case near a heat register or radiator or in the sun. On the rare occasions when you are asked to perform outside, make sure you are shielded from the direct sun, and avoid playing outside when it is hot or cold. It's always a bad practice to leave your instrument in a car, but it's especially dangerous in hot or cold weather. Keep the humidifier in your case filled with water (if your case has this feature) or use a Dampit to protect your instrument from lack of humidity in winter.

Open Seams

Your instrument is glued together with a special type of violin maker's glue that is formulated to protect your instrument. If there is a lot of expansion or contraction of your instrument's parts, the glue will crack before the wooden parts of your instrument break. However, if a glued seam breaks open, your instrument can produce a buzz, or you may notice a loss of tone power. If you have either of these problems, you can check for an open seam by gently tapping a knuckle on the top or bottom of your instrument over the seams at the edges. An open seam will produce an obvious rapping sound. You can also visually inspect the instrument for gaps between wooden parts or flakes of glue around a seam. If you suspect you have an open seam, do not attempt to reglue the instrument yourself with ordinary household glue. Doing so may result in damage to your instrument, since this glue will not break under stress. Take your instrument to a violin shop, where they will clean out the old glue, apply some new violin maker's glue, and clamp the seam while the glue dries. This is an inexpensive repair. The shop will probably need to keep the instrument overnight. Do not delay in having an open seam repaired, because the open seam can create tensions in the wood of your instrument that may cause more serious problems, such as cracks in the wood.

Cracks and Dings

On rare occasions, other problems may develop. For example, your instrument may develop a crack, a corner may be knocked off, an edge may be splintered, or your varnish may be scratched. A good violin shop can do expert repairs that will make such damage all but invisible.

A violin shop may do minor repairs on basses, such as regluing seams, but may be reluctant to take on more major repairs, because of the amount of room that a bass takes up in their shop. Basses needing anything more complicated should probably be taken to a luthier who specializes in basses. One bass luthier in the Washington area is listed at the end of this page. Your teacher may have some other suggestions.

Important: You should take your instrument to a qualified repair person as soon as you notice an open seam or a crack. If left untreated, these conditions can worsen, and a minor repair can become a major one.

Cleaning Your Instrument

Avoid touching the varnish of your instrument, if at all possible, to help preserve the finish. You should carefully wipe your instrument with a soft cloth daily after you have finished playing to remove any rosin dust. There are some commercial products available for this, but a clean soft rag or handkerchief will also work. However, over time a film or sticky rosin deposit may develop on your instrument, and you may wish to clean or polish it to restore a shine to its varnish. Do not clean or polish your instrument with any wax or polishing product like Pledge or furniture wax. These products can form a gooey coat that will harm the sound of your instrument and/or damage its varnish. It will also attract rosin dust! Use only a product designed for stringed instruments. Ask at a violin shop what they use in their shop, and buy what they use. You may also order good polishes online. Applying a cleaner and then a polish will give the best results. You may also ask to have your instrument polished if you need to take it in to a shop for repairs.

Similarly, if you notice a crust of rosin on your bow stick, you may wish to clean off this material. However, be extremely careful not to let any cleaning or polishing agent touch the hair, which will become slick and unplayable in the section that becomes wet. Always clean your bowstick after tightening your bow, so that the hair is nowhere near the stick.

Cars

We have mentioned this topic elsewhere, but it deserves its own section. Do not leave your instrument in an unattended vehicle. Ever. Even if it's in a locked trunk and out of sight. There are two important reasons for this. First, the extremes of temperature that can be present in a closed car can damage your instrument. You should minimize the changes in temperature and humidity through which your instrument has to pass, and cars are a particular danger in this regard. Second, there is always the danger of theft from your vehicle. Many insurance policies will not cover the loss of your instrument if you have left it in a car, because of its vulnerability in this situation. Do yourself and your instrument a favor, and take it with you when you leave your car.

Cases

A case is not just a tote that allows you to carry your instrument from place to place or to store your supplies. It provides protection from the elements and from physical damage. Cases can be flimsy or provide extraordinary protection and can range in price from $80 to well over $1000. Generally, cellists should invest in a hard shell case, as soon as you can afford it, and bass players should select a well-padded soft case with a variety of handles that allow you to support the instrument comfortably while carrying or loading it.

Violinists and violists have a lot more variety available to them and as a result have more decisions to make in selecting a case. Generally, more expensive cases provide more durability, better protection, and more luxurious materials. There are a several criteria you can consider in deciding how much to spend on a case.

First, decide how long you'll have the instrument. If your student is in a fractional-size instrument, you probably purchased it in a package, along with a bow and a case. The chances are good that the case you received will provide good service until your student is ready to move up to the next size instrument. Once your student has moved into a full-sized instrument, you can expect to have the case for a longer period, and you may want to invest in a higher quality case. If you have invested in a reasonably good instrument, it is particularly important to protect your investment from the elements and physical trauma. One manufacturer of high-end cases tests and improves his product by leaving cases outside in the rain, running cars over them, and even setting off explosives near them. Another provides an example of an instrument being left on the roof of a car and having it fall off on an expressway at 70 mph, with no damage to the instrument. You may not subject your instrument to these kinds of conditions and will have to decide what level of risk and price are comfortable for you. However, you should expect to spend several hundred dollars for a case of reasonable quality and durability. Remember that durability and protection are two different things. A case that is solidly built may last a long time but may not provide the best cushioning and protection from trauma. A case that does a good job at the latter may not last long. The trick is to find a case that does well at both.

There are a number of cheaper knock-off cases available that appear as well-made as some of the more expensive models. However, these cases typically don't last long: Straps rip off of covers, bow spinners and hygrometers come loose from the lid, and accessory pocket lids wear and break off from their compartments. In the long run, you will probably spend less money by buying a quality case that will give you many years of service. You'll also have a sturdier product that will provide greater protection as long as you own the case.

In addition to durability and quality of protection, some features you might look for are a “suspension” design for supporting the instrument, weather flaps on the case cover, and a wick (better) or bottle-type hygrometer/humidifier. If you force accessories or music into the case, you risk damaging your instrument, so make sure that there is enough room in the case to store your shoulder rest and other accessories securely. If you must spend much time outside during the winter, consider buying an insulated case cover.

There are several good manufacturers with cases in a variety of price ranges. Among these, in general order of increasing price, are Bobelock, American Case Company, Bam, Weber, and Musafia. You can purchase any of these products on-line, but it is usually wise to inspect cases in person at a violin shop, particularly if you have an odd-shaped instrument that may be hard to fit. A staff member at the shop should be able to provide good advice on the qualities of the various cases they sell.

Finally, keep your case clean and tidy. You can occasionally vacuum the interior to get rid of dust, hair, etc.

Supplies

We have mentioned a variety of supplies that you may need from time to time throughout this page. There are a number of sources from which you may obtain these materials, including local general purpose music stores, violin shops, and on-line outlets. These vary in terms of convenience, price, and the availability of expert help in selecting your supplies. You will need to determine the importance of these features in selecting which source to use. Although the following list is not exhaustive, it is a good sample of sources that YOPW members have used with good results:

Local General Purpose Music Store

Luthiers and Shops for Strings, Repairs, and Supplies

On-line Outlets for Strings and Supplies

More About Instrument Care

See Peter Zaret's excellent set of articles on caring for and purchasing stringed instruments and bows.

Thanks to Lauren Babicz, Ann Marlowe, Patty Plombon, and Brobst Violin Shop for their suggestions that helped improve this guide.