Instrument Maintenance Through the Seasons: Part 1

String instruments love stability – the less fluctuation in climate, the better they function and the longer they’ll stay in one piece. Unfortunately for all of us New England string players, weather here is anything but stable. Knowing what changes to expect through the seasons, and how to manage them, will help you keep your instrument playing well and sounding great all year long.

What to Expect in the Summertime:

String instruments are, of course, made of wood, and wood responds to changes in humidity by absorbing and releasing moisture from the air. In summer, the arrival of hot, humid air causes wood to absorb moisture –that is, to soften and swell. This can cause subtle changes in an instrument’s tone, but it also has the potential to create more obvious and problematic side effects.

Pegs – Pegs can swell so much in the summertime that they become difficult to turn. This usually happens gradually, and can be avoided by regularly using your pegs to tune. Even if your instrument consistently stays in tune, it is a good idea to loosen the pegs slightly once a week or so in the summer, and then tune the strings back up again.

Fingerboards – Softening of the wood that makes up the bodies of string instruments causes fingerboards to lower in relation to the bridge. In violins, violas, and children’s celli and basses, the change is usually not particularly noticeable. However, adult cello and bass players will notice their string height increasing as summer sets in, sometimes so much so that it becomes difficult to play. For this reason, bassists usually adjust their bridge height with the seasons, and most adult cellists have two bridges – one for summer, and one for winter.

Bows – You may have had the experience of noticing your bowhair tightening up or loosening over the course of a rehearsal or practice session, even though you haven’t tightened it or loosened it yourself. This is because bowhair responds to changes in humidity the same way that wood does. If your instrument has been in a space with relatively high humidity but your rehearsal is in a relatively dry space, your bowhair will respond to the environmental change by shrinking and tightening; if it goes from a dry space to a humid space, or as we go from dry winter months to humid summer months, it will tend to stretch and loosen. By July or August, bowhair that is already a bit on the long side is liable to become too long to tighten sufficiently for playing. If this occurs, be wary not to turn the bow screw too rigorously as you try to tighten the hair (it could get jammed and crack the end of the bow). In order to get it back into working condition, you’ll need to stop by your local shop to have the hair shortened or replaced. Very active players whose bows have not been rehaired recently are encouraged to get a rehair at the beginning of the season, so as to avoid any unplanned playing breaks.

Seams – Summer air-conditioning often creates quite dry indoor environments, even as the humidity rises outdoors. Instruments that are frequently exposed to wide differences in humidity (and consequently, to repeated cycles of swelling and shrinking) are more likely to develop seam openings. If you know that your instrument has been exposed to large differences in humidity recently –especially if it shows other responses to the changes, such as slipping/stuck pegs – it is a good idea to check for seam openings. If you find one, don’t worry – they are simple and inexpensive to fix (though sooner is better than later).

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