Happy Instrument, Happy Life? 5 Tips for keeping your instrument in happy this winter.
So, we're now solidly into this new year and it's bloody freezing! After the climate in Hong Kong I'm feeling the chill more this year than ever and if I'm feeling it, then I wonder if my cello (Beast) is too? This year my timetable is set to spread evenly from here to Norway which let’s face it makes Yorkshire seem mild, so I need to know that I'm looking after my cello as best I can, and from the feedback I got from all of you, I'm not the only one.
When we start our training, we're given the basics; "loosen your bow before you put it back in its case", "clean that rosin off your cello so it doesn't stain", "your fingerboard is filthy, clean it now!" (I use surgical spirit to clean mine and my strings btw). But the big things like how to prevent cracks or protecting it from a case that's on its last legs, all come when it's a bit too late or your poor friends found out the hard way and lets you know in advance. So, before I'm knocking on my Luthier's door again telling him Beast is making some strange rattling noises, I thought I'd delve in deep and give us all a few handy tips for keeping our instruments happy and in one piece this winter.
1. Keep your case closed
We've all done it. We're only taking a 15mins practice break, there's no point closing the case properly because that's effort. Apparently not so... according to Casswell’s Strings "Ambient air and home heating can dry out an instrument and cold air can make it crack. A closed case will keep your instrument secure and reduce the influence of temperature."
Now, there are such things as cello stands. In Hong Kong, I had one in my studio and it came in really useful when teaching and needing somewhere quick and easy to put the cello whilst focusing on the student. But I personally would really advise against placing it on one of these permanently whilst it's
within the home. The UK is well known for its ever-unpredictable weather conditions and with the wood adapting to the surrounding temperature, there's just too much change which can only end in damage to the cello.
2. Don't keep your instrument in the car
Well this one is terrifying anyway and I think for the majority of us it's something we wouldn't do unless there was no way to avoid it. Firstly, the risk of it being seen and stolen is so high but also the temperatures in a car can fluctuate dramatically especially in winter when it's freezing so we crank the heating up high, step in the shops leaving the cello in there and the car gets instantly cold again. After long periods of time this routine starts to affect the instrument. Although, sometimes this situation just can't be avoided, trust me I know. But it is one to bear in mind.
3. Where are you storing your instrument?
We all have that spot where the instrument goes but how much have we actually thought about how safe that place during cold winters and hot summers? When researching this article, I realised I hadn't really ever thought about it. Beast snuggles down nicely by the fireplace (which is sealed and purely decorative). It's not near a radiator and it's not in direct sunlight. These factors can cause the wood in your cello to expand and contract ultimately causing seams to open.
Have you ever walked into the practice room first thing in the morning, got the cello out of its case and *facepalm* a strings slipped or worse snapped? This can usually be a good (but expensive) indicator that your instrument is suffering severely from the cold as it usually means that your pegs are expanding or contracting too much for the string to withstand. So just make sure you have a spare set of strings on hand.
5. Keep an eye on the humidity
I've left this one till last because really this is the main factor in why this period causes us string players such a headache. During the winter, many homes have the heating on and windows rarely open meaning we reduce the amount of air circulation, causing moisture to become trapped, causing humidity. So, it's worth investing in a hygrometer to regulate the conditions for your instrument.
A word from the Experts:
"During this season the air is often extremely dry. It's important to keep an eye on the humidity, you want to be ideally somewhere between 40 and 70%, if you're dropping toward 35% then that's where you start to find problems. Keep an eye on your seams, it's going to be during this weather that they start to appear due to wood shrinkage. This is also a popular time where I see a lot of musicians come in to get their sound post altered as the sound has changed, in most cases this is due to the humidity. A good idea is to buy yourself a hygrometer so that you can constantly keep the conditions right for your instrument."
Dave Slight, Ayres Violins
So, I hope this helps arm you in your battle against winter. The best parting piece of advice I can give you is, find yourself a brilliant Luthier. Ask them questions if you don't understand, or get them to explain what they're doing. The good ones will only be too happy to talk you through it and once you've found on your trust it will just save you so much stress when your instrument gets sick.
But now, I want to hear from you. What do you do to protect your instrument from the humidity? More importantly I want to hear from those of you using humidifier's in your cello or bass. Do they work? Would you recommend it? Comment, share and let's find out about these things before we're paying a hefty restoration bill.
Until next time, happy playing!