Caring for your instrument

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Here is an article written by violinmaker David Gusset that describes basic instrument care for the average player. In my experience very few players know the basics and unknowingly abuse their instruments daily. He discusses the bridge, strings, cleaning, pegs, and cases, amongst other things. 


Instrument owner's manual

It is a good idea to have your instrument examined frequently by an expert (not just a teacher) at least as often as the strings are changed. The bridge should be examined every time the strings are tuned, in particular when the strings are new.

Mechanics and maintenance

The Bridge: Its Design, Position and Function

The bridge is the thin, upright wedge shaped piece of tightly grained maple centrally located between the inside notches (or nicks) of the f-holes. The bridge's three cut-outs (kidneys and heart) and two feet allow lateral flexibility and spring. The bridge elevates the strings and is held in place only by the tension of the strings. The four string recesses along the upper edge are layed out with dividers to allow equal spacing between adjacent strings. The proper radius for the curvature of the upper edge of the bridge together with the string spacing provide adequate clearance for bowing individual strings.

The most important function of the bridge is to mechanically convert or transmit the lateral vibrations of the strings into alternating left/right, up and down vibrations of the less constrained central platform area of the belly. (The area located between the f-holes is freer to move as a result of the cut and placement of the f holes). The actual movement of the belly in this area is a rocking movement from side to side, pivoting along a longitudinal central axis or nodal (neutral) area. When the treble side of the platform is depressed the bass side is elevated and vise versa. Each pitch creates a different rate of vibrations per second. For example, The A String of a violin or viola will be vibrating at a frequency of 440 cycles per second, meaning the bridge foot will be moving up and down (one complete cycle) 440 times during a one second interval.

The correct angle of the bridge

The correct angle of the bridge is achieved by having the back side of the bridge (side facing the tailpiece) standing perpendicular (90 degrees) to the table of the violin. This applies equally to a viola bridge and to the lower portion of the back side of a cello bridge. A violin or viola bridge is finished flat on the back side and slightly chested on the front. A cello bridge is chested on the front, but must be finished with some curvature from the upper edge part way down on the back, particularly on the A string side. As a rule of thumb, the perpendicular positioning of the back of the bridge to the belly creates an equal division of the angle formed by the strings passing over the upper edge of the bridge.

Bridge may tend to lean and eventually warp

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Gut or perlon strings and also the tailgut holding the tailpiece to the endbutton are to some degree continually stretching as the strings are tightened and brought up to pitch (most noticeable just after new strings are installed). Since more than 85% of the vibrating string length of the instrument is located on the front side of the bridge, it is only natural that when the strings are wound on to the pegs, most of the tightening will occur on the front side of the bridge in that greater length of strings. Because of that, the upper edge of the bridge will tend to be pulled along with the strings, leaning and bending toward the fingerboard.

The feet of a properly cut bridge are fitted to exactly match the contours of their locations on the belly. As the bridge leans, the downward pressure from the strings, will force the feet to bend to keep in perfect contact with the table. Continually allowing the bending to occur unchecked will create extreme stress on the waist (middle) of the bridge and will eventually cause the bridge to warp, requiring the costly fitting and cutting of a new bridge. During in the process of tuning the violin up to pitch, the bridge must be examined to see that it is in its proper upright position (back side perpendicular to the table). Adjustments to the angle of the bridge must be made frequently.

How to adjust the bridge

Wine

Perform in the following manner: Sit down in a chair and place the instrument across your lap with the scroll to the left. The right index finger should be extended under all four strings from the far side. The left hand is positioned comfortably around the strings to the front of the bridge with thumb at the center of the crest of the bridge between the center two strings and the middle finger braced against the end of the fingerboard. With the right index finger slightly lifting the tension of the strings off the bridge, gently push the upper edge of the bridge into the cushion of the right index finger the required amount. The right index finger will act as a stop so that the bridge cannot be pushed over or too far.

Cleaning the instrument

Gently wipe off rosin dust after each use using a soft clean cloth or handkerchief. Don't rub. Larger rosin particles could scratch a delicate varnish. Rosin on the strings can be removed by scraping off with the fingernails, then wipe the strings and the fingerboard. Acids from fingers and rosins can be corrosive to strings. Also a build-up of rosin on the strings will hinder their vibration and will affect the clarity, tone and harmonics. Do not use any cleaner, alcohol, solvent, or furniture polish. To keep the instrument looking its best and to protect the delicate varnish, handle the instrument only by the neck and the bottom at the chinrest clamp or the lower saddle.

Chinrest

The best type of chinrest to fit to your instrument is one that clamps on over the tailpiece as opposed to the side mounted type.

Shoulder rest

If you use a shoulder rest, be sure that it is kept in new condition. Always check to see that the metal feet of the shoulder rest are sufficiently covered with latex-rubber (surgical tubing) and that the rubber is not deteriorating; if so, replace the rubber tubing or get a new shoulder rest. Check also if your shoulder rest is bent to conform to the contour of your shoulder, that it does not become bent too far in, touching the back arch of the instrument and digging into the varnish. Remember that rubber is an abrasive just like the eraser on the end of a pencil, so when positioning or removing the shoulder rest be sure not to slide it along the edge of the violin as it will gradually rub off the varnish and the wood beneath leaving a very unnatural looking scar.

Strings

Buy only the best. When you change strings, change one at a time, and take particular note of how perpendicular the bridge is standing while restringing and also during the stretching in period of the new strings (1-2 days).

The weather may affect your instrument

The nature of wood is that when the humidity goes up the wood swells. When the air is dry, the wood contracts. Cold air is generally drier than warm air; however in winter when artificially heating the air in your home, you are heating dry cold air which because of its heat then absorbs moisture from everything and everybody with which it comes in contact. If you live in an area which has extremes in temperatures and climate it would be advisable to use a humidifier in your house and/or a small removable humidifier such as a ("Dampit") in your instrument during dry weather. Consult your local violin maker.

Slipping or sticking pegs

Slipping or sticking pegs can be caused by a change in humidity or improperly wound pegs. To install new strings, insert the ball or loop end of the string through the keyhole of the tailpiece. If you are using plain gut strings or wound gut strings the tailpiece end of the string will have a knot or a loop and knot. Disregard the loop and use the knot just as you would a ball end. Insert the other end of the string all the way through the hole of the peg so that the end of the string protrudes slightly. (Three or four millimeters is enough). There is no need to twist or tie the string, begin by turning the peg away from you to wind the string on the peg. The first wind can be taken around the peg just to the side of the peg away from the peg head, then on the next turn start feeding the loose string directly against the pegbox wall nearest the peghead. (On a violin, start the G and D strings winding toward the left and the A and E strings to the right). You will soon find that while turning up the string you can control the tightness of the peg either by holding the string loosely (to achieve a looser peg) or by gently pulling the string (for a tighter peg). In either case, you must hold the string against the pegbox wall while doing so.

A well designed pegbox has two tapers, one from bottom to top (nut to volute) and one from front to back. The scroll itself should have sufficient incline away from the angle of the vibrating strings to resist the forward strain on the neck. The proper positioning of the pegs allows for more space between pegheads (grouping in pairs allows for easy adjustment of the pegs), easy threading of the strings through the pegholes, and space for strings to pass over noncorresponding pegs.

Instrument case

If you are the owner of a handmade, valuable or irreplaceable instrument, be sure to obtain an instrument case suitably designed to protect your investment. What does one look for when purchasing an instrument case? By far one of the most important advances in case technology to date has been the idea of suspension. A suspension case elevates the instrument away from the shell of the case and holds it firmly by means of a neck restraint and cushioned pads at the upper and lower blocks of the instrument.

Resting inside an ordinary case, a violin (because of its arch and the inclination of the neck) contacts the bottom of the case at the two most vulnerable areas of the instrument, the scroll and the back at the soundpost. If the case with instrument were ever accidentally dropped, the most likely resulting damages would be the neck breaking away along with the button or either the back or table cracking in the area around the soundpost. Further, a case without a neck restraint (a string tie or velcro strap where the neck mets the body) allows an instrument to impact against the top of the case at the bridge also affecting the soundpost and bassbar areas of the table and soundpost area of the back. A suspension case when used properly will help prevent damage to your instrument.

Other features to look for in purchasing a new case are a blanket, rain cover, optional music pocket, compartments or pockets big enough to carry a shoulder rest and sheet music and a well designed shoulder strap with good hardware for comfortable carrying. A blanket protects th top of the instrument from loose bows or rosin from the bows. It should be attached at the handle side inside the case to prevent the blanket from slipping and bunching into the bottom ot the case when the case is being carried. Screw attached, zippered rain covers makes sense to protect the instrument from water damage. Make sure the zipper is all the way unzipped and free of the corners of the case before opening the case. This will extend the longevity of the zipper. Many musicians prefer the oblong or rectangular shaped case because it usually allows more room for storage of a shoulder rest and usually comes equiped with an external pocket for carrying sheet music. A shoulder strap is indispensable for travel, to free up and rest ones hands or to be able to carry the instrument case in a vertical position in confined areas like on public transit.

Purchasing a newly made instrument

One advantage of having acquired a fine contemporary instrument directly from the maker is that the living maker can still be contacted when you have any questions, problems or to be sure the instrument is being properly maintained. Makers know best how their own instruments are designed and built. Most contemporary makers know that it is in their own interest to keep their earlier creations (those already out in circulation) looking and sounding their best, since the instruments themselves are usually the most effective advertising.

(Reproduced with permission of the author)

Contact details

76 seventh street
linden, johannesburg
2195
south africa

tel: 0829035832
fax: (011) 2948849

e-mail: albertus@bekkerviolins.com