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Know Thy Enemy

As a music teacher, parent, or musician it is important to know about the things that can cause the most damage to your instrument(s). There are three biggies that I can think of: hack repairmen, carelessness, and humidity (or lack there of). Each of these presents their own specific challenges but I hope the information provided below can help overcome some of those challenges.

There are a lot of folks out there repairing instruments who should not be doing so. So many repairs that come through my shop, and often the most egregious, are those that are re-repairs. Repairing a bad repair is one of the most expensive problems an instrument owner may ever face. It is always much harder to repair something right the second (or third) time. So how do you figure out if a luthier is qualified to be working on your instrument?

  1. The old fashioned way is to get a referral from someone you already know and trust about whom they use and why.
  2. Talk to and visit with any potential candidate. Check out the work they are doing, ask them about the repairs that need to be done on your instrument and find out how this person would approach it. If this luthier makes sense, and if the explanation sounds reasonable, then you are probably safe; trust your instincts here. The more you educate yourself about instrument repair, the better you’ll be able to judge the knowledge and skill of a luthier.
  3. Give them something of lesser value to repair first (if you have this option) like a back-up bow, or your old student instrument. Even simple repairs can tell you much about a person’s work ethic and attention to details.
  4. Ask your candidate if he/she has any testimonials or referrals. Almost anyone can find someone to say nice things, but look carefully at the enthusiasm in these referrals, someone who was really happy will be quite specific about why.

 

Having a relationship with a quality luthier will make your life as a musician or teacher so much easier. The role they play in routine maintenance is critical to your instrument’s well being (and your peace of mind). However, the more you know about caring for your instrument, the less often you’ll have to pay for your luthier’s help (read my Instrument Maintenance Guide for tips on doing some of your own troubleshooting and care).

Our next culprit is carelessness, ignorance, and downright malarkey. Have you heard the one about the kid who stood on the side of his cello to reach a book on the shelf? How about the time when the kid tripped while on the stage and fell knees first into the top of his friend’s violin that was left on the floor? Or the bow that was left on a bed or soft chair and was sat upon? My personal favorites were the times when sweet Susie scratched “Mrs. So-and-so is a b*%@#” into the top of her instrument and when “Bob Bobby” scratched his name in gigantic letters in the top of the cello he was borrowing from the school. Oh the things we luthiers see!

One of the things I hear most often is when someone comes in with a broken cello neck (a repair we do almost as often as replacing bridges), and the parent tells me the kid said it was like that when he/she opened the case. What the parent’s son/daughter forgot to mention was how they turned around quickly to talk to a friend while carrying the cello at school and whacked the head of it against a post or wall. Or that it fell over when he/she had it leaning against something it shouldn’t have been leaning against. Remember, soft cello and bass cases do not protect against blunt trauma, only dings and scratches!

Another thing we get often is broken violin and viola bridges because the foam, shoulder rest, sponge, etc. was left underneath the instrument and then closed in the case. Having anything under the instrument in the case is a bad idea because it lifts the back of the instrument up and the lid can close down upon it. Doing this cannot only break the bridge it can also crack the top. Getting into a routine when putting away and transporting an instrument can go a long way to keeping the instrument safe.

I have never been in a school building that is climate controlled for humidity during the winter months. Worse still, most buildings are kept hot and dry. Normal, habitable temperatures are not the enemy for string instruments, the humidity level is. Wood will absorb and expel water naturally, but too much of either action and disaster can strike. In the winter we heat the air and the air gets drier, unless moisture is being put back into the air via humidification. The hotter the air, the drier it gets, so when possible keep the temperature around 65 degrees in rooms with wood instruments. I have found that this temperature keeps the humidity at a comfortable level without running the humidifier too much. If 65 degrees is intolerable, a humidifier is a must. Having the right sized unit and keeping it clean are essential. 30%-50% relative humidity in the winter is safe range for instruments, but any lower than 30% and seams start popping, and cracks start forming. To measure humidity, get a quality stand-alone meter that has a guaranteed accuracy range, or have a few cheaper ones and get an average (less ideal). These things can be quite inaccurate.

Do everything plausible to keep instruments as far away from heating sources as possible. I have seen orchestra rooms where the basses sit right in front of the radiators and these basses have open seams you could put your hand into and cracks (on carved top instruments) that require top removal and extensive cleating. The best place for an instrument that is not being played is in its case. When going from one climate to another, leave the case unopened for as long as is feasible to allow the climate to slowly adjust inside the case instead of “shocking it” by taking it right out into a new climate. The best place for a case that has an instrument inside it is a small dark place indoors like a closet. Never place or store an instrument, in or out of its case, in an attic or basement, these climates are quite unsuitable.

All this information is a lot to digest, but taking the time and getting into a routine with instrument care can save a good deal of time and money in the long run. With practice, instrument care becomes second nature. Having a good luthier when there are problems is most important because he/she can be a source of information about caring for instruments and a great help with keeping your instrument in excellent shape. Being patient and careful can keep regrettable “accidents” from occurring and monitoring humidity levels can go a long way to avoiding the need for structural repairs like cracks and seams. Conscientiousness and common sense are the things that will really win the day when it comes to instrument care.