The Care and Feeding of Your Violin
Well, the fact of the matter is that a violin is quite a paradox. On the one hand, it is quite the prima donna, demanding a multitude of elements and tolerances in the right combination for her to sing her heart out. A violin is fragile and subject to lots of bumps and bruises, some of which can seriously alter its fitness for playability. On the other hand, it never ceases to amaze me just how tough and enduring these fiddles can be. They can last hundreds of years with the proper care and can be a family heirloom one might hand down to a descendant. The following is some essential and practical advice for keeping your violin in shape and ready to go when you are.
As mentioned, your violin is sensitive to its environment and has rather a number of settings and tolerances that should be in close working order. This includes everything from the condition of your bridge to the viability of your strings. If you are not an expert in diagnosing your violin's possible ailments, or in understanding what is necessary for a proper set-up, go to a professional and have him or her give it a good once-over. Do this at least once a year even if you suspect that nothing is wrong. You may be surprised to learn about a developing condition on your instrument of which you were previously unaware.
Your guitar-playing friend doesn't have to contend with rosin. However, you do, and you should know that keeping your violin's top free of it is a very good idea. Let's dispense with the old myth that a blizzard of rosin build-up on your violin's top is cool and makes the instrument sound better. In fact it is a nuisance, a value killer, and has no business ruining a perfectly beautiful varnish, which rosin will do if you do not daily remove it. Micro fiber cloths are great for this purpose, and you should also wash the cloth when it gets too full of rosin. While you're at it, don't forget to wipe down your bow after every playing session!
Other cleaning issues include your strings. Use a different micro fiber cloth for that, and wipe down your strings after every session. Be sure to get the cloth on the underside of the strings, where grime really collects. This will lengthen the lifespan of your strings and keep them from sounding sour.
As far as cleaning and polishing the body of the violin, you can do so with any number of violin-dedicated polishes that are out in the marketplace. Professionals often prefer a
product known as Nikco Super Polish. However, keep in mind that it is quite unnecessary to constantly polish your violin. In fact, it's not a good idea at all. Your violin has a wonderful varnish on it that needs to be cleaned and refreshed maybe once or twice a year under normal playing circumstances. Most of the time, you can buff up your fiddle with a soft cloth.
The elements, should you ignore them, will be happy to turn their attention to you fiddle instead. Let's review what is good and what is not when it comes to Mother Nature and your beloved, wooden prima donna.
Air: Remember that extreme shifts in temperature can be even more damaging than either extreme temperature in itself. while encased, should your instrument somehow become unacceptably heated or chilled, place it at room temperature and do not open the case...just let it sit (and start praying). Wait at least 8 hours. When it returns to room temperature, give it a thorough examination.
The more expensive cases (Bam Hi-Tech, Calton, Mark Leaf, etc.) are air tight. Of course, most musicians don't have air tight cases. However, you can also purchase "overcoats" for your case. These are well-padded case covers that provide extra insulation. Both the Small Dog Company and Mooradian make an excellent product in that regard.
I dislike having to play jobs at the sea shore. While the shore is a beautiful setting, the airborne salt that settles on the instrument is both annoying and damaging. It is annoying because the salt makes one's hands sticky, and when you can't easily slide up and down the fingerboard on the fiddle, it is close to game over! It is damaging for the obvious reason: salt! Always wipe down your strings thoroughly and, if necessary, use a mild violin cleaner/polish on your instrument after exposing it to salty air. Even a slightly damp cloth would help.
Water: Well, this is a no-brainer. Humidity in the extreme (and it's opposite, aridity) is not a friend to any wooden instrument. Combine this with heat and you are going to find a case full of fiddle parts, the fiddle deciding to come unglued, at which point...so will you!
Also, in very humid environments, you will find that your bow hair will absorb the moisture, expand, and eventually lose tension. This can happen within a half hour, and you can turn the bow screw to the limit and still have insufficient tension on the bow. (This is where a spare bow comes in handy.)
When you get home, take your violin and bow out of the case and allow them to air dry. Air-conditioned environments will wick away
most of that moisture. You'll see your bow hairs tighten up again, so remember to loosen that screw you were so desperately tightening at the playing site.
Remember that lack of humidity can be just as damaging. Your violin prefers a humidity range of between 50 and 70%. That's not always possible when you travel or perform outdoors. However, you can control your home environment. Have a reliable hygrometer in the room where you keep your violin, and try to create that humidity span as consistently as possible. Depending on where you live, in the winter you may need a humidifier to do so. It will only take one dry winter for your violin to experience seam separation, or worse: cracks!
Sun: Another no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people are careless. Don't play where your instrument is exposed to the hot sun. If you are hired for an outdoor gig, make sure they provide cover or bring your own. Don't leave your case in the trunk on hot days, and don't leave your case in the sun while you play for three hours in a cooler locale. Your fiddle will get the shock of its life when you shove it back into that case and close the cover.
Did I use the phrase "prima donna"? Yes, you bet. Your fiddle is finicky, picky, spoiled, delicate, and thin-skinned, but when she sings? Oooh, baby.