Your Instrument Changes When the Season Changes
WHY IS MY VIOLIN ALWAYS OUT OF TUNE?
– by local musician/writer Bob Buckingham
A funny thing happened on the way to the lesson.
Freddy put his violin in the car, in the case and left it there while he ran a series of errands. It was warm and dry in the house where he kept the violin most of the time, but it was cold and drier outside in the car. After a while the car warmed up but Freddy left it in the car while he stopped to pick up some items at the grocery store, then got busy talking to his friend Stacy, whom he ran into at the store. He lost track of time. The car got cold inside and the fiddle cooled off. When he finally got to his lesson, his violin was badly out of tune. Two of the pegs were loose and the other strings sounded wonky from being so far off.
Jeannie keeps her fiddle in a stand so she can pick it up and play it while working at home. She will pick it up and play to reduce the stress of answering phone calls and emails. Her home is not humidified and some times her fiddle pegs slip. Other times they get so tight she can’t seem to get them to move for tuning.
Changes in temperature and humidity take their toll by causing the woods in your violin to swell and contract. Since the fittings, (i.e. the pegs, tailpiece and chinrest) are made of a different wood than the top, which is spruce, and the back, ribs and neck that are usually maple. All of these woods have different characteristics that cause them to expand or contract at different rates. So when the humidity changes the maple in the peg box and the peg, which is ebony, rosewood or boxwood, do not react to the same degree to these changes, causing the peg to get looser in lower humidity and tighter in higher humidity. So when you pick up your violin or pull it out of the case after keeping it in the car you maybe be surprised at what you find, but now you know better what to expect.
Additionally there are more damaging results to not keeping your violin comfortable. As the different woods contract and expand, pressures can be built up causing cracks or, under real extreme situations like high heat, glue joints can come apart. Wood is much more flexible when it is more humid and the wood has absorbed water. The wood in the ribs is wet when it is bent. Add the stress of high moisture and high pressure from the strings and the violin distorts. You don’t have to look too long to find old fiddles that have bulging ribs, or a bulging under the tailpiece. At 90% humidity, the ability of your instrument to resist bending is reduced by 25 percent. Did you ever notice if you are playing music outside on a humid evening that your violin does not sound the same as it does in an air conditioned room? Humidity at work, infiltrating your violin and making subtle changes to your instrument. An instrument subjected to these conditions is further reduced in its ability to resist bending and warping.
Relative humidity is how much water vapor is in the air compared to how much water the air can hold before it manifests in a liquid state. This changes with temperature. There is less water in colder air and more in warmer air due to its higher molecular structure. Conversely if you heat cold humid air without adding moisture, you could make the air warmer and very dry. This explains why while it is raining outside (100 percent humidity) and 35 degrees, inside it is 75 degrees inside and about 20 percent humidity. Higher temperatures and lower humidity will dry out the wood in your instrument. Leaving it in your car where temperatures can climb up to 150 degrees will soften the varnish and does not do any of the parts under the stress of the strings any good.
So besides following the obvious rule that if you aren’t comfortable, your instrument is not comfortable, what can you do to prevent damaging your violin? Well, not leaving it in the car is a good start. Keeping it in its case when not playing it is also good. Buying a hygrometer to measure the humidity in your home would help you keep an eye on how dry it is getting in your home. You may also want to get one of the many devices that can be inserted into the f holes or a vial made to be mounted in your case to help maintain the humidity level within the case. A target range of 40 to 60 percent will keep your instrument in good shape.
Air conditioners remove humidity from the air in the house in the summer just as heaters do in the winter. You may want to get a humidifier for your home. It is part of your responsibility as a musician to maintain and care for your instrument. Watching where you put your violin, keeping an eye on the humidity in its environment, and keeping it out of direct sunlight will all work toward keeping your instrument in top shape. You will find that the pegs are better at staying put and your violin will be in better tune if it is not subjected to the vagaries of humidity and temperature extremes. Just as you are not comfortable when it is too hot or too cold, too humid or too dry, neither is your partner in music. It is simply a matter of common sense and a little diligence.
So Freddy can keep his violin in better shape just by remembering that it will not be happy being left in the car any more than he would. Jeannie now can keep her violin in better shape just by paying some attention to the humidity in her home and keeping it between 40 and 60 percent.
Keep on playing. It’s the only way to get better, and it’s still more fun than so many other things you could be doing.