Don’t Panic!! Coping with issues with your violin or cello
“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.” Swedish Proverb
“A day of worry is more exhausting than a day of work.” John Lubbock
“If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.” E. Joseph Cossman
“Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.” Corrie Ten Boom
You would be surprised how many people panic the minute that anything goes awry on their violin or cello. Occasionally, it will be a legitimate concern like a cracked top or broken scroll but the vast majority of times it is for something that is minor and easily remedied. Maybe part of it is the black box approach that many players have for their instruments. Even players of considerable skill are sometimes unaware of the mundane aspects of their instruments like maintenance and how the instrument is actually built. This is doubly true for parents of children who play instruments because they have little reason to be knowledgeable about them until Billy comes to them and says, “Mommy, this doesn’t work anymore.” As I said, most things that go wrong are easily remedied and usually for a modest amount of money.
Often, the player or parent is ready to throw in the towel on even the most minor malady. I wish that I had a dollar for each time I’ve heard, “I have a bad violin, it won’t stay in tune.” Occasionally, this is code for, “the teacher tuned it a week ago and they had to tune it again this week.” When there are variations in temperature or humidity or the instrument is played a lot it will go a little out of tune – that is to be expected. Professionals tune before every concert and soloists often before every song. Part of learning to play is learning to tune. More egregious tuning instability on a bowed instrument is usually the result of slipping pegs which are typically just a matter of an adjustment at the shop. Personally, I think that a stick of peg dope should be in the kit of every string player just for the odd occasion when a peg won’t hold. Actually, it is not that rare to open the case on a violin and find that several strings are completely loose because the pegs have let go. This is fairly common for a violin that has not be played in several months or if the weather has changed. The poor tapered tuning peg is an invention that is thousands of years old and it still works quite well considering its antiquity but it does need attention on occasion. Take comfort in the fact that this is the most common of violin and cello complaints and typically one of the easiest to remedy.
“Why did I break a string!” It can be irritating to break a string, especially an expensive one. Overtightening by a novice is one reason but their can be others. If there is a sharp edge on a nut or bridge this can be the culprit. A slight rounding with a rattail file will fix it. Make sure that the groove on your nut isn’t smaller than the diameter of the string that fits in it. Otherwise, it could bind. If your violin came with steel core strings and you’ve switched to nylon core they are probably larger and you may need your shop to do an adjustment. A little graphite in the form of a lead pencil rubbed in the grooves of your nut can be helpful in allowing strings to move freely. A huge no-no is wiggling your peg back and forth to get it to hold if is slipping. It’s like bending a spoon back and forth. You will break a string most of the time. I’ve done it several times myself and I know better. Lower the tension on your string, push the peg in and then bring it up to pitch.
The hair on a bow won’t last forever. If you get a good year (or two if you are careful) feel good about that. I saw an awesome pop-rock violinist go through a ribbon of hair on her bow in one performance. Most shops charge $40 to $50 to re-hair so most inexpensive student bows are not even worth re-hairing – just replace or consider upgrading to carbon fiber or Pernambuco. A decent student level carbon fiber runs around $100 to $200 and is miles better than most outfit bows.
Finally, bridges do slip. They get knocked out of place and need to be adjusted. When you put a new set of strings on sometimes they will pull back as you tune and re-tune strings that are stabilizing and the bridge needs to be put straight up. This is not the fault of your instruments and it is something that you need to learn to do and not run to your repairman (repair-person?) or teacher each time. The bridge needs to be centered on the F-hole notches and put straight up and down. Your shop can show you how do this the first time. Here is a good video for if you bridge has fallen down or needs adjustment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pG5tzqNpfQA