General Tips For Handling And Caring For Your Violin

Whenever possible, only handle your violin by the neck and chinrest.  I have heard teachers insist that finger pressure on the belly of the violin can cause cracks, especially around the f-holes.  I have personally never seen that happen, but it sounds possible to me.  I would suggest that you hold your violin in two places at once (therefore with two hands) whenever possible.  The neck and chinrest are good places. There are obviously times that you will handle the instrument single-handedly, do so with caution.  That being said, I am not of the school that believes that all instruments are brittle and can be broken by looking at them for too long.  Students need to be taught that instruments are fragile, and that proper care needs to be taken.  But accidents will occur.

Another reason to limit the places you touch the instrument is that the oils from your skin can affect the varnish.  Some varnishes are very soft, and can actually pick up fingerprints in the varnish itself just through normal handling of the instrument.  Some Suzuki teachers have students hold the violin by the upper bout when they place the violin into position.  I personally know one teacher whose violin is actually a different color where she holds the body of the violin to raise it into playing position.  You can literally see the finger marks on the instrument.  I have never had a problem holding the violin by the neck and placing it into position.  That is the method that I would recommend. 

Never place your violin on a chair, or lean it against something and walk away.  I have seen violins accidentally damaged several times due to accidentally kicking an instrument or sitting on it.  Fortunately the accidents I have seen were minor, but I could easily envision a young student accidentally sitting on his violin.  When you leave the violin, place it in its case.  An acceptable alternative is a stand for the instrument which is placed in a safe location.  Even the best stand placed where it is easily kicked is of little use.

Every time you pick up your violin look at its general condition.  Make sure that the bridge is in the right place, and that it is not leaning too far.  Look at fine tuners to make sure that there is sufficient space between the tuner and the wood of the instrument.  A fine tuner can easily dig into the wood of the instrument and damage it.

If pegs do not move easily, or if they slip too much they may need some attention.  A peg that sticks can usually be helped with the use of "peg drops."  Be sure that if you are going to do this you only work on one peg at a time.  We do not want a situation where you have removed multiple strings at the same time thereby endangering the sound post due to unequal pressure on different parts of the instrument.

If a peg slips the best solution is to take the instrument to a luthier, who will actually refit the pegs.  An interim solution that I have seen used with some success is the application of chalk to the pegs.  The friction caused by the chalk dust holds the pegs in place, but this is really not a good long term solution.  Another solution is commercial "peg drops."

Rosin your bow only when it needs to be rosined.  That sounds simplistic, but many students apply enormous amounts of rosin to their bow.  The result is a cloud of dust which settles back upon the instrument.  The problems with this are several.  First, rosin is slightly acidic.  It actually attacks the varnish on the violin.  The less rosin on the instrument the better.  Second, rosin build-up on the string definitely affects their ability to vibrate.  You do not get the best sound from dirty strings.  Most of the time you only need to thoroughly rosin a bow every fifth or sixth time you play, although I have heard teachers say that if you rosin a bow more than once every tenth time you play you are using too much rosin.

When you finish playing thoroughly wipe the instrument with a lint-free cloth to remove rosin from the instrument, as well as sweat and oils from your skin.  Your sweat is even more acidic than the rosin, and it can do similar damage to the varnish on the instrument.  Don't forget, that your bow is a part of your instrument.  You need to wipe the stick of bow when you have finished as well.  Be careful wiping the bow.  The less you touch the hair with your skin the better!

Whe you put your violin away don't forget to loosen the hair on the bow.  If you store your bow with it tightened it can severely damage the bow.  Although I have heard stories of a bow actually snapping due to its being stored under tension, I have never actually seen that happen.  I have seen bows warp due to improper storage.  This is most likely to happen if there is a drop in humidity.

This may sound silly, but if you use a shoulder pad, make sure you remove it before you close your violin case.  Never, never, never force your violin case closed.  See what the problem is.  Thirty seconds of repositioning things inside your violin case can save you hundreds of dollars in repair bills.

You need to pay attention to the humidity that your instrument experiences.  I would rather see you err on the side of too humid an environment than too dry.  A
violin humidifier such as those produced under the trade name Dampit is a good investment.  It costs very little, but the damage it can prevent is great.  A humidifier of some sort is essential if the instrument will be in an environment in which the humidity consistently runs under 35%.   

Strings need to be changed periodically.  Not only is there the inevitable build-up of rosin and dirt on the strings, the acidity of the rosin and sweat from your hands actually degrades the strings.  An instrument that is played consistently will definitely need a new set of strings at least once every six months.

When you change strings, don't remove all of the strings at once.  The dramatic change in tension can cause the sound post to fall.
1.  Remove the old string.
2.  Gently scribble with a lead pencil where the string passes through the slot in the nut and on the bridge.  The graphite from the pencil lead will actually allow the string to slide more easily here.  This will make tuning easier and help prevent buzzing.
3.  Place the string onto the instrument's tailpiece and into the peg and wind it in a manner that the string is neatly distributed on the peg.  A string that is not wound neatly will make the instrument much harder to tune, and it will not stay in tune.  There is also less tension placed on a properly wound string so that there is less chance of friction damaging the string in the pegbox itself and causing it to break.
4.  Make sure that when you have finished replacing the string its fine tuner (if it has one) is neither too tight nor too loose.  You need to be able to tighten and loosen the fine tuner.
5.  Only when the string is in place should you start working on the next string.
6.  Several times during the process of changing strings, check to make sure that the bridge is remaining in the right position.  At the end of the process you need to be sure that not only are the bridge's feet in the proper position, the bridge itself is properly perpendicular to the instrument.

Be careful not to leave your violin someplace where it will be exposed to extreme temperatures.  Automobiles in the summer or winter are very hard on instruments.  Temperatures found in the trunks of cars during the summer have been known to bubble the varnish on the instrument.  If an instrument is exposed to freezing temperatures, allow the temperature of the instrument to stabilize before playing it.  This actually takes a longer time than most amateurs think.  Ten minutes won't do it.  Half an hour seems sufficient to me in most cases.  I have read articles by luthiers that recommend several hours.  There is a danger of the instrument cracking or of seams separating on an instrument that is thawed too rapidly.

Should it become necessary to clean the instrument more than can be done by the ordinary wiping of the instrument do not use furniture polish or alcohol.  You can buy a commercial cleaning solution specifically for violins and polish specifically formulated to avoid damage to your violin's varnish.
Violin care kits typically provide cleaner and/or polish.  Do not polish the bridge.  If you are at all unsure about cleaning and polishing the instrument consult your teacher or a luthier.

If your instrument is damaged, the sooner you can get it to a luthier the better.  A new, clean crack is easier to repair than an old, dirty one. 

Finally, if your instrument is to be stored for a long period of time, loosen the strings somewhat, but leave the bridge in place.  Place non-acidic paper under the tailpiece just incase there is some sort of collapse of the bridge so that there is no chance that the tailpiece will dig into the varnish of the instrument.  Be sure that there is proper humidity in the case.  Place several mothballs in a perforated baggie somewhere in the case (but not against the instrument) to prevent bugs from damaging bow hair and case lining.

An acquaintance of mine plays a viola that is more than 210 years old.  Violins and violas are typically pretty durable if they are properly handled.  Follow these rules and use common sense and chances are good that your violin will still be around long after you are gone.