All posts by Stephen Beekman

Instrument Maintenance Through the Seasons

String instruments love stability – the less fluctuation in climate, the better they function and the longer they’ll stay in one piece. Unfortunately for all of us New England string players, weather here is anything but stable. Knowing what changes to expect through the seasons, and how to manage them, will help you keep your instrument playing well and sounding great all year long.

What to Expect in the Summertime:

String instruments are, of course, made of wood, and wood responds to changes in humidity by absorbing and releasing moisture from the air. In summer, the arrival of hot, humid air causes wood to absorb moisture –that is, to soften and swell. This can cause subtle changes in an instrument’s tone, but it also has the potential to create more obvious and problematic side effects.

Pegs – Pegs can swell so much in the summertime that they become difficult to turn. This usually happens gradually, and can be avoided by regularly using your pegs to tune. Even if your instrument consistently stays in tune, it is a good idea to loosen the pegs slightly once a week or so in the summer, and then tune the strings back up again.

Fingerboards – Softening of the wood that makes up the bodies of string instruments causes fingerboards to lower in relation to the bridge. In violins, violas, and children’s celli and basses, the change is usually not particularly noticeable. However, adult cello and bass players will notice their string height increasing as summer sets in, sometimes so much so that it becomes difficult to play. For this reason, bassists usually adjust their bridge height with the seasons, and most adult cellists have two bridges – one for summer, and one for winter.

Bows – You may have had the experience of noticing your bowhair tightening up or loosening over the course of a rehearsal or practice session, even though you haven’t tightened it or loosened it yourself. This is because bowhair responds to changes in humidity the same way that wood does. If your instrument has been in a space with relatively high humidity but your rehearsal is in a relatively dry space, your bowhair will respond to the environmental change by shrinking and tightening; if it goes from a dry space to a humid space, or as we go from dry winter months to humid summer months, it will tend to stretch and loosen. By July or August, bowhair that is already a bit on the long side is liable to become too long to tighten sufficiently for playing. If this occurs, be wary not to turn the bow screw too rigorously as you try to tighten the hair (it could get jammed and crack the end of the bow). In order to get it back into working condition, you’ll need to stop by your local shop to have the hair shortened or replaced. Very active players whose bows have not been rehaired recently are encouraged to get a rehair at the beginning of the season, so as to avoid any unplanned playing breaks.

Seams – Summer air-conditioning often creates quite dry indoor environments, even as the humidity rises outdoors. Instruments that are frequently exposed to wide differences in humidity (and consequently, to repeated cycles of swelling and shrinking) are more likely to develop seam openings. If you know that your instrument has been exposed to large differences in humidity recently –especially if it shows other responses to the changes, such as slipping/stuck pegs – it is a good idea to check for seam openings. If you find one, don’t worry – they are simple and inexpensive to fix (though sooner is better than later).

3 Ways to Play This Summer

The more students play, the more likely they are to keep playing! Teachers know that students who stay committed to their instrument over the summer months are more likely to stick with it into the following fall and beyond. Regular playing experiences, whether in private lessons, orchestra rehearsals, or just practicing at home, keep students motivated to continue.

How to keep them at it?

While simply holding onto the instrument and setting up a summer practice routine is a good start, having friends to play with and/or a performance to prepare for will keep practice interesting. And students who are interested in practicing are more likely to stick to a routine on their own, allowing parents to sit back, relax, and enjoy the music!

3 WAYS TO PLAY 

1. Private lessons 

Benefits:

  • One-on-one format allows teachers to focus on students’ individual needs, streamlining progress and helping to avoid technical setbacks.
  • Weekly lessons function as mini solo performances, motivating students to progress from week to week.
  • Private teachers act as musical mentors and models, encouraging students to see themselves as future musicians and facilitating long-term goal-setting.

Best for:  

Everyone! Especially students who have begun to plateau and aren’t sure how to progress.

Things to keep in mind:

For any enthusiastic string player, private lessons can make a big difference. However, some students are particularly motivated by group-playing experiences, and for these students its a good idea to look into small-group lessons or to supplement private lessons with participation in an orchestra or small ensemble. (Check out our current Friend’s Lesson Special, which might be just the right fit!)

Local teachers: contact us for a teacher referral or to schedule a lesson!

2. Summer orchestra programs

Benefits: 

  • Allows students to build friendships with other young players at similar ability levels.
  • Gives students a performance to prepare for
  • Weekly rehearsals give students the ability to check their own progress and make weekly goals.

Best for: 

  • Students who are most motivated by playing with others.
  • Those who started learning with a private teacher and have not yet had an opportunity to play in an ensemble.

Things to Keep in Mind: 

Playing in an orchestra is much different than playing alone or even in unison with others. In an orchestra, different groups of instruments play at different times and students have to learn to keep track of the music in order to play the right notes at the right time. Prepare your student to expect a challenge at his or her first rehearsal, and encourage him or her not to give up if he/she feels lost at first – things get easier quickly and he/she’ll soon find him/herself having a lot of fun.

Local programs:

South Kingstown Summer Strings

Thursdays, 6-7:30pm @ Broad Rock School, June 29th – August 17th

Fee: $72 SK residents, $82 non-residents

Applications available at the shop!

3. Strings camp 

Benefits: 

  • Summer camps provide students with a big boost in motivation and ability that can carry them through the rest of the season.
  • A rewarding summer camp experience is one students will look forward to year after year – keeping them playing so they can keep going back.

Best for: 

  • Enthusiastic students looking for an immersive musical experience
  • Students in need of a little inspiration

Things to keep in mind: 

As when picking a private teacher, look for a camp that fits your student’s interests, ability level and learning style. If your student already has a private teacher, he or she can provide valuable advice on what programs to look into.

Local Camps:

URI Strings Week, July 10th – 15th

More info available at the Strings Week website!