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!

The End of the Trip

It never seems we’ve had enough time at the end of these trips. In the last few days, the energy among the volunteers becomes tangible – we can all feel the end coming, and want to get everything done that we can before time runs out.

In our last week, I finished up as much of the instrument maintenance and set up work as I could. I rehaired bows, replaced pegs, changed strings, and cut and installed bridges and soundposts. I prepared larger instruments for the “littles” (our youngest students) who were ready to move up in size, and updated our inventory records and instrument assignments.

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While I was working on instruments in the mornings, most of the rest of the volunteers went out to bike maintenance/repair visits for girls who have received bikes through the RPS Bikes for Girls program. These were led by Jane and Steve Ewashkiw, yoga instructors and long-distance bicyclists, who joined us for the last week and a half of the trip.

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We also held two Eyeglass Giveaway events, in which we gave away reading glasses to elderly members of the local community, and we paid one last visit to the village of Son Tan to lead another weekend art class.

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On weekday afternoons, we continued teaching art and music in Cam Duc. With our music students, we were preparing for a final concert to be held at a local café for family and friends. All the kids were working hard, practicing a lot at home and coming to long lesson/rehearsals. When the time came the concert went off without a hitch – everyone from the littles to the teachers performed, and we even had two soloists: Vy, one of our older students, and Huy, originally a student and now one of our local teachers.

After all was said and done, it was time to say goodbye – and no one says goodbye like our students in Cam Duc. I’ve never felt more appreciated than I do at the Cam Duc farewell party at the end of every trip. There is always singing (songs about saying goodbye and meeting again), gifts for everyone from just about everyone, a giant, beautiful cake, and all kinds of improvised games. And of course, there are always some tears. After a month working with the music and art students, it’s hard to leave them behind, and hard for them to see us go. But eventually, the trip has to end. Early on Thursday morning we gave our last hugs, waved our last goodbyes, and got on the plane to Saigon.

Thanks again to Rich and Wesley, and also to Cathy Jorin, for the photos I used in this post.

Music Lessons and Camp at Son Tan

A 5-day trip to Hue and a brief bout with food poisoning have delayed my most recent post, and there’s a lot to catch up on!

STRINGS CLASSES

In Cam Duc, we’ve been holding strings classes every other afternoon. Each volunteer is assigned to 2-3 students, whom we work with for about an hour and fifteen minutes before gathering as an ensemble. I have been teaching three girls about 10 years old: An, Anh, and Thu. They have been playing for 2 years, and are working their way through Suzuki book 1. All three have a lot of energy and personality – they love to chatter and laugh and tease. But they also have a great deal of focus, and will practice with me as a group for as long as an hour and a half. They love to play and to learn new things, which they pick up quickly. They’re a lot of fun to work with!

After our small group lessons, everyone gets together to play as an ensemble. The younger students will play the pieces they have been working on, then the older students, and then we all play a Vietnamese song called Trong Com to wrap up the day.

The older kids will usually stay for a while after class, teaching dances to the American volunteers and playing games. Sometimes we’ll also go out for sinh to (smoothies) or sugar cane juice.  We must be quite the sight on our way to the café, there are so many of us, traveling all together on motorbikes and bicycles and on foot.

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CAMP AT SON TAN

Last week we held our second arts and music camp in the village of Son Tan. Son Tan is a smaller community than Soui Cat and RPS has a year-long presence there through its weekend art classes, so this second camp was much more manageable than the first. Instead of 300 kids, we had only 100 on the first day and about 150 by day 3.

We followed the same daily format as the Soui Cat camp: a concert, music activities, an art project, and parachute games. As part of the music section this time, we performed and taught a dance that our Cam Duc strings students had been practicing with us. We also had a new art project: we found out that An’s  mom makes gift boxes to sell at book stores and gift shops, and had her make 200 blank boxes for the kids at the camp to decorate with magazine cut-outs. Everyone really enjoyed it – even the moms got involved, decorating boxes for their babies.

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HUE

We spent the weekend and the beginning of this week in the city of Hue – a one hour flight from Nha Trang airport. Unfortunately, much of our plans there were waylaid by a rash of food poisoning. Nearly everyone was sick for at least one day, and unfortunately I was still in bed during a scheduled art show by the students in the Hue art program. However, I recovered in time to participate in a visit to a local orphanage, where we played a short concert and made pipe-cleaner sculptures with the children. Laurette and Rozanne were also able to meet with Phoung, RPS’s program director in Hue, who will also soon be the violin teacher for the new music program. Together they went over the basics of teaching beginners, and will be in touch with Phoung through skype whenever he needs help or advice.

Camp at Soui Cat

This week we held our first 3-day camp at Soui Cat. We found ourselves a bit overwhelmed on the first day – we were expecting 100 kids, but about 300 showed up. However, we powered through a hectic morning and on the following two days organized the children into three groups that rotated through arts projects, music activities, and parachute games.

We started each day with a short concert by our volunteer musicians:

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In the music class, our leaders Rozanne and Laurette taught everyone to clap a set of rhythms. Then we let the children try out the rhythms on drums, triangles, tamborines, and maracas. By the third day, we were able to assign a separate part of the rhythm to each instrument and play them as an ensemble.

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On day one of the art classes, we made layers of colors with crayons, then scraped away the top layer with a toothpick to create pictures.

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On day two, the kids made chalk murals on brown poster-paper.

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On day three, we used an old favorite: pipe cleaners. You can make them into anything, dolls, headbands, rings, or eyeglasses. The kids absolutely love them.

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The children who attend our camps are all ages, from babies too young to walk to teenagers. They are all small for their age. One of our fifteen year old American volunteers will easily be a head taller than a fifteen year old from Soui Cat. The babies come propped on the hips of their older siblings, who might be 7 or 8, and are passed casually from one person to the next so it’s hard to tell which belongs to whom. Parents like to come too. They gather outside the pavilion, sometimes calling in to the children to follow directions or encouraging them to speak to us. When our eyes meet they smile at us, and we smile back, and in their eyes there is something like happiness or gratitude – but of course we can’t know for sure what they are thinking, and we can’t tell them what we are thinking. The only communication we have is a smile.

Most of the kids are shy, but some –a few little boys in particular- can get pretty wild. They gather together in close groups, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, and in such tight quarters they love to instigate fights, pushing and shoving, punching each other in the arm, and tickling. They’ll also run around and steal the girls’ crayons, chalk, or pipecleaners, and try to mess up their artwork. They’re like little devils; it can be frustrating trying to keep them in line, especially with two language barriers to cross (Vietnamese is their second language). Luckily, we are well staffed with students and teachers from our Cam Duc programs, who can give them a scolding and generally keep things organized.

At one point, I picked up one of the boys to move him away from his friends, and he felt so weightless in my hands it surprised me. They are all so small, but somehow it seems a person who is so disruptive should feel heavier. I expected some kind of resistance. But he nearly floated in my hands, and went absolutely willingly, as though he knew perfectly well how small and defenseless he was.

A few of the girls will do a little pushing and shoving themselves, but most are too shy. They hide from cameras and turn their faces away when you speak to them. Their smiles are slow and bashful. But they are quick to learn and make an effort to be helpful, collecting the instruments and art supplies when it’s time. The older ones will correct any young children acting out around them and are a little braver -they smile more quickly and openly.

At the end of each day, we lined the kids up and hand out snacks and sandwiches for them to take home.

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My pictures today are the work of Wesley LaPointe and Rich Ferri. Thank you Wesley and Rich!

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Art, Music, and Bikes

A lot can happen in a few days here. A few days after our arrival in Cam Duc, we had already attended one of RPS’s bike givings, held our first art and music classes for students in the Cam Duc programs, visited RPS’s art program in the ethnic minority village of Son Tan, and made time for a Saturday trip to Nha Trang where we collected art supplies, relaxed at a cafe, and had some delicious vegetarian food.

The Bike Giving 

RPS’s bike givings take place throughout the year, whenever the nonprofit raises enough funds to hold one. In Vietnam, children get to school by foot or by bike, sometimes traveling several miles or more. Because school takes place in two daily sessions – one in the morning, and one in the evening – they cover that distance 4 times a day. A bicycle can make the difference between going or staying home. This is particularly true of girls, whose brothers usually get priority when it comes to making the difficult decision about who will stay in school when finances are tight.

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During our trips, we attend the bike givings as RPS representatives. There’s a short ceremony, speeches given by officials from the Vietnamese Red Cross, the local school, and one of the girls who will be receiving a bike. When we’re here, one of us will usually speak too. Plenty of photographs are taken and we help to adjust seats, handlebars, and helmet straps. Then the girls pedal off for home.

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Strings Class

RPS’s strings students in Cam Duc have been working with their local instructors (who in turn have been studying with a professional violin teacher in Nha Trang) all year long. Our visit gives them a chance to show off what they’ve learned and get feedback from experienced string players and teachers from outside their community. On Friday we walked over to the house where RPS holds its classes to see our music students for the first time and see what progress they’ve made since last summer.

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Art Class in Son Tan

Son Tan is an ethnic minority village located at the base of the mountains about 30 minutes from Cam Duc. Son Tan is a very poor village, and children there grow up under particularly difficult circumstances. Most will drop out of school by the 5th grade.  RPS has been running an art class there on the weekends for about a year, giving the kids an outlet where they can relax, use their imaginations, and relieve the some of the stress of everyday life. The classes also allow RPS to keep track of the children in the program, encourage school attendance, and help support families wherever possible.

At the art class we attended on Sunday, the students made their own booklet out of cardboard and cardstock – a great project, since the only notebooks they normally have are those required for school. Credit goes to Sierra, one of our volunteers, for designing and leading Sunday’s class.

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Thanks to our excellent photographer and videographer, Rich Ferri, for the pics of the music and arts classes!

Hannah’s in Vietnam!

This is my third summer traveling to Vietnam with Rocks Paper Scissors Children’s Fund (RPS). RPS is a South Kingstown based nonprofit that works with underserved Vietnamese children. It provides transportation to school and music and arts programming through three main projects: bike givings for girls, art classes, and a small strings program in the town of Cam Duc in Cam Ranh Province. As part of our trip this year, we are kicking off a satellite strings program in the city of Hue.

The role of the volunteers on these trips is to act as “summer” instructors in the music and arts programs in Cam Duc and to run arts camps in nearby ethnic minority villages (more on those later). I will also be working on the instruments in the strings program, making sure they are in good shape to be played for the following year. It’s an important job, since good quality instruments can be hard to find in Vietnam and most new ones will need some adjustments in order to be played properly and comfortably. The weather can also be hard on them – during the wet season, it rains hard every day; during the dry season it may not rain at all for weeks. The kids transport their instruments on their bikes – most families don’t have a car and adults use motorbikes (or bicycles) to get to work. So, for instruments where yearly maintenance is a necessity under any circumstances, here it is extra important to have them looked over for issues and any necessary repairs.

The airport near Cam Duc cannot be reached directly on an international flight. Since it takes about 20 hours of flying just to get to either Vietnam’s two major cities, Hanoi and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, we’ve stayed one night in Saigon and this afternoon caught an hour-long flight to Nha Trang Airport, then drove about 20 minutes to our hotel in Cam Duc. After a much needed evening of rest, we’ll get started with a busy calendar of activities tomorrow morning.

Some pictures from Saigon:

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More to come soon!

Host Your Own House Concert This Summer!

A house concert is a wonderful thing. It gives friends and family the gift of live music, and musicians get to perform in a relaxed setting for a supportive audience. Planning one is easy – all you need is a living room, hors d’oevres, some friends – and a few musicians, of course!

The Program

Hiring professional musicians is a wonderful way to support your local music community – but if finances are limited, consider inviting non-professionals to perform. Most developing musicians greatly appreciate an opportunity to play for an audience. Reach out to your musician friends or friends with student-musicians. If you are a player yourself, why not recruit a few friends to work on a small ensemble piece?

Next, you’ll need to select a repertoire. Your musicians can certainly help you with this, and may even have specific pieces prepared. If the options are left open, consider your audience. Would they prefer a full “classical” program, or would an arrangement of a Taylor Swift song inspire their interest? Don’t feel obligated to stick to tradition – house concerts are an excellent space for trying new things.

There’s also no need to plan an extensive program, or to cram all the playing into one sitting. Take breaks between pieces, or even between movements, so that guests (including the musicians) can mingle and visit the snack table.

The Space

In a living room or patio space everyone sits on the same level, so it may be hard for listeners to see if they have someone seated in front of them. Maximize the size of your “front row” by shaping it in a U or a circle around the performers. Make the audience comfortable – include couches, loveseats, lazy-boys, and cushioned chairs as part of the seating, and provide coffee tables and side tables for food and drinks.

The Food 

This is the clincher for establishing a casual concert environment. There’s nothing like a table full of food to draw people in and facilitate conversation. But what food to provide? Summer is grilling season, so a menu of shrimp and veggie kabobs, burgers and hot dogs might just be the way to go – but if you’re no grillmaster, how about hosting a potluck? Or, just order a pizza and set out some chips and salsa and veggies and dip. If you’re ambitious, hors d’oevres like bacon wrapped scallops, clams casino, or stuffed mushrooms are great crowd-pleasers.

So long as it’s delicious and plentiful, your snack table will do its job – and once it’s set up, all you have to do is sit back, relax, and listen!