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Caring For Your Instrument


Instrument maintenance is essentially common sense and a little bit of old fashioned craftiness.  With a few easy to find, inexpensive items and diligence your instrument will serve you well for years to come.



Our instruments, being made of wood, are very sensitive to temperature changes.  The wood expands as the temperature and humidity go up and contracts as they go down.  Extremes in temperature and humidity can wreak havoc on your instrument causing open seams (fixable) or (worse) cracks.  In order to minimize the risk it is wise to keep your instrument away from extremes in temperature.  That means no leaving your instrument in the car (in ANY season), away from heating/cooling vents and out of especially dry or humid areas (no practicing in the bathroom or fruit cellar).



Often in the dry months of the year instrumentalists will use some type of humidifying device in their cases or instrument.  The use of dampits or some such device is excellent as long as it is done CONSISTANTLY.  Another more inexpensive alternative was introduced to me by one of my instructors:


Purchase a plastic soap container, the type often used for travel, and a cellulose sponge.

Drill or punch several small holes into the top of the soap container.

Wet the sponge with water, squeeze out the excess (no dripping!) and place it in the soap container. Put the container in your case, either below where the instrument’s neck rests, or in some other spot where it fits comfortably and where the container will not risk knocking against your instrument.  You can use sticky Velcro, double-sided poster tape, etc. to anchor it to the interior of your case if you feel your instrument is in danger. When the sponge dries out simply re-wet it.



Rosin and the natural oils of your skin can build up and destroy the varnish on your instrument.  When you are finished playing always wipe off the instrument (and bow) with a soft cloth.  Any cloth can be used as long as it is not treated with fabric softener or cleaner.  I especially like the microfiber cloths sold by music stores or found in the automotive department of the local hardware or superstore. 

The fingerboard and chinrest can get super yucky after a lot of playing.  Once in a while you can go over the fingerboard and chinrest with a cloth dampened with rubbing alcohol.  If your instrument’s fingerboard and/or chinrest are made of something other than ebony or plastic (rosewood, boxwood) DON’T DO THIS!  Instead use a very mild cleanser such as Murphy’s diluted with water.  Be very careful not to get either substance on the body of your instrument!


Polish and Cleaner

Once in a very great while (perhaps once or twice a year) you may use a polish or varnish cleaner especially formulated for string instruments.  Shar makes a good, inexpensive cleaner and polish or you can ask your luthier what they recommend. 

Under no circumstances should you use a polish or cleaner formulated for furniture or floors.  These may contain waxes, cleansers, scents, or oils that could severely damage the varnish on your instrument. STAY AWAY!!


Purchasing an Instrumentent




Violins and Violas come in a range on sizes.  If you are purchasing an instrument for your child it is best to first determine, or have an expert determine, which size instrument will suit your child's size. 

Measuring from the neck to the middle of the left palm with the arm extended and raised perpendicular from the body, the following will give an idea of what size instrument is appropriate:


Violin Size        Arm Length (inches)

4/4                     23

3/4                     22

1/2                     20

1/4                     18.5

1/8                     16.5

1/10                   15

1/16                   14


This will determine the largest instrument one can comfortably play, if in doubt, size down.  Adults will always use the 4/4 size violin.


Sizing violas work in a similar way, though smaller sizes are often conveyed in inches, rather than fractions.   Often a student will use a violin strung as a viola until their arms grow enough to handle an actual viola.  The following, using the same measuring technique, will give an idea of what size viola is appropriate:


Viola Size        Arm Length (inches)

16"                    26

15"                    24.5

14"                    23

13"                    21.5


The tricky part is that a  "full sized" viola can range from between 15 and 17 inches.  When determining which "full sized" viola to purchase it is best to play the instrument for a bit and decide whether or not it is comfortable and the sound is pleasing.  The larger violas may have a nicer sound, and they may not, it will depend on the quality of the instrument.  In my experience it is best to choose a viola first for comfort and second for quality of sound.  It may seem counterintuitive, but playing an instrument that is too large for any extended period of time can lead to repetitive motion injuries faster than one can say, "Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy". 


Where to purchase an instrument:


The safest and most rewarding thing to do is to find a reputable shop.  Talk with the shop owner or personnel and use your gut. 


Purchasing online can be done, though it has some drawbacks.  Often you will not have the opportunity to play or have your teacher play the instrument before your purchase.  What may seem like a great bargain may be unplayable.  It's a frightening scenario.


Purchasing online from a place that deals strictly in instruments, like (based out of Michigan) gives you the opportunity to have an/some instruments on approval, has a repair service, has a trade in policy, etc.  Purchasing from a place like Amazon or Ebay does not have that kind of support, and if your instrument is in need of repair or adjustment you will need to go to a local shop to have it done.


Purchasing from Craigslist or the classifieds, or buying the violin that has sat in your best friend's grandmother's attic for the past 20 years can also be done, and also has its own set of drawbacks.  People new to instruments don't always know what to look for or how to identify repairs that need to be done.  The worst case scenario is that you've purchased an instrument worth $100 and it needs $200 of repair to make it playable.  The best way to avoid this is to either have the seller take the instrument to a shop and have the shop look at it before you purchase, or to provide documentation of the instrument's value (as estimated by a reputable dealer/shop) and/or documentation of work that has been done on the instrument. 


How Much?


This is a difficult question to answer as price range is a completely subjective thing.   Some people feel like a $200 outfit is fine and others will spend upwards of $2000 on their first instrument. 

The best thing to do is talk with your private teacher and your local shop, determine your price range, and play (or have your teacher or a shop person play) the instruments within that price range.  Pick the one that sounds the best and is the most comfortable to play. 


All the extras


There are a number of things that one will need in addition to an instrument.  These are:



Adjustable cases are especially good for violists.  Look for a solid construction, pockets for music, and well padded/wide shoulder straps.  Also see if you can figure out how to fit your shoulder rest in the case.


Brazilwood, pernambuco, or carbon composite, either round or octagonal.  Talk with our teacher or shop personnel, it should have real horsehair and be straight with decent tension on the hair.


Ask for a low-dust formula.

Shoulder Rest

These come in all shapes and sizes, try to find one that is comfortable for you or one that has excellent reviews from other players.

Dust Cloth

Something soft, microfiber works very well for this.  It should be dedicated to your instrument, keep it in your case to wipe off your instrument after playing.


At the very least a metronome should have a tuning function that sounds "A" 440.


Metal or plastic, fixed or collapsible.

Some places will have 'outfits' that include some or all of these things.  Other places will require a separate purchase of these items.  Ask the shop, your teacher, or other musicians for  recommendations.



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