Imagine that your orchestra concert is this week (or perhaps in just a few minutes) and a student frantically reports that their violin is broken. If you’re an experienced string player, then you know the drill. However, if for any reason this scenario raises your blood pressure, here are a few tips that may help you to avoid string instrument emergencies, or deal with them quickly.
So, what is the first thing you do? If your concert isn’t today, then maybe it’s not too late. You climb in a time machine, travel to the not so distant past, and practice some preventative maintenance.
Regardless of whether instruments are school-owned or student-owned, a periodic inventory of each instrument’s overall condition can give you a good idea of what sort of maintenance is needed, and it could very well prevent an emergency on the day of the concert.
Assess instrument strings and replace them if necessary. As strings age, they become false and are no longer capable of producing the sound intended for their instrument. I would recommend replacing strings on well-used instruments at least twice a year. While this may not always be fiscally possible for you or your students, there are some daily actions that may prolong the life of these strings, and you’ll want to share these with your students. The most effective practices include avoiding over-tuning the string, which will cause added stress to the already up-tight strings, and gently wiping off the rosin buildup with a soft cloth when putting away the instrument.
Despite these practices, the strings will get very, very tired. While a string breaking is an obvious indicator, additional clues include when a string produces a notably dull sound, or has visible dents and rough spots on the string itself. Some less objective indicators become clearer as a student gets better acquainted with their instrument to the point that they are able to recognize a change in the feel and/or responsiveness of the instrument.
Should you discover tired or damaged strings, check for replacement strings in each instrument case. If you don’t find any, you might encourage your students to purchase replacement strings, should the situation warrant this. It is also worth considering that you own an emergency repair kit for yourself. In it, you’d likely want to have a variety of replacement strings for each instrument, a (wide) string winder (to save yourself the loss of movement in your arm for the next hour when changing the strings on a cello or a double bass), and a soft lead pencil to lubricate the nut. Always replace with good, quality strings.
When selecting strings, be sure to keep in mind the size of the instrument. Steel-core strings are an inexpensive option that hold their tune very well (and are very popular amongst double bassists of all levels of proficiency). However, their sound tends to be on the thin side. Because of this, I would highly suggest the fuller sound of synthetic-core strings for students with full(er) size instruments, who are experienced enough to tune up reliably. One other thing to consider when choosing strings is their gauge. Lighter gauge strings provide faster response with a thinner sound, and heavier gauge strings provide a thick sound with less of a response. Each instrument is unique, so a light to medium gauge for beginner students works well for those who aren’t quite acquainted with the needs of their instruments. Some sure-fire brands include Dominant and Pirastro, but as strings vary between instruments, I would advise checking in with your local music store for specific recommendations. Here are several good reviews on violin strings. If you are fortunate enough to have great stings on the instrument already, here is a link to help you identify them.
Should you or your students decide that it’s time to replace the strings, try to avoid doing this the day of a performance. Ideally you’d do this a week or more ahead of time so they are able to stretch and get a few hours of playing time before the concert. In addition to being less likely to break, some students may be surprised to hear how much better their new strings sound.
Should you decide to change all the strings on an instrument, be sure to change just one string at a time. This will save you the effort of having to reposition the bridge, in addition to increasing the likelihood that the sound post will remain in place. If you need help in changing strings, there is a host of related videos available on-line. You can find a general video for violin, viola, and cello here, and one for double bass here.
As each instrument is visually inspected for string life, look for leaning bridges, too. Ideally bridges should be checked on a weekly basis, possibly more often after a sharp weather change. When the legs of the bridge are not firmly pressed onto the belly of the instrument, the vibrations cannot flood the instrument as they should. To resolve this problem, gently loosen the tension on the strings, support the legs of the bridge with your palms and carefully move the top of the bridge with your thumbs and index fingers so that the bridge makes a 90 degree angle with the belly. If the bridge is too warped to create this angle, bring the instrument to the local string shop. They can either redress the bridge or cut a new one. When positioning the feet of the bridge, they should be centered with the notch of the f holes. Some slight adjustments may be necessary, but this should be a solid starting point. For further instruction, you may refer to this video.
If you notice that the leather at the frog is worn down, or the tip is damaged, be sure to take the bow to a luthier to get it fixed, as both these instances may cause extreme damage to wood of the bow itself, in addition to compromising the bow’s ability to withstand the tension of tightening the bow.
Be sure to have your students loosen the hair on their bow each time they finish playing, and to avoid over-tightening the bow, as this will stretch the bow hair in addition to causing a loss of elasticity or even warping the bow itself. A good rule of thumb to prevent this from happening is to tighten the bow slightly past the point where the hair touches the bow while playing, and then loosening the hair about a quarter-turn. This will relieve some tension the bow may be facing from twisting. For more instruction on this process, you may refer to this instructional video.
Also encourage your students to avoid touching the bow hair itself. The oils in the hand can cause some damage to the hair. When bow hairs do break, do not yank them out, as this may cause others to loosen. Instead, use scissors or clippers to cut the hair to the frog. If the hair is uneven or has worn universally thin, take it to a luthier to be rehaired as this too can cause the bow to warp.
If any part of the bow itself does break, it is best to take it straight to a luthier to avoid further damage.
Other Issues Requiring Professional Attention
In the process of inspecting instruments, some other issues may be identified that are best left to the professional repair person, and this is an important distinction to make. These include:
Endpins which have a stripped tightening mechanism typically need to be replaced. No amount of rigging can fix this. Get a new end pin professionally installed in the instrument. It is well worth the small investment and will likely last for many years.
Student are very hard on instruments and through careless handling, seams open on the front and back of the instruments at the location where they meet the sides. If these are properly glued and clamped, the sound of the instrument will be VASTLY improved. It is a small investment with a dramatic outcome.
Some cracks are easy to repair while others are not. Many cracks can be handled without taking the top off of the instrument. When the top of the instrument needs to be removed, the cost increases substantially. Repairing cracks will make an enormous improvement of the instrument’s sound.
Sound post Adjustment
The standard position for the sound post is centered below the highest string foot of the bridge about the width of the sound post behind the bridge. Adjusting the sound post can greatly improve the timbre and openness of the sound.
Some of your students may be struggling to keep their fingers depressed into the fingerboard. This is usually because either the bridge is two high, or the fingerboard is not planed (cut) correctly or a combination of the two. On the flip side, some bridges may be too low, causing the strings to buzz as they hit the fingerboard. This is a commonly overlooked problem. While there are a few things you can do to help the buzzing in the short term, this repair should be done by a professional luthier.
I would like to reiterate that issues listed above are best left for the professionals and are not things you should attempt on the fly, at the risk of seriously damaging the instrument. This is where the preparation suggested above for backup instruments will pay off. As is true in so many things in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Backups – The Vice President of Strings, Bows, and Instruments
My last thought on prevention is to suggest that in addition to backup strings, you make a plan to have back-up bows, and instruments either on hand or on “speed dial” for last minute emergencies. Just as the vice president is always ready to assume command should the president be unable to do so,
If you have the luxury of school-owned instruments that you can set aside for this purpose, great. If not, you might come up with a plan. Do you have a colleague that might have a student instrument that could be used as a back-up in a pinch? Is there another nearby strong program that could assist? Can a local string shop offer such an option? Researching these type of options can save time and energy in the days and hours before a concert.
Okay, so there isn’t a time machine, and you have no backups. What can you do today?
Strings and Bridges
Replacing a broken string or repositioning a bridge are relatively easy; you can do this even if with no previous experience with stringed instruments. Check out the string and bridge sections above for tips and links to videos if you’ve never done either before or are a bit rusty.
Typically, when a string is buzzing is is a good indicator that to nut has been worn down. In the case that you don’t have time to make it to the luthier, you can loosen the string and put a small piece of paper or thin piece of leather in the groove of the nut. This will raise the string off of the neck enough for the string to be playable for the concert, but be careful not to let the paper hang over and this may cause even more buzz. Try to be mindful of raising the string too high, also, or you students may have difficulty playing.
Unintended Double Stops
Very similarly, the bridge of the instrument may have worn flat, causing your students to have trouble not hitting more than one string at a time. You can round the bridge out by placing a thin piece of paper in the groove of the bridge.
Fingerboard Falling Off
This can be a terrifying incident for the student and yourself. Often times, the glue has dried out. Loosen the strings, and, very carefully, dampen both sides of the glue with warm water and clamp it them shut with tape. Avoid tightening the strings until last last possible moment, and loosen them once the performance has ended. This should only be used as a last resort, so as soon as you are able, get the instrument to the luthier for a more substantial fix. Never attempt using your own glue for this procedure.
Slipping or Sticky Pegs
Peg problems can be disastrous for intonation. For a slipping peg, it is very handy to have peg compound or peg drops. Simply remove the peg, place a small amount of compound around it, place it back in the pegbox, twisting it a few times, then wiping of the excess. If you don’t already have these on hand, try rubbing some birthday candle wax on the peg and around the pegbox. You may be able to fix a sticky peg in a pinch with some peg lubricant, which you can find at most school-focused music stores. It is a good idea to have this on hand, but you may also be able to rub so pencil graphite around the peg to loosen it up a bit. I would highly recommend keeping both lubricant and compound in your emergency kit. Though these fixes can help, often times the repair is too invasive to be done without the help of a luthier, and some of the issues causing peg problems can be fixed very quickly at little or no charge.
Here’s wishing you a great concert and holiday season.
Anna Smith is a music production engineer in the repertoire development department at MakeMusic, and an actively performing bassist, dabbling mostly in the jazz world. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music with a dual-emphasis on upright bass and flute from Colorado Christian University.
In her spare time she enjoys mountain adventures with her husband Luke and her dog Charly.
With special thanks to Carolyn Hagler.