The days are getting shorter, Christmas will be here before you know it, and you may even find yourself looking for coats and sweaters you haven’t worn since last year. Whether you live in sunny California, in one of America’s 50 coldest cities, or in a town where the weather’s somewhere “in between”, one thing is certain: winter is right around the corner and your instrument better be protected! As the weather changes, so does the amount of moisture in the air; if you don’t protect your instrument, these changes in moisture can cause loose pegs, lowered string height, a change in tone, and even open seams that can cost a pretty penny to fix. Fortunately, it’s easy to prevent this damage. From monitoring humidity to keeping temperatures stable, here are a few things you can do to protect your instrument from the changing weather.
If your case doesn’t have a built-in hygrometer, go buy one as soon as possible! What a hygrometer does is read the relative humidity of the air inside your case, which gradually matches the air outside of the case. Although this is a standard feature on many stringed instrument cases, it’s not uncommon for cases to be manufactured and sold without hygrometers. While the accuracy of hygrometers may not always be 100 percent accurate, they do give you a fair warning as to when the humidity levels begin to fall. And, since instruments are at risk of cracking once the relative humidity dips below 40 percent, keeping an eye on humidity levels is essential for any string musician.
To use, simply place a hygrometer inside your case; whether you use a digital or analog hygrometer is up to you. Keep an eye on the reading every time you open your case, and make it a habit to jot down the humidity levels in your practice journal. This way, you could potentially be warned of a change in humidity that could be dangerous to your instrument before it actually happens. Some high-tech devices even sync with your cell phone, so you can monitor the temperature and humidity levels of your case from an entirely different location.
Use Common Sense
Many instances of damage can be avoided by using some simple common sense. If temperatures dip below freezing during the night, common sense should tell you to NOT leave your instrument in the trunk of your car overnight. (But wait, why are you leaving your instrument in a trunk overnight, anyways!?) If you’re a parent or music teacher who is trying to teach a young child to properly take care of their instrument, ask them to think of their string instrument as a baby or pet- would they leave their baby brother or pet rabbit in a trunk overnight?
If you live in an area that’s especially cold and dry, monitoring humidity levels in your practice room may make sense- especially if you’re a busy musician whose instrument spends almost as much time out of the case as it does inside. Some metronomes and tuners include accurate digital hygrometers built into them, while other musicians prefer to use humidifiers to add humidity to a room. If your practice area is actually a part of your home (i.e., not in a garage, basement, or attic), measuring and/or adding humidity to the room isn’t necessary. Since your instrument spends most of its time in its case, adding humidity to a case via vapor bottles, instrument humidifiers, or case humidifiers is key.
Humidify Your Case
While monitoring the humidity of your case is great, it’s only half the battle: you need to know what to do when humidity levels drop below what they’re supposed to be. Most string musicians who live in the Midwest or other areas of the United States with humid summers and dry winters find that they need to use humidifiers between October and April. Note: you may find yourself using a case humidifier for a longer or shorter amount of time, depending on a variety of factors. If your case doesn’t have a vapor bottle, or if you’re concerned about liquid in your case, many in-case humidifiers use gel to absorb the water, minimizing any risk of accidental water damage.
When it comes to humidifiers, you have a couple different options: sound hole humidifiers and case humidifiers. Sound hole humidifers either cover the sound hole of your instrument or sit between the strings and down into the sound hole. These are the most popular. Your other option is a case humidifier, which sits inside your case, usually under the headstock. Instead of focusing purely on the instrument, case humidifiers keep the entire case regulated. Regardless of your choice, make sure you know how to use the humidifier properly. Your music teacher and/or a qualified repair technician should be able to help you out.
Keep the Temperature Stable
A good instrument case doesn’t just keep your instrument from being damaged when dropped, but it should also keep your instrument insulated against the elements. Although all cases protect against the elements to some degree, wood-shell and foam cases offer the best protection. If you live in an especially cold area of the United States, where temperatures don’t exceed freezing during the winter months, consider adding extra insulation with a case cover. Think of case covers as a winter coat for your instrument. Not only will they protect your instrument from cold temperatures, but many also repel water and provide additional storage space.
Remember: your instrument isn’t just at risk when it’s being transported outdoors. It’s at risk all the time. Make sure you’re storing your instrument properly and are transporting it to and from lessons with the utmost care. Finally, make sure to keep your string instrument clean and maintained. If you have any questions about how to maintain your instrument, speak with your music teacher or check out our article String Instrument Care: A Guide.
Photo via brando.n, CC