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October 2009

Winter With No Strings Attached

by Rhiannon Schmitt

A single snowflake glistens and swirls past a row of crystaline icicles then lands gently on a blanket of lovely white powder. The air is warm and dry in my cozy music room as I sip rich hot chocolate and sigh at the calm beauty outside my window.

Ahhh, Canada in winter.

TWANG! Fizzzle. SPROING!! Snap. Thud.

My violin, resting on my desk, is exploding! A peg slips, the D-string unwinds. The other three pegs follow suit thus all four strings sag pathetically. The sudden lack of tension simultaneously causes the bridge to fall off to the floor and the sound post to collapse inside the instrument. In only an instant my violin went from an expensive piece of art to an expensive train wreck.

Suffice to say, winter's not so pretty anymore for this violinist.

When the temperature drops to below freezing, as it inevitably does in Canada each winter, there is zero moisture content, or humidity, in the air. This extreme lack of humidity, which is responsible for chapped lips and unmanagable, frizzy hair, also causes wood to dry out. This is all fine and dandy if you're curing firewood for a romantic blaze by the fireplace, but it's murder on violins.

As violins are made almost entirely of wood they are very susceptible to dry air. This is because wood is full of tiny pod-shaped pockets which serve the purpose of storing water for the living tree. As the cut wood ages, it naturally dries and shrinks. Older violins which have had time to dry out or new violins made with old, cured wood do sound better because these pockets are not dense with water but now dried out and the dry spaces create a more resonant tone.

The problem arises when there are sudden changes in humidity. As the air dries rapidly, the tiny moisture pockets are emptied of water, causing the wood to shrink a tiny bit. But when it becomes suddenly dry the wood shrinks so rapidly as to cause potential damage to the instrument.

Exploding Fiddles

The classic violinist's winter dilema of the instrument seemingly "exploding" apart. This is caused when the wooden pegs which hold the strings shrink and become loose inside their wooden hole, which has also shrunk away from the peg. The enormous amount of tension of the strings pulling at the loose peg in a bigger hole causes the peg to spin, instantly unwinding the string until it has no tension.

As one string loosens, the pressure has become higher on the remaining three strings. These then loosen and unwind under the sudden increase in pressure. Soon enough all strings have become floppy and the bridge and soundpost, without any pressure to hold them in place, will fall. Sometimes the pegs will even fall out of the peg box or shoot across the room from the quick unwinding.

This is the violinist's cue to swear loudly.

Even more horrifying is when the violin's top plate, or belly, shrinks too far inward yet the saddle, or piece of wood inlayed inside it and against the grain, does not give. The shrinking wood will strain under the pressure and a grain crack can occur. This "saddle crack" can spread as far as your soundpost, which can affect your instrument's tone. They can be repaired, naturally, but it's not cheap and may affect the value of the instrument. Of course, a violinist's first course of action is to shout a few crude words.

It's never a pretty sight to open your violin case to find it stringless with a post rattling loose inside the instrument, but thankfully you can avoid it. Start by keeping your violin warm. Take your violin into the supermarket rather than leave it in the trunk of your vehicle, even if only for an hour. Wrapping your instrument in a scarf or covering it with a case blanket adds an extra layer of insulation and also helps keep it protected. Even better is to purchase a case cover or a good quality case with extra padding or insulation.

Broken Strings

I can always tell when there's a big change in temperature by how many E-strings I sell in a week! The more strings go out of tune, the more likelihood they will be broken by inexperienced players. Invest in an electronic chromatic tuner and pay attention to the pitch by strumming the string as you tighten it. As long as you don't go above pitch your strings will last all year long.

And remember, even the worst damage to a violin can be fixed. Even the aforementioned predicament is easily overcome by a trip to the violin doctor to reset the soundpost and isn't the end of the world (just a pain in the butt). Try not to get neurotic about your fiddle and spend the time instead making music.

Keep warm, keep in tune and keep well! Enjoy the winter.

Rhiannon Schmitt is a professional musician and violin teacher who operates The multi-award-winning and eco-friendly violin shop provides fantastic, personalized service and serves elated customers around the world. More of Rhiannon's articles, including the full text of the preceding article, can be found at