Here are some guidelines — When To take care of 7 aspects of your fiddle “equipment”. Keep in mind, though, that 90% of the music and sound you produce has to do with the player, not the equipment!
When should I…
1 …put more rosin on
Short answer: when you’re not getting the sound you expect
A fairly good rule of thumb is to add rosin for ever hour or so of actual playing time. Don’t put too much on, though, just a bit of a rub at each end with maybe two passes, down and up, along the length of the hairs, more if you haven’t done it for a while. If you see a cloud of white puff up as you play, you’ve put way too much on! Whip your bow through the air a few times to get rid of the excess, but try not to bang it into anything or anybody as you do!
2 …clean rosin off the strings and fiddle
Short answer: every time you’re done playing
Take a lintless cloth and wipe the rosin off the strings and the violin. The buildup of rosin only chokes the quality of your sound, and if it piles up on the instrument it will deteriorate the finish. No need to use any cleaner on the strings, just rub the strings where you’ve played on them, until the annoying squealing (more annoying the longer you’ve waited to clean them!) stops and your cloth slides silently over the strings. Rubbing rosin off the violin can be done with the cloth too, but once in a while you can use a drop of polish/cleaner made for violins; just don’t get it on the strings too!
3 …change strings
Short answer: when a string breaks, goes bad (or “false”), or gets old and loses its sound quality
Obviously you’ll need a new string if it breaks. (For changing strings, see the tips at the blog post on Changing Strings.) You’ll want to notice where the string broke, though. If near the nut, it may be that the nut has a sharp edge that could be smoothed a little. If it broke where you finger the string, the string may have unravelled without your noticing. It’s important to check your strings to make sure the wrapping isn’t loose or unravelling. Change that string asap so you don’t get metal slivers in your finger from playing, and so that the string doesn’t get to the point of breaking. If the string breaks while you are tuning, check out the tips in the blog about Tuning.
On occasion a string can be defective, which means that it may have a dent or other weak spot that can affect the sound or cause it eventually to break. A defective string also could be one that doesn’t ring true; the harmonics may not even be in tune. This is rare but can happen, and is referred to as a false string.
It’s a good idea not to let strings go for more than a year or so, even if nothing seems wrong with them. Gradually they lose their sound quality, so gradually that you may not notice the difference from one time to the next. But when you put on new strings, you’ll notice how much brighter they are and how much longer their sound lasts when you play or pluck them!
4 …rehair your bow
Short answer: when the hairs don’t make sound the way they should, whether because the hairs are dirty, broken, or old, or if the hairs have stretched to where you can’t tighten the bow.
Bow hairs are real hairs taken from the tail of a horse, so they will stretch, break, and especially with sticky rosin on them, pick up dust and dirt. If when you grasp your bow you regularly also grab the bow hairs, your sweat will resist the rosin like oil and water, and create a slick spot on your bow that won’t take rosin. That’s okay right by the frog but if it’s farther up, you’ll have a problem getting sound at that spot. The bow will slide by. Now that’s a bad feeling!
A slick spot can also be caused if the rosin picks up dirt for other reasons. The safest place for your bow is in your case or on a music stand. If you leave the bow lying where it can pick up dirt and dust from a floor or other area, you may end up with a spot that won’t play very well. It’s not a good idea to try to clean the hairs yourself. There’s a risk you can ruin the finish of the wooden stick, and it may weaken the hairs so that they don’t play as well.
The main reason I rehair my bow is when enough hairs break to affect the sound or threaten the bow. Most players slightly tilt their bow, so one side of the bow hairs gets more contact than the other and is more likely to break hairs eventually. There are about 240 hairs so breaking a few is not a big deal, but if you get enough hairs breaking from one side, it can apply pressure that slightly twists your bow. If your bow is weak or you don’t tighten it enough, the breaking could even happen in the center of the bow hairs because the wood of the stick is closest there and can hit the strings and strain or break the hairs.
Another reason for rehairing is if the hairs have stretched out enough that you can’t tighten the bow. This is only likely to happen if you have a habit of not loosening the hairs when you’re done playing. Depending on the weather, bow hairs, like human hairs, will stretch and contract. If you leave your bow tight it will stretch the hairs, and if this happens during the summer, when warm humid air stretches the hairs even more, the hairs could stretch to the point where the bowscrew reaches the end of its range and can’t tighten your bow any more for playing. You’ll have to get the bow rehaired then, and try to remember to loosen the hairs when you’re done playing!
5 …look for a new shoulder rest
Short answer: after you’ve tried every adjustment with the one you have
If you don’t have a shoulder rest, try some out. If you have one and can’t find a comfortable position, keep trying. Try every combination of angle and height. If your shoulder rest won’t adjust its height (such as the Resonans) you might go right into shopping for a better one. The angle, though, makes a huge difference. Check out the blog article about Should Rests for more specific ideas.
6 … look for a new bow
Short answer: Any time — it’s fun!
It takes a while to tune your ears into how new bows sound. The ideal situation is if you can take a bow, or several home to try over a few days (many shops allow this, and Shar Music offers a mailing service with 4 bows at a time), so that you can get the feel and sound of your own bow out of your mind and really appreciate the new bows. Try playing the same short sequence of music on each bow in order to compare. The weight, balance, and sound of each bow will be different, but you might not notice the difference immediately. Sometimes a bow really makes you sound better and more comfortable. Sometimes trying new bows makes you appreciate what you already have. Price is not much of an indicator of which bow is best for you and for your violin. If you’re thinking of trying new violins, get the violin before you try out new bows. There are more ideas in the blog article about the Amazing Bow.
7 …look for a new violin
Short answer: see the short answer for #6!
Much like the discussion for #6, it takes time to tune your ears into the sound and feel of different violins, and as with bows, shopping for violins takes whatever time it takes and may result in a violin that you love the feel, sound, look and smell of, or might end up making you glad you have the violin you are already playing. In any case, enjoy the process, and try violins at all price levels, just for the experience. You’ll find that some super expensive violins might not suit you as much as some much less expensive ones. Price is based on the market; your tastes are based on how a specific violin feels when you play it. Enjoy the process and take your time. No shop expects you to walk in and buy without taking your time and even taking a favorite violin home to to get used to before buying.
Note — Buying online is really chancy, especially because you have nobody to go to if you have a problem with the violin.
©2020 Ed Pearlman
Look for other “When Should I…” articles in future!