I’m just back from a holiday in Japan where they take preparations for winter seriously. I’d been particularly keen to see some of the gardens, and was intrigued to find that the gardeners spend a huge amount of time and effort tying tall posts into the pine trees, from which they suspend ropes to support the longer lower branches against the weight of heavy snow, which could break them.
For our instruments we don’t have to go to these lengths, but some thought is nevertheless worthwhile.
The two enemies, which are related, are cold and humidity. Luckily in the UK we don’t have the extremes of climate that exist in countries like Japan and America, but our instruments can still suffer in the winter.
The colder the air, the less moisture it can hold. So if the outside temperature is freezing, the air that comes in our house and is then warmed by our cosy central heating will contain very little moisture. And when wood is dry, it shrinks. This is why in the winter seams often come open, string heights can increase and in some cases instruments crack.
The cold itself can give the instrument a shock. Just as we feel it when we move from a warm house to the chilly outside, so does your precious instrument.
So what can we do? Firstly, just as we wrap up against the cold, so should we wrap our instruments. Silk is the best insulator, so wrapping a violin or viola in a genuine silk scarf is a good idea, and then perhaps putting a blanket on the instrument too as an extra layer of insulation.
Invest in a good quality humidity meter (the simple ones that are sometimes installed in modestly-priced cases are useless) and check the humidity. If it is low in your home or rehearsal room, below around 40 to 45%, it’s a good idea to use a simple humidifier, like a Dampit, which can help considerably. Even without a humidity meter you can tell if it’s dry; your skin will be dry and itchy, lips chapped.
Try not to give your instrument too much of a shock. If you have to bring a cold instrument into a warm room, try to give yourself enough time not to have to open the case straight away, but to let it warm up gently.
For cellists the problem is greater. The instrument is bigger, so any change in moisture content of the wood will have more of an effect. Also to save weight, the cases have very little lining, the equivalent of going out on a cold day in a T-shirt. So the advice above is even more important, particularly the use of a Dampit and giving the cello time to acclimatise before you open the case.