A dry environment can play all kinds of bad tricks on a stringed instrument such as a violin, viola, cello or bass.
I experienced this recently in California, with an extreme bout of dry weather that had all the surrounding mountains burning. The humidity hovered around 10 percent for nearly a week, and one day in the neighboring mountains it measured an alarming 0 percent.
My violin freaked out. Over the course of just one day, every single peg slipped - completely let go, sending me scrambling to re-wind and tune string after string. And once a peg slips that badly, the string tends to act rather offended about the whole incident for several days, losing its tension more easily than normal.
The same scenario repeated with each of my 16 students; nearly all of them came in with at least one string completely devoid of tension. Some of my younger students didn't know what was going on - one family actually went to the violin store mid-week to ask, "Why are the strings falling off?!"
Well let's answer that question: Why do pegs slip? Unless they are a geared pegs, they stay in place simply through friction: the peg is jammed into a hole which allows it to fit tightly enough to stick. Pegs are typically made of one of three kinds of wood: ebony, rosewood, or boxwood. The scroll and pegbox, in which the pegs are jammed, are typically made of another kind of wood: maple. When the humidity or temperature changes or becomes extreme, these different woods shrink and expand at different rates. Thus the hole that was custom-shaped to hold the peg in place suddenly become a different size from the peg, and -- whoosh! The peg loses its grip, releasing the pressure and allowing the string to unwind until all tension is gone and the string is completely lax. Another cause is that the lubricant (often "peg dope") that both greases and holds that friction, simply dries out and stops working.
Low humidity can also affect parts of the instrument, and the bow, as it generally causes wood to shrink. For the violin (or viola, cello, bass..) dryness can cause seams to come unglued and cracks to emerge. Tiny cracks that were barely noticeable might grow, and old repaired cracks might re-surface.
It's bad news for bows as well. A hairline fracture in the wood of the bow -- never noticeable before -- might simply give way. This also happened to one of my students in the last week: the bow simply broke from the regular tension. It was sitting on a table at the time, not even in his hand, and it snapped.
Sometimes the dry weather comes from outside, but in the winter, it can also can come from inside. When your heater kicks on during colder weather, that can create dry conditions inside your home, depending on how much you humidify. Here's another place where you will encounter low humidity: flying in an airplane.
So what can you do to prevent the problems that come with dry air? Humidify!
There are several ways to do this. First, try humidifying the room. I use a simple cool mist humidifier, but there are plenty of options.
Second, humidify your violin case.
My Musafia case actually came with a humidifier: a plastic tube with many holes in it, filled with fabric. To use it, I immerse the tube in water so that the fabric absorbs the water, then I dry off the outside and place it inside my case. It just naturally releases the moisture into the air as that water evaporates from the fabric.
Of course, if you don't have a humidifier built into your case, you can buy one. One option that V.commies have recommended in the past is the Stretto, a Swiss-made system with a small microfiber bag that goes into a plastic case, which you simply place inside your violin case. It promises to humidify your case up to two weeks. And here is an entire page of humidifiers from SHAR.
A reminder for those who already have such systems: if you have not soaked your humidifier for three years, it will not humidify the case! In dry weather, you probably need to soak it every few weeks. When the air humidity generally is above 50 percent, you don't need to do this.
Of course, if you are going to humidify your case, it helps to be able to measure it. To measure the humidity in your case you need something called a "hygrometer." These can be round and old-fashioned, or digital, or even Bluetooth-connected so you can monitor your case at all times! Longtime Violinist.com member David Burgess recommends keeping the humidity in your case between 40 to 60 percent. Many, but not all, cases come with hygrometers. If your violin case has no hygrometer, you can always buy one from Shar or from Amazon or from your local violin shop.
Finally, you can actually humidify the instrument itself. The most common way to do this is with a dampit, which is a soft rubber tube with a sponge inside - it looks like a small green snake. You immerse it in water for about 20 seconds, dry it off, squeeze out any excess water, and then put the entire snake inside the fiddle, feeding it into the round part of the f-hole. This seems to scare a lot of people, the idea of putting something wet inside the fiddle, but most luthiers seem to be okay with it, and many recommend it.
I hope these ideas help you with balancing the humidity for your instrument - or maybe just remind you to attend to it! Also remember that if you have a "spare" violin or two - they also need humidity! Make sure the violin that is sitting around, not being used, is still getting the care it needs.
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