Sunday, April 10, 2016

Watch Out! The Natural Hazards of Stringed Instrument Playing

By Andy Fein, Martha McDermott, and Miranda Crawford

Recently, a high school orchestra student had a very unfortunate mishap. A piece of metal from the tailpiece of his violin popped off and hit him in the eye. The accident caused fairly extensive damage to his eye. Hopefully, the damage will not be permanent and his sight will be restored. But it made us realize that not everyone knows that your violin, viola, or cello is not bomb proof. They need maintenance! Maintenance to ensure the best sound and playability, and sometimes just for basic safety.

Avoid this! Change your strings & check your instrument often
I have not seen the actual instrument, so I'm going to speculate that the piece of metal was actually the metal ball from a ball end string.

A fully intact ball end E string

So, here's a list of some things you should regularly do to ensure the health of your instrument. And you!

First of all, change your strings regularly. The strings on your instrument are tuned to very high tensions. There is not a material in existence that can hold that tension forever. Strings break. Expect it. The longer you have your strings, the more likely a string will POP in the middle of playing or while you're tuning. We recommend violinists change their G, D, and A strings at least once a year and their E strings two or three times a year.  Violists and cellists should change all of their strings at least once a year. If you see any discolored metal or unwinding metal, change your strings IMMEDIATELY.  Or you may be injured by your newly broken string.

A very unwound D string that if not changed could break at any moment 
Second, make sure your bridge isn't tipping forward. As you tune your instrument, the bridge is pulled forward. If you are not careful, the bridge could collapse or even SNAP IN HALF.

Something doesn't look quite right here
Heres a video on straightening your violin or viola bridge

And here's a video on straightening your cello bridge

Third,  cellists should always examine your chair for wheels, height, tilt, and seat shape.  Nothing is more embarrassing or painful than falling off a chair in front of an audience or your section.

Miranda forgot to check for wheels....again...
Fourth,  be aware of your bow. Whether you are sitting in rehearsal or flourishing the final note of a symphony, your bow is a potential safety hazard to your neighbors if you aren't careful.  You could put their eye out or dent their instrument.

Ensemble playing is a dangerous life for shop violinist Martha's ribs
Fifth. Drink a fifth. No, Just kidding. Don't! Stand partners don't let stand partners play drunk. Or stoned. Messed up people tend to fall over themselves and others.

Sixth, violinists and violists be aware of fiddlers neck. It can be caused by trapped moisture and friction of the instrument on your neck. But it may also be caused by an allergy to the wood or the metal of your instrument.  If your violin hickey is really bothering you, use a clean cotton cloth for a covering over your chinrest. Another solution- Wittner chinrests are hypoallergenic and should reduce your irritation.
Shop violinist's real life violin hickey! 
Seventh, cellists like to keep their endpin tips sharp. Really sharp. Be aware of your endpin when you're reaching around to pull it out and when you're pushing it into the floor. Keep your feet and other people's feet away from your weaponized endpin.

Eighth, protect your hearing. We'll soon write a more in depth blog post about hearing loss and damage in string players. But, in the meantime, be aware of where you're sitting in the orchestra. Some brass instruments are extraordinarily loud. A violist, quite believably claims that his hearing was damaged by the high decibels he was subjected to by the brass section in an opera pit. Should you wear earplugs? In some situations, such as very loud brass sections sitting near you, YES! Hearing injury and damage can stop your playing career. If you play an amplified gig, the ABSOLUTELY, wear earplugs.

A final recommendation: If it hurts, don't do it!!!! Whether it be tuning your stubborn instrument or a tricky passage.  Ask for help rather than pushing through the pain. You'll be glad you did. An excellent resource for these situations is Janet Horvath's Playing Less Hurt.

Careful Martha, don't sprain your wrist tuning this cello
And a final word. Responsibility. Your responsibility. As a player, you see your instrument every day. Take the time to look it over. If anything looks odd, take the time to diagnose the problem. If anything is wrong, fix it right away. Not after practicing. Not after rehearsal. Right away! If you can't figure out a problem or dangerous situation, take it to your local violin shop. We all want you to play safely and happily for many, many years.

Are you a string musician or interested in becoming one? Take a look at our Fine Violins, Violas, and Cellos!

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