Summer is here (at least in Georgia where I live) and that means school is out, kids run wild, and the weather is nasty. High temperatures mean sunburn and dehydration while you’re in the pool or at the beach. You need to be aware of the ways hot weather and sun can hurt you. You might not even know it, and once you notice something is wrong, it’s too late.
Stringed instruments are almost as fragile as human beings. They can melt in hot cars and seams can open when going from inside to outside. In addition to protecting yourself, you need to take good care of your instrument. Below are some important tips for keeping cool and keeping your instrument happy during the summer. Of course, you can go here for other string player health problems. I like self-promotion.
Dehydration – Serious Business
Dehydration can knock you down very quickly, and you’ll never see it coming. If you are thirsty, it’s too late. In the summer, many musicians venture to music festivals like Tanglewood or Marlboro. Each summer, I attended one music festival or another from the age of 13 until grad school. At one particular festival (Yellow Barn in Putney, Vermont), we had a doctor come and do a lecture and demonstration on dehydration. It was enlightening to say the least.
First, drink a lot. Drink a lot of water or other clear liquid. Clear liquids are things like water, Sprite or Ginger Ale (if you have to drink soda), or sports drinks like Gatorade. Avoid colas like Pepsi or Coke. Avoid coffee also. You don’t want these because of caffeine. Caffeine dehydrates you even more. Also, avoid alcohol because it works the same way as caffeine. Dehydration after drinking alcohol leads to hangovers which are not fun at all (guess how I know that).
If you are sweating, you are losing water. Stay hydrated by continuing to drink. If you feel flushed, dizzy, or sick to your stomach, stop what you’re doing and drink. Then lay down. Heat exhaustion (or heat stroke, its more serious cousin) are more common than you think. Put a damp towel around your neck and relax. Do not gulp down ice water. That can shock your system and make things way worse for you than a little overheating.
Learn as much as you can about dehydration and protect yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
Hot Cars – Bad for Babies, Pets, and Violins
Here’s a nice rule to follow. Never leave anything in your car when it’s hot that you wouldn’t want to die a terrible death. No pets. No kids. And definitely not your violin.
When I was a young student, there was a very nice older fellow who owned a violin shop in my town. We would go to him for bow rehairs and other various maintenance issues. He had this really ugly cello hanging in his shop that just looked awful. It was an instrument that had literally melted in a hot car, and he used it as a warning to all of his customers about the dangers of leaving an instrument, especially in summer.
Excessive heat can melt the varnish right off. I’ve seen it happen personally. I had a friend who left his violin in the car while we ate lunch at a restaurant. We were only in there for an hour or so, but later that day, his instrument was stuck to the bottom of his violin case. The varnish had melted a little, and re-hardened. Aside from looking terrible, melted varnish is a very difficult and costly repair.
When you drive somewhere with your instrument, take it inside with you whether it’s warm or not. If you leave it, you could have a melted instrument or worse, a stolen one.
Sunburn – Ouch
I am a fair-skinned fellow who burns very easily in the sun. I am also married to a redhead who burns worse than I do. I’ve dealt with sunburn on many levels all of my life. My burns have been both mild and (one time) dangerous. If you are in the sun for any length of time, its rays are burning your skin. Take caution when you play gigs outdoors.
Sunburn can be a serious situation. A mild sunburn is an inconvenience. Maybe you’ll be a little itchy or ouchy. Your skin will be pink and look funny. A serious sunburn, though, is dangerous to your health. It is literally a 2nd degree burn, or worse. You will have blistering, severe pain, and probably a fever (I had the blistering one time and it was awful). Dehydration is an additional side effect. If you have a serious sunburn, or any of the symptoms I mentioned, go to the doctor. You need actual medical help.
Obviously, you should avoid long exposure to the sun. If you are gigging outside in the summer, try to arrange to play under cover (a gazebo or tent). If you can, wear a hat (the ladies can get away with this easier than the men). Stay hydrated and wear sunscreen. A lot of people don’t put on sunscreen unless they go to the beach. This may surprise you, but you can get sunburn anywhere, anytime you are outside (sarcasm font needed).
Aloe is a great remedy for burns. Buy a bottle at your local pharmacy and put it in the fridge. It’ll feel so good (and I mean really good) to put cool aloe on sunburn.
Air Conditioning is Awesome
Yes it is, but it can also make trouble for your instrument. Extreme temperature can hurt a violin, but it’s humidity that is the real killer. Too much or too little can ruin a stringed instrument. The problem with A/C is going in and out with your violin. You are going from high to low humidity and that’s when problems happen.
High humidity expands the joints of your violin. A little here or there isn’t a problem. No one can avoid harsh weather. It’s when you go from high humidity to very low humidity that is a killer. Those joints that expanded will now suddenly retract and that leads to open seams and cracks. True, excessive high humidity, especially in the summer when mixed with high temperatures can open seams all by itself. But be careful going in and out of cool A/C.
In a perfect world (violin wise), you would always have your instrument in normal conditions and never expose it to the bad ones. Unfortunately, musicians don’t always play in the same place, and most have to perform outside several times each year. The best advice I can give you is, if you have the means, buy an inexpensive (but not junk) second violin and use it when you play outdoors. You can get a very good gigging violin for around $1000. Will you win an audition with this fiddle? Probably not. But it’ll sound just fine at the beach or in the mountains.
Equip Yourself for the Outdoors
If you do play outside a lot, there are several items you need to have to be successful and (mostly) stress-free. Obviously, the above advice would have you bring a water bottle with cold water in it. Don’t make it too garish or it will be a distraction. Sunscreen is a must, but here a few other items you should invest in.
Bring a small towel. A black one would be ideal. Most musicians wear black, and a black towel will stay camouflaged nicely on your lap. If you sweat a lot (like me), you’ll need it to keep sweat out of your eyes and off of your instrument. Humidity is bad for stringed instruments, but water is worse. Your instrument cannot get wet under any circumstances. If it starts to rain, you’re done. Go inside immediately. If your client complains, tell him or her that you will send them the $500+ bill for repairs and re-varnishing.
Bring music clips. Wind can ruin a performance by blowing your music all over the place. The best ones are the long clips with clear plastic so you can see the music through them. While those are ideal, regular clothespins or large binder clips will do also. In addition, you need a good music stand. A solid plastic folding stand is better than the wire ones, and they’re not that expensive anymore.
As for violin maintenance, get some peg dope. Humidity swells pegs making them stick. You can’t tune if you can’t turn your pegs. There are several good versions, but many professionals (myself included) use Hidersine. Also, get a good microfiber cloth to wipe rosin off of your strings and violin. Rosin can gunk up and be impossible to get off later, especially if it’s humid.
Summer Performing – Final Thoughts
String players need to take care of themselves just like athletes or anyone else who needs to perform well in hot weather outdoors. Watch for dehydration and heat exhaustion. Drink lots of water and lay off the caffeine when performing. I haven’t really addressed clothing, but you really don’t have much choice here. Black clothes for performing are normally quite formal and not designed for harsh summer weather. Buy the lightest and most comfortable clothes you can, but remember you have to look professional at all times.
Take your instrument inside when you drive somewhere. Don’t leave it in your car, especially when it’s hot. As we know from all the needless tragedies of children dying in overheated cars, the temperature can get up above 100 degrees in very little time. Even when the outside temperature is in the upper 70s. Additionally, high humidity can make tuning and performing difficult, and can also lead to open seams and cracks. Take care of your instrument – your very expensive investment that you use to make a living. A professional quality violin can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, and the best instruments (Stradivari, Guarani del Gesu) can easily run more than a million. Few musicians have that kind of cash lying around. I know I don’t.