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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How We Change Strings

Folks have written in to ask how we change strings in our studio. My student, Elliott volunteered to show us how it is done. Thanks, Elliott!

Elliott is ready to go!

Take off the string.
 First we take off a string. I prefer to change my A string first. I am not sure that it matters, but I like to start somewhere in the middle. Since we tune the A string first, I change it first. I use this opportunity to explain that we change our strings one at a time so that we do not alter too significantly the pressure of the strings and bridge against the top of the instrument. I explain that if we took all strings off at the same time, the sound post might fall down.

Peg Compound Next
This little piece of information usually invokes another discussion about violin maintenance and safety, such as what to do if a sound post falls down, the bridge falls down or off, the tail piece gut breaks, the button comes out, or the strings and pegs pop loose.

After we remove the A string, we take the A string peg out of the peg box and put peg compound on it. When I change my strings I am careful to hold the peg in the same position as when I removed it from the peg box so that I can replace it and wind the string and peg back to the same position I had before. However, with a young student learning how to change strings, I do not worry about this because they usually tune by using the fine tuners and not the pegs. When the student begins playing on a full size (4/4) violin, I explain this issue at that time.
Pencil Graphite on the Nut

After putting on the peg compound, we use a pencil to mark the string groove on the bridge with graphite. I explain that locksmiths use graphite to make locks and keys work easier. The purpose of putting graphite on the bridge is to minimize the wear and tear on the string as it gets pulled through the groove on the bridge.

Pencil Graphite on the Bridge Groove
Similarly, we run the pencil in the groove on the nut for similar reasons: we want to minimize the wear and tear on the string as it pulls through the nut groove.

Next we put the new string on. We stick the end of the new string (the aglet?) into the hole in the peg and push the end through until it touches the back of the peg box. As we change other strings, I carefully explain how we should not cross over other strings or tangle them up. This means that we have to finagle some of the strings into the peg holes before we completely push the peg into the peg box. At the same time we put the bottom edge into the tailpiece hole that corresponds to the string we are putting on the instrument. The student learns how to hold the string taut between the tailpiece and the nut and peg until the student can wind the string to be close in the desired pitch.
Put String On

I do not tune the strings up to the correct pitch initially. I tighten the string until it reaches a pitch in the neighborhood. The pitch may be one or two notes too low in the pitch scale. I will adjust the strings to their final pitches after I finish changing all of them.

As I go along, I take the strings we have removed and put them in the packages that held the brand new strings. I put the date on the package, and we will keep these used strings in the student's violin case. In the event that the student breaks a string, the student will have a used string to rely on until the student is able to purchase a new string.

Also, we are careful to check the status of the violin bridge as we complete the string change. The violin bridge should stand up perpendicular (90 degrees) from the top of the instrument. If the bridge leans too far forward (toward the fingerboard side) or too far backward (toward the chin rest side), the bridge is in danger of falling down. I make the necessary bridge adjustments to make sure that the bridge is standing up correctly.

The purpose of this post is not to discuss what to do if the bridge falls down, which often happens with smaller violins. I ask my studio parents to call me immediately if this is a problem, because my studio parents may make mistakes when trying to replace the bridge. For example, one parent put the bridge on backwards, so that the child kept hitting the wrong strings with the bow. Another parent glued the bridge onto the violin (yikes!). Another parent put the bridge on correctly but stood it up right next to the fingerboard so that the student was unable to make a sound.

After we finish putting on the new strings, I help my student to tune the new strings up to the normal pitch. I explain the process of "breaking in" the new strings. In my own case, I leave my violin case open at home and tune my instrument every 30 minutes. I currently use Evah Pirazzi strings, and they break in within a day or so basically. The violist in the Artisan Quartet puts his new strings on a different instrument and lets them break in for several days before putting the strings on his regular instrument.

And that is all there is to the process! I like to involve a student in the string changing process no matter what the student's age. I find that the student can participate on some level, no matter how rudimentary, even if it involves simply sorting out the string packages or putting pencil graphite in the grooves.

All Done!
I do not recall how old I was when I finally learned how to change my own violin strings. I do recall not being sure how to do it when I was in high school and that I used to rely on Helmuth Keller (Philadelphia) to change them for me when he serviced my instrument from time to time. Somewhere along the way, I learned how to do it. Now I make sure that my students are frequently exposed to the process of changing strings and help me.

As a playing professional, I change my strings frequently, maybe once every quarter year and sometimes even more often depending on how much I am playing. For my university students, I recommend that they change their strings at least every semester (and sometimes I wish they would change strings more frequently!). For my younger students, I make sure that the strings are changed as needed. Sometimes the frequency amounts to once a year. I highly recommend that violin strings be changed in favor of more often, because the student finds it easier to play on new strings (avoiding tension and potential injury) and easier to hear the correct intonation because of the extra resonance of new strings.

Happy Teaching!

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