Have you heard the one about checking an instrument crack by spitting on it? What about washing your bow hair in hot soapy water? We separate fact from crackpot theory


From The Strad's December 2010 issue

Myths, tales, received wisdom – whatever name you give the gems of information floating around in the string world, there’s always the question of whether they’re actually true or not. No one wants to risk the consequences of a maintenance myth gone bad, yet if true, a well-worn piece of advice can be helpful or open your eyes to performance tips or historical makers. The Strad’s lutherie consultant John Dilworth, violin professor and writer of Basics Simon Fischer, bow maker Peter Oxley, and double bassist David Murray here bring their expertise to bear on sorting the tall tales from the truth.

Whisky or perfume is good for cleaning fingerboards — FAKE
Using perfume or whisky on the fingerboard does work — anything that is basically alcohol will dissolve rosin. But it’s not recommended as it will also dissolve varnish and it’s a very expensive way of doing it. I recommend wiping off rosin with a dry cloth after each use, and leaving the built-up crusty stuff to the professionals.

First violins are better than second violins — FAKE
Not in the professional world at least! There are some brilliant second violins — take Ralph de Souza from the Endellion Quartet, for example. He’s a fantastic player who could easily lead a quartet but chooses to play second. Then think of top orchestras like the Chicago Symphony or the Berlin Philharmonic. There is so much competition for places that the seconds must be as good as the firsts.

A rubber bass mute is just as good as wooden one — FAKE
A rubber mute is convenient and can be attached to the strings under the bridge, but the change in sound colour with a wooden mute is much more effective and it mutes the sound more completely.

If your pegs won’t turn easily use plasticine — REAL
If a peg is sticky and won’t turn easily plasticine will do the trick really well. But keep it in a little ball in an airtight bag in your case as it dries and goes crumbly if exposed to the air for too long. It doesn’t matter what colour, but brown doesn’t leave obvious traces. It has to be plasticine and not modelling clay — clay dries solid.

Silk is a good material to use when cleaning your instrument — REAL
You can use silk, but it’s not the only material you can use. The idea is not to use a cloth that is too coarse with a weave that might harbour grit and scratch the varnish, or anything that will leave lint or fibres caught in cracks. A trailing thread from a polishing cloth has been known to catch in an edge crack and pull a big chunk of wood away.

Great masters used very old, seasoned wood — FAKE
When analysed, dendrochronology almost invariably shows the wood they used was not much older than the violin in question.

Gasparo da Salò invented the violin — FAKE
This idea can be found in a lot of older textbooks. More recently we’ve discovered that Andrea Amati belonged to an earlier generation.

Dropping rice into an instrument’s f-holes cleans inside as the dust sticks to it — REAL
Definitely true. I have a jar of very dirty rice to hand in my workshop.

It’s harder for an adult than a child to learn a stringed instrument — FAKE
Nonsense! Adults can easily learn. They are smart and have life experience. They understand the subtle changes you need them to make to their technique, for example bowing nearer the bridge rather than by the fingerboard. Quite often in a couple of lessons with an adult you can cover more than you would in a term with a teenager. On the flip side, if you want to be an international soloist and win competitions like Tchaikovsky and the Indianapolis, then you need to start young, but to play and enjoy an instrument you can learn at any age.

You can tell if an instrument is cracked by spitting on it — REAL
You have to spit on the crack and then flex the wood either side of it. If bubbles appear, the crack is open. If there are no bubbles, the spit has not been absorbed and the crack is safe. It has to be spit though, not water — spit has the right surface tension and viscosity to stay in the place you want it to. Be warned, though: this is a dangerous thing to do. Applying too much pressure when flexing the wood can easily cause a new crack or open the crack you were looking at, even if it wasn’t open before.

Learning stringed instrument technique is a lifelong endeavour — FAKE
Learning repertoire and about music in general is a lifelong endeavour — there is so much of it that after years of study you will only know a small amount, but this isn’t the case for technique. Technique is not an endless list and whether you are 14 or 40, you can master technique fairly quickly.

Methylated spirit can be used to clean bow hair — FAKE
Methylated spirit or other alcohol-based spirits turn the rosin into a sticky mess and the hairs stick together. If you want to keep your bow clean flick your bow hair with your thumb after applying rosin. This will remove any excess. Then wipe the stick with a dry cloth.

It’s safe to bathe your bow in soapy water to clean the hair — FAKE
While bathing the hair is possible, it’s not recommended. There is a danger you could get water inside the frog, swelling the parts inside and causing a split.

Past makers used insect wings in their varnish — FAKE
The red element of Stradivari's varnish did come from dried cochineal bugs, while shellac, made from a resin secreted by the lac bug, has often been used on musical instruments as part of what is known as French polish. No insect wings though.

This article was first published in The Strad's December 2010 issue. Interviews by Vicky Hancock