When to Repair Your Own Viola
Learning to play an instrument requires training and patience, but it also requires a few maintenance skills. Most musical instruments are fragile by nature, but string instruments like the viola are especially delicate. Taking care of your viola means that you need to know which repairs you can handle on your own, and which ones to leave to a professional.
String instruments are particularly susceptible to their surroundings. The atmosphere and condition in which you keep your viola have a big influence on how often you’ll need repairs. However, even the most diligent musicians experience the need for occasional alterations and instrument repairs. The following list of common ailments can help you decide whether or not to repair your viola yourself or have a professional luthier (string instrument maker) or a qualified repair person restore it to its optimum best.
When you begin to notice some problems with the sound, you may need to replace your strings. It’s very common for beginners to forget that strings wear out, and it might take a little longer for them to recognize the problem. However, even beginner viola students should learn to correctly replace their strings.
You can easily fix this problem yourself. Purchase strings (and now would be a great time to try out another brand of viola strings) and carefully transfer to the new ones. Just remember to never take all of the strings off your viola at the same time. If you do, it will cause the soundpost to shift inside the body, and then you’ll definitely need a luthier to fix it.
If the soundpost shifts inside your viola, you’ll know it. You’ll be able to hear a distinctive difference in your playing, and in some cases, hear it rattle around inside your viola. Because your viola is influenced by the amount of humidity in the air, and the woods used to construct it absorb and release moisture at different rates, when the wood expands it can cause that wedged-in piece to move or break loose.
Although many seasoned violists attempt soundpost replacements on their own, it’s not something that a beginner or intermediate player should try. In fact, no one who isn’t very familiar with intricate woodworking should make the attempt. Remember, your viola is an expensive instrument, what if while you’re trying to “fix” it, you cause serious damage? It’s always better to pay a professional for this type of viola repair because sometimes the piece itself must be reshaped/replaced.
The bridge on your viola can suffer from a number of issues. When you tune your strings, the pressure often causes it to tilt at an angle instead of sitting perfectly perpendicular to the top plate. You can prevent the damage that this angle will eventually cause by periodically checking how vertical the bridge is while you’re tuning your strings. Gently push it back into place using both hands, so that the feet are flush on the top plate and aligned with the f-holes.
If your bridge falls down, check to see if it is cracked. As long as everything looks alright, you can try to repair your viola yourself by replacing the bridge. You’ll have to re-tune your strings as well. First, loosen the strings slightly (you don’t want the soundpost to move), and then position the bridge so that your strings are centered over the fingerboard.
Cracks and Open Seams
If you hear an annoying buzzing sound, you most likely have a hairline crack or a seam that is separating. Again, dramatic changes in the humidity can cause the special glue to detach (normal). Or worse, dry air can make a crack form along the grain of the wood. If this happens, don’t attempt to repair your viola, take it to a qualified repair person. Other “buzzing” problems that require professional repair include:
- Loose fingerboard, chin rest, or fine tuners.
- The chin rest is coming into contact with the tailpiece.
- Very frayed strings
Since pegs are relatively small, big changes in the atmosphere can affect them quickly and pegs that slip or stick can make it frustrating to practice. There are a number of remedies that you can use to repair your viola pegs, as long as the problem isn’t too difficult. For stickiness, rubbing a graphite pencil around the peg can solve the problem. Commercial peg drops can help prevent slipping. Yet, often the pegs need to be replaced with ones that have been reshaped. Fortunately, this type of viola repair is fairly inexpensive.
You can repair minor viola problems, but always take your instrument to a qualified repair shop if you aren’t sure about the right course of action.