Expert Luthier Julie Reed-Yeboah on Essentials for Maintaining Your Instrument
New York based luthier Julie Reed-Yeboah shares her essential advice for maintaining your instrument
How much do you know about your instrument? Ever heard of a bass bar or soundpost? What about an open seam or a peg-bushing? If you haven't heard of these terms, you're not alone. Instrument maintenance might not seem like a major thing to musicians, but in the long run, having a healthy instrument will only benefit you. How important then is a regular instrument maintenance?
World-renowned stringed instrument luthier and restorer, Julie Reed-Yeboah shares her expert advice on the topic.
Expert Luthier Julie Reed-Yeboah on Maintaining Your Instrument
An instrument that is in good working order should only have to be brought to the shop about twice a year for a checkup, as seasonal shift play a role in making the sound of the instrument change. A well maintained instrument allows the musician to play their best—for example, relatively small adjustments can improve intonation, allow notes to speak more easily, and help to play fifths more clearly. In some ways, the instrument is a just a tool through which the musician communicates, so any discomfort in playing can impede artistic expression. Considering the number of hours that many musicians spend practicing and performing, it is critical for their instruments to be adjusted for optimal comfort and sound quality.
In general, players should have their instruments checked if they notice any sudden changes to the way the instrument is reacting.
There could be a simple solution— gluing open seams, checking the bridge placement or straightness, replacing old strings, or adjusting the fit of the pegs. When an instrument hasn’t been feeling normal, or just hasn’t been sounding as good as usual, a soundpost adjustment can often solve the problem. Too many soundpost adjustments, however, can be detrimental to the health of the instrument, as damage can gradually occur to the top of the instrument. It is best to limit adjustments to a few times a year. A general cleaning is recommended no more than once a year, unless the varnish is frequently getting worn down to the wood due to sweat. These small repairs and adjustments can make a world of difference to the response and sound of the instrument, and can often be taken care of in a few hours.
Instruments should be brought in when the weather is getting dry in the winter, and again in the summer when it is very humid. Many professional musicians who travel to different climates have to bring their instruments in more often to be checked, as sudden temperature and humidity changes are the main reason problems arise. If at all possible, it is best to allow the instrument to acclimate to a new climate for a day or two before a performance.
If a more serious problem is found, a restorer can make suggestions for different options to solve the problem. A new bridge or soundpost may be necessary, or a fingerboard planing, if the fingerboard has become bumpy or warped, making proper intonation difficult. Occasionally, pegs get worn badly enough that they are not only difficult to use, but the sound is actually affected due to the fit not being solid. Cracks can sometimes develop as a result of an accident, or merely from the weather. These need to be taken care of quickly so they do not expand further. Occasionally, solutions to player discomfort or sound issues can be related to larger issues such as bassbar placement, neck angle and shape, or arching deformations. These repairs will need to be carefully considered and discussed, and may require a longer restoration process.
It is vital for a musician to find a restorer that they trust, and who has a good reputation for maintaining instruments conservatively. It is best to find one shop to stay with, rather than going from shop to shop—this way an ongoing relationship is formed, and the restorer will get to know and understand the player and their instrument’s needs.
Preparing for an audition or performance can often be a stressful time when things start feeling like they aren’t going well. This is a good time to bring an instrument in to be checked and put in proper working order. Remember, stringed instruments are extremely sensitive. They are made of thin wood, are often very old, and need to be kept in the best possible condition so that the player can perform to the best of their ability. Taking the time to keep an instrument well maintained is always worth it in the long run for a musician. An instrument is both a large investment and the most vital tool to express one’s musical voice; it deserves to be taken good care of.
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Julie Reed-Yeboah is a world-renowned restorer of fine stringed instruments. A graduate of the Newark School of Violin Making in the United Kingdom, Reed-Yeboah started making violins in her native Nebraska under violinmaker David Wiebe. Now based in New York, her career spans over 30 years of working in the world's most prestigious workshops in England, Germany, and the US. She has lent her restoration expertise to foundations, museums, collectors, and musicians all over the world, serving as the caretaker for the instruments of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nippon Music Foundation, Samsung Foundation, among many others.