One of the challenges involved in playing a stringed instrument is the ability to cope with different climates and the corresponding changes that these can bring about in the instrument. As violins, violas, cellos and double basses are all made from what were once living, breathing pieces of wood, they are all subject to slight expansions and contractions. From a player’s point of view, this can make an instrument seem ‘tight’ or the strings feel harsh as well as creating a few whistles or making them go quickly out of tune.
In such conditions, performers across the world are still able to give of their best and as this article is written in temperate England, it has to be said that we have very little to complain about! We don’t have to contend with excessive humidity that players may experience in say Florida or Bangkok, nor the dryness of a high altitude I experienced when playing in Aspen, Colorado. Perhaps we all need to develop the versatility to play well, even when our strings are out of tune – in fact it is good to occasionally practice on an instrument slightly detuned as we’ll certainly have to cope with that when it happens in the middle of a concert.
We also need to be able to respond to different climates (hot, cold, dry or damp) and rapidly adjust our playing if a string somehow feels different, or our left hand fingers seem ‘sticky’ on the strings, making gliding between positions less easy. In such circumstances, the player has to try even harder to connect with the music in every moment, hopefully transcending moisture and heat.
When it comes to recording strings in the studio, especially in the summer when hard work and a closed room can cause players to perspire more, humidity can become a real issue. A couple of years ago I remember recording 3 days of demanding music in a very enclosed room without the benefit of air conditioning. As the hours wore on, strings became increasingly difficult to play on and the bow seemed to slip across the string a little. In this circumstance, we just had to try harder and put even more of ourselves into the music, with regular breaks to go outside with our instruments and take in some much needed fresh air!