It's the first few days of winter in New England as I'm typing this, where late December can bring deep freezes and warm breezes all in the same week, and sometimes in the same day. As the title of this article suggests, winter is a bad time for musical instruments, including vocalists.
Why Cold Weather is Bad News for Musicians
Science class will teach you that water occupies less and less volume as it changes temperature from gas to liquid and finally to solid when frozen. Simply put, the colder the water is, the less space it takes up. As your musical instrument gets cold it shrinks, just like water (but not nearly as much!). If you play a woodwind instrument, then you may notice more squeaks this time of year. If your woodwind instrument uses reeds, they will be harder to work with and sound “dry."
If you play a brass instrument, maybe a tuning slide will get stuck. Guitars and other string instruments will drift out of tune more frequently. And many schools and churches that own pianos have a lot of problems maintaining them in the winter. Damage can be done when an instrument shrinks as a result of the cold air. If your instrument is made of real wood, the cold air can cause cracking, which is very expensive to repair. Sometimes they are broken beyond repair.
What You Can Do to Protect Against Weather-Related Damage
1. Avoid Temperature Extremes
The easy fix for problems with exposure is to minimize the amount of time your instrument will be outside. Don’t leave it in the car at all during the winter, if you can possibly avoid it. If the instrument has been outside in the cold for a long period of time, do what you can to gradually warm it up. Don’t take it from the freezing car and then drop it off by the fireplace or close to a heater for a quick warm up. Instead, pick a relatively cooler room in the home to leave it for an hour so it can gradually warm up.
2. Maintain Proper Humidity
Lack of humidity is another problem. Because the air is cold, the water in the air condenses and/or freezes and leaves us with very dry air. Just like using humidifiers in the winter to add moisture into the air and create a more comfortable environment, your instrument can also benefit from some quality time next to a humidifier. The best practice is to avoid any big swings in the humidity levels, and to keep it consistent between 40-60%.
In addition to a standard humidifier in the home, consider using a humidifier in your instrument case. Professional violin cases often have a humidity gauge built into the lid so that the owner always knows that their violin is stored at the proper humidity. Be careful, though, to not rely on the case humidifier as the only source for humidity, as they may not release enough moisture to make a difference.
As a woodwind teacher, I find that my wooden clarinet shrinks so much in the winter that the metal band around the bottom of the bell gets so loose I can spin it. At that point, I might take a cotton ball and get it damp with distilled water and leave it in the case overnight. I mentioned reeds already - you may need a humidifier for them as well.
To track accurate humidity levels, it's worth it to invest in a highly rated hygrometer with thermometer.
What About Vocalist?
People change in the cold weather, so if you are a singer, even more care is needed for your voice this time of year. Bump up the hydration and avoid sudden shifts in temperature when singing. Are you going out caroling? Do your warm ups and warm downs while you are in the cold air. Avoid hot beverages when you are singing outside in the cold. Warm drinks are good and very soothing but hot drinks can cause damage. Try to avoid long outdoor performances in the winter.
Colds and Flu
Winter is also bad for viruses, so be careful if you have to sing when you are sick. Put in a little extra warm up time. If you play piano you’re probably using more than one piano and/or keyboard during the week. Keep them wiped down to eliminate germs on the surface. Woodwind and brass players should be more meticulous about cleaning the mouthpiece, neck, and any other components that you come in direct contact with while playing
Don't Try That Instrument!
And obviously this is not the time of year to try someone else’s instrument! Musical instruments are known to be teeming with bacteria. If they have a virus, you might be next.
Winter is a busy time for musicians and music students. To have a successful winter season as a musician, take care of your instruments and yourself. A little bit of precaution and preparation will keep you and your instrument happy until the warmer weather arrives.