The cold touch of winter has finally set in for most of the country. Winter brings beautiful things like snow, warm blankets, hot cocoa, and the smell of fresh baked goods.
It also brings cold, dry air with very low humidity and extreme weather changes. This can wreak havoc on our skin and hair, but it also is a nightmare for our instruments, especially those made from wood. Understanding what is actually happening to our instruments can help us prevent them from suffering from the extreme climate changes as they move from a warm house, to a frozen car, to a chilly concert hall. It is really important to know your instrument mechanically and visually as recognizing changes can prevent and ward off costly repairs. Inspect your instrument regularly, looking for anything that seems different.
Visually, in the winter months, you may notice that the grain of the wood is more pronounced or open. You may also notice a slight change in color as the wood is drying out. Depending on the type of wood, it may begin to lose its luster and the color may begin to lighten.
Mechanically, you may notice that the trill keys or the Bb key are sluggish or even binding (not moving freely). This happens because the left and right-hand assemblies are mounted on two separate sets of ribs and the trill and Bb rods bridge the gap between the rib and post sets. As the wood shrinks, this gap shortens, causing extra pressure on these rods and preventing them from moving freely.
Both the visual and mechanical situations above are signs that the wood is reacting to the lack of moisture in the air. If the wood changes too much, the instrument may not function, or worse yet, the wood may crack. Cracks can occur in piccolos for a variety of reasons, but they happen most frequently during this time of the year. We need to treat these instruments delicately during the winter months by allowing them to acclimate to the environment slowly. If we blow hot air into them before they warm up, the inside of the bore expands faster than the outside of the instrument and the internal pressure causes the wood to split. This is usually the main reason for sudden cracking.
Some steps that we can take to prevent this horrible situation are fairly simple and you may already be doing them. First of all, a humidifier in the home not only aids your breathing but also keeps humidity in the air, which helps to stabilize the wood. Second, limit the exposure of the instrument to sudden changes in temperature while traveling by keeping it close to your body or inside a well-padded gig bag or backpack. Third, never leave your instrument in a cold car or near a hot fireplace. These extremes could be very dangerous. Fourth, keep the piccolo properly oiled during the colder months. It is important that this be done by a knowledgeable technician and is not recommend for most players to do themselves. Over oiling or improper oiling can result in damage to the instrument, possibly requiring a repad or a complete overhaul. Finally, if you are traveling to a gig with your instrument and do notice that the case or instrument is cold to the touch, allow it time to come to room temperature before playing. This can be done by holding close to the body, keeping the instrument on your lap for a while, or just by holding the headjoint and body in your hands to allow the wood to warm up.
A crack is not the end of the life of the instrument. As a performer and a technician, I have repaired quite a few instruments that played very well after the repair. There are several ways that a crack can be repaired, and the method will depend on the severity of the crack, the knowledge and ability of the technician, and location of the crack. In most cases, the crack will not affect the playability of the instrument, and if repaired well, may not even be noticeable. In some cases, though, a severe crack may ruin the instrument or result in the need to replace the headjoint or the entire instrument. I wanted to share this with all of you as both a warning and a glimmer of hope should you already be dealing with these issues. A crack isn’t the end of the world, but it certainly can complicate holiday performances.