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Does playing outdoors require special care? - Jun 2003


Summer festivals, camping, beach trips, open mics & lawn parties are great opportunities to play music. However, these events also create some issues with regard to instrument care 


“HEY, CAN I PLAY YOUR...”: whether your instrument is a guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, bass or anything else, someone at a festival party or open mic will eventually ask to play it. Think about these things before you hand it over to anyone: · If you do not know the person, sharing your instrument represents a significant risk of damage (or possibly theft), especially if the person is not familiar with instruments. · If you do know the person, & he does not care for his own possessions particularly well, you are still at significant risk for instrument damage. · If you know the person, & he cares for his own possessions well, the risk is smaller, but still exists - even if the person is an accomplished player (Murphy’s Law). Remember, it’s your prerogative to decide who may play your instrument. You’re neither rude nor selfish to deny playing privileges. In fact, the person who fails to ask permission or who gets upset when you say, “no,” is probably the very person who represents the largest risk to your instrument. Before you hand over your beloved instrument to anyone, decide if you would unhesitatingly hand that person cash of equal value. 


TRANSPORTATION & STORAGE: Temperature, loss & theft are all issues in transportation & storage in outdoor summer musical venues. If you store your instrument in a closed car or a motor home, temperatures QUICKLY (like 5-10 minutes) climb to levels that are dangerous to your instrument. The heat softens the glue that holds it together & string tension pulls it apart. If you HAVE TO store your instrument in a vehicle at an outdoor event, park in the shade, off of pavement & keep windows open. These steps do not prevent thermal damage, but they do help delay & reduce it. And, while a tent in a shady area presents less thermal risk to an instrument, it affords little protection from theft. Unless you are certain that the folks around you are honest & trustworthy, the risk of theft exists. You have to balance the risk of thermal damage & theft as you make your choices about storing an instrument. In general, the best protection you have from temperature & the risk of theft is to keep your instrument with you. To reduce the risk of theft & loss, mark your instrument case distinctly so that you can recognize it from a distance. If the marking that you use also makes the case light-colored or reflective, you get the extra bonus of thermal protection. 


SUNSHINE & RAIN: Even if you have your instrument with you, outside of the hot car or RV, heat is an issue in the summertime. Direct sunshine can make the temperature of your instrument climb - especially inside of a black, heat-absorbing case. To minimize this problem, keep your instrument & its case in shady areas when possible; keep the case open (in places where risk of damage or theft is low). These steps help prevent heat from building in the case. For extra protection, some folks buy special reflective foil case covers to keep the inside of their cases cooler. Humid summer air is not a problem. for instrument health (tuning is another issue altogether), but rain presents risk. Water can damage many instrument finishes - varnish on violins is especially prone to water damage. If you are playing outdoors & rain begins, the smartest thing to do is to find a place to play that is under cover or case your instrument. 


SUNSCREEN & BUG SPRAY: Instrument finishes are notoriously intolerant of a number of creams, lotions, sprays & other substances that we often use on our bodies & clothing in the summer. Insect repellent, cologne, sunscreen, aftershave...anything containing alcohol...has the potential to soften or even completely dissolve your instrument’s finish. For instance, if you decide to use insect repellant to ward off the mosquitos that might be hovering at the Northampton Bluegrass Festival (see insert), the bug spray will be on your clothing, neck & hands. When you hold your guitar (finished in nitrocellulose lacquer) or your fiddle (finished with spirit varnish), you’ll transfer bug spray to it. The finish under the bug spray will soften - often permanently. If the instrument is resting against clothing with spray on it, you could end up with a lovely imprint of your jeans or shirt permanently etched into your instrument. So, think about your instrument’s finish when you apply any substance to your skin or clothing. 


What can I do?

If you have any specific concerns, or if you need help with damage that has occurred, contact a qualified instrument repair person for advice or repairs. 

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