Minor maintenance of violins, violas and cellos can and should be done by the player. Know what you’re doing – including when to call a professional.
All stringed instruments – violins, cellos and violas – are in certain respects alive. The strings, the various components (neck, pegbox, pegs, strings, bow and bow strings, the body and finish, even inside the instrument) have components that are subject to dirt, dust, your perspiration, and excess rosin. Without proper maintenance those components can suffer – and so too might your playing.
Some maintenance and repairs are best done by your preferred local violin shop (your violin maker, who often is the violin repairer). But on a regular basis the violinist, cellist, bassist, etc. should maintain certain habits and routines to minimize damage and maximize the life and performance of his or her instrument.
This is equally true of higher-end, fine stringed instruments as well as student and intermediate models. Proper, ongoing maintenance is just the rule of the day.
Think of the approach to cleaning your instrument at home in three parts:
Step 1: Before playing
Wash your hands.
Check to make sure you cleaned it after playing it last time (if not, follow Step 2 before playing, and again after finishing).
Step 2: After playing
Look at what a mess you made! Rosin dust, human sweat …
Get out two lint-free dry cloths. These can be microfiber fabrics, such as those used to clean eyeglasses and computer and phone screens. Or, a thin cotton cloth that has been washed a sufficient number of times there is not fiber residue. Technically speaking, no fabric is completely lint-free; it’s a matter of how much (less is more where it comes to cleaning stringed instruments).
Remove the shoulder rests from violins and violas.
The first cloth should be used to wipe the strings of bow rosin and other accumulated dirt.
The second cloth is to clean off the neck and body of the instrument. Why a second cloth? The rosin dust on the first can scratch the varnish on other parts of the instrument.
Periodically (as needed, depending on frequency and duration of play)
A “magic rub eraser” is another means for removing rosin, but only from non-porous surfaces. Considered an “art eraser,” they are made with soft vinyl and are sold under different brand names (Primsacolor, Pentel, Paper Mate, Faber-Castell and Bazic, among others).
Never use alcohol, acetone or paint thinner to remove rosin or grease on strings or the body of the instrument.
For insistent marks or accumulated dirt on the instrument body, see your violin maker for violin cleaning products.
The bridge might have collected rosin as well. In hard to reach areas use a cotton swab (Q-tip). On other areas use a soft cloth.
To polish the violin, viola, cello or bass, use only instrument (not furniture) polish purchased from your luthier.
Clean the bow also with a light cloth, wiping in the direction of the hairs, taking care to use a light touch and not going against the grain.
Very valuable, antique instruments should be cleaned by professional violinmakers.
Keep in mind the violin case, its home when not being played, should be clean as well. A vacuum hose should be used on the case to suck away dust.
A clean instrument is one with a long life and brilliant sound. Careful and constant attention makes it happen.