The rain has been an endless source of inspiration for Indian classical and western pop musicians alike but the monsoons are a time when they need to take extra special care of their instruments. Moisture can have equally devastating effects on the guitar and the sitar, which makes it essential for instrumentalists to control both humidity and temperature levels, a tough task in a tropical country such as India.
High amounts of moisture in the air will cause wood to expand and swell, which in turn changes the tonality of “instruments where the shape is very important to the quality of the sound”, says composer and arranger Tushar Lall, known for his internet-breaking Indian classical covers of themes of such popular film and TV shows as Game of Thrones and Harry Potter.
Detuning guitars when they’re not in use reduces the tension on its neck and helps to keep it in shape. Image courtesy, Alvaro Bernal/ Unsplash
For sitar players such as Ravi Chary, it’s not only the body of the instrument that needs to be kept dry, but also the steel strings, to prevent rust. As such, musicians have to be extra vigilant when they’re performing concerts during the rains. “Once in Kolkata, it started raining when I was in the middle of a gig [at a venue] that did not have a covering on top of the stage,” says singer-songwriter and guitarist Tejas Menon, who prefers to be referred to only by his first name. “We stopped [playing] immediately, switched off all the electrical points, went back to our hotel and sat for an hour with hairdryers.” Tejas adds that even electrical equipment, from amplifiers to guitar knobs, gets “crackly” during the season.
WHY YOU NEED TO KEEP YOUR INSTRMENTS SAFE FROM HUMIDITY
The onset of the rainy season is when things start to go awry. “The minute the weather turns, that’s when the trouble happens,” says saxophonist Ryan Sadri who keeps a close eye on the instrument around this time of the year, as the springs, pads and reeds can all get affected. “I’m [already] struggling with a couple of low notes,” says Sadri. He adds that students often don’t realise that it’s not them but the weather that’s causing their instrument to “misbehave”.
Musicians use a number of drying agents and appliances to help control moisture and temperature in the rooms where they store and play their instruments. Each of them recommends investing in a waterproof case, wiping the instrument with a soft cloth daily, after practices and performances to keep away mould, and placing silica gel sachets and tubs in cases and cabinets to help soak up moisture.
At the same time, “you can’t dry up your instrument completely,” cautions Lewis. In air-conditioned recording studios, for instance, the air can become too dry, necessitating the use of a humidifier “to maintain a balance”, she adds.
“I’ve had my piano go out of tune in maybe two weeks of the monsoon setting in last year,” says vocalist, composer, pianist Nush Lewis who is perhaps best known as a harp player. “The harp”, she says, “will behave like a really massive acoustic guitar”, as high humidity levels can cause the wood to warp. The absorption of moisture makes it brittle and easy to crack. “I’ve had a situation where the whole soundboard just split from the body,” she explains.
Keeping the windows shut as much as possible and running the AC and dehumidifier for at least an hour so, keeps the room dry. Image courtesy, Beazy/ Unsplash
PRODUCTS, TECHNIQUES AND TOOLS TO KEEP YOUR INSTRUMENTS SAFE FROM MOISTURE
“Something that people do is detune their guitars when they’re not using them so there’s less tension on the neck and it remains in shape,” says Tejas. “I’ve done that a few times but I’m constantly playing so that’s not much of an option for me [any more].” For amplifiers and the like, he says always keeps a lot of WD-40 handy.
Lewis got a dehumidifier installed inside her upright acoustic piano. “The plug of that has a huge sticker that says: Do not disconnect at any cost,” she says. “My piano tuner told me that during the monsoon, [I should] try and keep the windows shut as much as possible and run the AC for at least an hour so that it dries up the room.”
Sadri says he’d be “lost without” his trusted saxophone swab, which he bought but could also be made at home. It’s a large piece of cotton with weighted strings on two ends that enable him to clean the insides properly.
To stop the sitar from going out of tune, Chary suggests loosening and tightening the pegs “every day so that they retain their place in the slot and don’t become too tight or loose”.
Lall says that he’s seen very expensive, vintage violins being stored in moisture-proof cabinets such as those manufactured by Taiwanese company Eureka Dry Tech. “Some musicians, especially those who play string instruments, carry hygrometers so they can measure the moisture in the air,” Lall adds.
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