How do I decide whether or not to play an instrument?

img_5296It is taken as axiomatic that musical instruments are made to be played, and everyone appreciates that audiences and players enjoy hearing museum instruments. But once instruments enter a public collection, additional considerations become relevant. It is now understood that restoring an instrument and subjecting it to the risk and wear and tear occasioned by playing, can erase or seriously degrade information which may have been unique and vital to instrument makers, researchers and musicians alike. Clearly there is a balance to be struck, satisfying both the duty to safeguard the integrity of heritage and the need to make it accessible.

In museums there is a prudent pre-disposition against returning non-playing instruments to playing order. Those instruments which are already in playing condition require individual assessment to determine their viability to remain so. In either case, there are many factors that need to be considered, including:

  • The instrument’s overall structural condition;
  • Its rarity and/or significance;
  • Its capacity to be faithfully representative of the intentions of its maker, insofar as these can be ascertained;
  • Presence of old or original ephemeral parts and their vulnerability if used;
  • Past restoration history and witness marks of previous use;
  • Eminence of previous owner(s) in any field, or in the field of music;
  • The wishes of the owner, donor or benefactor;
  • Traditions or customs associated with or reliant upon the instrument;
  • Others of the type which are accessible in public collections;
  • The capacity of the owner to provide for the short- and long-term routine care and maintenance of the instrument.

Many of these factors are best determined through inspection by a specialist, preferably one who has no personal investment in the outcome. Sometimes techniques such as x-ray tomography or endoscopic examination are required to determine whether incipient weaknesses, like hairline cracks, render the sounding of an instrument dangerous. If an instrument is sounded, it should be recorded so that the sounds have the best chance of reaching the widest possible audience.

Restoration to playing condition confers on an owner, whether a museum or private individual, new and often under-appreciated responsibilities: to meet the costs of ongoing maintenance and to ensure that the instrument is used sympathetically. Instruments that have been allowed to deteriorate through inappropriate use or inadequate maintenance suffer a double blow. Firstly, their sound fails to convey a true impression of their musical capacities reducing their perceived artistic value. Secondly, their original fabric has been compromised through restoration, degrading their value for study as well.

Guidelines and standards for the care of instruments in playing order have developed over recent decades and are internationally recognized. Many specific recommendations exist for each instrument type. To find out more explore online: The Care of Historic Musical Instruments , edited by Robert L. Barclay, Chapter 6.