The cases that hold and protect great instruments are often neglected. Violin Insider investigates what makes the heart and soul of the finest and most beautiful cases, from Hill & Son's to Musafia.

exceptional musafia violin case

Musafia Master series violin case 

Before embarking on the twisty road towards the future of violin case construction, Violin Insider takes a look in the rearview mirror: In 2004 working as professional violinist I was about to begin a four-year intensive concert tour in France and I wanted to find the best possible case.  As I researched the different types of cases online, the only case maker that provided any scientific data and research on the ability of their cases to protect the instrument was Musafia in Italy.

None of the other manufacturers published tests on their cases or their components. Musafia published tests and graphs on their cases, impact resistance, heat exposure, humidity etc. and provided a lifetime warrantee for the case and all its parts. After email exchanges, more research and much thought, I purchased a Musafia Master Series exclusive case with Tropicalisation. 

During this four-year tour of just over 360 concerts my violin traveled in vans, trains, cars, buses, was exposed to significant temperature changes from burning sun to freezing, extreme humidity changes not to mention the countless shocks and bumps that are inevitable while touring. 

My violin was never damaged and surprisingly it started staying in tune over multiple concerts even after being played in badly ventilated venues. Before using this case my pegs would often slip during the night and my violin would be moist the next day, but I could now go weeks without any changes in the pitch of the strings or moisture problems. I experienced no moments of panic when opening the case before going on stage and finding my instrument unplayable. So although most people believe that a good case is reserved for expensive instruments, I would argue that any professional player needs a good case to guarantee that each time the case is opened the instrument is ready to play without fail.

And despite the years that have passed, my Master series exclusive is worth more today then I paid for it!

Interview

So naturally Violin Insider wanted to talk innovation in materials with Master case builder Dimitri Musafia of Cremona and discuss his recent addition of Kevlar to the six-ply wood laminate shell used on their most recent cases.

What does your new hybrid Kevlar bring to Musfia’s wood laminate shell construction? 

Kevlar is stronger than steel by weight, and is almost impossible to perforate when integrated into a system, hence its use for bulletproof vests and armored vehicles. To simplify, when the tensile strength of wood laminate is exceeded, the laminate cracks. Laminating Kevlar to the wood prevents this from happening, radically elevating the resistance of the wood laminate structure without increasing weight or choosing other materials for the case shell, which have their own disadvantages.

You have introduced a new option called Alisea in certain versions. What are the advantages when it comes to weight? 

It depends on the case model, but it is between 100g and 200g lighter. It might not sound like much, but it is noticeable.

How will the violin case market evolve? 

I think that given the increasing prices of fine instruments, especially those of investment-grade, more musicians will pay more attention to the level of protection that cases offer when choosing a new case. That in turn will convince more manufacturers to pay more attention to this important aspect, which hopefully will mean ceasing production of some models currently available that are truly dangerous for the instrument.

All of this goes to show how important it is to research and carefully choose your case before buying. As regards their cases, today players are largely focused on weight, portability and price. Tempted by a large gamut of inexpensive lightweight cases that are easy to carry on one’s back, we see some players carrying their fine instruments in these cases, but there is always a compromise when sacrificing protection versus weight and quality versus price. I have owned and used several types of modern cases: those made of ABS/ plastic laminate or “high-tech shell” (the carbon-fiber style cases are usually a laminate of ABS plastic and a sheet of carbon fiber on the outside) and others in injected/expanded foam rubber. While they are certainly lightweight, I have found that they actually do not protect the instrument and can even lead to irreversible damage.

For instance, the injected foam cases on the market tend to be the cheapest cases. While they are very light, injected foam is an excellent conductor of vibrations known as G-force shocks (5), which means that simple bumps and falls can lead to important damage —I have seen a scroll broken from the neck by the case simply falling over on its side. What a shame to suddenly have a sound post crack just because you wanted to save money on a case! 

ABS plastic laminate cases may not transmit G-force shock as much as injected foam, but they have two potentially fatal problems for a wood instrument: plastic is a thermal conductor (6), meaning that temperature exposure is highly problematic. When left in the sun, the inside heats up quickly to dangerous levels even when exposed for short periods of time. I have had the rosin go soft and my violin get burning hot simply from a 20-minute bike ride.

Hydrostatic variations are another, often ignored, issue. A case needs to protect the instrument from hydrostatic fluctuations of humidity and air mass changes. Both foam core and carbon fiber/ plastic case shells fail to protect the instrument for the simple reason that they cannot breathe. The materials act like a plastic bag — once the case is closed there is little or no way for them to breathe or adjust to changes in humidity and air mass, especially as concerns the rainproof and waterproof models.

 Why is this so important for a violin case? Because string quartet instruments are made of wood and often exposed to large variations of humidity. For example every time a musician plays a concert, the humidity in the room goes up resulting from the respiration of those in the room, so by the end of a concert the wood in the instrument becomes saturated in humidity. Imagine how much water is in the air of a full concert hall after two hours! Any string player knows that their bows have to be tightened more and more as the concert goes on as the horsehair reacts to humidity and atmospheric pressure (horse hair is used in barometers as a precise measurement tool). It is not rare to finish a concert with bows that can no longer be tightened.

When the humidity-saturated instruments are put away they need to start de-saturating and if the case cannot breathe the instruments remain in this relative humidity that creates a situation of prolonged exposure and shock, both of which can soften wood glues, crack pine wood and grow fungi! Given that a case needs to both insulate the instrument and let it breathe, a wood shell is the perfect choice. By using natural fibers, such as silk, to garnish the case on inside with removable protective covers on the outside, one combines layers of materials that make for optimal protection and breathability. Adding to this is the durability of the case, as each element can be maintained and repaired when needed, making this design last much longer —sometimes even longer then one musician’s lifetime as we can see with many vintage cases.  

The case’ environmental impact, both in terms of manufacturing, but also end of life, is currently a growing concern. Indeed, both plastic shell and foam cases are generally impossible to repair. ABS plastic shells can crack, latches tear off and zippers on foam cases often break but the piece can be more expensive to change then the case itself. And plastic shells simply cannot be glued back together. This does not make for a positive environmental index. Alissa Demorest, a specialist in the luxury packaging market and Editorial Director of Formes de Luxe magazine, points out that numerous grades of plastic are being questioned today when it comes to the components that make up luxury products. “ABS and other polymer styrenes are being phased out in favor of naturally sourced alternatives that have less of an environmental impact. It is specifically the end of life that is proving problematic, as many of these more technical plastics cannot be recycled,” she comments. When applied to synthetic cases, this means that the budget case, which only lasts a few years and cannot be fixed or recycled, will go into landfill or be incinerated.

There is lots of room for innovation
in case construction but innovation should be backed up with scientific study and data over time to prove its effectiveness at all levels before marketing products that maybe hazardous for the instrument and the environment. The case of the future should meet all of the demands of tomorrow’s musician: the technical and environmental requirements, but also an aesthetic quality that reflects more then 600 years of our instruments’ extraordinary craftsmanship.

What’s the bottom line for buying a case? 

No matter what the value of your instrument, there is simply no better insurance to guarantee its preservation, playability and protection than a really good case!

Laberte Humbert case shop

Laberte Humberte case workshop in Mirecourt, France

Many thanks to the following people for their generosity, knowledge, bows and help in writing this article:

Dimitri Musafia
www.musafia.com

François Champarnaud
www.champarnaud-mccamy.com

Alissa Demorest
www.luxepackaginginsight.com




Violin expert Ian McCamy

Ian McCamy

About

With Violin Insider, Ian McCamy shares his passion for the world of exceptional stringed instruments and fine French bows by exploring their craftsmanship and the unique stories that make up their singular history.

Since the age of three Ian knew he wanted to dedicate his life to the violin: he began playing at the Greenwich House Music School in New York City at the age of six and later studied at LaGuardia School of Arts. Following a career of performing around the world, he has turned his lifelong passion and knowledge of the violin to the study, expertise and restoration of fine stringed instruments and French bows at 58 rue de Rome, Paris France.

Violin Insider shares his fascination for instruments of the string quartet and the extraordinary bows used to play them through a series of articles, documents and photographs. 

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