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Unintended Disasters

It didn’t occur to me, but the airline security regulations are going to cause chaos for the arts: Cabin baggage ban hits musicians.

The baggage holds are unheated and the baggage handlers are not known for delicacy. Insurance companies won’t cover instruments that are put in the hold. Most musicians buy a separate ticket for their instrument so that it has its own seat, so even if they buy a special case to protect the instrument, they are uninsured and the airlines are going to lose that second ticket.

Ships and trains may come back in vogue.

4 comments

1 Steve Bates { 08.11.06 at 9:52 pm }

This is no surprise, but what did surprise me were the few commenters on the post you linked who basically told musicians to suck it up and deal with it. Excuuuuse me? I hope they are someday faced with similar predicaments, in which their legitimate livelihoods depend on doing something they are legally prohibited from doing… such as traveling with an instrument.

A typical performance-quality cello is probably worth $20k, often more, sometimes much more, and the insurance on it requires that you fly it in the cabin, not the hold. When I toured Austria almost 30 years ago, I got hard cases for all my instruments… woodwind instruments… but my heart was in my throat until I saw them intact at the other end. Stringed instruments, even more than winds, are extremely fragile, and subject to damage from temperature extremes if the baggage handlers don’t smash them first. (Even the best cases won’t survive the worst handling baggage receives.)

I’ve had my performing instruments stolen once in my life. What no one except a musician seems to understand is that the loss is not just the expense of replacement: instruments are highly individual, and when you lose your instrument, you lose your whole way of playing… the straightforward becomes difficult, and sometimes the difficult becomes impossible. The learning curve on a new instrument, no matter what your skill level on the old one, can be months long.

2 Bryan { 08.11.06 at 10:49 pm }

I lived in Alaska at a time when a lot of guys had guitars. To keep a decent guitar in one piece in Alaska you had to store it in a plastic bag with a damp sponge because at -20° the relative humidity of the outside air was near 0% and the inside air wasn’t much higher.

Taking a guitar outside at those temperatures was usually its death. The best you could hope for is that the strings would snap if you forgot to loosen them before taking it outside in a case. Every different material contracts at a different rate in the cold so if it was outside for an extend period, it came apart.

Those are the temperatures and humidities outside a passenger aircraft at 30,000 feet. Contrails are ice crystals from the water vapor in the jet exhaust.

The Russians were carrying national treasures, not tools. The top level musicians have custom made instruments that would take months to duplicate if it were possible, but it isn’t. Every instrument is unique, even those that are supposed to be “mass produced”.

I can just see Yoyo Ma agreeing to have one of his cellos slung into the baggage compartment.

What about IT people? I would never agree to putting the laptop that contained everything I needed for a job in the hold.

They are going to have to review the rules or lose professionals on aircraft.

3 Steve Bates { 08.12.06 at 1:01 am }

Taking a guitar outside at those temperatures was usually its death.

One year in the early 1990’s, Houston had a freeze that took it down to 5°F… nearly unheard of in these parts. The house I lived in was old and leaky, and the central heat… perfectly respectable for Houston… couldn’t keep the house above 60°F. My harpsichord would have been OK at that temperature, but the zero humidity from the heating system caused a soundboard crack. (I heard it happen. It sounded like a gunshot in the night.) Fortunately, many harpsichords, both ancient and modern, work just fine despite a soundboard crack; they’re only a problem if the soundboard bends in the vicinity enough to touch strings, or move the bridge, or some such. I was lucky: mine worked fine, and it still has the crack to this day.

The Russians were carrying national treasures, not tools. The top level musicians have custom made instruments that would take months to duplicate if it were possible, but it isn’t.

I can just see Yoyo Ma agreeing to have one of his cellos slung into the baggage compartment.

I don’t know what instrument Yo-Yo Ma plays, but you can bet it wasn’t made after the year 1900. Those Russian musicians almost certainly have instruments which, if not comparable to Yo-Yo’s, were nonetheless made a very long time ago, and are effectively irreplaceable at any price. Time and regular playing seasons an instrument; the best new instrument (this is true of both bowed strings and harpsichords) still has a brash sound that cannot be subdued except by time and regular use. Harpsichordists are lucky: our new instruments settle in within a year or two. String players have to wait a bit longer, preferably a couple of lifetimes.

Understand: it’s partly the craft of the maker, but it’s also partly the aging of the wood. (The theory that it’s the varnish has been somewhat discredited, but I’ll leave it to a string player to address that.) Most Strad’s were remade in the 19th century to conform to the new taste: larger halls demanded louder instruments, which in turn meant stronger bracing, tighter stringing, metal and/or metal-wound strings, a higher bridge and consequently a steeper angle of the fingerboard, etc., i.e., the same kind we use today. But a remade Strad still retained the fine sound of a Strad, presuming the remaker was competent. The best old instruments come with papers, certifying their pedigree… a label inside doth not a Strad make. 🙂 In short… these instruments are beyond price; they are irreplaceable.

I am dismayed at the thought that musicians, who are always hungry, may risk their priceless treasures in traveling to a job. More likely, most instrumentalists who own a good instrument will leave it home and take the, um, second fiddle when they travel. If the Bolshoi ballet orchestra doesn’t sound the same on the road as it does at home, now you’ll know why.

4 Bryan { 08.12.06 at 10:45 am }

The instruments the major Russian orchestras use are literally national treasures, are owned by national museums, and are on loan. The musicians’ personal instruments are probably a pretty dismal collection.

I remember an interview in which Yoyo Ma said that he “owned” several instruments that are in the Strad/Amati value range because they each have a different “personality” that can be matched to particular pieces.

I’ve also heard that many of the best instruments are actually owned by investors and are given to top players for performances because it increases the value of the instrument if they can authenticated as being used by particular people.

In the old days it was three or four days to cross the Atlantic on a ship, so that may come back into vogue.