Ask anyone about their thoughts on the poaching of endangered species, deforestation, over-sourcing from natural resources, and other such human endeavors and they will most likely agree that something must be done to limit the devastating ecological effects that these practices have on our world. One such practice that has gotten a lot of press in the past year has been the poaching of elephant ivory for sale in markets around the world. The World Wildlife Foundation makes the following concise statement about the history of this problem:

“In the early 1970s, demand for ivory soared and the amount of ivory leaving Africa rose to levels not seen since the start of the century. Most of the ivory leaving Africa was taken illegally and over 80% of all the raw ivory traded came from poached elephants. This illegal trade was largely responsible for reducing the African elephant population from 3-5 million to current levels. In the 1980s, for example, an estimated 100,000 elephants were being killed per year and up to 80% of herds were lost in some regions. The poaching was generally well-organized and difficult to control because of the availability of automatic weapons.”

Their webite goes on to describe CITIES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and their 1989 decision to ban international ivory trade. Since this ban was instated, African elephant populations have begun to recover, but a 2011 study estimated that 7.4 percent of all African elephants may have been killed by poachers that year alone. More drastic measures to protect these animals need to be taken.

In January 2014, China followed in the footsteps of the United States by ceremoniously crushing several tons of confiscated ivory. Both countries want their stance on illegal trade known worldwide. A month later, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife Service announced a ban on the trade in elephant ivory within the United States by prohibiting all imports, exports, and resales. Seems like a good idea, right? Crack down on all of those criminals and violinists. Good thing grandma’s Steinway isn’t up for sale.

Am I being unfair? No one has “tickled the ivories” of a new Steinway since the early 1970s when they began manufacturing pianos with high-quality plastic keys, but if you owned one of these vintage instruments you now own it for life — or face criminal charges. These regulations make the import, export, and interstate sale of almost any object with African elephant ivory virtually impossible, and anyone who owns any antique elephant ivory will be unable to ship or sell it without unimpeachable documentation proving it is at least 100 years old, has not been repaired with elephant ivory since 1973, AND arrived in the United States through one of the 13 approved ports of entry.

But let’s be honest, no one is planning to ship a Steinway anytime soon. However, certain musical instruments — instruments crucial to the careers of many musicians — contain ivory and are may face confiscation when traveling. Those of us who were born in the 1980s and own bows from the great makers of the 19th and early 20th centuries will also have a problem applying for an instrument passport which requires proof of purchase prior to 1973. If you can somehow obtain documents supporting your claim to your property, the passport is pricey and must be renewed every 3 years*.

Who is charged with enforcing these new rules? Why, the TSA of course (acting on behalf of the Department of Fish and Wildlife)! I have been playing violin for over 20 years, and I have a hard time determining whether the tip of a bow is made of ivory, bone, or some synthetic white substance. Just as you can prove a real pearl from a fake, ivory can be scratched to determine its authenticity, but it also decreases its value. No offense to the hardworking officers who strive to keep our flights safe, but I don’t trust you for a minute when it comes to “eyeballing” my livelihood to determine what materials they are made of and if they must be confiscated.

You might be thinking that perhaps this law might be like the “law” against bringing nail clippers onboard or removing your shoes while going through the x-ray scanner — “laws” that seem to lose their lustre when there is, say, an especially long line to go through airport security. “When the term ‘import’ is used on this ban, it doesn’t just mean commercial activity,” says Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras. “It means bringing instruments into the country, even just for personal use, and even if you’re simply returning from work internationally with that instrument.” The Budapest Festival Orchestra had to pay a fine of $525 to get back seven bows that were seized at JFK International Airport last month for containing elephant ivory despite having a signed statement from the Hungarian government clearing them for customs. Critically acclaimed jazz bassist Christian McBride was travelling to Saskatoon, Canada last month only to discover that the TSA had confiscated his bass bow under suspicion that it contained ivory. Most shockingly, his experience shed light on the the little-known fact that even items that APPEAR to be made of ivory are liable to be seized without warning and without notice to the passenger unless they lodge an official complaint.

In case you are unfamiliar with the items, violin bows can range in price from a couple hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars depending on the maker and quality of the bow. The most expensive bow I have ever tried was in the ballpark of about $20k, but some professionals own bows worth much more than that, and a professional violinist usually carrys more than one bow with them on tour.

The criminalization of these types of possessions does not just affect string players. Bassoons are often made with ivory components. The traditional ivory ring at the end of the bell serves not only a decorative purpose, but it also protects the wood from cracking. Sometimes, this ring can be replaced, but other times it must be ground off in order to comply with the new laws. Not to mention those poor bassoonists playing on some antique French bassoons made entirely of Rosewood, another material that makes an appearance on the banned list.

Some guitars and mandolins have ivory inlays, and as one 17-year old from Scotland can tell you, even bagpipes aren’t in the clear.

As is often the case, one sweeping law is not the answer to a decades-old problem. The government keeps coming out with statements about how the law is not intended to threaten the livelihood of performing artists, but no good solution has been presented. Suffice to say, I left my good bow at home this summer and opted to take a decidedly less expensive carbon fiber replacement.

*Someone please explain to me how my bow, made of wood, metal, horsehair, and ivory will remain functional and yet change enough in 3 years’ time to need a new passport when a child’s passport — which could’ve been issued on their first birthday — is valid for up to 5 years.


britten & bizarro

I have this most amazing selfie to date to commemorate the Chamber Orchestra’s laudable performance at Music in the Parks and their subsequent trip to Six Flags New England yesterday:


Our bus pulled out of the Brewster High School parking lot just after 7am Friday morning and headed to Westfield South Middle School in Westfield, Massachusetts. The festival seemed surprisingly understaffed when we arrived just before our 9:40am warm-up time. Students were there to direct us to the band room (with no chairs, no stands), but the front office staff seemed completely unaware of the existence of students from other schools coming and going all day.

The warm-up part was tough. Though my students were anxious to play, they were also struggling to wake themselves up out of the sleepiness from the morning bus ride. This was also the first time any of them had participated in a Music in the Parks-type of festival, and they weren’t quite sure about how to process the new situation. We played some of our most difficult spots, including a few transitions, and then I gave them time to warm up individually or with partners.

Our repertoire for this event was the entire Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten. Composed of melodies written by Britten between the ages of 9 and 12, this piece can be very misleading in its complexity. The New York State School Music Association places Simple Symphony in its highest – Level 6 – category, presumably because of the extended pitch range, variety of tempos and time signatures, and the extent of compositional interplay between sections. It is a piece that even professionals have to study before rehearsal, and it requires very focused attention throughout.

Suffice to say, as much as I value and enjoy this work, it was not my first choice for the Chamber Orchestra. The students of the Chamber Orchestra have performed Level 5 programs in the Spring for the past two years, and their hard work has earned them Gold with Distinction ratings at the NYSSMA Majors Organizations Festival. Given that most of the students in this ensemble do not attend NYSSMA Solo Festival and that the average NYSSMA Solo Festival level of the group as a whole would hover around a Level 4, Level 5 orchestra selections have always been challenging. However, I felt quite a bit of pressure from my colleagues to use the multiple Gold ratings to justify moving to the next — and highest — level. The decision to play the Britten came from careful consideration of the Level 6 repertoire list and an understanding that certain movements would be doable at slower tempos. I also made my repertoire choice knowing that I would not subject my students to NYSSMA festival adjudication where they would be critiqued in predictable, and uninspiring, ways. As I scrounged around for parts and scores — which were harder to come by than I expected given that 2013 was an anniversary year for Britten — I registered the Chamber Orchestra for Music in the Parks: a reward for their hard(er than ever) work.

The judges at Westfield South Middle School consisted of a choral director and a jazz band teacher. Britten didn’t stand a chance to impress. Brewster performed with a lot of energy and emotion, better-than-normal attention across sections, but slightly poorer intonation than I had hoped. In just over 15 minutes, we were finished and loading back onto the buses.

Why the route to Six Flags New England from Westfield South Middle School was so complicated, I don’t understand. There were more than a few road closures, and our Google GPS wasn’t updating accurately. The important thing is that we pulled into the parking lot around 10:45am and had to hurry up to wait in line to enter.

I was most concerned about this portion of the trip. In an effort to keep as much money in the hands of students and the Brewster HS Music Boosters, I had opted to take just one other chaperone: Patty, my first year mentor and friend in the BHS Choral Department. Although the tshirt purchases had been largely based on identity and team-building within the string program, the students’ choice of hot pink was a godsend. They were easy to spot throughout the day and eliminated any difficult discussions about inappropriate attire that I found myself wishing other teachers had had with their students before heading out into public.

Students in Brewster have many opportunities to go on field trips. Some had already been to Six Flags with their Physics classes, others had traveled to Washington, D.C. in middle school, and most were expecting to be given completely free reign of the park while we were there. The problem with this is that I am still a relatively new teacher, and I worry more than perhaps I should. To strike a balance between overbearing and naively lenient, I set up a system ahead of time involving buddies and cell phones:

  • Prior to departure, students signed up to stick with one or two other people throughout the day. Students who don’t have close friends in Chamber Orchestra were assigned buddies loosely based on preferences (rollercoasters, water rides, games, etc).
  • Each student received a paper on the bus with the “official” buddy list, my cell phone number, and a few times throughout the day. While on the bus, each student texted my phone with their name and received a confirmation text back from me with the same times as listed on the handout.
  • Students were expected to text me at each of the designated times with information including: their name, who they were with (their buddy and any others), and where in the park they were (waiting on line for ride x, eating at x restaurant, etc). If they didn’t receive a confirmation “thanks” from me, it didn’t count as being sent and they could expect to hear their names announced by security to meet me at a certain location.

I never had to make any such announcement! The system worked beautifully, all students texted at the designated times, they showed up when they were supposed to, and the day went really smoothly.

And most importantly, according to students who recounted this in shock to others on the bus ride home, Patty and I were able to ride both Flashback and Bizarro 2x.  If that isn’t a successful trip, I don’t know what is!