up in the air

Less than a week ago, news sites began reporting that a senator is calling for clarification of the FAA’s carry-on rules in regard to musical instruments. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island became aware of the ongoing battle between musicians and their ever-changing scary world of air travel when a musical guest scheduled to perform at the Newport Folk Festival was forced to make last-minute travel arrangements in order to fulfill his contract with the festival. The reason? US Airways* required him to stow his guitar under the plane with the rest of the cargo rather than take the fragile instrument as a carry-on and presented no other reasonable option to their customer. Instrumentalists are all too familiar with the endless struggles with airline employees who seem generally unfamiliar with the legislation that has come to be known as the “if it fits, it flies” law:

PUBLIC LAW 112–95—FEB. 14, 2012

41724. Musical instruments

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—

‘‘(1) SMALL INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage, if—

‘‘(A) the instrument can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat, in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator; and

‘‘(B) there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.

As a middle school violinist, I had already been coached by my private teacher as to how to stand up for myself in this type of situation: what to say, who to speak to, how to effectively get past the ticketing station and onto the plane without letting my violin be spotted, and how to make useful and non-aggressive suggestions to the airline attendants as to alternate storage locations onboard the aircraft for my violin in its small, light case. I know to bring appropriate documentation with me on any flight including the value of my possessions, insurance information, copies of policies and laws, and statements outlining possible legal action to be taken in the event that no solution can be reached. I have been lucky in that all I’ve experienced on the relatively few times each year that I travel with my violin is an elevated stress level, slightly uncomfortable conversations, mild embarassment over delaying boarding for other passengers, and the general worry that comes with whizzing through the air thousands of miles above the ground with the most expensive thing I own.

Others have not faired so well with the airlines. Cellist Lynn Harrell was stripped of over over half a million Delta SkyMiles that he had accumulated over years of traveling with his cello (purchasing full-priced seats for the instrument on board to ensure its safety), a story which was covered by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to The Colbert Report. To select just a handful of examples of musicians being forced to check their instruments under the plane with the rest of the baggage is a difficult decision because, in each case, a valuable possession directly linked to an individual’s livelihood, training/education, and often emotional well-being was damaged.

For those unfamiliar with this situation, you may be asking how it is that a violin, cello, guitar, or other instrument which has been carefully packed in a hard case can really sustain irreparable damage while in the airplane’s cargo hold — aren’t cases designed to protect from weather, impact, and other variables? Is the damage that we hear about in the news just cosmetic or otherwise inconvenient?

The short answer is no, and the long answer varies on an individual basis. I am a violinist, so I will comment in that regard. Many non-musicians have heard about some knockout violins still being played today: namely, those crafted by the Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari in the 18th century. Depending on the period of his life when Stradivari made a particular violin, these instruments range in present-day value from hundreds of thousands to several million dollars. What many non-musicians do not know is that the “average” professional musician also spends quite a bit of money on their “average” instruments. The violinists in small, regional (“per-service”) orchestras often perform on violins costing upwards of $20,000.00, not including the value of the bow (which can generally cost more than $1,000.00 and must receive regular maintenance). If you consider the expense that soloists or professional musicians who are regularly employed by some of the larger orchestras in the United States (Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Cleveland, Boston, etc), you may be surprised to learn that those instruments can cost much more than $60,000. This is an out-of-pocket expense, as is the specific instrument insurance — not covered by homeowner’s or other blanket plans.

Maintaining a string instrument is not always easy: we must avoid abrupt changes in the temperature and humidity of our wooden instruments (for older violins, even walking from an outside performance venue on a humid summer day to a cool air-conditioned restaurant after a concert   — or being onstage at an outside performance venue in the first place — can cause problems). Our strings are tempermental as well, sometimes made of metallic blends or a natural material referred to as “gut,” and the extra expansion and contraction of these materials can cause them to break or, in worse cases, cause other delicate parts of the instrument that are held in place by the string tension alone to break. Even when traveling with an instrument in the pressurized cabin, violinists take special precautions against the altitude change by adjusting the string tension before boarding. The cargo hold’s pressurization varies from aircraft to aircraft, and it can get as cold as 40 degrees Farenheit (7 Celsius). At these temperatures, wooden instruments not only risk breaking seams (a separation of the wood at glued points — minor repairs costing about $50+ per seam) but they also risk cracks in the wood itself which can immediately and irreparably reduce the value of the instrument, its tone quality, and its ability to project its sound. A string instrument like a violin, viola, cello, or bass depends entirely on a balance of tension to maintain its playability: The strings are connected both at the top at the pegs and at the bottom at a place called the tailpiece, held on through a little loop connected to the bottom “endbutton.” The strings will break if their tension is too great or unbalanced, causing the bridge to fall off, the tailpiece to possibly scratch or chip the varnish of the wooden body underneath it, and soon the soundpost — a small, thin, dowel-like piece that has been placed and adjusted with great care inside the violin — will fall. Without a soundpost, the entire violin will begin to compress and, over time, will be worthless. Some of these problems will occur instantly when the instrument reaches a certain temperature, and others can be avoided if addressed right away. It all depends on the age of the violin, the type of materials, the craftsmanship of the lutheir who created it, and the intensity of mishandling or improper care. Cases are designed to protect violins from everyday travel in cars and trains, from rehearsal to home studio. They have gauges to help us monitor the humidity in the case, shield from sudden changes, and some have waterproofing elements to protect from rain, but accidentally tip over a case on the subway and you’ll be surprised at how quickly its owner jumps to its rescue.

Now, back to the reason I decided to address this issue here. I am grateful for Senator Reed’s call for action, and I am hopeful that his support may encourage other politicians to get involved with this issue. Do I believe he understands the full extent — the number of incidents, the span of years, the amount of personal property damaged — that the rules of individual airlines affect musicians and performing ensembles? Not really, not yet at least. However, it is not important at this time. What is important is that someone with an economic interest — the Senator is, no doubt, concerned with bringing tourism and publicity to his state — has entered this debate and it is no longer a question of  musicians on individual case-by-case bases vs. huge airline corporations. Orchestras, operas, music festivals, ballet companies, and other artistic performances can be great, but participation in these cultural events and the benefit that city and state economies can reap from them is only possible if airlines show this smallest gesture of support. Perhaps when other government leaders realize the impact that the cancellation of these programs have on the revenue of their hospitality, dining, local transportation, retail, and additional entertainment establishments they will join Senator Reed in making air travel a bit more reasonable for musicians.

*You may recall that this is not the first US Airways incident this year: At the end of May 2014, the violinists of Time for Three were not allowed to board their plane flying from Charlotte, NC to the Artosphere Festival in Fayetteville, AR with their violins as carry-ons. Their impromptu protest in the form of a YouTube video was viewed by hundreds of musicians and fans of the classically-trained trio within the first hour of its posting, and their story was later picked up by The Today Show and other television news programs. Ultimately, their flight was rescheduled and they were allowed to board the plane carrying their instruments (valued at approximately $250k each), but followers of Tf3’s twitter account may remember that, despite the public reaction and media coverage, Nick and Zach still had a bit of a struggle getting onto the plane with their carry-ons.

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Tickets for Students and Young People

Thanks to an anonymous donation, the New York Philharmonic will host Philharmonic Free Fridays, a program offering 100 free tickets for young people ages 13-26 to each of the 18 Friday evening subscription concerts during the 2014-15 season.

Free tickets may be reserved online and must be claimed in person from Will Call at the Avery Fisher Hall Box Office. Tickets will also be distributed the day of each Philharmonic Free Friday from 5:00–7:00 p.m. (for concerts starting at 8:00 p.m.) or 4:30–6:30 p.m. (for no-intermission concerts starting at 7:30 p.m.) at Window 1 at the Avery Fisher Hall Box Office. First-come, first-served; one per person. Tickets will be available for reservation five days before the concert date.

Take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

Maazel, de Burgos, and Goetze

Last night I had the great pleasure of sitting outside in Graz’s Glockenspielplatz sharing drinks and stories with other American musicians. The weather here in Graz has been mostly drippy since we arrived with only moments of sun and blue skies peeking through the rainclouds, so it was especially nice that, on the night of the World Cup finals, the evening was pleasant enough to bring many citizens, tourists, students, and summer residents out to the biergartens to watch the game together. Our makeshift television (a screen hung on the outside of the building for those of us dining al fresco) was delayed a few seconds behind the one in the neighboring restaurant, but it was easy to enjoy the game through the swells of excitment in the viewing audience.

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(Yannick Nézet-Séguin seen here conducting in Munich a few weeks before the game)

I have been told that soccer will never achieve the same level of popularity as American football or baseball because its capacity for advertisement is much more limited, and though the format of the game and the impact on sponsors haven’t been entirely explained to me, I know that I saw very few advertisements and even fewer commercials during the couple hours between when the game started and when Mario Goetze led Germany to victory.  When there was a pause in the action, there was one commercial that appeared right before the Austrian weather forecast for the week, and that was a short tribute to conductor Lorin Maazel who passed away yesterday at the age of 84. If I hadn’t seen the television broadcast with clips from Maazel’s illustrious career on the screen at that moment, it wouldn’t have taken long to hear the news. Here at the AIMS Festival I am surrounded by musicians, and Graz is typical of many European cities in its committment to arts and culture. Unlike many others here, I have never interacted with Maazel on a personal or professional level, but I did feel a sadness in his passing as every musician should feel when the world loses a great talent. Moreso than sadness at this loss, I felt grateful to be in a place where the announcement of a conductor’s death is important enough to squeeze in on fantastically expensive airtime. In the United States, when would a network choose to interrupt the commercial programming of an internationally-viewed broadcast for a classical music concern? It will be a long time before priorities are straightened. The NPR obituary can be found here.

Sadly, Maazel was not the only conductor who died this year. Just over a month ago, Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos lost his battle with cancer. He had only  just canceled concert engagements the week before, citing health issues that began to become apparent to orchestras and audiences earlier in the Spring. I have watched de Burgos conduct a number of times throughout the last decade, almost exclusively with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and his performances were never disappointing, never boring, never quite what might have been expected. In October, he led the Philadelphia Orchestra in his 150th performance with them. The New York Times obituary writes it well:

Reviewing his performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra of a program of          Beethoven and de Falla in 2012, The Globe and Mail, the Canadian newspaper, wrote:

“At the podium, even seated as he was, 50 years disappeared before our eyes. He became a conductor of clarity, energy, style and grace — a magical transformation.”

It happens all the time for us. We play music of a different era, sometimes on instruments made before we were born (or before our parents, grandparents, or even country came into being); we perform alongside musicians much older or younger than ourselves and are led from the podium by artists who have studied every aspect of a piece’s composition in order to create something brand new in the moment of a concert. The non-musician may look at 80 and 84 years of life and think that death can be expected, but we know that music keeps our minds and our humors (and sometimes even our ears and fingers) young even with the rest of us can’t quite keep up.