Hard cases aren’t flight cases: Tips on flying with your instrument.

Musical instruments get damaged in flight with depressing frequency. As another instrument bites the dust with heartbreaking consequences for the owner, Benjamin Hebbert shares some experiences for the musician putting their instrument in the hands of the airlines. 

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On average 8 million people fly every day, with more than 3 billion people flying every year. Musicians with their special needs will always comprise a small part of this vast industry. However much we campaign for reasonable treatment of musical instruments its worth considering how small a part we are of the big picture, and even with the best intentions moving instruments by plane always involves risk. Air turbulence, or a hard landing can be as violent to an instrument as mishandling. Whatever the circumstances, it pays to understand the risks of travel and prepare for the worst.

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Bam’s Overhead High-tech violin case is one of several violin cases designed to fit below the carry on baggage allowance. I have even been able to take this as carry-on luggage inside a rucksack with my computer and overnight gear.

I have seen the best and the worst of airlines whilst travelling with musical instruments. I’ve been given privileged boarding in order to safely stow a violin before the fight for overhead luggage space ensues, and I’ve had gate staff insist I put a carry-on instrument in the hold having observed every precaution through the process of buying a ticket and checking in. The nerve wracking experience I had on a low-cost airline with a 17th century violin of considerable worth was enough for me to learn not to try and stretch the rules. Most of the time when carrying violins, I’ve just been able to walk through confidently even with a double-violin case. If I’m travelling with just one instrument, the small cases without the length to keep a bow work best. You can keep the bow in a separate tube. It’s all about balancing risk. If you have problematic luggage get to the airport super-early. Get yourself into a situation where you can wind down over a few expensive coffees with some literary trash from the airport bookstore with everything settled. Being the first to check in, and the most familiar face in the departure lounge will win you points, and if there is a serious problem you have the time to rearrange your flights or take whatever measures are necessary. Many people, not only yourself, arrive late and stressed to the airport. Whatever the faults of the airline system, the staff are human beings like you and me. Collectively they deal with 3 billion passengers many of whom are stressed, worried, entitled, angry, bizarre and incomprehensible. Your problems pale into comparison to many of the things they encounter.

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Technologies come and go. Plywood cases like this one were once the final word in cello case technology.

With all instrument cases, whether you are a violinist or a cellist, new technologies and fashions have played havoc with the safety and security of instruments. The old brown canvas cello bags that were so common up to the 1980s were almost a godsend because they looked exactly as dangerous as they really were, so people tended to treat them carefully. W.E. Hill & Sons and others produced light hard cases, but these were complex to build and very expensive. It was not until the moulded ABS polymer (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) cases reached the market in 1985 that a universal hard case became a possibility, and set the market going for similar products. Hiscox cases have three things going against them – by comparison to sleek colourful modern cases they are ugly and heavy, and for many of us they are the kind of case we had with our first full-sized instrument. Most cellists remember the delight and liberation of finally buying a light and elegant case for their instrument and relegate memories of their Hiscox to the back of their childhood. Many dealers will tell you how much they appreciate these cases for schlepping cellos, and with new ones available for less than £500 they provide an immediate easy solution, that will prevent most risks, with excellent internal foam padding and a 2 – 2.5mm incredibly hard case. I’ll get on to bubble wrapping cases presently. In the meantime, watch this video to see five guys standing on a case without harming the guitar inside. That’s not the same as a sudden impact… but it’s a good test of strength.

As classical musicians we tend to forget that Hiscox cases are widely used amongst the rock industry and around marching bands where instruments are under much greater risk of damage on tour. It’s easy to be dismissive of them, and I don’t much like taking the London Underground with one on my back, but they are the fabulously secure cases and the minimum standard to go flying or on tour.

One of the real problems of the last few years has been the ease with which carbon-fibre and other light polymer cases can be produced. Let’s be clear that some of these are very good quality, but not all of them. Kevlar, carbon fibre and other substances may be incredibly strong, but that does not mean that they retain their shape (a bullet proof jacket may be able to stop a bullet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be folded). Regular luggage will deform in the hold considerably, and the test of quality is how it holds together, rather than how it maintains its shape. Before we even talk about their resilience in the hold, the major weakness can be the rim and the quality of locks and hinges. If a lightweight cello case is difficult to close properly it’s structural integrity is already compromised and if it deforms it will offer no real protection to the cello in a crisis. Yet it has proven easy to flood the market with sexy-looking lightweight cases made of 21st century wonder products that have hardly any structural integrity. This goes further than just cello cases. Violin and viola cases made of expanded polystyrene or from unsupported sheets of kevlar will give no protection against being crushed.

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Cases like this one sacrifice strength for weight. Nothing can forgive what the flight handlers did to cause the damage, but it offered little protection.

With Hiscox cases, the aluminium ‘valance’ that goes around the middle is integral to the structural integrity of the case, not only giving a solid plate that the straps and locks are attached to, but creating a completely rigid spine that gives the case its strength. It may be a feature that is as characteristic as a brand-name, but extending two inches inside the case, it’s the difference between one of the most resilient products in the business, and modern lightweight hard cases.

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Hiscox cases are amongst the very best budget cases designed to be highly durable. https://www.hiscoxcases.com

For the real pro, Alan Stevenson has been making rock solid fibreglass cases  (and now carbon composite cases) since 1976. (David Gage in the United States produces a similar line). Many of the earliest ones are still in use by professional musicians and touring orchestras – a real testament to their longevity and quality and there is a good second hand market amongst musicians for them. Prices are from around £1000 to over £2000 but that’s a small price to pay for the security that they offer.

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Alan Stevenson’s cases have a huge reputation amongst European musicians http://www.stevensoncases.co.uk

Nothing is perfect, and if you get the wheels of a baggage car riding over your cello, there is only a limit to the amount of protection that any case can afford. That being said, I’veseen various Stephenson cases with holes smashed in them which have taken the force and left the instrument less harmed than it would have been.

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A David Gage bass case belonging to Karl Fenner in Colorado showing that even the best aren’t indestructible. .

 

For most cases an outer cover adds protection – companies such as Bam and Accord sell these to fit around normal cases and even Alan Stevenson sells these as an optional extra, but you have the problem of storage so for many musicians it can be a question of the choices they have to make. Remember that these are not rigid, so if you have a flexible case in the first place they are unlikely to offer any protection.

Violin dealers tend to transport cellos in full stripped down mode if they are going in the hold, taking off the soundpost, bridge, tailpiece, pegs, endpin and travelling with those in checked luggage, but this is obviously not practical for a touring musician. It can be an idea to make arrangements with a luthier at the other end of the flight to check over the instrument when you arrive at your destination city and if there are humidity changes this may be sensible whatever the circumstances. The compromise – which involves risk – if the instrument is going into the hold is to let the strings down so that they are tight enough to keep the bridge in place, but not putting additional pressure onto the bridge. Stuffing some bubble wrap firmly under the tailpiece and the fingerboard to make them more rigid will help distribute the force if there is a frontal impact, and may save the instrument.

If you have to put it in the hold (or if you are shipping a cello) an effective trick is to use bubble wrap to make the instrument as unwieldily and impractical as possible. Most damage happens if a case is put on its side or on it’s end, so I tend to tape a pillow of bubble wrap to the bottom so it can’t stand upright, and then just create enough to make it impossible to use the handles, and making it cumbersome enough that you can’t stack other things on top of it. If they have to move it like a coffin and store it on its back all the time, it removes many of the circumstances that cause damage.

Accidents with instruments should never happen, but even in the best of circumstances baggage handlers work under incredible pressure moving thousands of pieces of luggage per hour, and the people who make promises at one end of the flight have no control over what happens on the other side. Be very careful of connecting flights as the speed with which the luggage has to be sorted at connecting airports introduces unacceptable elements of risk. Expect the worst, but be positive and cheerful. Charm the airport staff and hope for the best.

 

Case makers are constantly innovating and responding to new problems. I’ve mentioned cases by Alan Stevenson, Hiscox, BAM, David Gage and others. Check with a trusted violin shop and ask for their recommendations.

 

How much has this violin been played?

One of the questions that I frequently hear as a violin dealer is whether a violin has been played regularly or not. It is one of the questions that well intentioned teachers seem to think should be asked, and that should have some material effect on the choice of an instrument, however it is often a question that a dealer doesn’t have an answer for, and with experience of setting instruments up and working to get the best out of them it may not be the most important question in the decision to buy an instrument. 

To some extent this relies on the phenomenon of ‘playing in’ and the belief that an instrument needs to be played to sound at its best. Generally speaking, where ‘playing in’ does have an effect is over a short period of hours or days, more akin to ‘waking the instrument up’ rather than a continual process of pumping music through its body for hundreds of years. I have known of instruments that have not been played for decades that have hit the ground running with a superb sound from the moment they’ve had a new bridge and soundpost. Occasionally an instrument may need to settle into a new setup, irrespective of whether it has been played continually or not, so it may need soundpost adjustments over the first weeks after a restoration and at an extreme, but this again has nothing to do with how long it’s been played for: A stringed instrument is a fairly organic object.

On the other hand, a great deal of what we call ‘playing in’ is the influence of a new violin on the musician. Of course you have to learn how to get the most out of a different violin – figure out how it reacts differently to the one you are used to, discover that to get a familiar type of sound you have to approach the instrument differently, and understand how it offers more. This isn’t always easy or obvious. If you are fairly rigid in the way you play, and expect a particular kind of response from your instrument, you may find some instruments unsatisfying, but once more this isn’t really a product of how long they have been played and by whom.

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When these two instruments came to our studio they were time capsules from the 1930s complete with period-cases hardly touched. The minimum of work and a new set of strings and they were immediately strong, rich, and ready for professional use, yet I suspect they had never been played.

When it comes to the playing history of an instrument, there is often a sentimentality of wanting to be reassured of a purchase by knowing who owned it last that is justified by the few famous instruments that are sold with provenances that go back hundreds of years. Sadly those are the tip of the iceberg in violin sales, and the vast majority of instruments don’t have any provenance at all. Unless I buy an instrument directly from a musician, I won’t know who owned it last, and auction houses in particular make client confidentiality the absolute unbreakable rule for how they work. If I do buy an instrument from a musician or act on their behalf, they very often want anonymity and if it comes from a musician’s estate my point of contact may be the solicitor or family members who have entrusted the instrument to me in order that they aren’t involved any further in the sale, so there is often a huge discrepancy between the information a prospective buyer wants (and may think they are entitled to) and what I can give, morally and lawfully.

In terms of whether that information is meaningful, that raises further points. I have known of instruments that ostensibly belonged to relatives of long-dead musicians, but were loaned to professionals for years. Contra-wise, I have sold the second violins belonging to accomplished musicians who never had very much need to play them over the decades they used them: Yehudi Menuhin’s vast sale of instruments at Sotheby’s in 1998 was almost completely instruments he had picked up and barely played. The Albert Cooper sale, ten years later was instruments in the private collection of a dealer that he had accrued over decades, yet many of them had been continually loaned out to prominent professional musicians. We may be privy to certain information about an instrument – if it comes to us with broken gut strings, then evidence tells it all, if a customer put a fairly new second hand set of strings on it before walking into the violin shop, we may be none-the-wiser to it’s past, but is it relevant to how it plays?

At the end of the day, a violin might not agree with you. It may need a sound-post adjustment, a new bridge or bass bar, or just a different set of strings – alternatively it may simply not be your voice, but if after visiting violin shop it is interesting enough to be on your own shortlist, the amount it’s been played in the past has very little to do with how it will perform in the future. Very often when a musician assumes that an instrument hasn’t been played much, it is shorthand for the fact that they can sense a greater sound in the violin than it is letting out, or that it would be better suited to their taste with a few adjustments. Very often it means that if the violin was just a tiny bit different it would be the kind of instrument they are looking for. In any of these cases, there is normally a more elementary diagnosis that can be remedied. That should be where the conversation with the violin dealer starts, not where it stops.

If you have concerns about the nature of the sound, talk them through and look for a solution. Very often a good dealer will be sympathetic to your tonal requirements and may be able to work with the violin to make it just that bit better. Otherwise as a musician and a buyer, you may be walking away from the ideal instrument, and committing yourself to endless further searches, frustration and time in locating a better instrument.

In this video, Luca Fanfone plays one of the world’s least played in violins, Paganini’s “Il Cannone” Guarneri del Gesu. Not much to grumble about…