Strings Music Festival: Have instrument, will travel
August 3, 2017
The life of a professional musician almost inevitably includes travel. For most of our artists, a performance at Strings Music Festival is just one stop on a three-month bus-and-truck tour or a week-long classical gig in a summer packed end-to-end with week-long classical gigs.
One of the challenges traveling musicians face — apart from sketchy food choices and scratchy hotel towels — is getting their instruments from home to wherever the gig is.
Bus-and-truck touring artists simply load their cased instruments into their group transport. Keyboards, guitars, electric basses, banjos, fiddles and horns all fit nicely in the luggage bays beneath the tour bus. Drum kits come apart into many, smaller pieces, so those cases can travel in the truck or in the luggage bays.
Once in a while — as with Mary Chapin Carpenter — a band will tour with a piano shell, which is just the external piano structure with no keys or strings. An electronic keyboard slides inside where the piano keys would be, and onstage, it looks just like a grand piano. But it weighs significantly less, which makes a difference to the crew when rolling it down the ramp from the truck, up the ramp into the venue, and lifting it up onto a stage platform.
But in my opinion, a piano shell is nothing more than a visual conceit for the artist — the shell is still much heavier than a set of keyboards with keyboard stands, and I don't think anyone in the audience is fooled into thinking that they're hearing an acoustic grand piano when a musician is playing an electronic keyboard.
Classical artists are more often traveling on their own from one gig to the next. Players of the smaller, hand-held instruments — like violins, trumpets, flutes, oboes and the like — have the most flexibility for travel options, and can keep their instruments with them on airplanes as carry-on luggage. Cellists usually have hard cases for their instruments but only surrender them to the gentle ministrations of airline baggage handlers when they absolutely have to.
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Cellos, violins, violas and basses can have special difficulties traveling internationally. Many string players value the craftsmanship, tone and provenance of very old instruments.
But those same instruments may be originally (and legally) crafted with small amounts of materials that are now subject to protective international trading bans, like ivory, Brazilian rosewood and tortoiseshell. It can take a lot of special travel permits, border machinations and customs cajoling to get one of these instruments to an international gig. Some players throw up their hands at that kind of chaos and have a second instrument for international travel that contains no protected materials.
If a venue is providing the instruments that a percussionist is going to play, then they just travel with a bag of mallets and sticks, and maybe their own cymbals. But when Peter Flamm, our most recent timpanist, swung through the festival, he had a full minivan's worth of instruments to bring: three timpani, a glockenspiel with stand, a drum throne, a bass drum, a timpani stool, cymbals, a giant bag of mallets and a mysterious plastic tub that seemed to hold an unending supply of timpani hardware and colorful tape.
Piano players have the easiest travel choices. No one expects them to show up with their own piano in tow, so they only play venues that either own an appropriate instrument or can rent one for the performance.
The tough part about that is the pianist gets stuck with whatever instrument the venue has, whether disastrous or divine. Strings is fortunate to have two gorgeous Steinways — a 9-foot concert grand and a 7-foot grand — that please every pianist who plays them.
It's probably not the first thing young musicians think about when choosing which instrument to learn although parents may have it at the back of their car-pooling minds. But the ease or difficulty of traveling with that instrument certainly becomes a major part of life for the professional musician.
Ali Mignone is the stage manager for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she's not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.