By Emily Wright
Picture this: an undergraduate student, standing in a busy city center on a sweltering day. In one hand, a duffel bag. In the other, a phone. She is trying to find her way to a bar where friends are waiting. The duffel bag weighs a little over 11 pounds. Inside it is $100,000 in banded twenties, which, when stacked on a table, would be around two feet tall. The student is lost—new to the area—so she puts the bag down on the sidewalk to use her phone with both hands. The day has been hectic, full of lessons and rehearsals; juries are in a few weeks. She types the address into her phone and sees that the bar is miles away. This is going to require a taxi. She steps to the curb, waves an arm, and in 30 seconds, she is finally heading in the right direction.
You’re likely wondering about the duffel bag; specifically whether it joined her in the taxi and why on earth she had it in the first place. While the scenario might seem improbable, it plays out many hundreds of times a day for conservatory students borrowing fine instruments from their place of study. Dozens of these instruments are lost, stolen, or seriously damaged each term, not to mention all of the near misses when kind strangers make the difference between a sigh of relief and an insurance claim.
Save the dramatics for Tchaikovsky. Here’s how conservatory students can have completely uneventful, utterly secure experience with an instrument on loan.
Part of the problem is that instruments are fixtures in the lives of the people who play them. There can be a sense of ordinariness that would not translate to carrying around that duffel bag full of cash. Students should foster a certain kind of vigilance, even in situations that seem relatively risk-free. Dorm life can be particularly unpredictable: Even if a roommate is trustworthy, friends (and friends of friends) can introduce risk into the equation. Never assume musical gear is safe in a shared living space: from damage incurred during light-hearted joking around to all-out theft, there are countless ways for unexpected harm to come to an instrument. Students should use department lockers when possible, and keep their instruments within eyeshot otherwise. This even applies to rehearsal, where the author of this very article once had the unpleasant experience of returning from a break to find her cello gone, another student having decided to play his jury on it.
Philip J. Kass, curator of the stringed-instrument collection at the Curtis Institute, offers another cautionary tale of opportunism during rehearsal: “I recall a family once bringing in their Sartory violin bow for rehair, only for me to tell them it wasn’t a Sartory. They were upset with me at first, until I showed them that it didn’t match the description of the one I had sold them . . . . The bow was in an unattended case at a rehearsal at the daughter’s music school, and someone had switched bows while she wasn’t looking.”
His advice is to be proactive about insurance, and never assume a homeowner’s policy covers anything. There may be the option of adding a rider, but if the instrument being borrowed is a genuinely fine example, a separate policy should be purchased. Some schools will take care of this for students, while many others do not. Unless explicitly arranged, the responsibility falls upon the student to shoulder the financial burden of any calamity that befalls an instrument in his or her care.
Mind City Rules
Even for students used to an urban environment, going to school in a new city takes some getting used to, requiring a different awareness of your surroundings and how (and by whom) you are being perceived. When in doubt, go back to imagining the duffel bag of cash. Is it something to draw attention to? If there are any signals that you are new to the area, or lost, or have some sense insecurity about your surroundings, you are more attractive to opportunistic harassers and thieves. Act like you know exactly where you’re going, like you’re a pro at public transportation and navigating the area. Learn to walk with a sense of purpose, using your phone only when absolutely necessary. Someone who wants to steal a smartphone might not have even noticed an instrument until they’re already in the act of committing the theft.
Traveling in groups is also much safer, but the “act like you know” rule still applies: You might feel like a happy, independent adult enjoying time with friends, but the appearance of youth and exuberance can be like a beacon for people up to no good.
Take advantage of on-campus shuttle services when you can, and if using a ride-hailing app, verify the driver and license plate number: Your instrument makes you stand out. Very rarely do people specifically set out to steal an instrument, but someone in a financial bind just might see it as a solution to a desperate problem.
The Usual Care, Upgraded
All instruments need to be protected against the vagaries of weather and indoor climate control, and this goes doubly for an instrument on loan. There is no acceptable amount of time for it to be sitting in direct sunlight, left in a car unattended, or set in front of a radiator or air conditioner. Don’t neglect the bow: Take it in for more routine rehairs to make sure the camber is healthy and the stick remains true. Peabody Institute curator of instruments Melina Gajger braces for the inevitable at the end of every term: Even students who know better manage to incur fees for things like a sticky patch of rosin underneath the strings, or cracks that could have been prevented by simply moistening the bone-dry sponge humidifiers hanging from the f-holes.
She also implores cellists traveling for performances to buy a seat for the instrument rather than checking it through baggage. Because the TSA and airlines seem to have ever-shifting (sometimes location-specific) policies, it’s important to book tickets on the phone, directly with the airline.
Should something happen, even after all of these measures have been seen to, it could be a known problem: Old instruments have seams that occasionally open up or cleats from prior repairs that need seeing to after a while. Don’t try to have it fixed without the school’s knowledge. Any attempt to have an outsider address issues that arise can mean trouble for the student and the instrument, so the mode is one of permanent prevention and honest accountability.
Taking the extra time and effort to care for an instrument this way may feel like a nuisance, but these extra moments of inconvenience are what most students wish for in hindsight when filing a police report or writing the first (of many) installment checks in the aftermath of a disaster. This kind of attentiveness is a contribution to your legacy as a musician: an assurance that future students will have the same opportunity to play an instrument of such caliber that it amplifies and enriches the exhilarating, exhausting, wonderfully wild ride that is music school.