By James N. McKean
Many years ago, in a town next to where I was living at the time, a young mother ducked into a dry cleaners to drop off some clothes. She came back out, reached for her keys, and found herself being handcuffed. In the short time she had been in the shop, a policeman had driven up, noticed a child unattended in a car seat, gotten out, looked around, and still had time to wait for mom to reappear.
What does that have to do with your violin? It was just about that same time that the former concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, taking a break from practicing in his dressing room, went outside for a smoke. He returned to find that his del Gesù violin had vanished from the case, which he had left open, with the door to his room unlocked.
Both stories have happy endings: the child was not abducted, the mom was let off with a warning, and the violin turned up within hours at a local pawn shop. (It appears to have nine lives—the very same instrument, now owned by the New York Philharmonic, was recently left in a cab by the concertmaster. The cabby returned it in time for the concert.)
There are many things you can do to protect your instrument and bow and most are the same things you would do (or not do) with an infant.
Don’t leave it unattended. This advice comes from experience. That del Gesù’s disappearance from the dressing room? It happened to me. I also had a viola disappear from my shop in a few short minutes when I ducked out to the bathroom; the door behind me had failed to latch. (The viola turned up a week later at a guitar shop.) When I asked a detective how it could happen so quickly, he just laughed. “You’re a professional, right?” he asked. “So are these guys. It’s what they do for a living.”
Don’t leave it out. When you’re not playing, put both instrument and bow back in the case. During a break in rehearsal, you often see cellos left on their sides next to the chairs. It’s not infrequent that the next time you see them is in a repair shop. They’re big, and you’d think it would be unlikely someone would step on one or kick it over, but it happens. “In the case” means out of harm’s way.
Close and latch the case. A violin case with the top up is an invitation to help yourself. If not the violin, a bow can vanish in the blink of an eye. And bows all look pretty much the same, so it might be hard to claim it before it’s gone out the door, even if you notice it’s gone in time. Lids can also fall and can crack an instrument or snap a bow in half. A friend of mine discovered this recently, but luckily, his Seraphin violin also has nine lives. He had put it and the bow away properly, so when the lid fell nothing got hit. And latch the case. Yes, every single time. Make it a reflex, like putting on your seatbelt. Why? It helps prevent theft; but also, every now and again, someone will pick up their case, forgetting it’s unlatched, and then out everything tumbles—shoulder rest, photos, mutes, cloth, violin—onto what is usually a concrete floor. Ouchies, as my young son used to say.
A special word for cellists. You know you do it, and you know you shouldn’t: the case, standing up, the cello inside, the lid slightly ajar. It’s such a pain to latch the thing, especially if you’re going to be taking it back out in just a few minutes. Well, faith is a beautiful thing, but when it comes to Velcro, it’s perhaps misplaced. See it in your mind’s eye, in slow motion, like a reality-show reenactment: the cello drifting free, gathering momentum, landing on the bridge. And cases, these days, are designed to be as light as possible, which means that they are rigid when latched, but when left open, unstable.
Sub rule No. 1, for cellists: even latched, don’t leave the case standing up. I got a call not long ago: the case had fallen over. It appeared undamaged (not even a scratch). But the cello had suffered a rib crack. If you leave the case standing up, wedge it next to the piano. Better yet, put it on its side, in a place where it’s least likely to get kicked or tripped over.
Beat the heat. You know how you can get arrested for leaving even your dog in a car with the windows up on a summer day? Well, that heat is enough to melt varnish, too. And most instrument case covers are black or dark blue. And as we all know from the new push for passive solar energy, that’s a good way to maximize the heating effect.
Beat the humidity. My brother, in his first job out of forestry school, ran the drying kilns for a hardwood mill. Interestingly, he told me, the crucial element in drying the wood was not the heat, but the air forced across the stacks by huge fans. The single best thing you can do to reduce the chance of damage from dryness is to keep your instrument in a latched case. As for too much humidity, well, there’s not a lot you can do—air conditioning is about it.
Brace for a bumpy landing. It’s summer-festival time, you have to fly. Do not, under any circumstances, check your cello. But you have a travel case, you say. And, I hope, a St. Christopher medal and a rosary, because you’re going to need them, too. Last fall, I got a call from a luthier colleague, someone who makes cellos for a living. He had taken a cello to show; rather than get it a seat, he had checked it. He had taken every precaution, including the ones you probably can’t—he had taken down the bridge and the soundpost, wrapped the cello in bubble wrap, put it in a travel case, and then put that in a padded cover. He did everything but sacrifice a goat. And for his efforts, when he finally unpacked his version of a matryoshka doll, he found a broken neck, a smashed upper rib, and two cracks end-to-end on the top. A total write-off—except the case, of course, which escaped without a scratch. So, sure, go ahead and check your cello. As they say, good luck with that.
So, in the end, it’s pretty simple. Your instrument is just like your kids: no one loves them like you do (except maybe their grandparents, who more often than not also gave you the money to buy your instrument). Do the little things to keep them safe. Most of all, though, do not depend on the kindness of strangers. After all, look where it got Blanche DuBois.