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Truckin’ with ETHEL—NYC’s Truck Stop Tour Veterans

12 travel tips to ease the pain of your first professional road trip

Editor’s note: The acclaimed string quartet ETHEL has been touring worldwide since its genesis in 1998. The group has accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles over the years leading them to places such as Australia, Hawaii, Netherlands, and Native American reservations. Traveling with four varying personalities coupled with the stresses of flying, driving, and acclimating to new people and places is nothing short of an adventure. ETHEL has had its share of adventures: the group had one concert presented in a Dutch sewage-treatment plant; one concert presented in an Australian convict settlement; one parking fine issued by the Hobart City Council Car Parks Authority, in Tasmania; and one-and-three-quarter annual layovers in Detroit. In the process, this alternative ensemble of well-traveled chamber musicians has found that there are some simple ways to protect both your fiddles and your sanity while on tour.

FLYING

  • We’ve been carrying instruments on and off of planes for several years, and have learned that every trip is a unique social negotiation. These days, with the economic stresses that beleaguer the airline industry, all illusion of elegance is gone and one is pressed from check-in to boarding about the need to load the instrument (specifically the cello) as baggage. Brandishing an extra ticket, one gains access to the plane, only to face a far more intricate and less predictable set of demands. We’ve had a cabin attendant reseat a handicapped passenger to satisfy the bulkhead requirement. Other times, the puzzle of seating the instrument has had us promoted to first class, or banished to the back of the plane. On one flight in Europe, a ground crew was even called on board to secure the cello in its seat with luggage netting. [In the “old”days, when planes were bigger and heavier, baggage allotments were unrestricted, and cabin crew were better compensated—they actually took pride in accommodating these precious, but awkward objects, usually in a crew closet, at no cost. If a seat was needed for the instrument, it was understood to be next to a window in the bulkhead, to avoid inconveniencing or endangering other passengers.] 
  • Airport security is the least fun part of the trip, for sure. But do yourself a favor and put a smile on your face and be humble. Don’t freak out if the TSA folks want to get a better look at your axe. If they decide they need to,you ain’t gonna stop ’em. Just roll with it, and be courteous to them as they work (especially if you need to guide them in opening your case). 
  • Fiddlers, use the smallest case possible! Those big ol’ rectangular jobs are just asking for trouble. Especially nowadays when everybody’s trying to save a buck by not checking luggage. And if an agent asks you if your case will fit in the overhead, answer them quickly (and affirmatively)! 
  • If you can manage to carry your case backpack-style, that frees up your hands. And then whatever carry-on you use, do get one with a strap on the back that slides over the handle of your suitcase. Presto, you’ve got one hand free to call your sweetie and tell her that you’re on your way home (or you’re delayed in Detroit)!
  • Never check your music! If your bag ends up in Miami when you have a concert in Tampa, well, ’nuff said.
  • Do loosen your strings before you fly. Just about a 1/2-step or so. Dunno if it helps, but to date, our fiddles have traveled pretty well in the air (what was that joke about perfect pitch?).
  • If you book a seat for an instrument, do get a frequent flier card for that instrument. 
  • In general, we would just advise, that the key element is how the cabin crew feels about the instruments, about you, and about their careers, in general. Any way one can help them feel better is wise, and may even produce unexpected benefits.

DRIVING

  • Heads-up for taxi drivers who are all too eager to grab a fiddle and slam it in the trunk (it always amazes us how folks need to be instructed as to which side needs to go up). Especially watch out for the case pile-up in the back of an SUV. Also, there’s no feeling like seeing your axe free-fall to the pavement of an airport taxi stand. Best solution? Keep your axe under your own control—always—and if it’s going in a trunk, put it there yourself. 
  • Every once in a while you might have to leave gear in a car. If you must do so, back the car up as close as you can against a wall. It won’t stop the bad guys from stealing your car, but it’ll sure make it a lot harder to get into the trunk! 

REHEARSING

  • Every once in a while, we’ll request a hotel conference room for rehearsal, but more often than not we’ll just work in one of our rooms. And sometimes presenters will invite us into their space early—it’s always worth asking!
  • We’ve pretty much stopped traveling with music stands. We’re about to move over to iPads for all of our charts anyway, so we’ll just prop that up and we’re good to go.
  • A rubber practice mute is a brilliant tool, especially on the road. We find it opens our ears to new colors and timbres. It’s especially helpful with intonation work, and for keeping hotel neighbors from banging on your door!

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