We live a rather strange life as classical chamber musicians. We travel very often on many forms of transport. Getting around with a cello on my back presents some serious challenges and some frequently asked questions.
When I lived in Amsterdam I would travel around the city on a scooter. Zipping through the streets on my Vespa with a cello on my back drew a lot of attention. I became accustomed to strangers having a little giggle at my expense when I passed by. However, the beauty of Amsterdam is that everyone moves around on bicycles, so carting around a rather large object on two wheels didn’t draw too much surprise or interest. These days I play on a loaned instrument that is far too precious to be carried around on such a risky means of transportation.
When it comes to flying the reality is very different. Booking a plane ticket for me and my cello is the first major hurdle. This usually involves a couple of hours on the phone to a call centre in some far-flung land, attempting to explain what it is I’m proposing to take onboard the aircraft. If I’m lucky we fly with the budget European airlines such as EasyJet, where I can book the cello ticket online. My companion, ‘Mr SEAT OBJECT CELLO’ travels on my passport. Assuming all goes smoothly, I will aim to arrive at the airport in more than good time for my flight, for it is here that the real fun begins.
First up is check-in. More often than not the airline check-in staff look at the cello with mild bewilderment and quickly pick up a phone to consult some senior member of staff in order to find out what to do with me. This usually results in me having to stand around for 20 minutes watching a series of staff members come and go whilst randomly clicking buttons into the computer. Eventually I have my boarding passes and we are all set for phase two.
Security awaits me and here comes the question that jangles the nerves of every cellist. "Is that a guitar?"…often followed by "can you give us a tune?" or "I was in a band once". “No”, I explain “it’s a cello”. However, I am frequently corrected by security staff; it is apparently known as a ‘big violin’. To tell you the truth, I don’t mind these questions and it usually means I can make it clear that what I’m about to put through security is very fragile and rare. Once I’ve explained what is in the case I usually end up with a few staff gathering around me admiring the cello. I inevitably have to wait for my suitcase to go through extra checks as I carry a set of spare strings and a suitcase full of metal wires tends to draw suspicion.
Onto the third and final phase; boarding the plane. This bit is truly laborious and darn right annoying. Some airlines are kind and let me board first. However, when this doesn’t happen it is a real challenge even getting onto the aircraft. I squeeze myself and the cello down the aisle of the plane before having to disturb my fellow seat passengers to get the cello into the window seat. Mr SEAT OBJECT CELLO always gets the window seat for safety reasons (I suppose it doesn’t run very fast in an emergency!)... it’s not fair really. I’ll strap the cello in, which is a process that varies between airlines. Sometimes it's a simple extension belt around the instrument or a cargo net that takes about 15 minutes to install. Once the cello is safely in place curious passengers ask "do you always have to buy a seat for that?" or "is it a Stradivarius?" Whilst others make bids on how much they think it might be worth.
Phase four happens on arrival at our destination and is a reversal of phase three… and off we go for our concert.
On the bright side, having to purchase two seats on the plane means I get two meals. All this travelling gives me quite an appetite. Every cloud has a silver lining I suppose....