The cellist’s packing list

One of the perks, or possibly chores, of the music profession is the huge amount of travelling we have to do. When I look at my passport, I can flip nostalgically through pages and pages of visas and immigration stamps, remembering all the places my cello has taken me that I mightn’t otherwise have visited. Student and working visas from Britain and America, working visas from China and Kuwait and a few other exotic places, and stamps upon stamps of tourist entry visas from countries I visited for competitions and so on–Denmark, Germany, Canada, France, Spain.

The downside to all this is that I seldom got to see a great deal of the cities and countries I visited, except from the windows of aeroplanes and rental cars. I had no time for all the art museums I wanted to see, but can tell you all about the insides of hundreds of hotel rooms. The ones other people paid for were often luxuriously comfortable; the ones I had to pay for were typically spartan, if not downright dangerous. (I recall one terrifying night spent cowering with a pillow over my head at an America’s Best Value Inn in Columbia, Missouri, while a violent quarrel went on for several hours in the next room. I can’t remember why I didn’t call the police, or at least the reception–I think I must have been too afraid to reach out my arm for the telephone.)

I’ve spent a busy summer travelling around the Northwest playing in various music festivals and recitals, and one of the things I did to amuse myself while I was feeling lonely and missing my family was to compile a spreadsheet–I know, how nerdy!–of all the things I shouldn’t forget to take with me on trips, since I habitually forget something. Toothpaste is easy enough to get hold of, but it’s a major inconvenience to forget your makeup bag or jewellery case when part of your job is to look good on stage, because those things are expensive. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve forgotten my hairbrush, or left my pyjamas neatly folded under my pillow at home.

I was inspired to do this after a recent re-read of Yehudi Menuhin’s “holistic” book on playing the violin, The Compleat Violinist. We should pay attention, I think, to Lord Menuhin’s exhortations to eat healthily and practise yoga: what better proof can we have than the photo illustrations of the beaming elderly virtuoso performing various headstands? One of the most endearing sections of this utterly charming book is Menuhin’s shopping list for musicians, which includes wholesome items such as wheatgerm and goat’s milk yoghurt. Now, I wouldn’t presume to give anyone a lecture on nutrition, but I thought it might be fun to share a few of the things I find most useful on the road.

I’m going to assume that most people will pack a smartphone now that everyone has them, but I don’t know how I survived without one to be my GPS, my total means of communication, and my entertainment all in one small package, and I wouldn’t care to be without one again. I also assume that most people will pack spare strings, Dampits, and several solutions for the perennial endpin problem (marble floors! Floors you aren’t allowed to make holes in! Rock stops that won’t stick! Straps that swivel around in a maddening fashion! Etc!).

But cellists also have to think of a few things that other musicians don’t. Since we’re already pushing our luck, and our credit cards, by buying an airline ticket for the cello and hoping it’ll actually be allowed on the plane, it’s prudent to keep other potential problems to a minimum by bringing only one checked bag that’s under the allowed weight. So here are some of my solutions. They’ve afforded me the opportunity to take only one small wheeled suitcase with me all over the world, sometimes for long periods of time, and I hope they’ll be helpful to others.

  1. A lightweight folding music stand. When you consider the ten tons of other cello-related stuff you need to carry around, this might seem like a luxury to be left at home, but you’ll need it for practising in hotel rooms, and a lot of concert halls only have those big clunky stands that obscure a cellist because they won’t go low enough. I have one I bought for $9 in a Shar Music sale about 10 years ago that’s as light as a feather, has been all over the world with me, and is still going strong. If you shop around, you can find stands that weigh as little as a pound and a half, and fold up pretty small.
  2. If you’re going in and out of the United States, proof that your bow doesn’t have ivory on it, or was purchased before February 25th, 2014. (I have a 150-year-old bow of which I’m very fond which does, sadly, contain ivory. I plan to have the ivory removed before my next overseas trip.)
  3. Concert clothes that don’t need ironing. This, I suppose, isn’t exclusively for cellists, though we do have the added problem of restricting our clothing choices to cello-friendly items, such as skirts that are wide enough and trousers that are just that little bit longer. Because of this, we often have to make our own concert clothes, or have them made. I have a brilliant tip for you: use crushed satin. It’s shiny enough to look good under stage lights, it folds up small, it’s lightweight, and because it’s crushed satin, it’s supposed to be crushed.Therefore, you don’t have to worry about burning holes in it with the hotel iron, because you don’t have to iron it at all. Sorted!
  4. Concert shoes that don’t need polishing, so you can leave the shoe polish at home. I recommend patent leather for this. I also recommend getting the cheapest concert shoes possible, because they’re lighter than expensive ones. Plus, it doesn’t matter if they’re hideously encrusted with rhinestones and glitter because the audience can’t see them up close, and it doesn’t matter if they’re wickedly uncomfortable because you only wear them for a couple of hours while sitting down. (People who stand up to play their instruments may have to explore more expensive options.) Cheap everyday shoes are a horror, because you have to wear them so much more, so spend a few extra bucks on the shoes you’ll wear traipsing all over the airport lugging your cello. I recommend a chic pair of ballet flats for this, probably in black so they can double as concert shoes if your luggage gets lost.

I suppose the next few things aren’t really cello-specific, but they may be useful for travelling musicians of all stripes.

  1. A good travel-sized hair dryer, if you have long hair. While this may seem like another luxury best left behind, some hotel hair dryers are woefully inadequate (now, there’s a first world problem), and some hotels don’t have them at all. In our profession, we’re expected to look glamorous, which for long-haired people usually means not looking a Fraggle.
  2. Tape. Because sometimes your elaborate solutions to difficult page turns need reinforcing, and it’s incredibly annoying to have to try and find somewhere to buy tape in a strange city.
  3. Lots and lots of protein bars. Not being a healthful yogi like Lord Menuhin, this is my sole food recommendation. When you’re driving all over sparsely populated areas, you often go for hours without finding any eateries. You also have to make peace with the idea of eating a lot of fast food, and hope your arteries will understand. Sometimes you really can’t get any food at all, and that’s why it’s good to have a stash of protein bars at all times. Most performers don’t like to eat dinner before a concert, and afterwards, especially in small towns, nothing’s open. Some concert organizations will put on a reception for the performers after the concert, but you can hardly make a beeline to the refreshments table and wolf all the cocktail frankfurters without looking terribly rude. What’s more, the audience, not realizing you haven’t eaten, will often want to talk to you at length, and there’s simply no polite way to try to get to the hors d’oeuvres. This is where protein bars are genius. They fill you up and keep you going, and are usually reinforced with some kind of vitamin content, so that if you have to skip a few meals, you won’t starve or get scurvy.
  4. Multi-vitamins. Just in case you really are worried about scurvy.

Things to put in your carry-on bag:

  1. Your music. It’s too important to risk losing it in a luggage incident. I keep all of mine in the same black three-ring binder that I equipped with pieces of folding-out black cardboard so I can have four pages across, and a pencil in its own attached holder.
  2. Your spare strings and endpin solutions, unless those solutions involve anything sharp and pointy, in which case you can probably say goodbye to them in an airport.
  3. The usual. You know, passportticketsmoneyphonekeys.

Things to leave at home:

  1. Those stupid travel-sized containers into which you’re supposed to decant shampoos and so on. They always leak. All over your crushed satin concert gown and your protein bars. If you’re going on the road for several weeks and you have long hair, you might as well take normal-sized bottles of hair products, carefully wrapped in zip-lock bags, because you’ll use them up. Or, if you aren’t picky, you could just use those tiny hotel bottles of shampoo.
  2. Your gym clothes. You’re not going to go to the gym, even if you earnestly intend to. You’re just not.
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