Tips on Traveling with a Violin
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Over the last year I've covered a lot of miles. I've become familiar with airport routines, security, wait time, amazing views from airplanes, the pleasure of having to sit still and just travel, and preparation for the worst as well. My violin is by my side for 95% of trips I go on, and I've learned so much over the years about how to have less stress on myself and my instrument. Here are my biggest takeaways from my experiences so far.
I. Get Insurance!
The most important step to protect against the times when circumstances fall out of your control is to have instrument insurance. I use MusicPro, and you can insure any gear you use to perform as well. Setting up an account with them could not be easier, and colleagues of mine who have made claims have had great experiences.
II. Prepare your instrument for travel
When I'm packing the night before a trip one of the last and most important things I do is set up my humidifier in my instrument. I use a Dampit, a wonderfully small accessory found at any music store. I soak it in a glass of water for about five minutes, absorb excess water with a towel, and then put it in my violin. I then put my violin in its silk travel bag, making sure that it securely fits in the case without any wiggle room. Airplanes become extremely dry in flight, and your violin will be in the same environment you are in, right there in that overhead bin. Think of the stuffy noses, dry skin, and constant movement of air from those small vents. I've found that when I do this humidifying preparation my violin stays stable and is more ready to play when I land.
I also keep a small, eyeglass screwdriver in my violin case to attach my pickup to my violin before soundcheck. The bits are detachable so the screwdriver does not set off anything at TSA. Give your case a thorough check if you are worried about any sharp objects or items that may get you pulled aside. I have found out the hard way and had a couple of screwdrivers taken, and snacks can do it too. I have started pulling out any food I have and placing it in a bin to make the process seamless.
Cases are extremely important and deserve a separate post, but I'd like to share what case I use. Every violin is a little different and fits differently in cases, so I recommend doing research in person and testing out the fit with your instrument itself. I have found that this case is a great fit for my violin: Artonus Cadem Violin Case
This is an affordable, mid-range level of protection that has worked so well for me!
III. NEVER let other people handle your instrument
My bandmates know my thoughts on this too well, and joke about my attachment to my instrument, but they understand it too. Accidents happen when people try to help who are not familiar with instrument care, especially violins. Other instruments such as guitars and electric instruments can be, and usually are, much more durable. Flight attendants, taxi drivers, hotel staff, airport security, TSA staff and many more will most likely not know what is in your case or how to treat a violin safely. I find I start to get really nervous when people offer to carry my instrument. I politely say "I'd like to hold on to this because it's very fragile," and most of the time things go smoothly from here. However, a few special circumstances at airports have included TSA staff rescanning my instrument when I have already been cleared, taking it back to the beginning of the line and placing it upside down on the belt. I think the best approach in this case is to say a few words when you see this happening - quickly and kindly - about how to carry the case and the fragile contents. Keep the top of the case up, and move it gently without abrupt bumps into other objects.
Be aware after you've taken your seat on the plane as well. As people continue to fill the overhead bins they can become stressed about possibly having to check their bags, and they start shoving hardshell carry-ons vigorously against whatever may be there. I've stopped people before, quite loudly, when I see this unfolding. People don't know, and you have to step in to really prevent anything from happening.
It's unfortunate that sometimes things start to slip out of our control, but most of the time this can be prevented by being upfront about how the instrument needs to be treated. And best of all, keep the violin in your hands and in your sight whenever possible.
IV. Prepare for weather
I always keep a plastic trash bag in the pocket of my case to protect against sudden and heavy rainstorms. In the winter I use a double case [Cushy case] to insulate against colder temperatures. When I arrive in a new room, I try to wait at least 15 minutes, ideally 30, before opening the case to prevent shock and possible cracking. Also keep watch for direct sunlight, as that can increase the temperature in your case quite rapidly.
V. Be prepared for paperwork for some international destinations
In September 2017 I traveled to Russia for the first time, and my bandmates told me these tales of their previous violinist getting hassled at customs when they were leaving the country because he hadn't declared his violin upon arrival. The agents almost confiscated his violin from him. I've pieced the process together to protect against people entering the country, stealing an instrument or antique, and trying to claim it as their own upon leaving. The whole thing sounded traumatizing to me, and very complicated especially when you don't understand the language and and have been on a plane for too many hours. I decided I was going to over-prepare. I did some research and found entry forms to fill out [here if you need them]. In hindsight I would have waited to fill them out there because I had to re-do them a few times in front of the agent to correct numbers and data that were in the wrong boxes. The instructions are not incredibly clear on the forms, so this is best to save time. However, come prepared with the value of your instrument, bow, and spare bow; the origin, maker and year of everything, and an appraisal letter from your luthier. They also took multiple pictures of my instrument so they could identify it clearly. It took some time, but I was glad to have it done.
VI. Of course, never leave it in the car
When we (Abney Park) were performing in Canada last fall, our host offered to drive us to a grocery store after soundcheck. We got out of the car and I had my violin on my back and our driver said something along the lines of, "Are you going to play at the grocery store?" I laughed and explained that I never leave it in cars because of theft and temperature change. But as we started wandering around, I thought to myself that it was the right place and right time, and I decided to play while we shopped. Yes, I played some folk songs as we walked down the aisles of this grocery store. The employees even turned off the store music while I played. There are some hilarious videos somewhere in the records from that trip. You don't have to play everywhere you go, but do not leave a violin somewhere where you wouldn't be comfortable yourself. Violins are happiest in environments where humans are comfortable.
Is there anything that you do to make travel easier? Questions?
Let me know in the comments below!
And thanks to my teachers and friends who've shared their experiences to help me.
Safe traveling and performing,
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