Editor’s Note: When it comes to traveling with a musical instrument, there can be turbulence, tragedy, comedy, and magical wonderment. In honor of the Birdfoot Festival–a chamber music festival that is sweeping through New Orleans this week–we are asking musicians to share their stories when it comes to travel and their instruments.
“Every cellist has a ‘I got kicked off an airplane because I play the cello or because I had a cello with me’ story. That happens to everyone. Generally, you want to buy a seat for your cello. That’s one thing that is very common. It’s funny because I fly all the time. I’ve taken hundreds of flights with my cello, and yet everyone is always surprised. They act like it’s the first time they’ve seen someone traveling with a cello. I’m sure I’m not the only cellist who does this. I’m sure it’s rare, but you figure other musicians are doing this same thing.
So when you buy a seat for your cello, it’s usually a widow seat. Some airlines have different policies where it has to be in the bulk head, so I’ve had airlines say, ‘You needed to buy a first class ticket in row one, sorry we can’t take your cello.’ Even though you call ahead and you check to make sure everything is right. So I’ve been kicked off a few flights because the rules always seem to change, and you never really know. It also depends on the flight attendants, so you have to be very sure of yourself. You have to tell yourself, ‘Yes, I’m allowed to do this.’ You get a seatbelt extension and you do it.
I have had some fun stories as well. There was one flight where I ended up playing solo Bach over the PA system for the airline. They sat me down in the flight attendant’s seat by the cockpit and held the telephone to my cello. I played Bach for the passengers a little bit and got a couple of free drinks out of that. That was really nice, and also kind of awkward because there wasn’t much room to actually play, but I got through it. Little tiny arms and lots of extra bows.
And there was also a time that was just ridiculous. I got on a New York City bus after a flight. I landed in LaGuardia, and there’s a bus that takes you into New York City. I had my cello, a suitcase, and probably a backpack, and it was a pretty full bus. People were trying to pile on, and I was trying to get as much out of the way as possible, but maybe I wasn’t quite enough out of the way.
I wasn’t really paying attention, but the bus driver starts hollering over the PA, ‘Move your piano.’ I didn’t really hear her, and she starts shouting, ‘Move your PIANO,’ and I thought who has a piano on here? I thought maybe it was a keyboard, so I start looking around for a piano and then realized, oh she means me. A lot of times people see this big case and wonder if it’s a guitar or a double bass. They don’t know.
The thing is, it’s great to sit next to a cello on an airplane. It’s the best. You get the arm rest. You don’t have to fight for that. If you’re tired, it doesn’t mind if you sleep on its shoulder. It’s a great traveling companion.”
You can hear cellist Michael Unterman, as well as fellow Birdfoot musicians, play on Monday, May 23 inside the Three Keys venue at the Ace Hotel (600 Carondelet Street). This free concert begins at 5:30 PM. If you feel inspired to play some chamber music yourself, you can also attend the Community Chamber Music Reading Party on Monday, May 23 from 8:00 P.M. until 11:00 P.M. The 2016 Birdfoot Festival concerts will be running from May 23 – May 28. For a full schedule of the concerts, visit the Birdfoot Festival website.