Travelling with a cello
Our questionnaire about transporting cellos struck a real chord in all those of you who kindly responded. Playing the cello brings with it the life-long challenge of getting the all-too-human-sized ‘beloved brute’ – as one of you expressed it – safely from A to B without too much stress to the back or the nerves.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the large majority of respondents prefer to travel by car with their instruments. Finding a safe space in the car to put the cello is their major concern. Most prefer to put the cello at a 45° angle into a car seat, either wedged behind a front seat or into the foot well of the front passenger seat. Peter Alsop shifts his front passenger seat back to get the cello case in, and then moves the seat forward again to hold it securely without the need for a seat belt. He likes to think that wedging the cello in would make it more difficult for a smash-and-grab thief to take the cello at a service station. In his younger days, Peter put a trilby hat onto the cello case in the passenger seat, but once got stopped by the police who wondered if he was carrying a corpse. One respondent admits that he always puts his cello in the front passenger seat, even if his wife is travelling with him, which inevitably attracts comment about the cello being more important than the tolerant back seat passenger!
Some of you lie the cello down across the back seat if there is room in the car. This technique is only safe if the cello is strapped or otherwise immobilised, as Muriel Daniels found when she braked hard to avoid hitting a squirrel: ‘I jammed on the brakes and the cello fell into the foot well. You’ve guessed it – one damaged cello but one happy squirrel!’ We were surprised how few people routinely use a seat belt to restrain the cello; sometimes the seat belt is not long enough to reach, particularly in back seats, but we’d strongly recommend taking the trouble to strap the cello down as you would a human passenger, not only for the cello’s safety but to make sure that you would not be hurt by your cello case in a road accident.
Depending on the design of your case, it can be easier to put a cello into the car upside-down, though some of you worry that this would not be good for the cello. We regularly put cellos upside-down into cars, but taking care that there is nothing in the accessory pocket or loose in the case which could fall out and damage the varnish.
Others like to use to use the boot for their cellos if their car has a roomy enough rear, although some express concern that instruments in the boot could get damaged if a car went into the back of them. This is certainly a genuine risk; we were once unlucky enough to be in an M25 pile-up and our cello was damaged when we were hit in the rear.
Clearly, if expense and ecology were not an issue, it would be great if we could all drive our cellos around in Range Rovers. William Fuller-Tweed doesn’t recommend a Land Rover as he worries that the very hard suspension will shake the cello so badly that the sound post will move, and the back door with the spare wheel is so heavy that it always attempts to crush the cello as it’s lifted in and out. A real no-no for cellists (unless you have a cast-iron lower back) is a two-door car. In the real world, however, there are some makes of car which accommodate certain cello cases well.
Useful makes of car mentioned (often nostalgically) for their capacious boot-room include: Rover 25, Saab 900 and 9000, Volvo V40 estate, Volvo 740, Skoda Octavia Hatchback, Skoda Fabia, Toyota Yaris T3 (‘the biggest small car on the market’ according to Yvonne Marie Parsons) and Renault Kangoo. The Peugot 307SW was chosen as a family car by Melanie Woodcock especially for its helpfully-designed back seats: ‘The middle back seat folds down, so we can fit two children in either side of the cello (which lies down) beautifully.’ William Fuller-Tweed finds that the Peugeot Partner is wide enough for the cello to be place across the boot. Another cellist says her new Peugeot 1007 is the best car she’s ever used to transport a cello. The front passenger seat lies flat so the cello can lie from the back seat forwards, immobilised by the front passenger seat belt. Clare Graham loved her Honda Civic for the way its back seats folded down really flat so that she could put the cello through the boot into the back seat area. Catherine Ardagh-Walter chose her Seat Toledo because of its huge boot: ‘It is the only saloon car I could find on the market which can take a cello case without moving the back seats forward. I can pop my cello in the boot and close the door, and nobody would know there was a cello tucked in there!’
Few of us will have tried Peter Alsop’s ecologically sound trick of carrying two cellos on a bicycle: ‘I actually found that two cellos is easier on a bike than one – gets a better balance though hard to manoeuvre, and impossible on hills…’
Perhaps not surprisingly, your feedback about train travel with a cello was not always positive. The biggest problem is securing a safe place for the cello – the best place being the seat next to you, though this option is rarely available. Ruth Hardy has gone as far as buying a child’s ticket for her cello when she travels by train but even this hasn’t always protected her from the censure of the ticket collector or other passengers. Buying a child’s ticket may be the safest option as trains become more crowded and it’s certainly not expensive.
Fiona Hedges has sometimes resigned herself to giving her seat to her cello and standing next to it, but still having to face down the disapproval of the guards and other unseated passengers. Nikki-Kate Hayes has had the same experience: ‘Sometimes I’ll stand up and give my cello a seat rather than myself. If I get questioned I say that ‘she’ (my cello) is older than me!!’
We often travel with cellos by train; our favoured method of securing cellos on trains with suitable carriages is to lash the cello firmly with a piece of cord to an upright luggage rack or other vertical support, in full view of our seat. The lashing protects the cello from falling over and also, one hopes, from opportunistic thieves. A bungee strap can be used instead of cord, as can a flexible bicycle lock. At other times we lie the cello down on its side in the gangway next to our seats and smile apologetically at people as they squeeze past. Colin Jackson regularly travels with his cello from Sevenoaks to London and finds it best to sit in the disabled section of the train, if the seats are not needed by wheelchairs, prams or bikes. Sonia Hammond finds the easiest train company is National Express East Coast (formerly known as GNER) where there is a space at one end of the carriage for a cello to stand behind a seat; some Virgin train carriages also have this feature. One distinct benefit of travelling with a cello mentioned by several people was the way a cello case parts the crowds in front of you at a busy station.
Our final question in the survey was about cello cases: do you use wheels, and if not, is your case comfortable to carry? This opened a rich seam of comment – regret from those still struggling with heavy Hiscox and Paxman cases and longing for lighter modern versions, happy comments from those of you with new light cases such as BAM, Deranleau and Stevenson. To our surprise, relatively few respondents use wheeled cases, and those who have them only wheel their cellos over a very smooth surface such as marble or carpet, for fear of damaging the cello inside. In our opinion, cellos are unlikely to come to any harm when wheeled over fairly rough ground as long as the padding inside is appropriate and the cello endpin does not make contact with the shell of the cello case.
Several of you mentioned the advantage of using double rucksack-style straps rather than single shoulder straps to carry a case. James Rees, one of the intrepid Extreme Cellists, carried his cello up the tallest mountains in Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales in the summer of 2008 and swears by his Fiedler back pack system on his Stevenson cello case.
This article was first published in our newsletter News for Cellists of which there are three editions a year. To receive our newsletter by post (UK only) or email, please contact us.
© Robin Aitchison and Sarah Mnatzaganian 2009.