Another story cropped up on my Facebook feed today about yet another manhandled instrument. It’s gotten bad enough that WQXR published a “Top Five Flying Disasters for Musicians” list. The fact that a) I’ve already read about all 5 of these, and b) there are at least half a dozen more I could add to the list without thinking, is getting me worried.
Part of the worry is, of course, the frustration that the mechanisms of musician’s livelihoods are being carelessly tossed around – and too often, destroyed – by individuals who have no understanding of what they are handling. Sure, not everyone can recognize the difference between an inexpensive student bow and a $20,000 ‘cello bow. (So why not treat them all like $20,000 bows?) But causing this kind of property damage is more than just frustrating and expensive. It is hindering these musicians’ ability to make a living. And it’s more than just TSA agents at fault. Airline baggage handlers are not noted for their gentle ways. They have limited time to load and unload the cargo hold, so everything gets tossed and tumbled.
I have a bigger fear, however. Of those 5 incidents mentioned by WQXR, two have culminated in cessation of traveling for performances. (Those decisions have surely included more reasons than just instrument damage, but that was clearly a significant factor.) How many more musicians have to curtail their travel before this becomes a significant problem? Do orchestras have to add extra days to their tours just to navigate through the random seizures and fines?
I know it’s cliché to talk about music as the “universal language,” but sometimes a cliché is accurate. Music transcends language, moves without borders, and unites individuals in unexpected ways. Music can become the ultimate melting pot, bringing together voices and instruments from a wide variety of cultures and perspectives, opening listeners to new experiences.
Part of the melting pot comes from the internet. Services like YouTube and Vimeo bring performances to individuals who might not get a chance to see them otherwise. But nothing compares to a live performance – the energy, the charisma of the performer, interacting with the audience in unpredictable ways.
But what if the performer never leaves home?
Imagine what it would be like if Yo-Yo Ma limited his performances to a 3-hour driving radius from his home in Cambridge, MA. Or if James Galway never left Meggen, Switzerland. Want to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band? Get yourself down to New Orleans, because they’ll never leave the hall. And orchestras will surely never tour again.
I’m an idealist. I hope to eventually live in a truly global community. But these kind of antics are forcing us to hunker down, afraid to venture away from home. We are isolating ourselves and worse, our art – the aspect of ourselves that is best able to reach across boundaries of geography and culture, and speak directly to the human heart.