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A second shock for Alban Gerhardt: ‘airport security broke my cello, too…’

Two weeks ago, the cellist Alban Gerhardt wrote exclusively on Slipped Disc about the way his precious bow was destroyed by careless TSA agents in the US. Now he has found that the cello is damaged, too. Here is the second instalment of Alban’s nightmare travel diary:

alban gerhardt bow

On February 6 a careless TSA officer at Washington DC’s international Dulles airport destroyed my bow. Yesterday, hours before my live-broadcast concert with the National Symphony of Ireland in Dublin, I found that the sound-post of my Goffriller cello had been pushed so strongly that on the back of the cello one can see a brutal crack.

What had happened? Why did I only realize this two and a half weeks after the incident? And how dare I complain when I took the risk of damaging my cello by checking it with ordinary bags? Some people seem to believe I deserve such an accident.

In 23 years of travel, neither my cello nor my bows have been harmed by the case being thrown around by baggage handlers. What happened here is that people felt the need to open the case and close it with brutal force.

Naively I believed my cello was miraculously unharmed when the bow was snapped in half over the bridge of the cello, but the impact pushed the bridge down and through the soundpost it created this crack which affects its sound and, probably, its value.

After my three concerts in Madison, which I played on a bow from a cello professor, flying to New York to play a private concert I felt that my cello responded with much more difficulty, even though I had borrowed from a violin shop next to Carnegie Hall an amazing Tourte bow. Instead of blaming my cello I tried to find a way to make it work. I had been taught by my father to always blame myself if something doesn’t work. I am not a frequent guest at violin makers, though in this case I should have had my cello checked after returning to Berlin a week after the accident.

I did go directly from the airport to my bow-repairer, who had just finished repairing my Kittel bow, which had snapped during a rehearsal with the Hallé Orchestra 10 months ago, to exchange it with my poor Knopf bow. He didn’t seem too optimistic about repairing it, but he will give it a try. Back home I needed a break from cello, took care of my 14 year old son and his problems in school, spent time with my pregnant wife (oh yes, she is due in June!) and tried to forget my bad luck. Two days before leaving on February 20 to Zurich and Dublin to rehearse and perform the Schumann and Dvorak concertos with the orchestras there, I started practising again and could not believe how much I had to work to make the cello sound. Maybe the repair had altered the gorgeous Kittel bow in a way that it didn’t sound any more?

The struggles got worse during rehearsals in Zurich and the following day in Dublin, and I realized I could not perform on equipment like that. The strings seemed incredibly low (hardly any space between strings and fingerboard). The supportive and lovely orchestra musicians in Dublin helped me connect with an excellent fiddle maker, Conor Russell, whose wife picked my cello up the night before the concert and provided me with a just finished new instrument of her husband on which I was able to play the dress rehearsal the following morning.

Marc, principal bassist of the orchestra, drove me after rehearsal to the home of Conor, about an hour outside of Dublin, where I received the bad news that the bridge had sunk in because of the crack in the back. Conor had cut a new bridge just for the concerts in Dublin and on Sunday in Zurich, but warned me that the back might not keep it up much longer.

alban gerhardt3


I got back to my hotel at 6:10 pm, took a nap until 7 pm, arrived 10 minutes late for the pre-concert talk, practised another 15 minutes before the concert and went on stage for the live-radio-broadcast of the Dvorak Concerto. Cello felt rather good under the circumstances, but I did not have a good feeling about the Kittel bow which seemed a bit wobbly. After the opening of the last movement I looked at it and realized that it was ready to snap again – two fresh cracks had opened at the tip, I could not believe my bad luck.

During the 30 seconds of orchestra tutti I put my bow down, signaled the conductor to keep on going, walked over to the assistant principal cellist and silently asked for her bow. I will never forget the expression in her face – she must have thought I had gone mad! I finished the concerto on her bow wondering what I had done to deserve such challenges. Oh, I have never had emotional attachment to things, and as a father I know the only really tragic loss, the loss of your child, but to make music I do depend on good equipment.

It is more enjoyable and inspiring to perform on fantastic instruments with a gorgeous bow. During the Prelude of the 6th Bach suite which I played as an encore I decided to take this strike of mishaps as an incentive to actually pursue the dream of being able to play one day on the best possible cello with a matching bow – a Strad is a much better investment than any stocks or funds or even real estate, so maybe I can convince somebody in the future to let me perform on this kind of investment….

alban gerhardt2

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  1. The problem is that no one wishes any professional musician such a mishap and disgusting behaviour from airport security.
    I hate to say it, but why Alban consistently checked his cello into baggage when no other professional cellist would dare to do this makes me wonder if he is just very tight with money and paying that extra fare? Why ELSE would you not take your cello on board and keep it safe with you?

    • No matter how many times one spends the extra money for a ticket for a cello, encountering a complete IDIOT on board, who insists that you “check it or de-plane” is more and more frequent. Between TSA bullies and morons and idiot flight attendants and over-booked airlines, checking a well-packed instrument is often the only solution.

      There is a solution, but it needs to be 100% universal among all touring instrumentalists: Find other travel arrangements (when feasible). Hit the airlines in the pocketbook. While you’re at it, make public the names of the offending airlines, urging others not to use them. There’s precious little we instrumentalists can do, but a few bits of bad publicity can at least give the airlines a slight headache.

    • violinista says:

      He says they’re about to have a baby. Is it inconceivable that he might not be flush with cash?

    • Joey Johnson says:

      3-1/2 words: custom-made anvil case.

      • That doesn’t exactly help when the TSA opens your case, takes the bow out and proceeds to place the bow on the bridge of the cello then force the case shut!

  2. Never, ever check a cello. Period.

  3. No one would ever say Mr. Gerhardt deserved this, but rule #1 is never check anything valuable or fragile. I feel terrible for him, but this should be a lesson to every musician to never, ever, check their instrument.

  4. Alban says, in 23 years he has never before had an incident. I don’t think it is appropriate to blame the victim.

    It used to be fairly common for professional cellists to check their instruments. Several companies sell supposedly “airplane-safe” cases, and in the past, customs officials have been respectful of expensive instruments. You could also ask an airline official to hand-carry an instrument, so that the baggage handlers would treat it with care. When you travel with a dog, that is what you still do.

    EVEN IF you buy a seat for a cello, it is not unusual for the cello to be ‘bumped’ to the cargo hold. Airlines simply don’t count it as a passenger. If you refuse this change, they may bump you to another flight – not possible if you are a professional trying to meet a concert schedule – and there is no guarantee this will not happen on the next flight. So often the best solution is to get a damage-proof case, and go ahead and check it.

    Or that WAS the situation, before the heavy-handed TSA got involved. TSA agents have much less training than customs agents, and their goal is to look for threats. They are generally immune from prosecution if they damage something, and have to reason to be particularly careful. The case did not fail. The agents who opened the case reassembled it badly and forced it closed without regard for the delicate instrument inside. That is squarely where the blame lies, not with the poor player.

    • Reggie Benstein says:

      I don’t see anyone blaming Alban, rather most have showed empathy for his loss and pain. However, no one seems particularly shocked at this incident either, as the risks involved with flying with fragile luggage has been well documented and talked about for some time (at least 10 years now).

      There isn’t a musician I know who doesn’t check his or her instrument without some trepidation and nervousness and who are fully aware they are taking some level of risk. We all know of the severe limits airlines place on lost or damaged luggage of any variety.
      This is not to say it is not unfair and horrible, of course it is. We are truly sorry to know a great musician is dealing with this. But, I think one would have to be in some denial not to admit there are risks in checking valuable and fragile items.

      To play devil’s advocate, one could say that indeed Mr Gerhardt should accept some of the blame, taking a risk with of the world’s great cellos. Sure, I could step out into the street without looking both ways for 20 yrs., doesn’t mean it won’t eventually happen.

      To address the first comment here: it may not be Mr Gerhardt who is money-tight, but rather the orchestras and institutions who pay his airfare. Fewer gigs if you need a seat for your cello ?

    • Alban Gerhardt says:

      Thanks, Claire, for this explanation! Why I didn’t buy extra seats all the time was also due to the fact that not only have I never had a bad experience with checking it (and in these 23 years I have travelled more than 5 million airmiles!), but also because I had better things to spend my money on, for example rather giving to charities than to airlines. Besides that it is true that I have never been attached to things in general, and my cello I saw more as an instrument than some higher being – and as it suffered more under my watch (it broke twice when I actually had purchased an extra seat), I preferred traveling more comfortably without dragging this huge thing around :)

      • Natalie Ison says:

        I know that this is slightly irrelivent and doing this will increase the chance of your strings snapping, you should try removing the bridge, strings, and tail piece when you check in your cello.

      • Dear Alban,

        I feel bad for all this nightmare that you had been through, but in the end don´t you think life is trying to tell you something else besides changing your Goffriller to a Strad ?
        Something like “take a break” or just something else.
        Things happen for a reason.
        And, I also try not to be attached to material things but, I do not consider my cello a “material thing”, it feeds me , supports me, and makes me love music. I can not say the same about my bow because I play on a terrible bow, but in the end, even without my crappy bow, I could not play my cello.
        Slava, with all his enormous talent in music would not be the Salva we know, without a cello, any cello. And, even Slava with a great cello would not be Salva without Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and so on.
        Anyway, the best for you !

        • Yes, right – TSA guys break his cello, and that is “life telling him to take a break”… LOL – I don’t think I have read anything hollower than that in weeks. Oh no, wait – the stuff that follows it is even hollower!

      • Dear Alban, sorry to hear the news about your Gofriller. I do hope you continue to adapt and find new solutions to your travels demands in an instrument. Best wishes, Rhonda Branneky

    • true, the people who caused the damage are directly responsible. The musician who allowed for an increase in the probability for it get damaged is indirectly responsible. If i the chinese government, own a strad cello, and read this article, there’s is no way i would lend the instrument to the cellist. It is under his care. And it’s terrible that this happened. But. Admitting to the public you have carried on your cello for 23 years is one sure fire way not to get a Strad on loan.

  5. Greg Hlatky says:

    My sympathies to Mr. Gerhardt, who got caught in a no-win situation: check the instrument and run the risk of having this happen or try to get it in the cabin and perhaps getting it turned out. And good luck seeking recompense from a government agency! We broke your cello? And the bow? Here, fill out this foot-high stack of papers and we’ll get back to you in a couple of years. Maybe.

    Bureaucracies with policies tend toward a pigs-is-pigs attitude to the uncommon or unusual. It is rare to find someone who is willing either to be flexible or to take responsibility for bending a policy. To show that it’s not just musicians who have this problem, we always drive our show dogs even if it’s the 1500 miles and more to Westminster or our national breed specialty because we can’t trust the airlines with them. They’re too large to go in the cabin and there have been too many horror stories from others when they’re carried in baggage. And you have never dealt with obtuse until you’ve tried to persuade an agent that a heavily-coated Russian breed won’t be harmed if the temperature outside is five degrees below the limit.

    There’s an old army expression, “Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.” Ask youself, “How stupid, unreasonable and ham-handed can the people I need to deal with be?” While no answer can plumb those depths, it should provide a guide to how you should handle what may lie ahead.

  6. What I find so disturbing is the lack of respect that the airport staff showed. I would hope that there was a fragile sticker on it. And I can see no good reason for the airport staff to even open it. It would be checked going through customs so opening it was nothing more than to have sticky beak at it.

    In my opinion it does not matter if the cello was a cheap student cello or top range, every item that airport staff or anyone for that matter, needs to be treated with utmost respect. Common sense says that if something does not open or close easily there is something wrong … so check to see what is in the way.

    I should be able to trust people to respect my belongings when I check them in. I know though that there will be the odd person who will not. You may never have any problem, it may be years before a problem, but it only takes that one person to ruin it for the rest. Sad for Mr Gerhart that it happened at such a critical time of life. Hoping that a lawyer can get on his side to get the compensation that he so clearly deserves and needs so he can continue doing what he was born to do.

  7. The problem is TSA seems to prefer hiring the most ignorant, inept fools they can find. One man watched as a TSA agent opened the container to his grandfather’s ashes and swirled her finger through it spilling some on the floor in the process.

    Bringing any object of value through TSA is betting against the house it won’t get stolen or destroyed.

  8. As a musician I know that any musical instrument can be carried on with you, sometimes the airline makes you pay for an extra seat for it though, but the other fix I have had with this is when checking an instrument under the plane you do have the ability to contact TSA and requesting to watch your item screened and you can observe and sometimes assist in repacking your case after. The only thing with this is you do have to make sure you are not showing up last minute for your flight and contact them in advance before it is given for screening. If they decline request to talk to a supervisor, they will help.

  9. Dirk Winebarger says:

    I find it infuriating to read the comments written by people who do not have to travel with large, expensive objects. It is so easy to say “you should never check that” . I carry large, expensive cameras. Yes, I need those cameras for my job. Yes, I keep them in carry-on sized bags when possible. No, I cannot just charter a gulfsream jet to travel. No, I cannot drive from the US to Africa or Asia. No matter how well I plan, I find that 60% of the time I am forced to give up my cameras to be checked in the cargo hold. I have found that if you try to argue or reason with TSA or airline personnel they simply refuse to let you fly. I have to fly to work. I have to work to keep my family from starving to death. If I had known how miserable post 9/11 travel would be, I might have chosen another career. But like so many others, I am stuck with the career decisions I made 25 years ago. For those of us who have no choice but to fly globally, The TSA and US airlines have become a special kind of hell.

    • Reggie Benstein says:

      Dirk, I think you’d find that many of the people who are criticizing Mr Gerhardt’s judgment are exactly the ones who travel with large, expensive objects … ie: cellists.

      • Dirk Winebarger says:

        then they should understand. If they are lucky enough to not have this happen to them, it is only a matter of time.

  10. Poor cello.

  11. M.A. Steinberger says:

    A month after 9/11 at Albuquerque airport I was forced to put my cello (in its case) on conveyor belt through x-ray. I asked the operator to please stop the belt (simple switch) after it went through, so I could retrieve it safely. Instead she let it run; I lunged for it & was surrounded immediately by soldiers waving automatic weapons, and all yelling at me. They semi- strip searched me in public! At gunpoint! (At least my cello was OK.) Operator of conveyor belt was laughing.

  12. Glen Robertson says:

    My sincee sympathy to the musician who experienced this TSA nightmare. My question is : Why don’t people use Fed ex or UPS to move items when they’re traveling ? With enough advance notice ,this should work out great and avoid ALOT of hassle from the airlines & TSA agents.
    For example , laptops and other electronic/computer items can be a major risk when crossing the US borders . They could be impounded or every bit of it searched ,intead of enduring this mess by border (idiot) agents,arrange for UPS or FedEx to ship the item to where you will be staying :)

    • I depends on wher you are staying, what their policy is for storing bags and parcels prior to check-in, and the kind of security you can expect. My company ships some things ahead to hotels when our employees travel, but not all of them provide any such services or guarantees. Your precious instrument/computer/documents, may just be kept in some very non-secure coat room in less than idea conditions.

      We do still find it preferable to the TSA though. The last time an employee flew with a projector for a presentation, the TSA disassembled it then returned it… along with a bag of parts.

    • would it be any safer that way? I know you can insure articles but if it is valuable you will get the money back but the importance of its meaning to you is gone. My husband and I travel occasionally as rewards for product purchase, he puts his nice camera in his bags to go below. I carry my baby (camera). He has had 2 stolen in 3 years. Duh, you would think he would learn.
      I feel sadness for this cellist and his irreparable loss, its very fortunate it has only happened once in all those years.

  13. Alban, as a musician, my sympathies for your troubles with the TSA.
    The TSA is a rogue agency that answers to no one.
    For the safer travel by air in America, you must charter a flight, and be present for any inspections by the terrorists in the TSA. Even better would be a private flight, but you would have to know aircraft owners available for your schedule.
    I have not flown a commercial cattle flight since 9-11-01, and I refuse to do so, till the outlaws in the TSA are held accountable for their actions…
    Now, even train and buss travel is being made ‘safer’ by the TSA, perhaps people might wake up and demand changes.

    • JayHobeSound says:

      “Now, even train and buss travel is being made ‘safer’ by the TSA…”

      Good point. The TSA monster is constantly trying to expand the reach of its greedy tentacles.

  14. Leonard Hatcher says:

    I have a professional photographer friend that has to travel with expensive camera equipment. He has a metal shell case with foam inserts for the camera stuff. The secret is that he packs a .22 caliber gun along with the equipment. He then declares that he has a gun to the counter agent, who then sends him aside where they hand search the case, he then locks the case with a heavy duty lock (not one of those little TSA locks but a heavy duty shim resistant combination lock), they put a sticker on the case and off it goes. Because it has been pre-checked by security the TSA is not allowed to open it and they have to document it so it harder for them to lose it. He travels tens of thousands of air miles every year and has never had anything lost, stolen or broken.

    • How does that work if you have to go through New York or Massachusetts?? They have some of the most stringent laws about gun possession……….

    • This is clever solution. One could always remove the gun if there is a crack or damage and use it on the responsible party and in that way collect on the damage. I hope you realize I am joking?

  15. A rear sound post crack is a terrible tragedy – a significant and expensive wound. Cracks in some parts of a cello are par for the course, and can be sealed. A rear soundpost crack is a very very costly repair that will permanently change the sound of the instrument, and usually de-value it significantly (Lesser instruements can be unsellable or lose halft their value.) I’m sure a Gofriler of this pedigree and quality will still be an important instrument even after all is said and done, but this is still tragic beyond just a matter of cost.

  16. TSA is full of hoodlums and goons.

  17. Airport security is the stupidest invention since doctors decided that mercury pills and prayer was the cure-all for diseases.
    Not only does it cost money to install the equipment and pay the personell, but think of all the hours lost for travellers who could be doing something more productive; like reading a book or licking a window. And it doesn’t do anything good. It doesn’t prevent anything bad. It’s only a huge economic drain that also annoys people. For anyone not catching a pay check from the damned thing it’s a puss filled sore on any trip.
    Your cello, alas, is just another victim in the stupidly executed war on terror.

  18. John Little says:

    It’s also unfortunate that the amount of liability to the airline is based on lbs lost or damaged. In no way does it cover actual loss. I held up a plane in Monterrey Mexico once when they wanted my guitar to fly baggage. It was only after a baggage handler demonstrated on his forearm that he also played that I let it go baggage. He called ahead and my guitar was on the Jetway carried there by another baggage handler when we landed. I was an operations consultant at the time but did and still enjoy playing.

  19. JayHobeSound says:

    The TSA azz clowns could have stolen the cello; they are notorious for stealing iPads, cameras, etc. Occasionally I will send my laptops, cameras, etc., via FedEx to avoid the intrusive TSA baggage snoopers. It is all just security theatrics.

  20. I am glad to have not encountered the ignorant perspective that this is all the musician’s fault.

  21. I have a 1904 Gibson A-series mandolin that I play old-time and bluegrass on – one of the first that they built with “The Gibson” brand after they incorporated at the beginning of the 20th century. The TSA managed to damage it as well, cracking the top and causing a separation between the top and side. Fortunately, a good instrument repair shop was able to properly fix it for me. Now, when I travel with it, I don’t check it in (when it was damaged, it was in its case, wrapped in bubble wrap, inside a hard-side suitcase), I carry it onboard by hand. The damages were several hundreds of USD – the instrument is worth several thousands, but it is worth much more to me than just $$ – it has been played by and praised by such as David Grisman and Andy Statman. So, if I had a quality cello, I’d pay for the extra seat!

  22. Don’t know if it is of any help, Alban, but Lynn Harrell is parting with his Montagnana cello!

    ” There comes a time in each of our lives when we take stock of our past, present, and future and this is exactly how I’ve spent the past year with one vitally important aspect of my life and career. It is with these thoughts that I have recently decided to part ways with my best friend and companion for the last 50 years: my Montagnana cello.”
    Lynn Harrell

    Kind regards, Rhonda Branneky

    • @Rhonda: The posting to which I replied originally has been deleted in the meantime. Some people might get the impression, because my post now appears immediately after yours, that it was somehow directed at your post. Far from it! Apologies if appearances suggest something else.

  23. TSA (theater security) constantly destroys things. I have a friend in an installation business who has to check very expensive measuring equipment. If it is handled improperly, it must be expensively recalibrated. It is regularly stolen and regularly damaged by TSA. There are stories of news crews having video and camera equipment damaged/stolen.

    I have learned that if I *must* check something valuable, and if the laws of the place I’m going will allow it, I legally declare a firearm and stow it with the valuable objects. It is locked by me in public, in front of TSA, and I retain the key as it goes into the secure area.

    That’s right: an irrational fear of guns on the part of society finally stopped my problems with TSA. Irony.

  24. It’s worth re-stating that you are NOT guaranteed to be able to bring a cello on board a plane, regardless of whether you bought a ticket for it. A friend also recently tipped me off that two big carriers now have explicit policies that tickets bought for cellos will not be honored. (I’m sorry I don’t have confirmation of that at the moment). So, please do not say “duh, you should never check a cello.” For whatever reason, this is the direction the airlines are moving in.

  25. Dirk Winebarger says:

    I forgot to mention in my last post- I used to travel with my cameras in double-locked pelican cases with foam liners. (now the weight penalty prohibits this) .Once I went to baggage claim and had the horrific experience to watch my case come through the carrier in three large pieces. The broken cameras followed in a plastic trash bag. When i finally found out what had happened, I was told that the case fell off the baggage tractor, and was then run over by a truck. No one can prepare enough for the incompetence and thievery of our airline system.

  26. Reggie Benstein says:

    Good take on things here:

  27. Norman, do we have to read such blatantly racist things here???

    I’m just as infuriated as the next person when stupid things like this happen while traveling. But we shouldn’t condone this kind of hateful post. :(

    (“white” with a capital “W”?? Jeez…)

  28. Agree. It slipped through the filter and has now been spammed out.

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