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Exclusive: How US security agents broke my cello bow…. by Alban Gerhardt

The celebrated cellist Alban Gergardt suffered a terrible loss when US airport security agents carelessly snapped his best bow in half. In an exclusive article for Slipped Disc, Alban explains exactly what happened.

alban gerhardt3

I have been travelling internationally for almost 25 years, hopping back and forth between continents. As I am a rather trusting person in possession of a very strong cello case (Alan Stevenson), I am one of the few cellists who travels without buying an extra seat for the cello. I check my poor Goffriller into the hold with the suitcases.

The only times my cello got damaged – twice – was when I had a second ticket and the case fell to the ground. Nothing major, a little crack which was easily be glued, and absolutely my fault. The baggage handlers never us did any harm.

Until February 6 2013: I left Berlin via Brussels and Chicago to rehearse Prokofiev’s Cellosymphony in Madison, WI. When the Brussels-Chicago flight got cancelled I knew this was not my day. Re-routed via Washington I was going to arrive just at the end of my only rehearsal for that tricky piece. The orchestra graciously agreed to pick me up by car from Chicago Airport which was going to give me at least half an hour with the Madison Symphony (at 4:30 am Berlin time…).

Upon my arrival at Washington Dulles Airport I routinely checked that my cello had survived the trip. It was even better in tune than after a performance of the Cellosymphony! Something inside told me I should try to get it through security and check it at the gate, but as I absolutely hate confrontation with anybody, especially airline and security officials, I opted for the normal recheck and gave my cello to one of the baggage handlers who promised to take great care of it.

alban gerhardt1

In Chicago I waited more than 40 minutes until I finally received the cello, fifteen minutes after the suitcase. My fatigue disappeared at once after opening my cello case: the cello seemed alright, but my beloved Heinrich-Knopf-bow stuck half in its mounting, the other half, broken off, only tied together by the hair, was dangling around the fingerboard, a shocking and rather surreal picture. A bad curse came from my exhausted lips and the United Airlines officials knew they were in for some tough time with this little, angry, pale German cellist trying to explain to them that the bow is actually what counts most for a string player and losing one’s bow means almost losing one’s voice.

I was never attached to any cello in my life, but the bows I played on in the past 12 years I grew as fond of as I have never done to any object in my life. My first good bow I bought for the cost of a (very nice) Mercedes in 2001. I never thought I would spend that kind of money on a bow, but after trying it in New York I fell in love; I had found my voice. When it broke in a concert couple of months later a world collapsed around me, and even though it had broken at the tip where it could be fixed, I had nightmares from that day on that it could happen again.

The value was lost anyway (a broken bow is like a stamp – once broken it’s practically worthless, even though it might play as well as before), but I felt my cello playing depended on it. When it broke for the third time last April during a dress rehearsal of the Dvorak Concerto with the Hallé Orchestra (5 minutes later my substitute bow broke at the same place, absolutely unheard of!), the bowmaker, who had repaired it the previous times, told me that now there was no chance for another repair – it needed a new tip which might alter the sound for ever.

But he was able to sell me a wonderful old German bow (by Heinrich Knopf) which he altered a bit to make it more similar to my beloved broken bow (by Nikolaus Kittel, who might not have built bows himself but bought sticks from other makers, bending them in a different way before putting his stamp on them. Among his distributors was: Heinrich Knopf!), et voilá, the bow played as beautifully if not better than my “Kittel”.

So what happened to the Knopf on February 6?! The TSA (Transportation Security Agency) in Washington, DC, not trusting the X-Ray-image felt the need to open the case. They took the cello out in my absence, put it back in, carelessly detaching the bow partly from its mounting and finally slamming the case shut, in the process breaking the bow right in the middle of the bridge of the cello. Quite a miracle the cello didn’t implode under that stress. How do I know they opened the cello case? They were stupid enough to slip a “notice of baggage inspection” into the case!

alban gerhardt2

So what did Alban do next? We await a second instalment from travels with a cello, and a broken bow.


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  1. I had TSA agents slip one of those “Notice of Inspection” slips not just inside my tuba case, but down inside the bell of the instrument. Luckily it was undamaged.

  2. “Poor Goffriller” indeed. Alban, trusting or not, why do you check your beautiful cello in? We all know very well what a pain it is to book cello seats – but surely it’s worth any level of fuss to ensure that disasters like this don’t happen to not only what is part of us as a musician, but also to offer the adequate respect to a work of art over 300 hundreds years old? And what does your insurance company say..? Although I’d love to hear your answers to these questions, my wishes to you over this terrible news.

  3. First world problems…

    • I’ll tell you what, Mary, we’ll break your arm and when it impedes your ability to make a living, I’ll be the first person to say “first world problems” to your complaint. He is a cellist and absolutely required to use a bow for his JOB as a musician. You’re an idiot.

      • I agree with Mary. I am also a professional string player dependent on my instrument and bow for my livelihood. Would never have checked it under the plane and there are far more pressing problems in the world than this one to blog about.

        • Diana, I get the feeling that you are not a cellist, and have the luxury of bringing your instrument onto the plane with no problems. Cellists have a lot of problems even if they purchase a ticket for their instrument. I have heard of musicians missing flights because of inept airline workers who are unsure of how to treat a ticket for anything other than a human being.

      • I have a bass player friend who was set to audition for the New York Philharmonic and the airport security at San Francisco International refused to let his bass on with luggage! I’ve known it done before, but evidently the travel case was deemed too bulky my airport personnel and this guy was not going to jeopardize the maintenance of his bass a day or two before a big audition, so he didn’t take it. It didn’t matter that he had non-refundable flights and hotel reservations.

        What’s also distressing is that there is very little security at events. I went to a concert at UC Davis at the Mondavi Center, a fabulous venue for both performer and spectator. I am a professional violinist and I had my instrument with me since I had just come from a gig. Upon entering the hall, a ticket taker said that I could not bring my violin in with me to the sitting area. I went to security and all it was was a TSA sized podium on the other side of the hall from where my seat was. The attendant then said, “oh, sure you can leave it here.”

        I asked, “will you or someone be here every minute of the performance”

        “Well…I can’t guarantee.”

        “Look, buddy,” (and I called him buddy because he was a college student and younger than me) “this is a violin and it’s probably worth more than your car. If you left your car somewhere and the parking garage attendant said, ‘oh, just leave it open, everyone here is trustworthy?’ would you do it?”


        “I’ll be taking my violin in with me.”

        “OK, sir.”

        Here’s my feeling…if you have nothing to hide, i.e. you’re not hiding contraband in the case, why not show airport security that this is a valuable instrument and all security protocol MUST be conducted with the instrument’s owner in sight, just in case of mishandling?

    • Confused. The only first-world problem I see here is Mary’s white guilt.

  4. Sam McElroy says:

    Absolute monkeys. They treat humans the same way. And yes, it is a first world problem, and the fact that it is not a third world issue of life or death is not the point. We live in the first world, we pay to do so, we vote to do so, and we should be afforded the luxury of respect for person and property, especially when that precious property represents one of the fundamental defining characteristics of the first world: civilization.

  5. PianoLover says:

    What a sad story, but we have heard similar, even worse, horror stories out of the U.S. before. Remember what happened to pianist Krystian Zimmerman? The TSA security officials and U.S. Customs agents confiscated his prized Steinway upon arrival at JFK Airport in New York, a piano that he personally paid to ship to New York for his Carnegie Hall recital in 2001. The U.S. authorities accused Zimmerman of having concealed explosives within the instrument, in the form of the glue that held parts of his instrument together. Without any discussion, the order was given to COMPLETELY DESTROY his piano, in front of him, by smashing it into pieces. He was never compensated nor given an apology by the fascist American authorities. I also know of two violinists who had the strings literally ripped off their prized instruments, one being an Amati, as the U.S. security official at Los Angeles Airport said that the violin strings could be used as “weapons of strangulation” inflight and had to be removed and discarded! There are probably many many more such stories from a country which becomes more and more like a hybrid of Stalinist Russia, communist East Germany and totalitarian North Korea, a true dystopia to be avoided at all costs!

  6. I cannot understand why Alban would ever check a Goffriller cello. He should buy a normal light case and always buy a ticket for the cello
    Irresponsible to check an instrument like that. Eventually there will be a catastrophic accident.

    • You obviously don’t know any cellists who have bought a ticket only to be told that they can’t bring their cello on board. Then the option is to either not fly and miss the performance/audition OR put your instrument in cargo with no flight case and have it be in pieces and miss the performance/audition. Having a ticket doesn’t mean the attendants are required to allow the instrument on the plane.

    • This is a little off-topic but keep in mind that in most cases, it’s the presenting organization that’s buying the seat for the cello. I know this is just the way business works, but I have worked for organizations where the financial folks are crestfallen when they find out how many extra airplane tickets have to be purchased for cellos.

  7. The TSA is one of Obama’s “make work” programs. Enough said.

    • M.A. Steinberger says:

      TSA was under Bush 43. Just post-9/11.

      • christopher says:

        TSA, Homeland Security ‘improved’ and sustained by Rebublicrat BO. and his regime, excuse,,,a d ministration…

    • No. The TSA came into being under George W. BUSH, and NOT under Obama. Please get your history correct!

      • christopher says:

        improved means …improved
        n ot ‘came into being’
        I am well aware it was started by gw and his advisor the shadow prez, …. CHEYNEY ….
        as most of gw’s polices…. since 2008 to the present .’sustained and improved’ by BO ,Hilary and the cabal.

        Most non-Americans enduring visits to American airports are repelled and disgusted with visas, finger prints, photos of ones irises;, frisking, and the other ‘improvements” of the Cheyney gang which have been kept intact in the ‘Yes we can’ deceiver, BO.
        The issue of AG and his horrific loss is a sign of the fascist change in America during the Bush/Obama. years.
        T’is the US citizens’ lot . The excesses and infringements on personal rights and due process of law will remain unless the citizens take action. That seems remoter than ever in the US of ….Amnesia

        • Christopher, I travel with cellists on a regular basis. You may not like the current president or his policies, but we have been checking our cellos since (in my experience) at least since the spring of 2005.

  8. Alicia Randisi-Hooker says:

    @Mary; True, but first world problems are STILL problems, especially where one’s livelihood is at stake.

  9. yitznewton says:

    “First world problems” relate to narcissistic trivialities of modern living. Having one’s property destroyed by airport authorities doesn’t fall into that category.

    • Having one’s property that one depends on for their livelihood DEFINITELY DOES NOT fall into the “first world problems” category.

  10. Well, he doesn’t seem as concerned about the cello as he does about the bows…and they are easily brought on the plane as carry-on without having to buy a seat for them. Why doesn’t he do that, instead of stashing them with the checked cello? Especially if they cost as much as a “very nice Mercedes” and are “his voice”? Not to absolve the TSA handlers for their responsibility in what happened…but I’m sure it was an accident out of ignorance not maliciousness. Still, so many problems are possible with any checked luggage, even when not opened for inspection…it can be handled too roughly, accidentally be dropped, get lost in transit, etc. So many reasons to not check the cello or the bows. But, as I said, if the bows are his biggest concern, he could simply carry them onto the plane with him.

    • Joep Bronkhorst says:

      If the cello was guaranteed safety, then the bows should have been much safer stored in the same case, as opposed to being slung in an overhead locker or underneath the seat.

      • Nothing in the cargo hold of an airplane is “guaranteed safety.” If your luggage is lost or damaged, you have recourse with the airlines…but that can take a long time to resolve. And even then, if it’s something as valuable and perhaps even irreplaceable as such a cello and bow, what sort of compensation or replacement could be made if there were a problem? And even if an instrument could be replaced or repaired, likely it couldn’t happen in time for the performance one was traveling to. Why take such chances with something so valuable—not only in regard to money but also in regard to one’s profession/livelihood and one’s passion? Nothing needs to be “slung” into an overhead compartment or “crammed” under a seat…I would rather be in control of handling my possession myself, with assured care and no chance of it being lost or damaged. I would hold that bow in my hands the entire flight if need be to ensure its safety if it were as important to me as it seems to be to him.

  11. Can you carry on your Bow next time and check the Cello ?

  12. Cassidy Steele says:

    As likely as not, the TSA would probably confiscate the bow as a possible weapon. Typically, it would be safer to check it if you’ve had good experience with baggage handlers before. Those who aren’t acquainted with upper-level quality music products likely don’t know how much the bow cost.

  13. Steven Honigberg says:

    Stay at home to practice, and be with your family if the organization that hires you to perform doesn’t pay a round trip ticket for you and your cello. This is common sense.

  14. bass-voice-of-reason says:

    This is the kind of thing I think about when right-wingers try to preach “American Exceptionalism”….

  15. Anna Nekola says:

    If only it were as simple as buying a seat and bringing it on the plane.
    Here’s a story of another cellist who did that and they wouldn’t let him on the plane.
    Basically if you’re a cellist, you’re screwed. There’s no way to win. And that really stinks.

  16. Anna Nekola says:

    Sorry, wouldn’t let *it* on the plane (the cello, that is).

    • Actually, I almost had the same experience over 20 years years ago, when, after I had purchased a ticket for Mr. Cello, and was on the plane buckling him in, I was warned by a sweet but intimidating stewardess that he could only sit in a bulkhead seat, notwithstanding my protestations that the ticket had been purchased from a live person who had assured me it was all kosher. So, I asked for a bulkhead as a way to honor the purchase, and was informed there were none left. Fortunately, the overhead compartment on this plane was so large that he fit, case and all.) Needless to say, he received no refund for having had to travel in a horizontal position.

      This is no consolation for Mr. Bernhardt who lost something invaluable due to the likely malfeasance of the airline or TSA. Is there any possibility his insurer will compensate him for the loss to enable him to purchase another fine bow, even if it may not ever fully replace what he lost?

  17. christopher says:

    not coincidental but heartening to see a daily atrocity happening at most American airports since the unAmerican TSA has been brought into creation having a bit of public airing through this blog..There are many visual clips of the terror practices of this un American anomaly, on a par of the House of UnAmerican Activities, anti civil libertarian and contrary to former American ideals.

    The experience of the exceptional artist Mr. Alban Gerhardt, whose playing I have heard and whose recent CD is a joy , is most unfortunate. T’is no coincidence that another recent musician Berlin-visitor G.Dudamel, just here last week, had an unfortunate experience at another notoriously unpleasant airport. Perhaps the two countries are a bit ‘jittery’ ; these nations’ activities around the planet , the security systems they have on their own societies may help one wake up and identify the true ‘axis of evi’. the actual perpetrators of war and conflict.seem to be reflected quite clearly in their fascist security practices, a microcosm of their global activities.
    One should not expect the climate of a free and peace loving countries at airports of war criminals.

    Action could start with a boycott of visiting the offending countries , a refusal to buty their products.
    Sanctions, thus, against the enemies of peace.

    • Oh, Christopher, what a balanced, informed and intelligent idea!

      Why not extend it to boycott all goods, products, services and artists with any connection at all to the US and Israel?

      That would immeasurably enhance your quality of life and soon teach your ‘axis of evil’ the error of its ways.

  18. Benjamin Gordon says:

    Man, I am just stunned by some of the comments here. This blog used to be a sanctuary for intelligent posts. This article is newsworthy because it affects all musicians. Substitute “your instrument or laptop” for “cello” and substitute “paid seat” for “checked” and you still have the same result: total incompetence thanks to TSA. For anyone who has ever bought a seat for their cello and nonetheless had to check the cello because the case wouldn’t pass though the pre-sized opening on the x-ray machine for hand baggage, you understand some of the reasoning behind Alban’s decision to simply forego a lot of hassle and check his instrument.
    Mr Lebrecht, I’ve been a great fan of your column, however I wonder if you’ve hired an intern to maintain your blog. Many of the articles in the past months are better left for The Sun and much of the writing is hyperbolic, sometimes drawing false conclusions from the facts. It was previously much more enlightening to check your blog once a week for “essential” bits that the major press either ignored or didn’t timely report. Might you comment on my supposition?

  19. Jane Odriozola says:

    This is a sad story indeed….all too often it seems we musicians are treated with hostility, carelessness and plain ignorance on our frequent travels. Whilst I always have a seat for my cello, I am always resigned to the hell of having to argue my case at every single stage of my journey. Truly the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing in the case of airline staff. All interpret the rules differently. I avoid Oslo airport (not easy as I live in Norway!) with all my might since I experienced very rough and intimidating treatment there. The female security staff were careless with my instrument, were reluctant to allow me to open the case securely for them, and were plain rude to me. They also wanted to confiscate my strings in case I decided to garrotte someone in midair. Bearing in mind how impossible it is to manoeuvre with a cello between seats it seems highly unlikely I would get the case open enough to remove a string…oh, and preserve the element of surprise! The amusing thing was that they seemed to totally ignore the alarmingly clear x-ray image of the spear-like cello endpin! Surely just as lethal? What makes me most indignant is being harassed and made to feel like some criminal simply because I have a fragile instrument. I don’t behave like a prima donna but I DO expect sympathetic help, respect and common courtesy! So come on staff and security officials….please have a little understanding!

  20. James Creitz says:

    Mr. Gerhardt is obviously a cellist supreme, but the only one I know of who travels with his instrument as checked baggage. It used to be possible to bring a cello on board and put it in a closet – those days are long gone. All of my cellist colleagues and friends these days buy a ticket for the cello and take it to its seat. This episode demonstrates that they are right to do so.

  21. David Mollenauer says:

    Dear Alban,

    I am so sorry to hear about your bow! What a crime! Maybe it is time for us cellists to band together and start our own charter jet service. I usually buy a seat (I don’t have a strong enough case) but even then traveling on board with the instrument is a nightmare!

  22. Liz Elliot says:

    It really is time for the music industry, the musician’s unions, etc. to file a class-action lawsuit against the airlines in the US and the TSA on behalf of all cellists. Their incompetence, mishandling and unnecessarily prohibitive actions are inexcusable.

  23. Darlene Moak says:

    This is a response to Mary and Diane. Yes this a “first world” issue. But it is the issue this gentleman knows & cares about. As a music lover & a not infrequent air traveler I found the story interesting. If you two want to read about third world issues there are plenty of blog about those (Nicholas Kristof comes to mind). To put it more succinctly: have some respect for this musician’s loss & back off.

  24. I used to be more sympathetic to the plight of traveling musicians, until my tall partner and I got to the airport recently for our 6-hour cross-country flight and were told at the gate: Sorry, you can’t sit in those confirmed extra-legroom bulkhead seats you bought 6 months ago (and paid 20% extra for) because suddenly we need them for a cellist and her instrument. The best we can offer you now is two cramped seats, in separate rows, in the back of the completely packed plane.

    With all due respect to the talented Mr. Gerhardt, it seems to me that if you’re going to choose a career that requires you to fly internationally 40 or 50 times a year, and if you’re going to pay a hefty portion of your income to a manager whose job it is to manage the business side of your affairs, you ought to tell your manager to figure out a way to solve this problem so that your livelihood doesn’t depend entirely on encountering sympathetic security personnel every time you check in for a flight. Certainly there are solutions: Art galleries all over the world ship fragile, multimillion-dollar works of art every day — and bill their customers for the shipping. A-list performers in all fields insist on private jets — and make their presenters pay for them. Others arrange their gigs in ways that minimize the amount of flying they need to do between performances. And here’s an entire industry in place for the purpose of providing reliable overnight delivery of stuff.

    • To the commenter who was dismayed at having a bulkhead seat taken by a cellist – the blame lies with the airline for not having a reservation system to accomodate this situation. I always fly Southwest airlines with my cello because the lack of assigned seating on their planes makes it a very smooth process. I have always found their employees to be very helpful and knowledgable, although it might help that I have always flown in large cities where people are more likely to recognize what a cello is.

      Other airlines make it very difficult (if not impossible) to reserve seats in the specific part of the plane (usually the bulkhead) where the cello will have to fly, so you end up reserving two random seats and just hoping they will be able to get the people in the bulkhead seats to trade with you.

  25. Thomas Huckaby says:

    Try Being A double bassist

    • A friend of mine couldn’t get his bass to even be placed with luggage! It didn’t matter that he would miss his NY Philharmonic audition. He protested to no avail.

  26. That’s a terrible things… So, from now on, the solution is to have a special bow-case to bring into the plane so that the risk is spread?

  27. I found this article posted at a website that observes politics and finance. The blogger, a former high-level government official, is well aware of the increasing level of security–and its abuses– in our country. I write as an amateur musician, a person who has been lucky enough to travel to different parts of the world (including the third world), and a student of history.

    First, I want to apologize to the cellist who lost his beloved bow. That little piece of intuition you had was accurate, and unfortunately you learned this the hard way. There is no good answer for cellists (and other musicians) whose instruments come under suspicion. If you pay attention to your intuition, it will help you, and it will become stronger as you pay attention to it.

    I’d like to believe that is was an oversight on the TSA agent, but I fear it may actually have been malicious. Certainly that happens, because these agents are often able to act with impunity. Right now we don’t know.

    A few things people may not know about the TSA. The agents are not well trained, and they are not usually very well educated.

    They have been caught stealing from passengers:

    Arts programs have been cut from so many school systems, so the likelihood that young people would have a chance to be exposed to classical music are slim and the chance to actually learn to play an instrument like a cello or violin even more rare.

    As I read the article and the comments from other musicians, I saw many good ideas, and I have some to offer.

    - Publicize the fact that these things happen. I was horrified to learn what happened to Krystian Zimmerman’s piano, via these comments.
    - Organize the musicians/unions etc to file a class action lawsuit against the airlines (thank you, Liz). These things will not stop until it affects these airlines financially. A class-action suit will bring a lot of publicity.
    - Stop vacationing or traveling to the U.S. I know this might be hard if your business brings you here, but for others, let the American businesses know you are refusing to travel here because “security” has gotten out of control. This is particularly true for smaller business owners. When I’m in Florida, I’m always astonished by how many Europeans I meet, so I’m certain it will have an economic impact.
    -Let the news agencies know of your decision. When I was young, I wondered if boycotting South Africa would really do anything, if it was the right action to take, but now, being on the inside of an increasingly oppressive country, I can see how it would be effective.
    -Do not underestimate the degree to which Americans are ignorant of what’s happening in other parts of the world, or even their own country. The mainstream news here is nothing but “infotainment.” So when you meet Americans, tell them about your own experiences.
    -Reach out to the poorer people in your community, wherever you live, and teach them about the exquisite beauty of music, so that they will not become like the TSA agent (or stewardess) who dismiss the instruments that make it. And, of course, because such music opens their heart and soul.

    In the US, I often feel that I am moving amongst sleepwalkers. Many can’t believe things like this would really happen here. And these kinds of abuses seem to be picking up in speed and intensity. To those of you who have pointed out the actions of the American war machine around the world, I assure you there are many of us in the country who are aware of it and trying to stop it. But we are not (yet) in the majority. And you can help us, because it’s likely there are some people in your country, wherever you live, who are complicit in it.

    Everyone reading these comments is likely well educated and travels in sophisticated circles. Many times such people do not want to acknowledge “not nice” things. But when someone from such circles speaks up, it can carry a lot of weight– more weight than when a poorer person speaks up, unfortunately. That’s just how it is. So use your power.

    Alban Gerhardt, I am sorry for the loss of your bow, and I am glad you are telling people what happened, because the kind of thing that happened to you is happening to all of us, in one way or another. And I have a feeling it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to lend my voice here.

  28. I’m a former Starker student who became an airline pilot. I’ve felt the pain of traveling with the cello, and now I try to go out of my way to help any musician protect an instrument. Even with a Stevenson case you really are pushing your luck if checking the case in cargo. I used to insist that my cello be “gate checked” so it does not travel the labyrinth of conveyor belts, and be subject to the ignorant hands of TSA behind closed doors. Not sure about a cello the size of Alban’s, but mine fit through the TSA X-ray machines at the regular checkpoints.

    • A cellist arrives at the pearly gates and St. Peter asks, “so, my son, you play the cello. Who did you study with?”


      “Go away!”

      The next cellist: “I studied with Rostropovich.”

      “Go away!”

      The next cellist: “I studied with Starker.”

      “Welcome! You’ve already been to hell!”

  29. I once had one of those baggage inspection notices stuffed in a suitcase. It was a cramped unorganized suitcase of all the things that didn’t fit into my other bags, of the sort that one must close by sitting on the lid.

    They stole a pocket knife that I had been given for christmas when I was a small child. I had figured that the plane ticket was expensive enough that I needen’t spend more to ship things, but I was wrong.

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