I was sitting in a converted barn in Vermont not long ago, listening to a small band make very beautiful music, an ethereal blend of bluegrass, folk and rock, led by Alicia Jo Rabins, a petite woman with a violin. As she sang a delightfully sad love song, my eye was drawn to her violin, ordinary and unembellished, which she held with extraordinary care, as if it were a butterfly or a baby. When I went up to buy her CD’s after the concert, Rabins, the lead singer of the band Girls in Trouble, mentioned that she was about to go on the road in Europe. Her violin rested near her under the table in a well-worn case, locked. She glanced at it continually as we spoke, clearly an accustomed reflex. “Excuse me,” she said, and bent to move it farther out of the fray.
I began to wonder about that gesture and what was behind it. I’m a writer; my computer is my instrument, and though it has a keyboard, it’s low-maintenance, generic and ever ready. Once in a while I vaguely dust it. But musicians rely much more heavily on far more particular machines. Were violins temperamental? How would Rabins protect hers from the inevitable bumps of planes and trains and automobiles on her tour?
“Oh,” she said, when asked, “I would never, ever check my violin. If I’m traveling with it, I always keep my foot on the case so I’m connected to it at all times.” Rabins, who travels two to three months a year as a working musician, describes herself as the “least uptight violinist I know,” yet her upkeep of the violin includes rehairing the bow, revarnishing the wood, wiping it down after concerts as one would a racehorse, keeping it out of smoke-filled clubs and taking it in to have its neck uncurved. “Not long ago,” she said, “I was playing this concert in Venice, it was two in the morning, completely magical, but then it started to rain. I stopped playing and put the violin back in its case right away.” Magic doesn’t trump potential damage, not even in Venice. The violin Rabins played that evening in Vermont is the same fairly inexpensive one she’s been playing since she was 15. When she travels the world, her two other violins and a viola remain on the walls of the apartment she shares with her husband (also a musician), his upright bass, three guitars, an electric bass and a ukulele.
To the musicians who play them, instruments are simultaneously tools, fetishes and beloved companions; whenever I asked a musician about caring for his or her instrument, the conversation kept veering back to love. “I have a Slingerland snare drum from the ‘60s that I would marry if I could,” sighs Melissa Houston, a rock drummer. “It’s beautiful.” Thomas Bartlett, a pianist and keyboardist who performs as Doveman, was given a nineteenth-century Steinway baby grand by his parents when he was 12. It’s still a prized possession, but even dearer to his heart is a 1970s Wurlitzer electric piano that, he says flatly, “doesn’t leave my house.”
In the airier reaches of musicianship, the relationship with the instrument is no less charged, and the financial stakes are often high. The “Lady Tennant” violin, made by Stradivarius in 1699, sold at Christie’s for $2.03 million; Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” guitar—originally assembled for a few hundred dollars from recycled guitar parts—fetched $959,000. B.B. King ran into a burning building to rescue his beloved guitar, Lucille, a Gibson acoustic he’d bought for $30. One of Yo Yo Ma’s favorite cellos hails from Venice, 1733; it is valued at $2.5 million, a fact that might have given Ma pause when he accidentally left it in a taxicab in 1999. (It was returned intact.) In the world of classical music, concert-quality stringed instruments run anywhere from the tens of thousands of dollars up to the millions; bows range from $100 to $40,000. The Juilliard-trained violist Nadia Sirota, who plays with new music groups, uses a $28,000 viola. Anything less expensive, she says, makes it difficult to get hired by a serious orchestra. The care of a $5 million Stradivarius violin isn’t vastly different from the care of a $5,000 one made by John Doe — humidity, temperature changes and general knocking around are the enemies. The greatest danger to classical instruments of such high value lies in not being played; they can’t maintain their resonant, complex sound – or their value – locked away in a cabinet. “They’re really just delicate pieces of wood that are glued together,” says Sirota. “If they’re not played, they get totally out of shape.”
Not only does the musician need the instrument; the instrument needs the musician. Drumheads, it turns out, are quite sensitive to noise as well as temperature. Drums absorb atmospheric vibrations and must be retuned just prior to show time. Drummers always travel with duct tape, for emergency re-attaching of a drum’s many moving parts. Upright basses wear all their guts on the outside and must be handled with great delicacy. Pianos get thirsty. “Everyone in my family was always saying, ‘Thomas, it’s time to water the piano,’ ” recalls Bartlett. The responsibility of a musician to his or instrument is both material and emotional – the musician who only touches the instrument in performance doesn’t know what it needs to make its truest sound.
And the instruments, like living creatures, seem able to sense neglect. Ronnie Buttacavoli, a trumpeter who plays in a Broadway orchestra, says that horns of all varieties respond not only to temperature and humidity, but also, because they’re wind instruments, to the body and breath of the player. Horn players with higher levels of acid in their saliva or sweat tarnish the instrument faster, and the horn can return the insult: if the horn isn’t cleaned properly, bacteria will linger there, sickening and re-sickening the one who plays it, like something out of a fairy tale. “It’s a relationship, for sure,” says Buttacavoli. “Music is the translation of what’s inside me through the instrument.” If the instrument isn’t well, the music suffers, and so does the musician. Buttacavoli’s most treasured instrument is a 1958 Bach Stradivarius B-flat trumpet, bought for him by his parents, which he still plays at his best gigs. “It’s got a core sound that’s right on the money—not too thin, not too fat, not too edgy, not too dull.”
The beauty of these living machines is enchanting. It isn’t hard to see how a musician could become enamored of his or her instrument and its unique personality—the drum, the trumpet, the Wurlitzer electric piano that seems to have been waiting for you, and only you, to play it, care for it, know it well. I begin to wish I had an object so magical and strange, and even difficult, with which to make my art. But when I ask Rabins what the hardest instrument is to maintain, she replies without hesitation: “The voice. It’s irreplaceable. You can’t just leave it at the shop.”
Stacey D'Erasmo is the author of the novels Tea, A Seahorse Year, and The Sky Below. She teaches writing at Columbia University.