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Musical Mishaps: Damaged Instruments

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Growing up a piano student, I never had to worry about schlepping my instrument around and having to keep an eye on it. Professional pianists have to worry about finding access on one to practise when on the road, or dealing with an instrument that doesn’t jive with the particular needs of the artist. Later in school I tried singing lessons, so again I didn’t have to worry about where I left my instrument, although I definitely had to take care my voice, and resented having to be well-rested when I wanted to stay out late with my friends. Over the years, I’ve heard stories of instruments being damaged in the craziest of ways – here are a few.

“An older student was about to put her violin (in the case) in the car and set the case down behind the car so she could get other things in first. Her mother backed over the case with the car. Student said she never got the courage to even open the case to look at it as it was crushed and she couldn’t bear it. On the other hand, insurance paid for a new one which she ended up loving.”

“A friend of mine was hanging out in the parking lot after rehearsal and had his trombone on the ground, lying parallel to the direction of traffic just a foot away from him. At that moment someone in the band decided to roll up in their car super close to the band to yell something outside the passenger side window. Yep, he crushed the whole trombone flat as a pancake, ran it over the entire length of the horn from the crook to the very tip of the slide. It became a project for our mutual friend who was starting a new career as a brass repair tech and is now quite well-known for making his own line of trumpets. over a few years he brought the horn back to life and it’s playing great again.”

“One of my friends was rushing to take her kids to their music lessons and neglected to get the cello into the car. Their lessons were cancelled when they ran over the cello that was still behind the car in the driveway. Sad face.”

“At my (colourful, arts-oriented) high-school there was a rumour that one of the previous cello students had their parents buy them a lovely cello which they then proceeded to paint purple … and then put a coat of shellac over the paint. Supposedly did not sound great with all that nice resonating wood shellacked up. I never met the person who did it so for me it was just a rumour but knowing how creative and impulsive the kids at my high school were with their hair colour, I’d believe it!”

“I heard this story from a Toronto luthier (someone who repairs string instruments) … Common practice to clean the dust out of a violin is to pour some uncooked grains of rice into the instrument and roll them around. They collect the dust and whatnot that has accumulated, and then they’re easily poured out. Some bright individual decided to try this himself, but used cooked rice instead .. the rice gummed up the inside of the instrument and the top had to be removed to clean it out. I also vaguely remember hearing it was a Strad, although that might be me just adding ‘facts’.”

“I was performing at a corporate event a couple years ago to a room of about 500 when someone delivering a speech was a bit tipsy and started to fall backwards. They wound up pulling down the curtains rigged up with giant swathes of fabric and heavy metal pipes. They fell directly onto the area where my fellow musicians had left their equipment. The keyboard received the brunt of the load and he was reimbursed by the company. Definitely an OMG moment.”

’I wasn’t there when this happened, but when the National Ballet was on tour in the 1970’s, Veronica Tennant and Clinton Rothwell were doing the Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. This involves the ballerina sitting on the man’s shoulder while he moves backwards across the stage. The tutus in this production were very wide, so her tutu completely obscured Clinton’s sight. The stage was shorter than the one they were used to. He backed right into the orchestra pit and landed in the timpani. I’m sure there must have been damage to at least one of the drums. Poor Clinton went into shock and tried to keep dancing even though he was in the pit, and had suffered a broken tailbone. Veronica was okay.”

One reader submitted this New Yorker story about Montreal-based cellist Matt Haimowitz. Elements of this article reads like a parent sweating out a beloved child’s surgery.

“Bridges are thin pieces of wood held in place by the strings. With time and pressure they can tilt or lean. If they fall down, it is a concern that they could crack the surface of the violin. To my knowledge this doesn’t happen often, unless an instrument is dropped or knocked into something. Kids often do this. It is a simple matter to put it up again. Loosen strings, position correctly and retighten strings. Teachers can do this. Uneducated mothers? Perhaps not. So this mother glued the base to the top of the violin thus ensuring no re-sale of said instrument. Removing the bridge after that would strip the finish off the instrument which would be gross, but also affect the quality of sound to some degree. Bridges do warp with time and need to be replaced. A professional  musician would have this done by a luthier to ensure the position of the bridge is optimal for the quality of sound and the correct height for the strings and fingerboard.”

“Well heck, when I was five, I undid the strings of my violin to see how it worked, and when the bridge fell off I assumed I had permanently destroyed it, and quietly threw it in the trash, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice. She rescued it, but decided I would stick with another instrument. Apparently she saw the garbage collector fish it out of the garbage and look at it curiously. I’m a pianist now.”

“I know of an absent-minded violinist, then in high school, who was taking his instrument wherever he went. We went on a class day trip to a swimming pool, and since he never left his violin anywhere unattended (amazing player actually, practiced at school at every break or free period), he took it with him to the pool. We all got undressed and ran to the water, he grabbed his case (habit?) and ran with us, jumped in … he wasn’t in long, everyone screamed at him… he still got it wet. It took quite some fixing of the water damage … not sure what it sounded like afterwards. True story from my student days … oh, he’s now in his 60s – a professional player.”

“When my oldest son was about two or three, he was into swords and pretend sword fights. I was teaching one day and noticed there were a ton of nicks on my upright. Guess who decided it was an enemy to fight swords with?”

“My kid was practicing cello in the basement — he was mad he had to. Not sure what happened exactly, but he came back up in a panic because his bow was broken — he says he just took it out of the case and it was already broken. Just like that. We found out later that he had leaned on it by accident (probably broke it in a fit, more likely) … I still have the picture of the bow somewhere. Incidentally, it also happened to our youngest son with his violin bow….but that one was a mystery. It cracked at the tip after he played for a few minutes. Hm.”

“When I moved to Canada, our first detached house was a bungalow. Next door to us was a Japanese family of four — my mom and their mom bonded. Their mom decided to gift my mother with a gem stone the size of a football (I just remember it being purple, shiny, and very sharp, like kryptonite). She decided to display it on top of my piano. While I was practicing, the stone fell on the keys and gouged quite a few of the keys at the high end. Pretty scary when one is practicing. I’ve fixed it since, but it took me about 20 or so years before I did.”

“Ok so the story I heard (back in 1993 and it had happened earlier than that) is that two profs were pushing a piano on stage in Von Kuster Hall at Western University before a concert and it got out of control and rolled off. It would have been the best piano owned by the faculty if it was being used there. I heard that one of the profs involved later went on to become Associate Dean in the 1990s. I have no idea how true it is.”

“My husband used to break a piano string here and there when practicing. But as of 2012, our piano strings started breaking more often – overuse and abuse of practicing – six people in the family use the pianos after all, never mind the students. It happened more after the kids started learning Liszt repertoire. I’ve had to replace my strings at least 15 times a year for about five years. It’s better now that the two older ones have moved on, but it still happens. They say Liszt broke strings when he performed too. I just can’t help but think maybe his ghost hovers around when his music is being played and takes over the kids’ hands, making them go wild with their playing, ha ha! I had to go through a few piano technicians because they have all been shaking their heads with the amount of strings that have broken in a year. I finally found one who could do it without complaining and making me feel guilty.”

“I used to hate piano practice when I was six or seven, and threw a tantrum breaking off part of a key from hitting it so hard. It’s still there and makes me smile whenever I see it.”


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