“How d’you get that under your chin?”
The only drawback about being a cellist, is carrying a cello…
It is quite heavy, and cases with wheels, unless they are weighty unwieldy ones designed for flights, aren’t great for the cello, which is old and expensive. Mine is 200 years old. You only have to fart in its general direction for one of the seams to come unglued and start rattling ominously. So I carry my case like a rucksack. If you are a cellist, minding your own business, on your way to or from a rehearsal or gig, whether you like it or not, you attract a bit of attention. People stare, not at my radiant beauty, but at the enormous cello shaped case on my back, giving me the appearance of a turtle. I am tall, and the neck of the cello protrudes past my head like a shiny navy tumour, which confuses onlookers, and necessitates me stooping awkwardly to avoid smacking the neck on door frames, or indeed elderly members of the public who may be walking behind me. I cut an ungainly figure, going up tube escalators, getting on and off buses. Some people have a good gawp. I am unphased. Alas though, many of the British public don’t stop at gawping. Carrying a cello on London’s public transport is like having a sign on your head saying “weirdos, please, stop and chat. By all means, tradesmen, do shout ‘How do you get that under your chin?’ ‘what’ve you got in there love, a machine gun?’ ‘I bet you wish you’d played the trumpet’ Or, if you’re really unlucky, ‘what’s it like having a piece of wood between your legs all day darlin’?’” They all think they’re the very first person to say it and are disappointed when my reaction isn’t to fall about, convulsing with mirth, keen to engage in witty repartee.
I am close friends with a number of stoic double bassists who unflinchingly use public transport all the time, so it shames me to say this, but I am an extremely grumpy commuter. In London, 80% of the people travelling my tube/train/bus are grumpy and ill mannered, even the well brought up ones. I am grumpier than all of those people, as my back is sweating under a fibreglass turtle shell, my shoulders hurt, and by the time I reach my destination, I have had all manner of discourse with my fellow passengers, who either sigh loudly at the almighty inconvenience of having to make space for me and my cello, or ask me questions about my big guitar. I had an altercation with a man on the Metropolitan line recently who was convinced I was carrying a bassoon. “What is it then?” he demanded suspiciously, when I tried to correct him. If I so much as make eye contact with a middle aged posh person, (this happens a lot around Chelsea) they ask me if I’m in the London Symphony Orchestra and when I say no, are visibly unimpressed. People fall over themselves to tell me about their niece who plays the trumpet, or their late father who owned a banjo…..honestly, the links are tenuous. “Are you aware of John Smith? He taught me violin during the war.” “Hmm, possibly…”
On a good day, I’ll be gracious. I’ll smile gamely, make encouraging noises about the trumpet playing niece, say “No I’m not in the London Symphony Orchestra, talented bunch though aren’t they?” and smile politely at cheeky builders. I don’t relish being rude. Actually that’s not true; I don’t relish the feeling after I’ve been rude. Burning shame and remorse are my constant companions when I react with a snarl. It’s not becoming. I’ve started pretending I speak no English to avoid a chat.
In fairness, cellists bassists and harpists are paid what is called “porterage”, which is a fee on top of our rehearsal/concert/session fee, to compensate for the carrying the sodding thing, which adds up, it’s about £30 quid a pop, so I shouldn’t bitch and moan as much as I do. You’d think I’d be used to it by now.
When I was young, I carried my cello on the school bus every day. I went to an all girls school, but the bus was shared with the local boys school. It was perfectly possible to commit social suicide by sitting on the wrong seat, let alone hauling on a big cello and then sitting with it, in case someone twats it with a rucksack. I tried to compensate for my blatant geekery by wearing short skirts, doc martens and an unhealthy amount of eyeliner (actually I still do that), but alas, it was my street cred or the cello, and I chose the cello. (This was an option because I went to private school. In the state schools where I grew up, my cello would have been used as firewood within the first term.)
Air travel is when I start to rue my decision to be a cellist, and not say, a piccolo player. When cellists fly, (on aeroplanes; we don’t have superpowers) they don’t put their cellos in the hold, as the pressure and temperature (and the baggage handlers) can render their antique instruments cracked, or in one absolute horror story, the consistency of soggy cardboard. Whomever books the cellist pays for an extra seat. It’s expensive, but it’s standard practice, and with the sheer number of performances and recording sessions happening the world over, cellists must travel by plane with their cellos, every day. Yet inexplicably, when I arrive at the airport, the look on the faces of the trolley dollies and the security personnel would suggest I am travelling with a pterodactyl, not a musical instrument.
It begins at the check-in desk. Confusion abounds as the cello has a seat booked but is not a human person. It has no passport. There is a kerfuffle concerning whether or not the cello should have a boarding pass. And if it should, what should it say? Invariably, the scary orange faced ladies behind the desk have to radio their superiors, before confusedly printing off a boarding pass bearing the name “Mr A Cello”, “Mrs Cello Cello” or in one freak incident where the check- in lady had a sense of humour, “Miss Limon Cello”. Oh how we laughed. Then there’s getting it through security. It goes on the conveyor belt with your belt and laptops etc, and I start hoping to fuck that the security people don’t realise that with four metal strings that could strangle someone and a titanium endpin that would rupture a spleen, I am taking potentially lethal items on board the aircraft. Luckily they are usually preoccupied with the half drunk bottle of Vittel in my hand bag.
The madness doesn’t end there. Boarding the aircraft creates another rigmarole because as “the passenger with a cello”, I am supposed to board first. The contempt from the other passengers is palpable, as I progress, able bodied, up to the front of the queue to stand with women carrying newborn babies, or people wheeling their severely disabled Grandparents. I’m usually seated right at the back of the plane, so me and Mr A Cello can sit together, like honeymooners, out of the way of the other passengers. I hate this as I am a nervous flyer (actually, I am a nervous person, in a tin can rocketing through the sky. I’m suspicious of people who are not a bit scared of flying. What are you? Immortal?) and I have had to do long haul flights next to Mr A cello. He’s nice and everything, but he’s not the best conversationalist. Most airlines insist that the cello be put upside down in a window seat, which is a bit of a ball-ache. A few go to the extent of bringing on board an actual engineer, who strides down the aisle in a hi vis jacket bearing unfeasibly long blue ropes, ready to heroically tie the cello into its seat, boyscout style. Presumably in case the cello decides to get up and wander off, chat up the cabin crew or disturb the pilot. On one occasion, despite my insistence that I could manage it myself, the engineer supposed to secure Mr A Cello was delayed, no doubt sedating someone’s pet hamster, lest it bite the face off an air hostess. The cabin crew held up the whole flight until the whole ridiculous knotting procedure was completed. Just as my mortification was subsiding and we were taxiing down the runway, the posh pilot’s voice came through the tannoy: “Sorry for the delay everyone, but we have a passenger with a…” he hesitated “cheello? And it needed to be properly secured.” Heads craned over seats to glare back at me and poor old Mr A Cello, who let’s face it, wasn’t at his most dignified, upside down and covered in reef knots.
I grumble, but I don’t have any desire to play any other instrument. (Apart from the harp. And there’s no fucking way I’m carrying one of those.) The cello is cool. Ask Apocalyptica, they’ll tell you. Also, I’m a long limbed person. When I wear black, I’ve been told I look like a spider. I’d look all wrong playing something else. For now, it’s me and Mr A Cello. If you see us on the tube, just don’t ask me how I get it under my chin.