Alban's Blog

Broken Bow – Broken Cello?

On February 6 a careless TSA officer at Washington DC’s international Dulles airport destroyed not only my bow, as I found out yesterday only hours before my live-radio-broadcasted concert with the National Symphony of Ireland in Dublin, but also pushed the sound-post of my Goffriller cello so strongly, that on the back of the cello one can see a brutal crack at the place where the sound-post stands inside the corpus. What had happened? Why did I only realize this two and a half weeks after the incident? And how do I dare complain about all of this as I took the risk of damaging my cello by checking it with ordinary bags? Comments indicated that some people seem to believe I deserve such an accident.

I personally believe nobody deserves his or her property to be destroyed, and the damage inflicted onto my tools of music has not occurred by the fact that the case was thrown around by baggage handlers (which in 23 years of travel has not harmed neither my cello nor my bows inside the case), but by people feeling the need to open the case and closing it with brutal force. Naively I had 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 soundpose it created this crack which might not only devaluate the cello but affects its sound gravely.

Yes, when travelling after my three concerts in Madison, which I played on a bow from a cello professor there, to New York to play a private concert there, 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 anyway as I had been taught by my father to always blame myself if something doesn’t work. I am not a frequent guest at violinmakers, 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 anymore?

The struggles only got worse during rehearsals in Zurich and the following day in Dublin, and I realized I could not perform on the equipment like that. The strings seemed incredibly low (hardly any space between strings and fingerboard), but luckily enough 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.

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 attachement 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 Bachsuite which I played as an encore I decided to take this strike of mishaps as an incentive to actually pursue he 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…


  • Mary

    I attended the Concert in Dublin after hearing a 30 second “advertisement” of your playing on our National Radio Station, RTE 1.

    It was the most moving Concert I’ve ever been to in my life. Thank you so much. I saw what happened with your Bow, but you took it all in your stride and I was amazed at how quickly you managed to “borrow” the other Bow with little or no disruption, although what a look of amazement on the lady’s face!!

    But thank you for an amazing evening. The applause for you and the Orchestra and the Conductor was so warm, it was not surprising, it was an extraordinary evening, one I will never forget. God bless you and your family and your precious musical talent. Mary

  • Mary

    I forgot to mention that it would be worth checking with your Airline/Insurance Cover, if you can get anything towards the cost of repair of your instrument. I used to work for an Airline, and as far as I know, they are somewhat responsible for the safe carriage of goods under the Geneva Convention. Mary

  • Paul Fanning

    Dear Alban, what a horrifying story!
    I’m sure that your cello will sound as before when repair is completed; bon courage!
    It was lovely to meet you in Dublin; I hope you’ll be back soon again and that you won’t associate your visit with unpleasant memories.
    My very best wishes,
    Paul (violinist, RTÉNSO…hope you remember me?)

  • Nancy Ives

    Alban, my heart is aching of for you! How completely dreadful. I understand perfectly how you could overlook the damage and try to make it work, always looking to yourself instead of running to the shop for a Deus ex machina.


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