Written by Ted Goslin
Inevitably, all musicians eventually have to face the music and pack up their instruments to perform on the road. Some do it regularly by driving long distances with their oversized cases filling up the majority of their two-door smart car, while others need to brave the human dice game that is air travel.
For steelpan players, both forms of travel can be daunting, especially given the lack of awareness that the general population has towards the instrument. However, as difficult the prospect can seem, it is necessary, both for working musicians to earn a living and to promote the instrument to a broader audience than one’s immediate community.
While some methods might seem obvious when it comes to preparing for a gig in a distant land, it always helps to hear from those who have experienced the best and worst of what it means to trust others with your musical lifeblood.
Preparing For The Worst
Steelpan Jazz virtuoso Victor Provost has extensive experience traveling with his two types of tenor pans, both domestically within the United States and abroad to countries all over the world. Depending on where he’s going, Provost chooses between two case types when preparing for the trip.
“It’s a crap shoot every time instrument goes on and off the plane. I have a bunch of different cases that I use depending on where I’m going and what the situation will be when I get there. When dealing with my low C pans, up to the summer of 2014, I used a custom-made Enduro Humes and Berg case. It’s heavy wood with formed foam inside,” Provost said. “I currently use an injection-molded Impact case for most short flights and the Enduro 26-inch case for my oversize low G pan.”
The Impact cases are very popular amongst many pan players due to their efficient design, but have limitations that make them better for short trips, according to Provost. “The Enduro is too heavy for a day-to-day case. Impact cases are pretty popular but the glue on the trim comes off and rivets pop out over time.”
Due to the risk involved in letting airline or TSA personnel handle an instrument as delicate as the steelpan, Provost emphasizes the importance of how to pack it, from the interior ingredients to the exterior presentation.
“I pack the instrument very simply by two foam plates to the bottom of the bowl using foam cut-outs. I sit the instrument on its belly and put pipe insulator foam around the top of the rim,” he explained. “My hope is that if the case gets dropped bad, the foam will only do so much but the pipe insulator will stop the rim from getting beat up, because that’s what will knock it out of tune, if it falls on the rim or something happens to the belly. Honestly, I’ve come to the realization that the majority of damage doesn’t happen in transport or flight, but at TSA.”
Provost figured this out for himself from traveling with different cases or pans over the years and seeing damage occur when there was no rhyme or reason for it to happen. Damage would be found only on the inner ring notes, which meant someone removed the pan from the case and dropped it on the bowl, knocking notes out of tune.
“I flew to Akron about year-and-a-half ago on a direct flight. The pan was in the coffin, the hard case. There’s nothing that can happen to that. I got there and my inner ring octaves were all kind of shot. The same happened on a direct flight to Boston with my impact case,” Provost said. “My thought is that TSA guys take it out, put it on the table right on the bowl. Since I play tenor, the bowl sticks out. So those notes just get crushed.”
In the event that TSA removes his pan from the case now, Provost tapes foam directly to the bowl. However, the best way to see that nothing happens to your instrument is to keep it by your side for as long as possible up to boarding the plane.
“Even though it’s huge and heavy, you can walk it through security. I’ll actually gate-check my pan if I need to. So, when I check in, I tell the agents at the desk that this is a musical instrument and I’m going to check it at the gate. Almost every time they say you can’t go through at TSA, but I keep a letter from TSA on my phone that anyone can get from their website about rules and regulations regarding instruments. It states that any instrument can be taken through security and bag checked.”
To guarantee that the instrument is checked only once, Provost recommends having the instrument hand-checked at TSA prior to boarding your flight, either at security and gate check, or to the TSA checkpoint (which some airports allow).
“If the case is taped up with packing tape, then when they cut that tape to open the case, you can ask them to put TSA tape around it when finished. If you don’t have tape on it you can ask them. They’ll re-tape it and they also put a slip on it showing that it’s been inspected,” Provost said. “You then take your bags around the corner to the guys with conveyor belts and X-ray machines. You have a right to be present and have them hand-check the instrument while you stand there. They might be a dick about it but they can’t say no. If you have them do it right there at the beginning of the process, that’s it. It doesn’t matter how many airports it goes through.”
In situations where a musician has little room for error, such as gigs that occur the same day the flight lands, or where you need to drive a great distance after landing and need your pan there with you right away, Provost recommends getting to know the rules at specific airports for direct and connecting flights.
“You never know what could happen, man. I was on a direct flight to Jacksonville and immediately drove 2.5 hours to the first gig. After that gig, I drove another hour-and-a-half to next town we were sleeping in. The pan didn’t even get on the plane to begin with,” he said. “If I’m in a situation like that again, I go straight to security and know it’s getting on the plane. The caveat there is that not every airport will bring it back up. For example, if you’re going to Trinidad from California, you gate-check in California and connect in Miami, but they’re not going to bring your instrument to Miami. If you gate-check something on a one-stop trip, take it to the plane. Right before getting on plane they put it under. As soon as I get off the plane, they bring it back up. There are some airports that won’t do that, like Miami, that will only bring up strollers. Any other piece of luggage goes through conveyer belts.”
Regular travel with pan these days has sadly become the exception, not the rule. Hopefully, as pan gains more attention as a versatile instrument globally, that will change. But for now, most people who travel, do so on a limited basis. Thankfully, that works in their favor based on what Provost said about there being a higher chance for damage or lost luggage the more you travel.
Take young pannist, Obie Quarless, NIU graduate and member of Diversity Steel Band, based out of Chicago. Quarless is a full-time teacher who plays pan on the side in the greater area of Seattle, Wash. To play with his band, he must travel. Although it doesn’t happen often, Quarless takes every precaution he can think of to ensure that his double second pans are well-protected during the trip. His first trip with his pans took place recently to play the National Anthem at an NBA game in Atlanta.
“That was my first time traveling on a plane with any pan. I’ve traveled to do some gigs with pans provided on site in the past. That was first time I was responsible for bringing my own which hightened the stakes a little bit. The cases I used were SKB brand pan cases. I just did as much as I thought would be necessary considering that much of the transit would be out of my hands,” he said. “The cases are kind of a D shape. So I got a foam circle with a flat wedge on one side and used rolls of bubble wrap on the two gaps the where wedges are to reinforce it. On the belly of the pan I just laid additional blanket on top.”
To ensure anyone handling the instrument away from his gaze would know the delicacy of the instrument, Quarless covered the case with lime green packing tape and orange construction paper cut into squares. On the paper Quarless wrote the words, “Extremely Fragile Instrument” and “This Side Up” with a black sharpie to ensure anyone handling it would see it clearly.
“I just put different lines all over. I figured those are the two brightest colors to draw attention,” he said. “It wasn’t about style, I just to be as bold as possible with the message.”
Lost And Found
Part of planning for a performance-related trip is understanding pricing. Musicians should do research on how much each airline charges for checked bags based on their weight. As an alternative, shipping can be done, but is much more pricey, and less reliable, according to Provost.
“Not only is shipping super expensive, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with my instrument hanging out some place without me. As little as it is at the airport, there is still some level of accountability. Let’s say you’re traveling wherever, you can file a claim with TSA if your instrument gets lost. It’s a pain in the ass but at least you can fill out some forms if the instrument was damaged during transport. There’s a chance they will cut you a check for $150,” Provost said. “Obviously there’s no perfect way to do it. The biggest, strongest heaviest cases on direct flights have still ended up being screwed up because they do something to it.”
If cost is a major issue, Provost recommends using a light-weight case like his Impact. But even though the Enduro case is heavier, he has opted for using that case more in recent months for many reasons.
“It’s one thing to get it off the plane and to the other side but to also have to take your ‘axe’ to the venue and hotel room, it’s even more difficult,” he said. “I’m starting to use Enduro again, but I’m packing the pan inside a soft cloth case so when I get to my final destination, I can use the cloth case for daily travel. There’s enough room in the Enduro to do that.”
Pricing can vary with most airlines and Provost admits he has no control over booking the flight most of the time since that is left to the venue or event that hires him. However, pricing tends to hover around $60 for most of his traveling. “I usually check my pan and my stand, but take a roll along with my clothes and a book bag with my laptop and other stuff on the plane.
The best airlines to use also vary based on where and when you travel, but Provost has had good luck with United and the worst luck with American, although he ends up flying with them the most, increasing the likelihood of issues arising. “They’re a pretty expensive carrier, the choice for a lot of venues. What stands out is what happens after you lose a bag.”
In the event an airline does lose your instrument, you should immediately file a claim with the lost baggage department and “cross your fingers,” according to Provost. “We played a gig in Chile in 2013 in Fritiar, a tiny little town far on the south of Chile. My first flight got cancelled, they had to reroute me. It was a miracle I was getting on the flight. When I get off in Chile, there was no pan. One of the people from the festival was there; they helped us file a lost baggage claim with the final carrier. But getting someone in English was not easy. It would have been impossible without a translator from the venue.”
That instrument never came. Not confident that the instrument would get there in time, Provost had his wife bring his back-up pan through American and LAN airlines. Soon enough, the second instrument became lost as well. After filing another claim with the airline, things started to happen.
“The instrument that my wife brought down got to me first, before the other one. It ended up in a completely different part of the country. Thankfully, the second pan arrived and I did get that situation resolved a few hours before the concert,” he said. “When that happens, most airlines will deliver it to you, using a currier to deliver it to where you are staying.”
Thankfully, technology now provides a helping hand for those who don’t trust airline tracking. While most of the time, airlines know where a bag is based on various scanning procedures when a bag is checked on a certain flight or placed on a conveyor belt, there’s a more sure-fire way to know where your instrument is at all times.
“There is technology developing now with GPS luggage trackers. You could find it with a quick search. There are a couple I’ve seen recently that are high powered, true GPS trackers. They automatically turn themselves off in the air so they don’t interfere with instruments on the plane,” Provost said. “You can track on a cell phone to see the situation or to plan ahead and get a secondary instrument. Otherwise, I ask the venue to send me there the day before as a buffer in case something happens to the pan. It doesn’t happen very often where luggage is totally lost. The worst thing that happens is you don’t get it when you land and it becomes an inconvenience for you on the other side.”