Chinese musician seeks airlines' understanding

Updated: 2013-10-11 10:26

By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily)

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Commercial flying can produce a host of headaches, particularly when a musical instrument is along for the ride.

En route to New Haven, Connecticut, last summer, Chinese musician Wu Man was unable to find room in the compartment of a small US Airways jet for her pear-shaped pipa, so she asked a flight attendant if she could strap it into the vacant seat next to her.

"Normally the flight attendant will let me put the pipa on the empty seat like a person, or lie it down on two seats like it's a baby," Wu told China Daily. "Somehow this flight attendant just didn't understand."

Instead, Wu had to put her pipa in the aircraft's clothes locker. In the process of stowing the instrument, the attendant dropped the pipa and broke its neck.

"That pipa had been with me for so long," Wu said with a tone of nostalgia about her 17-year-old instrument that is older than her son. "I basically built my career in the states with that pipa, so that's why it's so special to me and why it's so frustrating."

Wu is breaking in a new custom-made pipa, which she will debut in Connecticut today with conductor Carolyn Kuan and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, where she will play Lou Harrison's Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra.

"It's like any other string instrument, even if it's good quality, you have to break through the sound," the Grammy Award-nominated musician said. "The sound [with a new pipa] takes years to become more mature and to become my sound, my own voice."

The pipa, sometimes called the Chinese lute, is a four-stringed Chinese instrument with a wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26, and a history of at least 2,000 years.

The replacement was custom-designed by Man Ruixin — the same maker who designed Wu's original pipa — in Beijing.

Wu said there is no standard formula for custom-made pipas, so each instrument is different in its dimensions. She said the distance between the strings may be slightly different, so her fingers must get acquainted with the new string set to get the right frets.

During the two-month wait period, Wu continued her busy performance schedule playing with her practice pipa and a rental.

"The rental in no way compares to my old one, but I had to do it — I couldn't cancel a concert," said Wu, who is Musical America's 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year. "That's how you do it as a musician, you just go with whatever you have."

Wu said her misfortune on the airplane is a common source of heartache for musicians in general, and she said she just received an e-mail from an Indian sitar player whose instrument broke on a British Airways flight.

"He's angry," she said. "It's the same story again and again and again for musicians these days."

Other frustrated musicians include one passenger who complained of having to check two violins worth nearly 175,000 pounds (about $280,000), while another was forced to buy an extra seat for a rare Turkish instrument the size of a guitar and a third prevented from bringing a banjo onto an aircraft, according to a report by the UK-based Telegraph newspaper earlier this year.

Rules on checking instruments vary from airline to airline and region to region. On its website, the Transportation Security Administration recommends musicians bring their stringed instruments onboard, but also reminds that the instruments must adhere to carrier size limitations.

Wu said situations involving damaged instruments become even worse for Western-based musicians who do not play Western style instruments. Wu had to make a special trip to Beijing in August to review her custom made pipa, since no one in the US could build a new one for her.

"I just hope someday airline personnel could understand us better— understand our life and our instruments much more than a suitcase," Wu said. "To me, that's the message from this experience. I hope things will change [with airline regulations] in the future."

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