Case Notes

John Robert Brown

"If you want to know a person's true personality, look at their shoes and fingernails," said my mother, using one of those many aphorisms that mums hand down. The saying survives because it's perceptive.
Whether it's a pair of scruffy sandals hacked from an old car tyre or a burnished pair of bootmaker's brogues bought in Jermyn Street or St. James, shoes - and their state of maintenance - are revealing. Similarly, chewed finger ends divulge almost as much about a person's subconscious as you'd find out from a three-hundred guinea psychiatrist's report, with the added benefit of dodging the consultation on the couch.

Shoes and fingernails aren't the only giveaway. The same goes for a musician's instrument case, inside and out. If you want to know a musician's true personality, look at his instrument case.

A case can be poor or posh, shined or scuffed. Posh luggage (I'm not talking about Mrs Beckham's bags) isn't solely for schlepping. The word posh was coined with luggage, don't forget, when the sun-avoiding toffs on oriental cruises had their bags chalked to display the location of their cabins: port out, starboard home. Their bags alone gave them away. In a similar way, a musician's instrument case betrays who and what he or she is. A case is a statement, an assertion, a declaration.

Few serious pros favour the ostentatiously new. Just as the true upper class - old money, the aristocracy - favour baggy tweeds with arm patches or a crumpled linen suit, the seasoned pro musician prefers his case to be like his favourite conductors, ancient, tough, and with elegant style. In a word, quality. Another of those mothers' mottoes comes to mind: 'Buy the best and you only buy it once'.

The approved case is the one that blends in. Usually the traditional case isn't shaped like the instrument it protects, but it's more a rectangular box, whether it contains a violin, viola, clarinet or trumpet. Only with the very large or the very unusual case is it considered okay to follow the contours of the contents, as in a cello, double bass, French Horn or harp. Blending-in also means case covers that are black, acoustic green, or soil-coloured. Canvas covers are dull, therefore okay. The tweed-covered guitar case - or the soft leather trombone case that looks like a golf bag - may look good for posing, but to the connoisseur of case correctness they are definitely arriviste. And no stickers for the pros, please. Like tattoos, they always outstay their welcome. Stick a Face on Your Case is strictly for the school band.

Soft bags are definitely new money, of which you'll need plenty if you forget to do up the zip. Saxophone repair shops reported a boom in repair work when zipped shoulder bags first appeared. Players would heave the case vigorously on to their shoulders, forgetting another thing my mum used to say: 'Always do up your zip'. The unzipped instrument would be projected energetically out of the bag and into the nearest wall or under a passing bus. Some of those saxophones really were flat.

For a long while, a case or luggage that ran on wheels was thought naff, probably because of the association with the tartan shopping trolley popular with old ladies like my mum. Eventually, the sight of teams of tall and tanned flight attendants striding about airport terminals with wheelie bags in tow had everyone wanting to travel with that sort of thing. The wheelie bags were coveted as well. Now, although wheeled musical instrument cases would be easier to manage, and kinder to the knees, musicians are slow to change. Drummers, however, have caught on. Roll on the drums.

Looking the part can be a sort of unofficial audition process, which is just another way of judging people. Carry the wrong sort of case in certain circles and you'll never be taken seriously. Try turning up to a dixieland jazz gig with a double clarinet case and you'll see what I mean. Knowing when not to look the part is crucial. A young drummer I know donned running shoes and a tracksuit, and put a hachimaki round his head, to play in the pit orchestra on the first night of the local production of Mikado. It was professional hari kiri; the other musicians were in black tie; they had black looks to match. I know your mum said,'If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well,' but this was a step too far. A musical instrument case sends such strong signals that it isn't surprising that cases have been used as part of a disguise. Fair on the outside, fake on the inside, cases can lie like rugs. Al Capone's men disguised themselves as musicians when they used violin cases to carry their tommy guns to the St. Valentine's Day massacre in 1929. An American company still markets a Thompson machine gun in a 'violin' case. Really. Called the Roaring Twenties Gangster Model and offered 'with permanently attached 50-round drum magazine', it comes in a limited edition of only 500, is 24 carat gold-plated and weighs 11.5 lbs. Its nickname is the 'Chicago Typewriter'. Helpfully, the 'violin' case (it looks more like a guitar case) is foam lined for protection, and the clasps include a lock for security. Aren't you reassured to hear about the security? The fascinating revelation is that a real violin case is too small to carry a machine gun. You must have been wondering, if you've ever tried to tuck a tommy gun into a fiddle case. Instead, the mob used saxophone cases. Whether they wore shiny shoes, I don't know.

So much for appearances. The real give away is what's inside the case. Cleanliness is next to Godliness; tidiness is next to impossible. Cases are used to carry all those useful bits and pieces, basics such as glue, Blutak, Sellotape, safety pins, a clothes peg or two, a duster, rubber bands, spare bow tie, collar stiffeners, cuff links, diary, ear plugs, spare specs, and items essential for player maintenance, such as a hip flask, a packet of Polo mints, a decent newspaper with a crossword - and a shoe-cleaning mitt. Add a paperback for killing time (Aaron Copland famously observed that such a book is rarely about music), reeds, pads, strings, rosin, tuning fork, humidifier, reed cutter, spare strings, mutes and mouthpieces, depending on what you play. A gig spanner (bottle opener) is always useful, as is parking meter money. And don't forget your copy of Classical Music.

A good read is as cheering as a good reed. Most instrument cases serve also as magazine or book bags, the publication straining the hinges of the case, and itself slowly disintegrating. Often it's clutter, something bygone and having little to do with serious music, like Edward Heath's autobiography, or a programme schedule for Late Junction, reminding me of my wife's handbags, with her German Marks and special offers for the Millennium Dome.

Besides the contents of the case allowing one to read the owner's character, the resourcefulness with which a case is used is revelatory.

A large case with a lock can be used as a temporary safe for storing valuables. Large instrument cases come in handy for a spot of post-gig smuggling. Again, rectangular cases are superior to shaped ones, accommodating more swag. The bell of a baritone saxophone is quite handy for concealing one or two of those bottles remaining after a lavish function, or those tiny, dry triangular sandwiches in white bread that you'll wonder why you took.

In his autobiography 'From Where I Sit', Jack Brymer described using the case of his new clarinet as a pillow - yet another way the clarinet can give you a headache. With the lid open, a small case placed on a table can serve as a fairly ineffective music stand. I've seen a cello case used as a portable dressing cupboard. An empty harp case could make a walk-in wardrobe. I've also seen an empty viola case used as an impromptu and rather large set of wickets in a game of green room cricket. "Why an empty case?" you may be thinking, after all, it is a viola. Maybe they'd hoped to use the viola itself as a cricket bat?

"Never stand when you can sit," is another mother saying. You want to sit? If sufficiently sturdy, a case can serve as a stool, though it can leave you with a stiff action in the lower register.

A case as transport? Remember The Living Daylights (1987), Timothy Dalton's first and second-to-last movie appearance as James Bond? His gadget-loaded car chase on ice ends when Bond and Kara (Maryam D'Abo) toboggan into Austria using Kara's cello case. Speaking of films reminds me of the story of the Irish stripper who emigrated to Hollywood with two empty suitcases.

Cases can be played. There was a famous jazz suitcase player, Josh Billings, in the late twenties, who played an old empty suitcase, covered with wrapping paper and banged energetically with a pair of whisk brooms. Made in America (1936), a percussion piece by American composer William Russell (1905-1992) includes a suitcase in the instrumentation. Today, the ridged tube of a Lyons clarinet case can be played as a guiro. Then there's the interesting, er, case of the marimbula, an Afro-Cuban instrument, a kind of bass kalimba, or thumb piano. It's a rectangular box the size and shape of a small suitcase (some even have a luggage handle on top), with a sound hole and a row of keys (or tongues) on one of its sides. The player, the marimbulero, places the instrument on the ground with the keys pointing upward, and sits on its top edge, reaching down to play the keys.

Proof that a case is a statement, an assertion, a declaration, is the way that one can serve as backstage pass. If you have two instruments, allow a non-playing friend to carry one (the heavier of the two, don't be daft) to get past security at that big event you're playing. It works.

And, in the full knowledge that it reveals everything about me, there I rest my case.

This article first appeared in Classical Music magazine. Used by permission.
Cartoon by Harry Venning used by kind permission of the artist. Reproduction is forbidden.
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