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On a Roll.

John Robert Brown

Wendy, my wife, is buying a new car. I'm along for the entertainment, all the more enjoyable for me because I'm not paying. We're a long way from the days when salesmen kicked tyres, but the negotiation is still a cabaret worth catching.

Wendy is an amateur double-bassist. She is determined that her next car will carry the bass comfortably, with no concessions or compromises. The salesman knows that Wendy is the Director of Pathology at the local hospital. What he doesn't know is that she also plays the bass. Wendy is here with a tape measure, giving his estate cars serious scrutiny. The salesman doesn't ask (he's very polite), but I sense that he is wondering what bulky inanimate object this consultant intends to carry around. It's a relief to me, and to the salesman, I'm sure, when Dr Brown reveals what she's going to carry, the object for which she needs an estate car. Though it has shoulders, head, a neck, waist and belly, and has organic origins, it is merely a double bass.

Many relatively small cars will actually transport a bass. I've seen a Morris Minor, a Minivan, and a vintage Mini each contain a contrabass, though the Mini had the front passenger seat removed. Wendy's soon-to-be-traded Golf hatchback consumes the bass easily, provided she doesn't mind the scroll tangling with the gear lever. The real difficulty lies in lifting the instrument over the tailgate lip. Vehicles with flat floors have much to commend them when loading awkward delicate instruments.

Inspired by such transport challenges, another female bassist, Jöelle Léandre, has composed Taxi, for double bass and speaking musician. Posing the question, Can Bass Players Travel by Taxi? the piece contains cabbie's lines such as: That must weigh a ton, You don't see many of those around these days, Not much chance of forgetting that tiny little problem, I'm not insured for those things, I suppose you could lean on it if you got tired of carrying it, and What the hell have you got there?

Of course, bass players don't have to travel by taxi, car or any other motor vehicle. In Leeds, one of the local characters is bassist Nigel Slee. A sight to please environmentalists, Nigel rides a bicycle to gigs around the city, with the bass slung on his back. And more and more bass players are equipping with small wheels - with pneumatic tyres - which they fit into the spike hole, to roll along when walking the bass. After Wendy purchased such a wheel in a music shop in Manhattan, there was a chorus of enquiries from section colleagues: Where can I get one of those? The answer: At 48th Street, between Broadway and Sixth.

You can determine the age of a good grand piano by taking a look at its wheels. The newer the instrument the bigger and shinier the wheels on which it stands. Even some upright pianos have bigger wheels these days. I saw an upright in Manhattan that had absolutely colossal wheels, specially fitted to roll it onto the sidewalk for a spot of busking on a hot summer evening.

A friend has the scurrilous theory that natural selection ensures that busy harpists are mostly female, and invariably good looking, because of their everyday need for help when loading and unloading their instruments. That theory is going to go out of date, for if she can't hunt down a hefty hunk to assist, there is now an abundance of harp carts, caddies and dollies available for the lady harpist on the go.

All large instruments offer transport challenges. A colleague has made a beautiful job of building his own harpsichord, to discover that the considerable effort of constructing the thing is matched by the difficulties of transportation. Now, the instrument is taken from the house via the front window (!), and travels to recitals in a specially hired white van.

Indeed, the use of a van to transport keyboards is suddenly fashionable, with the great success of Manchester teacher Katie Kelly's 'Mobile Keyboard Labs'. Katie owns a small fleet of Ford vans. In each van extraordinaire she conveys six keyboards and a teacher.

The City of Seattle has a 'Symphony-on-Wheels' community outreach programme that enables musicians to appear in elementary schools throughout the orchestra's region. In New York, the Jazzmobile is a truck, having sides that fold open to reveal a bandstand. The Jazzmobile takes live music on wheels to several New York boroughs, often presenting it to black youngsters who have never heard it before.

The fitting of wheels to musical instruments is a modern idea. A century ago, those pianos that did ride on wheels rolled along merrily on tiny, ineffective, castors that jammed and jabbed their jagged contours into carpets and lifted the linoleum. In those days, just about every other instrument was picked up and carried, if and when it had to be moved. Now, one can have wheels on everything.

Tuba cases have wheels. Percussionists can buy a drum hardware bag with rollers, or a pro conga bag with castors. Electronic keyboards pack into cases that glide on hidden discs. You can buy wheels to attach with velcro to any guitar or banjo case. They can be fixed to the cover by sewing, or to the hard case by glueing - take your pick. There are cases with wheels for cellos, trumpets and trombones. There's even a wheeled podium for conductors. In case you were getting ideas, it comes with a tethering device.

First published in Classical Music magazine. Not to be used or quoted from for any purpose without permission.
Cartoon by Harry Venning. Used by kind permission of the artist. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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