How I Fly With My Fiddle: Tips and Tricks to Stress Free Travel

Flying with a violin (or any acoustic string instrument) can be daunting. It’s a bit like balancing a full glass of water on your forehead — precarious and not without risk. And travel is even crazier and busier at this holiday time of the year. Fortunately musicians make successful transits every day, which balances out the occasional horror story you might hear about an instrument breaking mid-flight.

Whether you’re traveling with your violin for the first time, or are a seasoned pro looking for additional travel tips, I’m here to set your mind at ease! These are some of the most effective methods I have used to make traveling with my fiddle a stress-free experience.

By the way: a fiddle and a violin are the same thing, just different in how they’re played. I play both my classical and Irish traditional repertoire on the same instrument.

Always good to have a fiddle on hand when traveling to a place with a pub!

I rarely travel without my fiddle. Whether I’m headed to a gig, conference, or just visiting family/friends, it’s a default luggage piece. I have been flying with my instrument regularly for the past five years, and have learned what works best for my travel style and what I should avoid. Your travel style may be different, but I hope that some of these tips will prove useful in your future trips!

These tips are meant for musicians who are traveling with one carry-on fiddle. I believe that you should NEVER put your instrument in checked luggage.

4 years ago before my first solo international flight — my setup has changed a bit, but not by much!

Tip One: Make Sure You Know Your Airline’s Instrument Regulations

One of my biggest fears used to be that I would arrive at my gate and the agent would tell me I couldn’t bring the fiddle into the cabin. There is usually a section in the flight booking process that shows the dimensions allowed for carry on luggage — if you actually measure out your case, it is often longer than what the dimensions allow for. However, it does fall within the required width. Because of this, your instrument qualifies as a special item, and you’re going to want to research your airline’s specific luggage requirements for it.

I have yet to come across an airline that does not allow fiddles in the cabin, but I know that budget airlines such as RyanAir can be tricky. It is always a good idea to confirm with the airline, whether you search online or call a representative. To research online policies, go to your airline’s website (even if you’ve booked through a third party site) and find the section that details their specific luggage regulations.

I recently looked up a flight through Spirit Airlines, and was able to find their specific instrument policy listed in their Contract of Carriage under “Special Items” on p. 29. (FYI, they do accept violins as carry on items!) Just keep in mind that every airline has slightly different rules.

If you have done your research and are still worried the gate agent will make you check your violin, then print out a copy of the page that lists your instrument as permittable carry-on luggage, highlight the section, and stow it in an easily accessible place in your case or personal bag. Never hurts to have some proof on hand. You can also reference musical instrument FAA laws.

Back in my early days of flying with my instrument, my college violin professor told me when all else fails, cry. I have yet to resort to this, but just throwing it out there for you.

One of the changes I made was getting a smaller case… as you can see, this one is a doozy!

Tip Two: If you need to check a bag, do some serious prioritizing and only pack the things in your carry on luggage that you couldn’t spend a night without.

Because I’m a major planner, I read every packing tip article I come across. Most times the writer is not a musician, meaning that I have to get creative with what goes in my carry-on and what goes in a checked bag. It’s possible that some airlines will allow you to carry on your instrument as a special item in addition to the overhead bag and personal item, but honestly I have never tried this before. Seems a bit like pushing your luck. I always end up checking a bag when I fly and have come to accept that I will never be one of those people who can regularly travel with only carry-on luggage. But that’s okay! I can still fit everything I need into a small duffel bag and even use some extra space in my fiddle case.

Typically you will find me in basic or economy seating on a flight — it’s just what my budget supports right now. I also like to travel light, so I use my fiddle as my carry on bag and bring a large purse or small duffel bag to stow under my seat. If you do this, remember you have to carry these things everywhere, so don’t overpack and weigh yourself down. It’s not fun. Everything else goes into your checked bag, so if you can put heavier things like shoes or an extra book in there, I highly recommend that!

Here’s what goes into my carry on bag almost every time I travel:

  • Phone, charger and headphones
  • Small purse with my wallet, keys, and passport (for international travel)
  • Keto friendly snacks and daily vitamins/supplements
  • A change of clothes
  • Any toiletries that I wouldn’t want to be stranded without if my luggage were lost
  • A light book/crosswords or sudoku puzzles
  • (Sometimes) Jewelry
  • (Sometimes) Printouts of important documents I need for my trip

Here’s where you can get creative. Depending on what type of fiddle case you have, there are likely one or two handy storage compartments that you can use for extra space. I like to roll up a t-shirt and a pair of leggings and stick them in my case (I use a Bam Original, which has an awesome secret storage pocket on the side). If you have a case that has space to store sheet music, you can use that space to store any documents you want to have with you such as proof of insurance, relevant airline regulations, etc.

Once you’ve gotten a place for your larger items, it is much easier to pack the smaller things in your personal bag! I prefer to use a small duffel (you can find decent quality, low price ones at TJ Maxx and Marshalls) because most everything fits in horizontally, meaning I don’t have to hurriedly go digging for my Driver’s License when I forget that I need it in order to be admitted into Security.

I LOVE my Bam Original case! So much lighter and easier to fit in airplane overhead storage!

Trick: If you have any liquids in your case such as instrument cleaner or a humidity controller that contains water, take them out of your case and put them in with your other carry-on liquids in a quart-sized plastic baggie. This will increase your chances of getting through the line without any hold-ups or additional inspection. You can put them back in your case once you’ve gone through Security.

Tip Three: Get on board the aircraft as soon as you can.

You can do this in one of two ways, and I’ll go through the pro’s and con’s of each. This is based on my experience with Delta Airlines — so it may be different for others.

Method 1: Buy priority boarding.

  • Pro: This ensures that you will get on the plane before a lot of other passengers, it’s a small additional fee on larger airlines, it saves a lot of stress if you’re traveling at the holidays when there are a lot of full flights
  • Con: You might not be in the gate area when they call priority, it’s an added expense, usually not offered on smaller flights (e.g. Pellston to Detroit)

Method 2: Be at the front of the line for your zone.

  • Pro: No extra cost, and it’s rare for there to be no overhead space left for your case (they mostly want you to gate check roller bags)
  • Con: There’s no guarantee like buying priority boarding, you may have a long wait standing in line (no fun if your luggage is too heavy), you really should avoid cluttering the waiting area

I like to save my money and take my chances, so I opt for method 2 more often. Lately, I sit in the waiting area for as long as possible, enjoy the slightly fresher air of the airport, and get up to stand in line when they call the zone right before mine.

I’m usually one of the first people on board when my zone is called. Most of the time, there is still space in the bin above my seat to store my fiddle case. However, if the overhead bin above you is full, try to find space in a bin that is closer to your exit — that way you’re not fighting traffic to get back to your instrument at the end of your flight. It’s not the end of the world if you have to put it in a bin behind you, it’s just a little easier on your fellow passengers.

So worth it to have your instrument with you when experiencing places like this!

Tip 4: Airlines want your loyalty. Be polite, respectful and calm, and they will help you out!

Be polite to the gate agent. Be polite to the flight attendant. Be polite to your fellow passengers. People are always more willing to help if you treat them with kindness and courtesy. Calmly explain to the gate agent trying to tag your case that you have a musical instrument, which is fragile and easily damaged in checked bag environments. If needed, speak to a representative of the airline in person or via phone: they want your loyal and consistent patronage, so they will often be willing to help you out if there’s a problem.

You should try to be consistent with who you fly with. If an airline always treats you right and respects your instrument, they deserve your loyalty! It’s also a great way to build up frequent flyer points instead of spreading yourself thin across a bunch of different airlines. If you’re flying internationally, check to see who partners with the airline you’re flying with: I’ll most likely be flying AirCanada to get to Ireland in the future, so I’m planning on making a frequent flyer account with their US partner, United Airlines. No additional cost and the points never expire!

For national travel, I stick with Delta. Most of my flights go through Detroit or Atlanta (two of their main hubs) so it makes the most sense for me. They have always treated me well — I remember flying home from Atlanta the day after Christmas and they allowed me to go through (priority) security because I had an instrument. Shout out to Hartsfield Jackson for their efficiency!

Tip 5: Make sure you have both instrument and travel insurance!

Listen, hun. Life happens. Sometimes there are things we can’t control, and that means we have to take a deep breath and be patient as we find a new way to deal with a difficulty. Save yourself the extra headache and pay $3o-40 for peace of mind. Most of the time you don’t need it, but you will be so glad for it if you do! It’s just something you have to accept. If an accident does happen, use it as a learning experience for how you can make your travel go more smoothly the next time.

Were these tips helpful? Do you have other suggestions for stress-free instrument travel? Let me know in the comments! As always, thanks for reading!

Folk Alliance 2019 Part Two: Who I Discovered

Hello again! As promised, here is part two of my Folk Alliance posts. This one focuses on the my favorite FA artists who I either met in person for the first time or reconnected with from previous travels. If you missed my first post, which tells you what Folk Alliance is and focuses on my main takeaways from the week, you can click here to catch up! One of those takeaways had to do with what type of artist I resonate with the most. I realized that I connect best with performers who not only play well, but also have a unique persona that shines through in their music. I highly encourage you to look these artists up, listen to their music, and if possible see them perform live.

So many talented artists all gathered together in this building!

Old Friends:

I was thrilled when I saw that both Andrew Finn Magill and Emerald Rae were performing at Folk Alliance this year (click on their names to check out their websites)! Finn was my first “real” fiddle teacher when I started attending the Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. I know him the best for his Irish music, but in the past few years he has been focusing on Brazilian styles — which also sound amazing. He played several sets with his friend and bandmate, Cesar Garabini, who is an absolute wizard at the seven string guitar. I credit Finn for giving me the necessary tips I needed to shift my sound from classical violinist to Irish fiddler. He’s also great at providing disciplined practice tips, which is an area I’m always looking to improve!

Emerald Rae was another one of my fiddle teachers from Swannanoa, this time focusing on Cape Breton music. To this day, I still love to play the tunes she taught in that class — she’s got a real knack for picking some great repertoire! Like Finn, Emerald has retained her traditional music background, but has also transitioned into a new style: singer-songwriter. Her latest self-titled album is full of her own compositions written for fiddle accompanying voice. Let me tell you, it is not easy to sing and play at the same time, but Emerald is absolutely brilliant at it. She is exploring and pushing boundaries of what the fiddle and voice can do to create a one-woman show. She also experiments with cross tuning and medieval music, which gives her a unique vibe and really showcases her powerhouse fiddling. Can you tell she’s one of my role models?

From Andrew Finn Magill and Emerald Rae’s Instagram pages. Reproduced with permission.

New Friends (thank you, Instagram!):

There were also some familiar faces at Folk Alliance thanks to the virtual world of the internet — mostly due to Instagram and the Celtic Colours Festival Livestream from Cape Breton. Tristan Henderson of Vermont trio, Pete’s Posse, was one such Instagram connection. He has been really supportive of me ever since I started to market my music more online, so it was wonderful to meet him and hear him play in person! He’s one of the friendliest musicians I’ve ever met and also quite possibly the owner of the biggest jaw harp collection that I know.

Another Celtic Colour/Instagram discovery was April Verch. April is an amazing virtuosic Canadian fiddler from the Ottawa Valley region, but also knowledgeable of other Canadian regional styles. She was performing with her trio at Folk Alliance, and I must have dropped in to listen to almost all of her showcases. She fiddles, sings, and step dances — sometimes at the same time! I ended up taking a master class with her during the week to learn about the stylistic differences among the Canadian regional fiddle traditions, which was really fascinating to compare to what I’ve learned about Irish regional styles. She taught the class a Métis (French, Irish and Native American influenced) version of The Arkansas Traveler as well as an Ottawa Valley (in Ontario) style jig. I could definitely hear similarities between the Ottawa Valley and Appalachian fiddling, both of which have ancestral root meanings to me! April has just released a new album, “Once a Day,” where she’s exploring more 50’s Canadian country repertoire — absolutely adore her and her music!

Album cover from April Verch's latest release, "Once a Day."
Reproduced with April’s permission. Check out her new album!

While I didn’t end up speaking to any of these guys, I also got to see Le Vent du Nord in person. WOW. I barely have any other words. Despite my minimal knowledge of the French language, they were one of the most engaging groups of musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch perform. Also one of the guys plays a hurdy-gurdy, which is just awesome in and of itself. Another string instrument for me to try…

Other Favorite Musical Acts:

Rising Appalachia: I was introduced to this wonderful band by a fellow American student and friend of mine in Cork, who shares my deep love for my homeland in the southeastern United States. She and I even worked up their version of “Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” to sing in the weekly sessions we attended at the Blarney Castle Hotel. However, I was in no way prepared for their performance at Folk Alliance. Jam packed into a small hotel room with thirty to forty other people, I experienced the most soul-fulfilling music I have felt in a long time. Their beautiful harmonies and arrangements of classic Old Time tunes brought me right back home to the Piedmont/Mountain region of North Carolina, and really reached my core. To me, they represent true “Roots” music: they bring everything back to the lay of the land, how we occupy it, and how we use it to serve one another. They share an idea of how to manifest all of our gifts on this earth, and it really sunk in with me… also they have the classiest hats! Lastly, they just released a new album called Leylines, which focuses on the musical alignment of traditions from the southeastern US, Ireland, and Africa. Y’all, it’s a true work of art!!

Rising Appalachia joined by Finn Magill — seriously the most magical showcase, y’all!

Adam Agee and Jon Sousa: I accidentally stumbled upon these two Colorado-based musicians as I was wandering down the hotel corridor. There was some beautiful fiddle/guitar music trailing out of a room that stopped me in my tracks, made me turn around and make a beeline for its source. Jon spent some time at University of Limerick, where he developed his knowledge of singing in the Irish language, and it was an absolute pleasure to speak to them both after their set! I’m always glad to meet fellow musicians who have had similar Irish experiences to my own — and I really hope to catch these two for some tunes one of these days!

The East Pointers: These guys actually came to Petoskey a little over a year ago, and played at Red Sky Stage — love their energy, their banter in between sets, and their songs! They’ve definitely got a traditional sound at their roots, but they use it to tell their own story of their travels and upbringing. Both of my favorite songs of theirs, “82 Fires” and “Two Weeks,” shed light on different hardships: wildfire threats in Tanzania and the economically challenging work environment in the Canadian Maritimes. Even though their songs focus on specific events or geographical areas, the themes are relatable worldwide and really have the ability to reach a variety of audience members. On top of that, they are genuinely nice people, which is always a plus in my book!

Additional Acts I Enjoyed:

Riviere Rouge – April Verch recommended this Canadian Métis trio — wonderfully friendly guys who, like Le Vent du Nord, have the ability to connect through their music with both their French and English speaking audiences. I thoroughly enjoyed my first major introduction to Metis music thanks to them!

Nava – These guys are an Irish/Persian quartet using instruments and repertoire from both traditions. Often times I shy away from groups that blend a bunch of different styles because I think they lose that traditionally rooted approach — not the case with these guys! They honor both Irish and Persian culture and put together a truly enjoyable set!

The Lumber Jills – If my best friends from childhood and I had ever played music together, it would be like this quartet of young girls from Cape Breton. They clearly enjoy playing music together, and I hope to go to the Celtic Colours Festival one of these years to hear them play again!

The Fretless – Classical string quartet meets fiddling repertoire. I didn’t get to see them live, but Chris did and got them on video for me. Recently, I’ve started to get more involved in my local classical music scene, so I think I have a new project in the works…

Gus La Casse – Gus is a fantastic Acadian fiddler, and really throws himself into the music! His energy immediately transforms his surrounding environment. He played a few showcases with Tristan Henderson, and between the two of them I felt as though I’d dropped into a concert environment flow that only masters of tradition can pull off! Seriously amazing musicianship!!

Pumpkin Bread Band – One of my roommates from the Swannanoa Gathering, Maura Scanlin, is the fiddle player from this band. Having heard her play before, I knew I’d have to see them in showcase — Maura puts such heart and soul into her fiddling and she’s a pleasure to listen to! Her band was great too — they just released their debut CD, and I look forward to hearing more of their work!

There were many more artists that I didn’t get around to listen to at Folk Alliance due to the sheer volume of simultaneous showcases, but the artists listed above all stood out to me for their own reasons. It was truly an honor to meet such wonderful musicians and reconnect with others who I consider as mentors. The beauty of these conferences are the connections made and the chance to experience some fantastic musical moments. I highly encourage y’all to surround yourself with music that lifts you, inspires you, challenges you, and makes you feel a deep connection to this world and your life in it. Comment below if any of these artists resonate with you, and better yet reach out and tell them how much their music means to you!

Special thanks to this guy for making the trip to Folk Alliance possible! Here’s to many more music travels in the future! PC: Tin Can Photography

Fiddle Forays Into The Windy City

Chicago. Chicago! One of the main US cities that every lover of Irish traditional music should experience. It’s right up there with Boston and New York, at least that’s what I’ve frequently heard. (Yes, Boston, you’re next on my list!) And yet, it took me until two weekends ago to actually go and visit the real deal and not just the interior of O’Hare Airport. It’s only about a six hour drive away from me, perfect for a long weekend getaway. And I desperately needed a getaway. Petoskey is beautiful in the summertime, but I’m at a point in my life where I seem to need to be in constant motion, traveling the world, going out and grabbing new experiences whenever I can prioritize that spare time… So when I saw We Banjo 3’s summer tour schedule and noticed that the Chicago Irish Fest happened to be on my weekend off of work, I made the decision to go on a little adventure!

Some of you may know that right around this time of year for the past five years, I am usually getting my tune fix at the Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week in Asheville NC. Sadly it was not to be this year with my schedule, and I was feeling pretty discouraged about missing out on my best annual musicality-growing opportunity. I’m a big believer in finding the positives in situations that aren’t my ideal, but I’ll admit this one was a challenge. Even as I was driving down US-131 on the Saturday, I felt a little pang in my heart as I passed the exit that would take me to I-75 and back down to my southern roots. However, I think I made things work out for the best. So let me tell you about Chicago…

 

The first thing I realized as I was driving along Lakeshore Drive was that I was actually grateful for the slow moving traffic! Maybe it’s reminiscent of my days of learning how to drive around Atlanta, but mostly I was just so happy to be in a new place with beautiful views of Lake Michigan and stunning architecture of tall buildings (can you tell I’ve been living in a small town?). As I half listened to my GPS and mostly listened to the brilliant musicality of Liz Carroll’s fiddle on my car stereo, I felt an exciting thrill of adventure. Here I was in a new city, about to see a couple of my favorite fiddlers in action, and I was pushing myself out of my introvert zone to go meet new people and make new memories!

The perfect combination of Lake Michigan and Chicago skyline – I love the blend of calm and activity!

The only setback I had was with my housing for the weekend. I had booked what looked similar to an Airbnb on booking.com called Hollywood House, which seemed pretty unique and not like your average hotel (also cheaper!). It was about halfway between the Irish American Heritage Center where the festival was held and downtown, both of which I wanted to explore while I was there. However, when I got there, a bunch of red lights went off in my brain. First of all, it was a one way street, and I had to navigate Irish countryside-worthy roads in order to pull around in front of the house. Then, I saw all the zoning signs that demanded you have a special permit to park there. I went ahead and parked anyway, figuring that I would get some form of permit once I checked in (after all, it DID say free parking was available in the description on booking.com). Then I went to check in, and here’s what I found. Two doors with key codes, three mailboxes with other people’s names on them (residents most likely), no sort of check in or even an indication of a self check in (this was answered in a very impersonal email later), and no answer when I called the number listed on booking.com for assistance. I felt like I was trying to break into someone’s home, and since I was running out of time to get to Liz Carroll’s performance in time, I decided to try again later. Fortunately, this is not the first time I’ve had housing issues while solo traveling, so I wasn’t in a panic or anything, but I was a bit frustrated.

 

I was able to put aside my housing troubles for a couple of hours, however, as I listened to Liz Carroll and Daithi Sproule perform a fantastic set on the Folk Stage outside of the Irish American Heritage Center. It was wonderful getting to reconnect with Liz before and after the show, and I really enjoyed chatting with Daithi also! It always reminds me that the musicians I admire the most are the ones who take the time to really connect with their listeners as much as they can — I don’t know how she does it, but Liz has a real knack for remembering people and engaging in genuine conversation with everyone. Cloud nine, y’all.

 

Eventually I knew I was going to have to sort out the issue of where I was going to stay that night, so I left the festival and drove back over to Hollywood House, determined to figure out the mystery. My second visit proved no better, so I gave in and called around to a couple of hotels in the area, eventually succeeding in booking a room. Day One ended with a very exhausted but musically happy me conserving my energy and turning in for the night as soon as I got to my room — I really don’t mind being boring most of the time, what can I say?

Now I can say… I’ve bean there…

I’m happy to say that Day Two was even more adventurous and exciting! I made a rough plan for the day over breakfast, and just kept adding to it throughout the day, going wherever my feet decided to take me. Everything I did was about a half hour drive away from each other, so I definitely got a lot of Chicago driving experience. I knew I wouldn’t have much time to explore everything this trip, so I headed straight for the Chicago Loop with the intent on spending the first half of my day near the waterfront. Rather than tell you about my walking adventure, here are some photos to guide you through my wanderings…

Entering Millenium Park…

When traveling solo, the fiddle case gets to pose everywhere!

Lurie Gardens… did you know it was completed in 2004 instead of 2000? Still a gorgeous part of Millenium Park, though!

She’s posing again… there were just so many beautiful flower arrangements!

Under the bean…

After several tries and watching how other people did it, this is my favorite of many bean selfies… notice all the smudgy handprints, think someone could make good money polishing the bean for tourists? XD

I LOVED walking through the Lurie Gardens. Met a lovely volunteer lady there and we got to chatting about its history. Also met another solo traveler from Vermont and the three of us had such a nice chat!

Walking the waterfront…

A fiddle and Lake Michigan from a new angle… two of my favorite things!

There will never be enough boat and skyline pictures.

Adventurin’

Mmm mmm mmm!

Walking along the navy pier

Beautiful views from the Navy Pier!

Ships passing…

They have live jazz music here every Thursday… so why not live Irish fiddle on a Sunday afternoon?

 

On looking back, I probably should have done some pre-trip hiking prep to get myself back in the habit of walking long distances (I’m reminiscing about you here, Ireland), but it was worth it anyway! Anyway, it ended up being a good thing that my feet felt like they were going to fall off when they did, because otherwise I never would have made the spontaneous decision to drive to Evanston and join in John Williams’ session at the Celtic Knot Public House that afternoon! There I most certainly got my tune fix and met some really lovely musicians, who I hope to reconnect with at more Chicago sessions in the future! I left early to catch Jimmy Keane and Dennis Cahill’s set at the festival, otherwise I would doubtless have stayed until they kicked us all out or our fingers stopped working from overuse. Such is my usual session habit.

 

Once again I found myself listening to some truly inspiring music that evening, catching bits and pieces of Jimmy Keane, Dennis Cahill, We Banjo 3, Gaelic Storm and the whole of John Williams’ sets. Between the abundance of musical talent and the gorgeous city sky/coastline, I think it’s safe to say that Chicago has won my heart and I will most definitely be visiting again — but probably only in the warmer months! Not only did this trip prove satisfying for my need to travel and follow the music, but it also opened my mind up to the idea of making more of these long weekend trips happen! So my question for y’all is… where do you think I should explore next? Thanks for reading! xoxo

Time to explore!