Musician wins major audition. Then airline smashes his instrument.

Musician wins major audition. Then airline smashes his instrument.


norman lebrecht

September 17, 2015

Karl Fenner was exultant. He had won the doublebass audition at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Then he handed his precious instrument to TSA for transportation on SouthWest Airlines.

double bass broken


Karl writes: ‘Thanks Southwest Airlines and or TSA Atlanta. I’ve trusted you with my baby for 9 years and then this. The heavy duty case was heavily damaged too.’

His friend Sasha Mäkila adds: ‘Heart breaking to see musician’s livelihood hanging on a thread every time they board a plane with their instrument.’


  • Franny says:

    I’ve said this before, but it’s the risk we take when traveling with big instruments. If you want to guarantee safety, you must buy a seat for your instrument. It’s expensive and inconvenient which is why most of us choose to check them. I’ve flown with Southwest dozens of times and I’m sure Mr. Fenner has as well. Don’t let one bad experience spoil all the positive ones.

  • Charles says:

    How many stories like this do we need to see before we realize that checking an instrument under the plane is not safe? I don’t know why anyone is surprised when this happens. The only way to guarantee safety is to buy a seat. My condolences to Karl, but this story is getting old, Norman.

    • truman says:

      I’m truly surprised at your lack of empathy for this Musician. It is apparent you CAN afford to purchase an extra ticket for whatever you deem valuable when traveling.
      A little support for the community opposed to a righteous reply is line here.
      Or maybe none at all ( mothers wisdom ) .

      So sorry for your loss Karl. Its a shame that baggage workers take little pride in their work and continue to be employed.


    • Bob says:

      Buying a ticket for a double bass does not ensure that the instrument will fly in the cabin. The flight crew, at their sole discretion, may require the instrument to be treated as baggage. Some airlines will tell you one thing on the phone and another thing altogether when you arrive to check in. And cellos have the same problem. Solution? Drive or trust a rental instrument at the destination.

    • bratschegirl says:

      One cannot buy a seat for a double bass. Cello, yes; bass, no. No choice but to put it under the plane, or drive, unless one charters a private jet.

  • Patrick says:

    Somewhat unrelated question: is it possible to make photos enlargeable on SlippedDisc? It would help to be able to see small photos, like these, better.

    • Max Grimm says:

      According to Norman’s responses to similar questions in the past, he is not able to enlarge the images; not without a site upgrade.

    • Jerron Jorgensen says:

      I was just going to ask that, also. There have been multiple times where I have wished I could click on a photo to see a larger version.

    • Loretta says:

      If you’re on Facebook go to the Atlanta Symphony page. They have full size photos posted.

    • NYMike says:

      Using the Safari browser in an iMac with a bluetooth trackpad, photos and text can be enlarged by spreading thumb and index apart horizontally. Clicking on the large A in the toolbar also accomplishes this.

  • CA says:

    This is one reason why many with such large instruments drive to auditions. Terrible!!

  • Sarah says:

    I don’t why this is still a story. It’s happened dozens of times. What is the solution? Only to buy a seat for the instrument or drive. You sign something when you check a valuable instrument saying the airline is not responsible for damage. It’s a pity, but can we please stop reading about this? I play a large instrument and it has been smashed on a plane. It’s very inconvenient and heartbreaking, but accidents happen and that’s something you have to be willing to deal with if you’re going to check your instrument.

    • Mara says:

      It is not possible to buy a seat for the double bass! The flight case and instrument length do NOT fit in the plane’s cabin!

      • PickledCabbage says:

        I thought so. Only the cello can be placed on AN extra seat. I wonder if your can buy a three seat across and put the double base on its side. But that would probably make a double bass player poor.

  • NL says:

    This musician has insurance without a doubt – and the damage done to his instrument in this case is particularly egregious, even the Donna of Largo could agree.

    Damage like this is caused by wanton disregard, not a “slip up”.

    • Susan Bradley says:

      are you having fun upsetting people? If so, you need help. If you aren’t enjoying it, why are you doing it? You need help.
      We are talking people’s livelihoods here. Not just their income-earning ability to support themselves and their family, but their life’s work.
      You are a troll. Ugly troll.

  • Shelly says:

    So you’re saying he should have to pay a deductible for this damage that was not his fault at all? Or he should just never fly and spend half his life driving to auditions? Yeah, totally makes sense….

  • Itsjtime says:

    To: La Donna. You may very well have won the award for the most assenine comment to date.

    You must be a giant jack ass.

    Have a heart. This guy not only lost his precious instrument but think of the time and craftsmanship that goes into making a fine instrument.
    Perhaps you are a singer?

  • Mary Beth Orr says:

    It’s not a tantrum. We are simply paying an extremely large amount of money for a service to be delivered and performed with accuracy and integrity. The same expectations of us every day in every rehearsal, concert, and audition. Once a string instrument has been damaged it is never quite the same and it is not possible to simply “replace” it regardless of the insurance which, yes, we all have. Unless you could travel back in time to when the orginal one was made with the orginal wood, even then, would not be the same. A symphonic musician’s instrument has to become a part of their body in order to perform at the technical and artisitic level necessary to win and KEEP a full time major symphony position. Its pretty much like winning the orchestal olympics and to lose forever the partner (instrument) that helped you get there is a huge loss and should not be acceptable to any airline/business. This is more than a “slip up”. It is gross negligence and should be taken seriously by corporate.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      No, it’s really not quite that poetic and dramatic. A good string player can switch to and get used to a new and different instrument and/or bow, no matter whether it’s a violin, viola, cello or bass fairly quickly. And getting a job in the Atlanta Symphony is a very good professional achievement, but it’s far from “winning the orchestral olympics”.
      It’s still a scandal that they treat instruments, and checked baggage in general that badly, of course.

  • Franny says:

    I don’t why this is still a story. It’s happened dozens of times. What is the solution? Only to buy a seat for the instrument or drive. You sign something when you check a valuable instrument saying the airline is not responsible for damage. It’s a pity, but can we please stop reading about this? I play a large instrument and it has been smashed on a plane. It’s very inconvenient and heartbreaking, but accidents happen and that’s something you have to be willing to deal with if you’re going to check your instrument.

  • LondonPianist says:

    Oh my goodness. People! It’s a double bass, not a cello! You have to check it on an airplane.

  • Philip Amos says:

    I really do not think, donna, that smashing an extremely expensive double bass counts as ‘slipping up’. If your dog, for example, emerged from an airplane dead, I do not hear you saying, “Oh phooey. The airline slipped up”.

    • Musician and Real Person says:

      You are right: a bass instrument is not a dog, but the bass instrument is a particular human being’s source of income and survival. That human being may have to support himself, and possibly a spouse, children, or other family with his instrument. That instrument is part of this person’s livelihood. Same as with someone’s vehicle or computer or other instrument it is valuable and possibly irreplaceable. The loss of the instrument could pose a serious detriment to this person’s ability to put food on the table or keep their gigs or jobs.

      I think it’s very easy to write off someone else’s problem if you aren’t yourself aware of how horrific and debilitating it can be to be without an instrument. I myself am a professional musician in the US Armed Forces and without my instrument I cannot do my job and my job is to serve this country through my specialized training as a musician. I feed a family and keep a roof over their heads and if my instrument was damaged on a flight that would certainly pose a lot of problems. However, the US Armed Forces has resources and helps their musicians out but the Atlanta Symphony probably doesn’t have the disposable resources set aside to just by an upright bass, which could possibly cost over $300,000.00 USD. Not only that but not many working musicians or middle to lower income people can afford to buy to airplane tickets. I had to buy tickets from Ft. Jackson to LAX round trip for two seats and it cost me around $1200. For every audition that is not a reasonable expense.

      It’s very heartless to just right off that this person should have bought a second ticket or that they shouldn’t complain cause it’s not like a dog died in the cargo holding area. Not only that but I would cry if I saw a Steinway baby grand get smashed to bits and I find it equally horrifying to see the scroll of a stringed instrument completely wrenched off. Heck, if my mouthpiece shattered on the ground it’s completely irreplaceable. It was a one time mouthpiece made by one of the greatest mouth piece makers that has ever lived, James Kanter, on a material that no longer exists- Chedeville. I mean, this instrument is completely irreplaceable. It’s a piece of art. For it to be completely and utterly destroyed is despicable and for people to so hastily brush it aside is really quite disgusting.

      • Musician and Real Person says:

        Wish I could edit, doing this from a phone. *Write, not right. *Two, not to. Etc with other grammatical errors. Point is still the same.

        Don’t troll people on the internet and think a bit deeper before posting such outrageously insensitive responses on articles. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and how you treat others says so much more about you than it does about them.

        My heart goes out to this man and I have faith the Southwest will try to make it right, however it’s hard to make a broken instrument right and I’m sure the sting of this loss won’t leave this young man any time soon. It really is a shame but I hope he can still enjoy the victory of winning a position with such a great orchestra!

  • Robert Levine says:

    The headline is unfair; it’s not clear the damage was done by SWA. Might well have been TSA.

    I love Southwest; in large part because $12.50 buys me early boarding and virtually guaranteed access to the overhead bins.

  • Loretta says:

    Looks like LaDonna deleted her comment but in case anyone is considering putting in their two cents while being clueless.
    String players can spend a year or more looking for their instrument. We don’t just buy one “off the rack” or buy one because of the maker’s name. Each one is different. Once it’s had this kind of damage it will never be the same, no matter how well it’s repaired. It also isn’t worth what it was in it’s original condition. It also isn’t an overnight repair. He will have to find another instrument to play on while the work is done. I’m not sure how long it takes to build a new neck but I would guess months, not weeks.
    If someone slashes through a Picasso would you tell the owner, “Insurance will cover that”?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      La Donna was banned for past breaches of site rules.

    • bratschegirl says:

      The laws against censorship protect one from being imprisoned by the government when one expresses an opinion said government doesn’t like. They protect newspapers and other media outlets from being shut down by said government for publishing things they wish would stay hidden. These laws do not, however, obligate private individuals or institutions to allow any and every opinion to be shared on their own websites. If it’s truly “beyond you” to see the difference, you need to go back to elementary school civics.

  • JB says:

    To re-iterate some previous posters, Double Bassists CANNOT buy an extra seat!! I have not heard or seen that done since decades ago. The only option besides checking it under the plane is getting the instrument sawed off at the neck deliberately by a luthier so it can fit in a smaller box unassembled. This costly but painful procedure is growing exponentially, due to horror stories like this one. My condolences, Karl and also congratulations on your audition.

  • Sasha says:

    Are so many people really clueless about the size of a double bass and the fact that you cannot take one in the cabin? Or are these people trolls sent by either airlines or insurance companies? I suspect the latter…

    • Emily says:

      Actually, it is possible to buy a seat for a double bass, I’ve done so several times. I’m a professional double bassist, and while it is not the cheapest option, it is, indeed, possible. In addition to this, it is a (somewhat new) law in the US that airlines must take musical instruments up to 165lbs. They may, however, charge whatever they please. Southwest is the airline most bassists pick because they only charge $75 each way. They’re usually quite good at handling the instruments. This was an unfortunate accident, I’m very sorry for Karl. As someone else pointed out, it wasn’t necessarily Southwest, it may have been TSA.

  • Matthias says:

    Why do you suppose this musician has deleted all of his tweets about the damaged bass?

  • Tim Walton says:

    I might be stupied, but came soneone please explain why this poor man can’t sue the airline.

    If they insist on anything being put in the hold and it gets damaged, then it it their fault.

    They should not be allowed to force anyone to sign a piece of paper absolving them of any blame for possible damage.

    If they were made to accept responsibilty, then perhaps they would be more careful with other peoples’ property

  • Nick says:

    Has something happened in recent years about the way large valuable instruments are handled by airlines? For decades Gary Karr travelled the world, frequently with the priceless Amati instrument given to him by Koussevitsky’s widow. As far as I am aware, that instrument and its case never experienced any damage.

    Is there no damage proof case available for double bass transportation?

    • Scott Fields says:

      When Karr travelled with his “Amati” (it turned out not to be an Amati), he was able to purchase a seat for it. That is no longer possible.

      • Nick says:

        I had no idea that basses in a case could fit on airline seats, even 30 years ago!

        Out of curiosity, what was the instrument if not an Amati?

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          “We used four reference tree-ring chronologies developed from treeline species in the European Alpine region to anchor the dates for the tree rings from the double bass absolutely in time. The bass yielded a 317-year long sequence, the longest sequence yet developed from a single musical instrument. Statistical and graphical comparisons revealed that the bass has tree rings that date from 1445 to 1761. Based on the strength of these correlations, the spruce tree harvested to eventually construct the double bass likely came from the treeline Alpine area of western Austria, not too far from Obergurgl at the Italian border. Our results demonstrate that the double bass was not made by the Amati Brothers, but likely by French luthiers in the late 18th Century.”

          • Nick says:

            Thank you for directing me to that fascinating article.

            Yet you still do not mention how basses were able travel on the seat in an aircraft cabin. Merely looking at the photo in that article, the instrument is approximately the height of an average human body. I can recall as far back as the Boeing 707 having to bend slightly to get into my seat. Since the ‘seat’ bottom of the seat must have been some 20 inches or so up from the floor, getting it on to a seat would not have been possible. And I cannot imagine even then there was sufficient room between rows to enable it to be parked on the floor, in the unlikely event airline regulations would have allowed that.

  • William Safford says:

    Here is a more important question: why does this status quo continue to exist? Why is unacceptable treatment of airline luggage in general, and musical instruments in particular, permitted to continue, year after year, decade after decade? Why is this unacceptable behavior perpetuated?

    I used to fly on a fairly regular basis. I have rarely flown in the last fifteen years. I haven’t flown with one of my musical instruments in this century. I travel by other means.

    Airlines have, for the most part, lost my business. Good riddance.

  • Susan Bradley says:

    Not all instruments have the ‘luxury’ of being able to buy a seat for their instrument. I could buy the whole damn row and they still won’t let me on the plane with a large tuba in a flight case, total weight 31.8 kg. They barely tolerate flying it in the hold; I had to remove two handles from the case to make it under the required 32 kg limit.
    To the snide commenters who say ‘just buy a seat’ I say ” please do, please buy me one”. The last time I was allowed to buy a seat, and that was with a small tuba, was thirty years ago. And even then the idiots boarded me last, necessitating carrying a tuba in a hard case OVER THE HEADS of the passengers already boarded, as it didn’t fit between the seats. With a dolly bird hostie in high heels tottering alongside trying to help, bless her.
    Airlines neither know, nor care.

  • Tom says:

    This kind of stories is popping up far too often… 🙁

    But I have one question… Who still flies with a bass? When we have invited orchestras over, the contract almost always states that apart from chairs and music stands etc, we have to provide the percussion and the basses.
    Don’t say you have an emotional link with your instrument etc, it’s just a habit. If pianists or percussionists can play on different instruments wherever they go, it shouldn’t be that hard for a bass player either.

    • Paul Cannon says:

      I do, when necessary. I’m a professional playing about 90 concerts a year worldwide, mostly in Europe. I’m constantly touring. Usually my gear goes on a truck, but anything outside continental Europe must be flown.

      Every time I’ve been forced to borrow an instrument, it has been a disaster. Double basses are not nearly as standardized as pianos or percussion. I never know the size, quality, set-up, or system I’m going to end up with. Requests for a five-string bass or C-extension are ignored. Strings on rental basses are sometimes over 20 years old.

      I once played a bass in Russia with several large holes in the side, open seams, and no sound post. That’s not a concert pianist being forced to use a Yamaha instead of a Steinway. That’s a rusted out honky tonk with half its keys missing.

      My ensemble is in the process of purchasing a bass with a “removable neck” for ease of transportation. This serves no purpose except to ensure the instrument is in line with airline size and weight restrictions, as well as preventing the most common flight-related damage (broken necks).

  • randl15 says:

    So sorry about you’re bass!
    To the best of my knowledge, the “best” bass trunks are made by Gage, Stevenson, and Kohlstein. Though they’re great cases, none are completely baggage handler proof. (It appears the case in this photo is a Gage(?) and it also appears, by the broken neck, the bass was dropped on it’s head. This is just plain ignorance and negligence on the part of the handler.)
    If these airline employees would treat theses instruments with a little respect, the case would take care if the rest.
    There’s no excuse for this.
    Hope the bass get’s well soon!!!