Travellin’ Light

Tanya Kalmanovitch
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Tanya Kalmanovitch
Tanya Kalmanovitch                                                                           ©2007

Tanya Kalmanovitch is a rarity, a violist first and a violinist second. The Alberta-born, New York-based Kalmanovitch regularly shuttles between jazz, contemporary classical music and free improvisation, and maintains a busy teaching schedule in the US and Europe. Her latest CD, Heart Mountain, a program of duets with pianist Myra Melford, is reviewed in this issue. For extensive information, consult:

What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

In response to 2001's heightened lunacy, I bought a very large, very red flight case that fits both viola and violin. Curiously, since I started carrying a large and highly visible red flight case, I have had remarkably few problems carrying my instruments on board. I think airline personnel enjoy picking on more lithe, more crushable, more obviously violin-shaped cases. In general, if I can get past the check-in counter (which I generally manage to do by modestly requesting to hand-carry the case to the gate, and take it on board only at the discretion of the flight crew), I have no further problems. I hover at the gate, board as soon as possible (the case is useful both as a gate-side seat and as a device for blocking other passengers during the boarding crush). I act nonchalant, as though I don’t have a very large red object hanging from my shoulder.

Note that this never works on Ryanair, an airline that should be avoided at all costs.

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

There's food?

Tip for better seat assignment: tear your anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus quite badly, and sport a heel-to-crotch metal leg brace for weeks or months. Receive instant exit row access, and occasionally a whole row of seats to yourself. As a bonus, you may remain seated during intimate searches at security (watch where that wand goes), and become eligible for "special assistance" during pre-boarding.

Retain the brace against future travel.

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

I often book my own travel, so I don't have to worry about this as much as other respondents might. If the travel is booked by someone else, I try to review the itinerary in advance to make sure that transfer time is adequate, or indeed that the connecting flights are arriving and departing from the same airport. (You’d be surprised.)

In any case, I try to carry everything I need for the gig on board.

What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

A violin.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

OK, this is not really lost baggage, since it’s my own fault, but it was pretty bad and it does have a happy ending.

A couple of weeks ago, I was leaving Ottawa for the Bahamas by way of an overnight layover in New York. Checking in, I was told that my flight from Ottawa to New York had been cancelled due to "weather" and that I had been re-booked on a flight the following morning, which would have made me miss my flight to Nassau. I managed to secure the last seat on a flight connecting through Montreal departing in 30 minutes. When I got to the gate, I reached for my mobile phone case (which was then doubling as my wallet, as I had lost my wallet a month before in Boston) to call to cancel a meeting in New York that evening.

I should mention that I was carrying the big red case, a rolling suitcase (they let me take both on board!) and was wearing new and not entirely comfortable heels, all of which pained me as I retraced my path back and forth through the airport in fruitless search of my phone. At a pay phone, I used the last coins in my pocket to call to cancel my meeting. Dejected and weary, I gate-checked my instrument and suitcase and took my seat on the plane. I wondered how I could stretch $50 in emergency cash to cover meals and taxis in three countries over the next three days.

A flight attendant came through to verify my identity, as she couldn’t gate-check my suitcase due to my late boarding.

Me (glum, a little petulant at the intrusion): "OK, whatever, I just lost my phone and wallet and have no money."

Flight attendant (cheerfully): "Well, you have a violin, right? When you get to New York you can just open up your case and busk in the subway."

Me (petulance now shading to ire): "Um, that doesn't really help, thanks."

I must have had a terrible look on my face, because after the plane took off the flight attendant returned, apologized for her insensitivity, and handed me $25 in Canadian funds. She came back a little later with $25 US dollars and a story.

In the 1980s, she saved for years to emigrate from Yugoslavia. She had given all her remaining local currency to her family staying behind. At the airport in Zagreb she was refused entry to the flight because she had no local funds for the airport tax. She ran to the currency exchange to try to convert money, but because the exchange clerks were corrupt she had to try several before she could find a reasonable rate. When she finally found a good rate, she discovered she was missing her passport. Without the passport, she couldn’t convert her funds, and obviously couldn’t travel.

A kindly American couple offered her money and watched her bags while she searched for her passport. Finally, one of the money exchange clerks threw the passport at her with a snide remark: "Next time, you won't be so lucky."

And with that, she was able to leave.

She told me that she remembered what it felt like to be alone and in transit with no money, and wanted to help me in appreciation of her own good fortune. My temporary problems were placed in perspective both by her story and her kindness, and also by a profound appreciation for the resilience of human love and compassion.

Friends in New York lent me money for the remainder of the trip. My bags went missing in Nassau (I just remembered this detail, which makes this a proper lost luggage story after all) but showed up on the next flight from Miami. My mobile phone/wallet was later found in the security area at the Ottawa airport, and FedExed to my home.

And two days after the phone arrived, my first wallet, the one presumed lost in Boston forever, showed up in the mail.

What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

Canada has been really quite bad, though since I'm Canadian I don't come in for the worst of it, except when I’ve led tours there and have had to deal with absurd amounts of paperwork to get clearance for non-AFM musicians.

I often receive special scrutiny entering the United States, more so than any other place I have traveled. I have a little dossier of papers and identity cards clipped into my passport to prove my right to live and work here. Returning at JFK I am routinely subjected to fingerprinting and photography and long lineups full of impatient Ugly Europeans checking for text messages and grumbling about American foreign policy.

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

I rather enjoy bad cab drivers, so I won't complain.

What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

Wow, we get hotel, too?

I don't think I've stayed at a "best hotel" yet, but I can offer representative memories of some of the worst ones.

A dreary motel in the suburbs of Vancouver with a well-stocked kitchenette, which I had to share with two veteran male musicians in a country band. I seem to remember there was a band meeting in my room that devolved into an argument that culminated, eventually, in a duel with dull kitchen knives. Or maybe we staged the fight to scare the leader, who used to require us to load in and load out her extensive light show on every gig.

A series of budget motels along the college circuit in the American Midwest. I routinely had to share a bed with a drunken singer prone to spooning in the middle of the night. Thus I developed a tolerance for sleeping on egg crate foam mattresses in the back of a van.

Two days off at a Motel 6 on the outskirts of Berea, Kentucky. A dry county. The closest restaurant for miles was the popcorn machine in the gas station. I got lost in the adjacent cornfield.

The worst hotel is probably the no-hotel, like when you have to stay with a friend of the presenter’s. Someone you’ve never met before. Someone who goes to work in the morning and forgets to leave you a spare key. Someone who keeps nothing but soy milk in the fridge.

Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

12" PowerBook and Blackberry, both. I check my email more often than advisable (I’m checking it right now) though the Blackberry has taken a lot of the thrill out of it.

Internet tip: international data service for the Blackberry runs an additional $20 US per month, and is pro-rated for the number of days in use. I add and remove the service online for the duration of my travels. For the price of a single hotel connection, I can enjoy limitless email access. One side effect of the tiny buttons is that I am reduced to pithy replies.

Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

Not usually, but it always seems like a good idea.

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

No. That never really works. Since I never manage to pack more than one or two outfits that I end up wearing, I now save space by packing a capsule wardrobe of clothes I actually like to wear, and lots of clean underpants. And dresses. Dresses are good: like two pieces of clothing for the space of one.

(Men of jazz, take note.)

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

There's a sound check?

All sound checks are rough. There's no good solution for amplifying a viola or violin. Either you end up with an unsatisfying signal from a transducer, or you use a microphone that can give you a fully nuanced tone and dynamic range, but that can’t always cut through the fray. Either way, there's a lot of time spent bickering with guitarists about who can't hear whom because the other is too loud.

(This question “How can I not hear myself if all you can hear on stage is me?” is one of my life's small and persistent philosophical puzzles.)

What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

Um, we get fed?


I guess I'm just thrilled anytime all these things coalesce in a single occasion: that there are flights, venues, hotels and food, and we get paid, to boot. Such a convergence is increasingly rare.

Best food at a gig, consistently, is the cocktail hour buffet at Orthodox weddings in Long Island, where the bandleader will force you to put your instrument down and go eat as much as possible within the span of your short break. And afterwards will enquire, quite earnestly, if you’ve had enough to eat.

Make a beeline for the brisket and sushi stations, which rarely disappoint.

What are your three favorite venues?

The Black Diamond Hotel, Black Diamond Alberta

The King Edward Hotel, Calgary Alberta

Carnegie Hall was good, too.

Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?

Home-cooked meals, anywhere, are the best.

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

This, I don’t know.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

Well, a good closed city can be a nice thing. Pack a corkscrew, and secure a bottle of wine from the green room. Glasses, too. Wander around (if it's a proper "best city" there will doubtless be lots of lovely things to see) until you find the best possible place to sit, drink and watch the world go by. In winter, wear warm outer garments.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

I recently bought myself a good camera, and I enjoy walking around and taking pictures. So anywhere at all is good, especially in the last hour or so before sunset.

What is your cure for jet lag?

Go straight from the airport to the workshop.

What is your best tip for the novice?

I have four:

Cultivate both a strong pragmatic streak and a robust sense of humor.

Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers.

Back up your laptop before you leave.

Carry a flask and pack a corkscrew.

Jazz Visions Photo/Graphics

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