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Give It A Rest: A Musician’s Opinion on the Ivory Ban

I’m a musician by trade. I began taking piano lessons at the age of 3, obtained a BA piano, and for the last 7 years I have been teaching, writing, directing and performing music of all sorts. With all it’s tones & dynamics, notes & rests, (all of which undeniably parallels the roller coaster of the human life) it could be said that “music is the shorthand of emotion.”

Currently the emotions of musicians with the American Federation of Musicians are worked up, fearful of the current Obama Administration’s ivory ban. Violinists believe their antique bows that contain ivory will be confiscated as contraband when touring and returning back to the United States. Pianists with antique pianos in-lain with ivory are frustrated that the value of their instrument will now significantly plummet. If this were a musical piece, the strings would begin picking up speed and intensity, the keyboardist would be running through minor arpeggios and the conductor would be flailing his arms about with ferocity as the vocalists begins:

“When the term ‘import’ is used on this ban, it doesn’t just mean commercial activity,” says Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras. “It means bringing instruments into the country, even just for personal use, and even if you’re simply returning from work internationally with that instrument.”

“Everyone knows about Stradivari violins,” Moretti says, “and a bow, to a player, is almost equally as important as the violin.” (Violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti directs the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University. She’s also a touring chamber musician who regularly jets through customs with her century-old bow. On her bow, and many like it, there’s just a tiny sliver of ivory clamping the bow hairs onto the wood.)

And then the rest.

In music, the rest is a time of silence. It allows for a moment where the nothing of life take center stage. It can be comforting. Or it can be uncomfortable. It can be climactic. Or elusive. Regardless, it makes you stop whatever you were doing and allows space to listen & learn.

So in this moment of rest, what could we learn?

The proposed regulations would place a near-total ban on anything made with ivory moving in and out of the U.S.

Craig Hoover, who heads up the Wildlife Trade and Conservation Branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says: “The reason for that is … we have seen, over the past five to 10 years, a dramatic, alarming and unprecedented increase in the slaughter of African elephants to supply the global ivory trade, and populations of both savannah elephants and forest elephants have dropped precipitously.”

The new federal rules do offer an exemption for old instruments, and to get the necessary paperwork, you have to prove you purchased the instrument before 1976. However, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Hoover says that it’s often not easy to differentiate between old and new. “We had a long-term investigation in Philadelphia where we ended up seizing more than 1 ton of African elephant ivory that had been smuggled into the country, and that ivory was pretty much all disguised to look like antique ivory.”

Musicians are hoping for the administration to grant them a sort of “musical passport” for those already in possession of ivory-laid instruments. The Administration is looking to work something out before June when the ban goes into full effect. But the real question is, do future musicians need the ivory?

On her bow, and many like it, there’s just a tiny sliver of ivory clamping the bow hairs onto the wood. These days, it’s made with plastic, but Moretti says all of the great bows were manufactured in an age when ivory came standard.

Ivory is no longer standard. It’s time for the United States, the world’s second highest consumer of ivory, to devalue the use of any ivory. Because ultimately, ivory is not a needed commodity for any musical instrument (or anything for that matter!)

This isn’t the first time musicians have been found guilty of not complying to governmental laws, as shown in the following story shared from  Forbes and the  NYTimes:

The Madagascar Ebony is a slow-growing tree species threatened by over-exploitation. Since 2006, harvesting ebony and exporting it in unfinished form from Madagascar has been banned.  In May 2008, the Lacey Act made it illegal to import into the United States plants and plant products (including wood) that have been harvested and exported in violation of the laws of another country. When manufacturing its guitars, the Gibson Guitar Corp. used sawn boards of Madagascar ebony in the form of “fingerboard blanks.” Notwithstanding the 2006 ban, Gibson’s Madagascar supplier continued to obtain the ebony fingerboard blanks from an exporter in Madagascar. Gibson Guitar Corporation then agreed to pay $350,000 in penalties to settle federal charges that it illegally imported ebony Madagascar to use for fret boards, ending a criminal investigation. The guitar maker agreed to pay a $300,000 fine and to donate $50,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to promote the protection of endangered hardwood trees, like ebony and rosewood. In return, the government deferred prosecution of the company for criminal violations of the Lacey Act.

So what will it be, musicians? I hope we can just give it a rest already and learn to create music using only the finest and most sustainable methods possible. Because our music isn’t supposed to destroy this world. No, as Plato so eloquently said,

“music gives a soul to the universe…life to everything”

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8 Comments

  1. Sara

    My heart breaks worse that entire species are being wiped out. Lots of music has soul and heart and doesn’t involve the decimation of trees and animal species. What kind of music would you put to the sounds of an elephant calf crying in agony as its mother lies dying with her tusks (and thus her face) already sawed off by a chainsaw? Compose that piece, you poor self-centered individuals. The world does not begin and end with a piano concerto played on an instrument that is dripping with blood.

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  4. Vanishing Species…Vanishing Art | Elephantopia

    […] Below is an article from the South China Morning Post. As elephants are becoming a quickly vanishing species due large in part to the illegal ivory trade, so also the art of ivory carving could become extinct. Although we sympathize with Leung Lee-cheong as his livelyhood is based on this ancient art form, we believe that as elephants are in danger of extinction, it’s time for this art form to stop so that this keystone species in Africa can survive the next decade and beyond. (you can read more about my view of music & the ivory trade here) […]

  5. ken

    Save elephants….check.

    Stop ivory harvesting….check.

    Make friends and forge relationships with others to help support saving elephants……check.

    Write an article like this that shows a complete lack of understanding or compassion for musicians who travel with historic instruments…..sorry, you have lost me on this one.

    I love elephants and loathe the poaching and decimation of the species, whether now or historically.

    But this government policy that makes no sense.

    To be specific, ivory has not been used in piano making for 75 years. There is also no market for the repair of ivory keys, as there is an oversupply from the thousands of trashed pianos over the last century. So, pianos pose absolutely no risk to any elephant today.

    To put musicians and owners in a situation where their historic instruments as a source of hassle and great cost of time and money is just as wrong as hurting elephants. Since this article has been written, there has been a sad effect on historic instrument preservation.

    I laud your commitment to saving these precious animals.

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