Which Items Will I Need Today?: The Importance of Packing Your Music Bag Well

Mike Lawson • String Section • August 29, 2019

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How many of us know that sinking feeling that occurs when you open your viola/violin/cello case and discover it has no bow in it?

Earlier this week, I am embarrassed to admit I had that unfortunate experience.

Most tools in our trade, when forced to do without, a reasonably successful workaround can be improvised – or borrowed, or done without. But, oh my! Ten minutes into my first lesson without a bow proved the exception. Luckily, a bow was summoned to rescue.

The situation made me evaluate just how much my day’s success as a teacher often directly relies upon the items I have available and at hand in any given lesson situation – how prepared I am for the expected and unexpected needs of the day.

Choosing the Music Bag

The ability to manage your needs throughout the workday is a significant consideration in any job away from the secure and familiar environment of home. We tend to carry a lot of stuff. We “bag” for each day.

The most popular manner used to carry items is a messenger type shoulder bag that has sections, but not many pockets. The size must be specific enough that the oversized folders used by orchestral musicians (those black beauties that protect rental music and original parts from damage) will fit. Industry standards for the size of music is more or less stable. Musicians’ parts typically size in at 9”Å~12.” Chamber music can often run larger at 9.5” Å~12.5.” Scores are largest, measuring in at 11” Å~14.” This is a primary consideration – every day you will require an appropriate bag to transport your folders/sheet music in a manner that keeps the music safe (the zipper must close over the folder to protect against the elements).

A cheap and musician-customized simple black music bag can be found at Shar Music for $10. For over a decade I used this bag (my husband stepped in with a replacement when I was using staples and medical tape to hold it together).

Some teachers have the luxury of leaving materials and supplies in their classroom or studio from day to day as they will not be needing them elsewhere. Many teachers are required to provide their own materials to some degree. This can be such a burden – not to mention pretty hard on the body.

“What am I going to do today?”

What are your Fallback lesson tools? Visualize where each needed item is located and walk through the areas between them as a mental exercise. Many of us have unique approaches to common technical obstacles seen routinely in our students and learn to keep a supply of those items used. Some examples are rolls of electrical tapes (colored and black) for use on the fingerboard and bow, straws for students to put in their mouths as they try not to bite down while supporting the instrument, paper towel rolls to use for the bow (much like the “bow-right”), stickers, and washable markers for drawing any number of visuals directly on a student or self. The list goes on….

“What do I need to get through the day?”

Bags within Bags: Personal Items

Wouldn’t it be awesome to know the answer to that, (and plan accordingly?) Alas, usually we guess according to experience and preferences and create a “what if” bag.

Each person has some sort of organizational system for managing where important items go. The routine of “putting and retrieving” what we use creates a kind of personal rhythm. This is broad, but I think we can all relate to the cycle of feeling frantic that breeds drama (and, unchecked, can become chronic lateness and stress). It often begins with misplacing important items.

If you are prone to “frantic searching” behaviors (such as rooting around a bag in search of some loose item), I suggest the use of transparent plastic bags with zippers. Check out the makeup aisle of the convenience store or pharmacy; office supply aisles or electronic departments are also places to check out. I have found a size and shape suited for every imaginable storage need while on the go.

Flexible Yet Consistent

I strive to keep it simple: a few designated carries in broad categories which can fit into my music bag (which is functioning like a desk drawer). For example:

• “The Musician’s essentials:” tools/in-lesson supplies/misc.

• Hygiene and “must haves” (a small backpack with wallet that can also fit in tote)

• Prepared items for individual student or pertinent papers/books (teacher stuff)


Let’s discuss folders for a minute; they can become a nightmare over time, no matter how efficient and organized they are managed. A musician’s paper accumulation is extensive. I am culling my own disaster and creating a fresh portable teaching library now. A few tips…

The hierarchy:

• Pages

• Plastic sleeves

• Folders with sharpie note of contents along spine

• (brown flip folders) point spines up

Regarding accordion carrying folder cases: Regardless of what choices you make for carrying folders, I recommend avoiding the kind of clasp that leaves you in a bind when it doesn’t “catch” or bear the weight and turns into an accordion.


Use online storage! Upload your standard teaching visuals and audio files so you don’t have to carry so much music, books, and pieces of paper. Years ago, when I was active on the site violinist.com, there was a thread that provided much entertainment. Various members contributed to a list of all the items they found in their violin cases. Like…sneakers and candy and …. well…no spoilers!

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