the 'agony aunt' of classical music,
answers more of your questions
Thanks for publishing my letter ... I still can't believe
Saddam would be routed so fast! Is it safe to go public with
my story now? And could I send you my first draft?
Also: it's about my stormy relationship with Saddam's sister at
Juilliard, but I just can't think of a snappy title.
Can you think of anything?
Dear Name supplied,
Yes, terrific moment when Saddam's statue was smashed to pieces,
and personally I think you could go public already!
As for your title, well, I'd love to help but I am famously hopeless
at titles. The brilliant title of my play about a conductor obsessed by his
father's past (Beating Time) was first suggested by a cellist friend,
and I still can't believe that my first novel (While the Music Lasts)
ever got published, bearing as it did midst snow and ice my original title
(The Secret Files of an Orchestral Anarchist) ...
However, my editor suggests we throw this one open to the readers. If anyone
out there has a knack for punchy, winning, saleable titles then now's your chance!
My wife and I are thinking of IVF, should I take up the viola?
(By the way, what does IVF stand for?)
I appreciate that you're feeling low, which, as I was infertile for
twelve years, I can empathize with. However, I am not convinced that
your case is so hopeless that you need to take quite such drastic
measures. The viola is not an instrument to be taken up lightly. My
friend played professional viola until tendonitus struck, and she was,
in her weakened state, converted to fundamentalist Christianity, with
an irrevocably disastrous effect on her sense of humour.
Seriously, however, the effect of viola-playing on one's sperm
count remains unknown, but inconclusive studies in Switzerland suggest
that, exposed to the sound of a viola, your average sperm pretty much
gives up the will to live. I also think the needs of your partner must
be considered. Some women might be put off sex altogether by the sound
of a viola.
My advice would be to consider the trumpet. The same trial to which I
previously alluded (though as I mentioned it has yet to be replicated
in double-blind form) suggested that, upon hearing the sound of a trumpet,
the spermies started swaggering around like nobody's business, jumping
into bed with chicken eggs, toad eggs, indeed any eggs, and generally
showing some serious get-up-and-go. Time and tests alone will ascertain
whether an antidote can be found for those trumpeters over-afflicted with
this condition, but, circumstanced as you are, I think it definitely worth
I'm training as an opera singer and am finding that my bust is
getting in the way. Whenever I inhale, I find that my ample bosom escapes
from my bra. What can you suggest?
Your bust is not getting in your way -- no, this is -- sorry, these
are -- two of your prime assets in your chosen field. The career of an
opera singer is indispensably linked to the rising and falling of a
truly magnificent bust, preferably all smooshed together by a cagey
corset which, at the same time, allows you to indulge in diaphragm
How do you suppose Georgiu or Kiri Te Kanawa first
impressed? How else do you expect to smite susceptible conductors,
agents etc with the power of your charms -- oops, I mean talent? The
only downside that I can see is that, as you must know, opera
directors increasingly choose to ask singers to sing inside-out, on
their backs and/or upside-down, in which case your assets really might
escape you at some point. (This is called 'creativity', 'thinking outside
the box' or 'buggering up the singers'.) My advice is to pretend this
will bring on a violent migraine or vertigo, and distract the director
concerned by mentioning something which might appeal just as much to his
sensation-seeking mentality (removing your shoes to enable the tenor to
suck your toes etc).
Think about it.
Authentic performances, come on McVeigh, admit it, they're f***ing
awful. Why do you think Beethoven tore off his own ears (or was that Van Gogh?) -- just to rid himself of the awful sound of gut strings, horse pube
bows and no bloody vibrato.
(Your query reminds me irresistibly of a cellist friend who joked that
she'd given up vibrato for Lent!)
But the answer to your question, it has only recently been discovered
by musicologists that Beethoven inserted pens into his ears until he was
unable to hear not because he was fed up with musicians' tone colours,
but in order to drown out the sound of their constant whinging. As he
prophetically remarked when having a pint with one of the lesser-spotted
Bachs, 'They'll bloody well appreciate us when we're dead. Musos! Don't
know they're bloody born.'
Some of the gripes that inflamed him included a soprano who claimed
he'd unkindly refused to alter the key of one of her arias in Fidelio
simply because he 'heard' it in E major, another who objected that Beethoven
had ruined the 'patina' of his voice with his impossible dynamics in the
Ninth Symphony, while violinists were unanimous in moaning that it was
insulting to leave such a delicate matter as the tempo of a violin piece
in the hands of some unwashed timpanist. In the end, sad to say,
Beethoven simply decided that enough was sufficient.
(As for your theories about Van Gogh, do get a grip! Most kids in
my child's reception class know that Van Gogh cut off his tongue as the
result of losing a bet. Nothing to do with the ears at all).
I have been asked to perform Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3
with a local amateur orchestra -- a great honour, I am sure you will
agree. However I have two main worries for which I crave your
1. I do not have a piano -- would a theremin, or maybe an
automatic washing machine serve as a viable alternative?
2. For the performance I need to be comfortable -- should I wear a
thong or the full bustier? (I am considered well-endowed in the bust
department, for a man).
Awaiting your pearls of wisdom...
Good to hear from you, but I would advise you never to perform with
an amateur orchestra, even on a really decent washing machine. As for
the thong, well, frankly, it's an age thing. Personally I'd say to give
them a miss once you're over forty (or, indeed, in many cases, over
Did heman Finck live at 212 Finchley Road in a house on the site of what is now Camden Arts Centre?
Our neighbor's kid, nine years old, has a set of expensive drums
which he practices on loudly in the garage. Of course his parents don't
have to listen, but we neighbors do. How can we get these people to let
the kid in the house?
Fed up in South Carolina
Sorry to hear about your problem, which must be not uncommon. Let's see
what you could do ... If the drums are pricey, you could bribe a local
youth to steal them for you. This would not of course prevent the lad
from buying another set, but chances are the next drum-kit would be
kept indoors, to the great benefit of your blood pressure.
Another option is to descend on the dazzled parents, claiming to be
from a major record company seeking to set up the next top boy-band.
Warn them that their little money-spinner's far too valuable to be
allowed loose in his garage, and in fact that round-the-clock surveillance
by a reputable bodyguard would be a sound idea.
The last option would be to offer your nuclear shelter (make sure
you have one) as a practise-room until the little perisher's big break
Whatever transpires, never, repeat never, simply complain to the parents
about the noise, inform your local police or neighborhood authority, or
tell the budding basher to put a sock in it. Ear-drums are admittedly
important but being on good terms with one's neighbours is one of
All best, Alice
At last! Someone is listening! I never thought you'd actually print
my letter, and get back to me! I've always wanted to be in the Marines,
and your letter gave me the determination to take on my family and tell
them what I really long to do. (Did I mention that my father is a
prominent conductor?) Unfortunately he has now chucked me out of the
family home, saying he never wishes to set eyes on me ever again, but I
am so elated by having been accepted by the Marines that, believe me, I
can live with this. I start training next week, and I am going to name
my very first gun Alice in your honour!
There is just one teensy-weensy little thing that's worrying me
now, and I wondered if you might have the answer (again!) It's this:
I get my (second-biggest) thrills, after being almost a real Marine,
that is, out of wearing my mum's undies (and summer dresses, but
that's another story!) Can you recommend the best place (maybe on the
web) where I could access some slightly lacey but not too
revealing bras and undies, preferably peach-coloured? ( -- goes with
my complexion, actually). Looking forward impatiently to your advice!
Your friend forever and ever,
Thanks for your letter, but I think we may just have to rethink your
case from the bottom up.
Many thanks for all your queries -- keep them coming! -- and hope to
get to more next week. Toodle-pip!
Copyright © 11 April 2003
Alice McVeigh, Surrey, UK