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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

In the first of a new series, ALICE McVEIGH,
cellist, author and 'agony aunt' of classical music,
answers your questions

Dear Alice,

I'm torn between a career in the armed forces and becoming a professional bassoonist. What should I do?

Yours sincerely, Fred

Listen, Fred, a career as a professional musician is a career in the armed forces. The only major difference is that, instead of shooting people, you only long to shoot them, especially conductors. You should also bear in mind that the orchestral uniform is miles less sex-appealy, and you almost never get a decent pension thrown in. The irritations of travelling abroad in large groups and having to wait around for ages around airports etc is all the same, and you get just about as much say over what you have to actually do, but you are much less likely to be promoted in the music profession than you are in the Marines, which does at least have a career structure. So, I'd say, go for it, no contest!

(As for the downside, ie wars, well, if you had any innate distaste for being shot at I can't think you'd have picked such a risky instrument in the first place.)

Ask Alice

Is it true that musicians are more prone to illness than other people?


A very interesting question, Elise, and one that I've often wondered about. My team of scientific researchers has recently done an indepth survey of 767,121 musicians in Great Britain and discovered that, whereas members of full-time salaried orchestras are much more prone than most people to such terrifying illnesses as ingrown toenails, unexplained and bizarre episodes of sudden-onset nasal disorders, and really dramatic spasms of the left earlobe, unsalaried players and extras are never ill at all, ever, not even once until they suddenly keel over and die of unheralded cancer and heart-disease.

We are currently seeking a government grant for further study of the implications of these truly incredible findings.

Ask Alice

Is it true that the record industry is falling apart? How will this affect players' income?


Yes and badly. But I hear there's still a lot of tax-free dosh to be made in lap-dancing.

Ask Alice

Your book paints a dire picture of the musician's life, but how bad is it really?


All Risks Musical -- book coverYours for only £ 4.99!!! Hilarious cartoons by Private Eye's Noel Ford!!! Libby Purves described it as, 'Sharp, wise and perfectly in tune!' Acclaimed winner of the 2003 David St John Thomas award (non-fiction)! Buy, buy, buy!!!!!

Sorry, what was your question again?

Ask Alice

I've heard that musicians are pretty weird people. Would I be risking mental illness if took my trombone playing too seriously?


Dear Joe, It's not possible for trombone players to take playing very seriously. That is the explanation of their considerable charm.

Ask Alice

There's a rumour going round that the Musicians' Benevolent Fund can't give its money away quickly enough. Is this true? Can we all expect huge handouts in our sixties and seventies if things don't work out?


Dear Neil, April fool!

Ask Alice

Will there be more or less demand for musicians in the future? And will musicians' professional and financial status get better or get worse?


Dear Elliot, The good news is that the demand for musicians is bound to increase hugely in the future, especially with the current government's probable clamp-down on illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers. Who else will be willing to sweep the streets, clean for the NHS, or waitress in the more exploitative London hotels?

Also not to be underestimated is musicians' natural suitability for such growth industries as providing human shields.

Ask Alice

What you wrote about meeting a conductor on a tube train was pretty funny ... has this ever happened to you in real life?


Yes, but no names, no pack drills.

Ask Alice

Why do people always make fun of viola-players? Doesn't this make them angry?


Dear Sadie,
Haven't a clue. How could one tell?

Ask Alice

At Juilliard I was a close friend of Saddam Hussein's daughter, the flautist. Should I sell my story to one of the tabloids?

(name supplied)

Dear name supplied,
Yes, definitely, go for it, but I'd personally wait until the war is over and the bastard is in no position to send someone after you with a poisoned-tip umbrella. Toodle-pip!

Copyright © 1 April 2003 Alice McVeigh, Surrey, UK


Some little known facts about the author :

Alice McVeigh> Alice was born in South Korea, in a MASH hospital left over from the Korean war; she has been 39 for four years. She also lived in Thailand, Singapore and Burma, where a cobra bit her dog and killed it.

> Alice didn't start the cello until she was thirteen. This makes her practically a genius cello player.

> She only took the cello so seriously in the first place because she was fed up with everybody in her family's writing books and screen plays (grandfather, uncle, father etc) and telling her she was a born writer. (Then guess what happened.)

> Alice was infertile for years. She and her husband had failed IVFs so many times they gave in and tried sex.

> Her daughter Rachel (five) is ridiculously cute. The other week she came home pensive from her infant school, complaining that her favourite boy in the class didn't like her. 'How do you know he doesn't like you?' asked Alice. 'Well,' said Rachel, 'whenever I try to kiss him, he runs away!'

> Alice loathes spiders, and caused a sensation in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra when she fled the stage in a concert because a huge spider ran out in front of her chair.

> Alice's husband Simon is Professor of Music and deputy vice-chancellor of Goldsmiths College, University of London. He's also very very good at getting rid of spiders.

> Alice's grandfather was General Maxwell D Taylor, the general who led the paratroopers into Normandy on D-Day. Later, under John F Kennedy, he was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. He had a huge influence on Alice, which is probably why she's so amazingly reserved and diplomatic (joke).

> Alice originally came to the UK in 1980 to study with William Pleeth. He only taught privately, so she was only given a year-long student visa. When that ran out she found herself in Croydon Immigration Office. 'We can only give you a three-month fiancée extension', they said, 'then we turf you out mate'. Simon said, 'let's get married'; she remembered that the spiders in America are poisonous and the rest, frankly, is history.

> Alice wrote her first novel, for Orion, in 1994. While the Music Lasts got to No 35 in the best-seller list, but her sequel Ghost Music only got to 56, so she wrote a play, Beating Time. This was put on at the Lewisham Theatre and will be published in 2003 by New Theatre Productions.

> Alice's most recent book is All Risks Musical (Pocket Press, out December 2002). In a series of hilarious 'rules' she describes exactly how to succeed in the music profession (or not?) All Risks Musical also boasts hilarious cartoons by Private Eye's Noel Ford.


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