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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Our classical music 'agony aunt', ALICE McVEIGH,
tackles more questions ...

Dear Alice,
Some years ago, I had donated a very good upright to my church. However, when I went to play it last Sunday I discovered the top lid was in five pieces, while the cover over the keys had suffered a severe split. A large plaque, dating from World War I, had fallen from the wall, landed on the piano, and been shattered into over 200 pieces. This has shaken me up a good deal, though apparently the instrument may be salvageable. What was the message? Time I chucked playing completely? A reminder that the Time is Short, and we never know when we will be called? What do you think?
Mr C F Dunbar in Bantry, Ireland

Dear Mr Dunbar,

I think that that you are the unwitting recipient of an amazing portant: to wit, that the maximum time mankind has got before the Second Coming will be 85 years from now, as represented by the time elapsed between the erection of the plaque and the year it actually descended (for the plaque was a jealous plaque) upon your piano! (As my husband says to my dachshunds: 'He that hath ears to flap, let them flap'). The only remaining question, as I see it, is: shall you break this to the press, or shall I?

(Actually I think it is a timely reminder to wear a crash helmet when playing beneath aged plaques in small churches in southern Ireland, a bit of advice which will probably however not be of much relevance to many, if indeed any, of my other readers.)

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,
I'm beginning to wonder whether our profession is sinking fast. I know there are few sessions about at the moment but hear the freelance scene's pretty poor too. What would agony aunt Alice's advice be I wonder?!
Ace fiddler, London

Dear Ace,
The world's about to end and you're still banging on about lack of work? We are surrounded by signs and portents and you're worried about blinking freelance situation? Don't you recall the bit in Revelations (Keith: pls crosscheck!!!) which says, 'O ye of little faith! Verily I say unto thee, practiseth your fingered octaves on ye violin and ye shall always have loads of work, even unto the end of the world?'

No, but seriously, there are capitalistic opportunities galore at the end of all things. What you want to do is to set up with violin and Vivaldi's Four Seasons in Oxford Street (mind, you might only have time for one of them), fix up a bit of cardboard in front of you saying, 'The end is nigh. Give up your worldly wealth for heavenly reward', and Bob's your uncle.

(By the way, there's something which has always puzzled me. Just between us, what exactly is a 'session'?)


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I am having trouble with my baton.
What should I do?
Anon conductor, North London

Dear Anon,
I'm afraid I need more precise data before I can help. What exactly is your baton up to? Is it singing patter-songs from Gilbert and Sullivan, is it reciting Gunga Din? My first thought is that you could try snapping it inside your baton case and let it sulk for a bit (this works with my five-year-old). Or, if it is especially keen on baroque music, you could oblige it to toil through Bruckner's Seventh for a few hours. Also, I was told while (deeply misguidedly) taking a conducting course at music college that good results can sometimes be achieved by a sharp smack on the cork bit, though some sticks, of course, may never forgive you.

You could also consider therapy. It's very important not to just 'give up on' a stick with whom you've always enjoyed a good relationship, just because it might be going through a bad patch, too many classical spectaculars, not enough Bach etc. Far too many conductors do this, which is why one sees so many abandoned batons propping up Soho bars and boring each other (even more) rigid with details of their break-ups. Don't forget, we could be looking at a serious self-esteem issue here. Your baton might have issues with regard to its length, width, and, indeed, general thrust which -- if not sensitively dealt with -- could result in no end of years on Prozac, Viagra etc. There is some evidence that the 'birth order' bit can be of surprisingly large significance: was this perhaps your first baton, and have you bought loads since? What I can safely say is that group therapy is of no use in these cases, as you never get more than two or three batons together without them winding up simply abusing the cellos.

I've done a spot of research for you in the British Library (By the by, Keith, can I have some more dosh for this???) and uncovered a couple of recent theses which you might find helpful. Try Aspects of Schenkerian analysis with relation to Charlton Athletic, Giant African Land Snails and choral conducting (University of Michigan, 2001) or Anatomy of a baton: is God dead? (University of London, 2002).


Copyright © 25 April 2003 Alice McVeigh, Surrey, UK




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