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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

The agony aunt and the butterfly,

Dear Alice,

I have a rhythmic problem. Not that my rhythm is bad: when I accompany my pupils it's perfect, but I am mainly a singer and, when I am singing, my sense of rhythm sometimes just flies out the window. I can skip bars, lose simple beats, even do really stupid things such as go double speed or similar. Is there a solution (besides chucking singing!)


Frankly, D W, if every singer who had the problem you describe chucked singing then there would be a sudden and shocking dearth of singers, even of the common or garden soprano / bass variety. I have only scratched the surface of studying voice myself, to the seismic relief of greater Orpington, but I have once or twice found myself using the voice properly and the feeling is like nothing else (well, nothing else that I can mention here). The buzz is fantastic, and my singing teacher having told me (I know it sounds funny, but it's the truth) that real singing projection has to do with the cavities in the head resonating, my theory is that said cavities can vibrate to such an extent as to temporarily unsettle the brain, which is why the average singer, especially those with divine voices, have to employ repetiteurs at vast expense to drive their singing parts into their frazzled frontal lobes, and why you almost never meet a really good singer with more intellectual equipment than a standard-sized dachshund.

Take it from me, five or ten years from now, some person a good deal cleverer than the undersigned (probably at Imperial College or MIT) will win the Nobel Prize for proving that really good operatic singing temporarily (or more probably permanently) damages the brain. Then you can say, you read it here first.

(That's my excuse, anyway!!!!!!!!!!!)

Yours cordially,

Ask Alice

The trouble with being a bleeding agonised aunt is that people invariably ask you questions about issues they want to talk about -- selfishly putting themselves first -- when what one really wants is to talk about is what interests, well, to take an example completely at random, me.

For example, no one -- but no one -- has yet asked me any questions about butterflies. The avoidance of the butterfly motif is so marked, in point of fact, that one is almost inclined to imagine that music lovers and musicians in general have something against these elegant and graceful creatures. And yet, I have been so profoundly thrilled today by a butterfly, that I am simply going to have to ask myself this question:

Dear Alice,

Has anything transcendently moving ever happened to you with regard to a butterfly?

A butterfly lover

To which I can then respond,

Dear Butterfly lover,

Yes indeedy. On this very day, around lunchtime, I took the three butterflies which my daughter Rachel and I first adopted as teensy weensy baby caterpillars from this marvellous company called Insectlore (check out their website, in order to set them free in the wild, or at least for what passes for the wild in the verdant borough of Bromley.

Now when they'd first popped through the post ('Open immediately! Priority!') they were titchy, scrawny, skinny caterpillars no longer (and rather thinner) than the lead in a pencil, but, after a week of gorging themselves on the sticky green stuff the good folk at Insectlore had shoved in their container, they had turned into whoppers, caterpillars so sturdy that they could look a dachshund in the eyes and make it wilt, caterpillars who could spit and who talked out of the sides of their mouths, the kind of caterpillars who, when they swung into town, made them thar menfolk what knew what was good fer 'em take t' the hills.

That was when the biggest, fattest caterpillar (Tyson) pulled this stunning trick. He spun a little cream-coloured sheath with his front six furry feet, covered himself up in a loose crescent shape and put out the lights. Louis Armstrong and Pavarotti thought this looked pretty cool; they had taken notes on his technique and managed to replicate it, though it was unluckily for Pavarotti the long good night, because he never woke up again. Last of all was the little fourth one, Fuzzball, a bit puzzled at being the last still chomping at the green sludge, who finally cocooned herself up. After that, for almost two weeks, bugger all happened.

And then suddenly the butterfly house started rockin' and a rollin' as Tyson's cocoon started a-plunging and a-plummeting around, though his head cocoon was luckily still self-latched to the ceiling, so he didn't fall down. It turned out to be something of a false alarm, as he didn't emerge (as the lovely Tysonetta) for around twelve hours, and Louisa and Fuzzbelle took even longer. Still, you never saw anything so divine as those three butterflies, wings still sticky, sunning themselves in the heat and admiring their new and extravagant maquillage. (Rachel immediately wanted to know which was the mummy butterfly and which the daddy, so I had to tell her they were still back at the butterfly factory.) We'd both have given a lot to have stroked their pudgy furry bodies or felt the flutter of their papier-mâché wings, but resisted.

Then there were two wonderful days in which we seemed to do nothing but collect flowers to spray sugar water onto, watching Tysonetta's long curled tongue unfurl as he lapped up the juice, or admiring the incredible delicacy of Louisa's antennae as she got stuck into a pink rose, or observing the almost incredible softness of Fuzzbelle's soft brown body as they had a collective shot at flying around their container, (although, to be truthful, Fuzzbelle still can't fly. One of her wings is only half the size of the other -- she is, in short, aerially-challenged -- and, rather than let some robin turn her into an hors d'oeuvre, I think we'll just keep her in her container for the duration).

However, this morning, after taking Rachel to school, (cowardly, I know, but she wanted to keep them forever) I determined that the two flyers ought to be given the rest of their three weeks of estimated life-span in the wild. I chose a warm open field at the end of the road: soft fluffy little white clouds, buttercups, cow parsley, bang up against a forest, and buzzing with soft bumbly bumblebees.

Then I opened the container.

Well, you couldn't see Tysonetta for dust. You could practically hear him whinny, like a horse kept too long in the stable, and then he was off, skating over the trees without a backwards glance, but there was no sign of Louisa, so I checked out the container. Louisa was at the bottom, looking doubtful, not to say dubious.

'You can fly,' I told her. 'I've seen you. Flap your little butterfly wings and make for the wide open spaces. Look! Wild roses! Buttercups! The sun on your back! Honeysuckle!'

Louisa thought she'd just think about it a space.

I hummed a bit from the 'Circle of Life' theme to The Lion King, put my finger right next to her and touched her spindly little delicate legs, thinking, that'll do it: now she'll fly!

Louisa hopped onto my finger. Perhaps, to her, it resembled a silver birch branch. So I lifted her out on my finger and on my finger she stayed. You never felt anything so light as those spindly little legs; you never saw anything so fine as the pin-fine veins in her powder-puff wings.

'You are completely perfectly drop-dead gorgeous,' I told her.

I told her, 'I dandled you on my knee when you were just a titchy little caterpillar.'

I told her, 'Sister, when God made you, he was not repeat not messing around, you hear?'

Louisa just fluttered her antennae. I felt so blessed that I could quite happily have stood there for the rest of my life, the sun beating down and the bees buzzing and the most ethereal, fragile, angelic painted-lady butterfly perched on my finger as if she owned me. But I couldn't. I had dachshunds to walk and columns to write and a play to finish and a cello pupil probably already halfway to my house.

So I lifted my hand and twirled round until the wind I'd whipped up lifted Louisa off my finger and fluttered her into the blue blue sky. When last seen, she was perched breathless on top of a wild rose bush like the last reel of Born Free, though of course she wasn't.

And that is what I mean when I say that I have, only this morning, had a transcendent experience with a butterfly.

Now, aren't you glad you asked me that question????

Copyright © 4 July 2003 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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