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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

More questions and answers with
Classical music's agony aunt,

Dear Alice

My son wants to learn how to play a musical instrument but as yet is undecided about which one. He's a large eight year old. He started off by saying he wanted to play the violin, then the viola (God help us) but is now undecided. My own views are quite clear. Anyone who thinks that by scraping a few hairs from the arse-end of a horse over the dried and stretched entrails of a domestic pet can make anything remotely melodious must be quite mad. It's quite obvious to even the tone-deaf that the reason any orchestra is made up of loads of scrapers all playing the same parts is that the rule of percentages dictates that if you have say ten cellists in a section then perhaps two of them play half of the piece correctly, and providing they both don't pick the same half you stand a fair chance that something resembling music may result. Can you advise me on how I can persuade him to take up a real instrument like say the bass trombone?

Here is an instrument that can be played in a variety of styles with a rich, sonorous, bright, melodious, serious, comical, funny and magnificent kinds of tone. The player of this king of instruments doesn't hide in a section but is there to be listened to and admired. What do you think?

Someone who might just happen to play the bass trombone

Dear Someone who m j h t p t bass trombone,

Do I detect a subtle anti-string-instrument subtext here??? And, if I do, dare I confess (you're going to drop your trombone lubricant) that I am somewhat in sympathy with it??

The sad fact is that, though stringed instruments do have numerous advantages over wind instruments:

  • more and better concertos (and solo repertoire generally)
  • more and better opportunities for chamber music
  • a statistically higher chance at getting into a youth orchestra
  • a good deal more quiet charm

However, you are still undoubtedly right to observe that you can get away with bloody murder in a string section. You can play like an angel at the back (as I always do personally) and no one will ever know: you can even play fairly piggishly and only your desk-partner will know for sure. This is all Deeply Unfair and Seriously Irritating, especially when anyone with half an ear can separate the stunning first horn from the persistently wobbly second horn or the exquisite second clarinet from his seriously overstretched principal clarinet. In other words, you are, at least, in control of your own destiny. Not to mention the satisfaction that comes from having some real input into the product. If you are one tenth of a cello section, you are at the mercy, to some extent, of the other nine tenths, several of whom (statistics vary on this point) are almost certain to have lost the will to live.

Oh, the agonies of a principal cellist who soars elegantly skywards in a Shostakovich symphony only to have the reviewer (correctly) point out the ropiness of the cello section!!!!!!!!! Oh the trauma of the trial violinist whose desk-partner misses the big shift and whose putative principal glares backwards in his direction!!!!!!!! And how many double bassist's hair has been turned grey by insensitive conductors' blame being nailed to them, en masse, whereas at least a few of them were completely innocent as charged!!!!!!!!!!

Yes, the longer I live (and I have been thirty-nine for several years) the more I feel a sneaking sympathy with your point of view. Wind players pay much less for their instruments, and generally receive much more satisfaction from orchestral playing. Personally, I love the French horn (despite it's being French) but they all have their good points (except for the piccolo, which, in common with the French nation, really ought to have been suppressed at birth.)

The flute can dazzle, the oboe (and cor anglais) are untouchably beautiful, the clarinet is versatile enough even for jazz, the bassoon has a characterful charm, the trumpet can be seriously stirring, and the tuba deeply thrilling. (And yes, even the trombone has many good points, not least of which is its general proximity to stage exits / pubs / car parks!!!!!!!!!)

So, anyway, good luck to your eight-year-old sprog in picking (only!!!) one out of that little lot ...


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I play piano with a couple who though not married are a couple. One of them is a wonderful player and one of them really isn't. How can I manage to convince the one I love to play trios with that the other (who rushes, can't count, is out of tune and so on) is musically expendable? Or can't I?

Yorkshire correspondent

Dear Yorks,

You can't. But you knew that already, didn't you?? Of course you did. What you are doing here is railing against Fate.

The world is full of people you really like who remain inexplicably married to people that, really, you couldn't imagine sharing a medium-sized carriage on Connex Southeast with.

This is Life, as my mother used to say. Indeed, my sister and I spent many happy childhood hours perched on a balcony above our ambassadorial residence during parties saying, 'Why is she married to that?' (or the reverse), in frank and full imitation of our elders.

No, what you have to decide is whether player A (the good one) is brilliant enough to compensate for his (or her) bringing player B (the hopeless one) inevitably along. No one can advise you on this one. Only you know how much chamber music you otherwise have access to, or the level of player A's charms, or, indeed, your own spouse's view about the arrangement, assuming you have one. (Their house or yours? Food thrown in or not? Vacuumed or not -- and by the playing spouse or the non-playing?)

These are deep waters, too deep, frankly, for a mere writer to wade into without more information.

But my advice, since you asked, is to enjoy working with player A and put up with player B. After all, life is short.

Much too short for yours, the undersigned,

Ask Alice

Dear Aleeese,

I am zee French spider qveen, and I am most unimpressed avec votre article about ze spiders (aussi un autre about ze Queen et un autre about ze inhabitants de la belle France).

I zink que vous ought to check out votre facts regarding zee French, et aussi les spiders very pronto, because vous etes up the creek without a paddle. Au contraire de votre opinion, the French (et aussi the spiders) are le plus charmant, le plus exquisite et aussi la plus belle de toute le monde! Et je would like to see vous coping avec toutes les insects sans us, matey!

So lay off des roi, des spiders, et bien les français, ou else!

Votre non ami toujours,

Un spider français et royale, Mme A spidere

Dear Mme,

Advise you to stay a l'autre side de Channel, due to cool new weapon je has accessed called, le spider catchere, que catches le spider at un distance et aussi allows one (comme moi) de put de spider entre de jardin toute de suite at un distance.

So sod off.

Yours, cordialement,

Copyright © 25 July 2003 Alice McVeigh, Crete, Greece



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