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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On changing teachers,
with classical music's agony aunt, ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

Last night I was playing in a very fine amateur orchestra, rehearsing Stravinsky Firebird. In discussions in the pub afterwards, some of the first violins complained that they found it difficult to retune their E-Strings back to an E after having de-tuned them to D (as required by the composer) as they couldn't hear over all the din of the orchestra. One lady suggested that if you counted how many turns you de-tuned the string and then wound it back up by a similar amount, this would prove satisfactory.

Do you have any tips?

Personally, being a violist, I was amazed to find that those things in the end actually went round at all, I've never found the need...


Ms Gloria Stoatgobbler (aka DGriffs)

Dear Gloria,

Personally I think composers that go mucking around with different tunings ought to be shot at dawn, or rather earlier, but I realise that in Stravinsky's case this would have represented a serious loss to mankind. Similar cases abound: Kodaly's fabulous solo cello sonata being but one example (fairly unplayable in the last movement even had the strings been left in their unmucked-about-with condition, admittedly).

The correct orchestral method is not, as you so amusingly suggest, to count the unwindings required and to wind it up similarly, but is as follows:

  1. tune down the string unobtrusively until it makes a good solid plunk, but not quite so high a plunk as it had made previously
  2. watch helplessly as your three remaining pegs lose the will to live and sink downwards rather farther than the one string you were hoping to retune
  3. scrabble around trying to tune up the remaining strings while completely distracted by the sounds of other section members attempting to do the same, horn players making rude noises etc
  4. play the passage indicated, using as little actual contact with the string as you can get away with (still will sound unspeakable, mind)
  5. glare at your inoffensive desk partner
  6. catch the eye of the conductor, jerk head towards inoffensive desk partner, and roll eyes heavenwards

It is of course a tricky technique, requiring arrant deviousness combined with split-second precision, but I feel sure you are capable of mastering it.


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I am a cello student, hoping to go to read music at university, but I have become increasingly restless about (and felt unchallenged by) my cello teacher, who I've been with since I was a kid.

When, if ever, is a good time to switch teachers?

Female cello student

Dear female c student (not that it matters!!!!!!! -- it's tricky whichever sex you happen to be) -

This is a tricky little question for me, as well.

It is a truth universally acknowledged -- no, scratch that -- it is a truth at least widely acknowledged that sticking to one teacher (even an insanely brilliant one) for more than several years is actually damaging to a student. No single teacher can offer everything: my own teachers varied from the greatest-technical-cellist-in-history to someone who, though equally and even more brilliant in the musical department, was inclined to view all cello technique as something you picked up by osmosis. And I was appalling at sussing-out when the time had come to move on: the affection and respect that so often comes with the teacher/pupil bond is peculiarly hard to break, as you are now finding. The teacher will inevitably feel sad (even if s/he secretly agrees that you should move on); the relationship is never quite as free as before; and natural human inertia (added to these diplomatic considerations) makes it all even harder.

However, this is something you're simply going to have to do. Laziness, delicacy, nerves everything should be put second to your need to have a teacher that really challenges you, especially if (as in your case) you are serious about your playing.

Clues for when you need a fresh teacher include:

  1. you no longer look forward to your lessons, or ever feel nervous about them
  2. you haven't made a significant improvement technically for quite a while
  3. you can pretty much guess what your teacher is likely to say about a piece before you play it.

(Clues that do not signify needing a new teacher include hearing a teacher say for the millionth time the same advice ('don't let your right elbow sink', for example) because you are still messing it up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Your only options in this case are either to sort out your right elbow or else to go to all the fuss and bother of finding another teacher who is willing to take on the White Man's Burden of saying (just to make a complete change ...) 'Don't let your right elbow sink!!!!!!!'

As a rule of thumb I would say that, once you have a reasonable technique, the longest you should stay with a teacher is three years, but this is assuming weekly lessons and considerable work between lessons.

Now, how do you go about achieving the switch?

Well, it is always best to blame other people. Don't say, 'Frankly, Miss X, my constitution can no longer cope with the caffeine consumption required to stay awake for an hour's lesson with you every fortnight.' Instead try, 'My conductor/mother/cousin in the Philharmonia wind section thinks that I need a fresh perspective before buzzing off to university. Silly, but there it is! I'll still come and see you sometimes, of course, so you can keep an expert eye on my dodgy right elbow!'

Toodlepip and good luck,

Copyright © 10 October 2003 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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