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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

ALICE McVEIGH, the agony aunt of classical music
(known to her friends as Lady Alice), continues to be
artistically ham-strung due to giving up exclamation marks for Lent,
plus irritated by having to practise -- yes, practise --
the Dvorák for her performance next Sunday ...

Dear Alice,
I am the principal trumpet with a youth orchestra but we have auditions next week and I'm worried I'll lose my seat to a young guy who recently moved into the area. I tend to panic on auditions anyway. What should I do?

Dear New Jersey,

This is a very tricky question. (Why doesn't anyone ever ask me easy-peasy questions about rosin brands anymore???)

Basically, if you want to play trumpet, you have to expect a fair amount of angst. (If you want to play principal trumpet, you would do well to lay your mitts on a copy of Carl Vigeland's innocuously-entitled In Concert, about life as principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) If you lay down your Queen and say, 'It's a fair cop, Guv,' in favour of this young upstart, no one in your youth (or possibly any) orchestra will take you seriously anymore. My advice is to practice hard, take a beta-blocker (see answer below) and do your best. If still beaten by said upstart for the principal job, just be gracious and supportive, and say, 'Hey, I hope that conductor is nicer to you than he used to be to me, when he used to put glass shavings in my coffee!'

Yours cordially,

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,
I am a string teacher in London and I'm so worried about one of my pupils I haven't a clue what to do. Her mother is a close friend and the girl is really quite talented, but gets horribly nervous in performance and falls to bits. She squeaked a pass in Grade six (violin) but should have done much better and was desperately disappointed, as was her mum. She's about to have a go at grade seven violin. Is there anything I can do to help her cope?

Dear Anon,

First of all, my sympathies. We have all, frankly, been there. The talented pupil who doesn't do himself/herself justice is a nightmare to all. When the child is very sensitive and the mum is a friend as well, it must be even worse.

Fact is, the pupil who gets horribly nervous in performance is never (follow me closely here) never going to change. S/he will, when ninety-five and expecting the gasman, get horribly nervous in case the boiler blows up just as s/he will when pursuing a grade on the violin (or anything else). Nerves are genetic: some people wouldn't recognise them if perched on the top of a mountain and others get faint just looking at the top of a mountain. There are very few choices before you, and most of them are illegal.

They are:

  1. tell the truth to the child/mother. Example: 'Esmerelda, we have been friends a while now, I regret to tell you that your daughter has roughly as much chance of passing grade seven as I (personally) do of applying to NASA and being selected to fly to Jupiter, making sure (en route) that I am not being attacked by the (as yet unidentified) denizens of Mars. This doesn't mean she's bad -- on the contrary -- but her nerves are legendary; and she just won't do herself justice. Can't she just give it a miss and play privately to the conductor of the youth orchestra instead?'
  2. bribe the adjudicator. (No names, no pack drills).
  3. drug the child. Beta-blockers are best, but counterindicated if asthmatic. I have heard of teachers getting the results they want using Valerian, which is herbal, and not counterindicated by anything, but can cause lack of concentration in the susceptible. I doubt anything herbal is going to help a really nervous case, either. Alcohol, in moderate quantities, can assist adults, but is useless in the case you describe, of course. (Janos Starker once remarked, in a masterclass, that, for a concerto, 'One glass of wine is not enough, and three is too many. I recommend two glasses of wine -- a good wine, of course!')
  4. I find that visualisation technique is helpful. This is where you brainwash your brain: you imagine, over and over again, yourself doing everything from walking into the hall and tuning up right through nailing every golden shift and making every gorgeous note. The best time to do visualisation is just before sleeping. During the rest of the night (this is the theory, anyway) your subconscious beavers away at remembering what you'd imagined, over and over again, until you really do feel, as you walk out onto the stage to play the concerto, that you've done it brilliantly already, time and time again, inducing a possibly lunatic state of confident serenity and ohmygod here comes that horrible double-stoppy passage and may-the-Lord-have-mercy-on-my-souleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek

As I said, this always works for me.
But then, I'd have always taken a beta-blocker as well (please imagine exclamation points here. Oh God, will Lent never end??????)


Copyright © 26 March 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK



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