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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Gender, musical instruments, open rehearsals,
dancing and passionate sympathy from
classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

I read a fascinating article recently about gender and musical instruments. Did you know that still today, in the 21st century, nine times more girls chose to play the flute than boys, and twice as many boys choose the trumpet, guitar and percussion than girls?

J McDonald, Essex

Dear J,

Hope I don't disappoint you, but I can't say that your information shocked me. I'm not saying that I would tremble for my chances of grandchildren if my son played the flute -- in fact some of my best male friends are stunning flute-players -- I'm just saying that, in terms of playground chic, it is hopelessly uncompetitive with anything as seriously anti-social as a trumpet. Secondly, boys like to make a lot of noise, and the three instruments you mention (esp if they can PLUG IN the guitar) are major players on the Richter scale, unlike, well, to take a case at random, the flute. Also, boys are, in my experience, less attracted generally to classical music, and rock bands would be nowhere without percussion and guitar, while there is no instrument more intrinsically jazzy than a trumpet ...

As for the girls liking the flute, well, they're welcome to it. It's nothing but a refined recorder really, and even the best flute-players have trouble getting a whole range of colour out of it. Also the competition (as it's not all that hard to play) is prodigious, even at youth orchestra level, so, in addition to playing something which almost often simply sounds flutey, it's very hard to get anywhere. I suppose the subtext of your question is 'Why are our girls so conformist and boring that they're still all making a beeline for the flute?' and with that subtext I find myself in some sympathy, though as parents it must be part of our job to shake them up a bit. ('I've got it, Gertrude! Why don't you buy a drum-kit and invite Susie-Jane around to do vocals with Amy on the bass?') Alternatively, why don't we have a go at blaming the schools for pushing flutes into young girls' unresisting hands and trombones at the boys? Yep, I blame the schools: for immorality, drugs, conformity, non-conformity, too much homework, too little homework, too much pressure, not enough pressure ...

[Note from Keith: this reply curtailed due to Alice's drivelling on indefinitely.]

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I was at the Boston Symphony open rehearsal the other day: their first with new music director James Levine. I thought Levine's comments were terrific, and the response of the orchestra breathtaking, especially in the Elliott Carter Symphonia, but my friend had trouble hearing what Levine was saying. Also, at the end, Levine and the orchestra both ignored the audience completely and just stonked off. Is this normal, at open rehearsals? And why don't they mike up the conductor, so that everyone in the audience gets to hear what he's after (and whether he gets it?)


Dear J M,

I find myself passionately in sympathy with your question. The number of times conductors have their arms pinned behind them by management until they agree to let in the audience for a rehearsal are legion; and the method of their revenge upon orchestra managements is legendary. This is what can happen:

  1. They ignore the audience as they enter, unless they pause long enough to scowl at them
  2. They mutter something quaint to the first desk of seconds, which the rest of us need to be lip-readers in order to figure out why they're in such hoots of laughter
  3. They purposely say things like, 'Well done, brass!!!!!!!!!!' in a voice like thunder, followed immediately by stating their personal opinion that the third horn should have stuck it out at dental school, or that the phrasing of the trumpets would have done small honour to a third-string army band
  4. They smile smarmily at the front row of the invited audience, saying what a pleasure it is that they could join us, after which, upon an inoffensive child dares to sneeze, they snarl, 'Bring out your dead!!!!!!!!!!!!!' and storm off until the offending child is muzzled.
  5. They take it as a personal affront, at the conclusion of the rehearsal, if even a portion of the audience dares to applaud. 'This is not the concert!!!!!!!!!!!!' they are prone to howl, prior to barking their way offstage between the two sections of violins.

Why conductors so hate open rehearsals is a very interesting question. My own theory is that they worry lest the majesty of their position, like the Queen's, be lessened by over-familiarity, or even that well-informed audience members might suss out just how lousy they are. Why else this widespread hatred of microphones at these occasions? Why deprive the audience (who have paid something for the privilege) of hearing what wisdom (sic) they might choose to impart? And why, having allowed them in, deny their existence or undervalue their applause?

Or the answer could be still simpler. Conductors, especially those who, like Barenboim, are seriously famous, can't be doing with putting up with the musical public. When he recently resigned from Chicago, Barenboim intimated that it was the handshakes and receptions, the cultivating of his audience, that had really gotten him down. And frankly this got me irritated. I mean Barenboim is a musical deity: a once-golden boy on the piano and, more recently, with the baton (though opinions do differ on the latter). He has made an absolute fortune out of a God-given talent, nothing to do with inner merit, thanks to those very blue-rinsed Chicago matrons he so despises, in their thousands, charging out to buy his recordings and attend his concerts. And if he could not just see his way to patting the occasional matronly shoulder, or shaking the occasional matronly hand, well, he's just been spoiled rotten, that's all I can say. And he ought to learn to be grateful, and grow up.

Yours irritably,

Ask Alice

Hey! I am a sophmore in highschool and have been going out with my boyfriend for almost 7 months now. In my school we have this dance where the girls are supposed to ask the guys. I am not embarassed at all to ask my boyfriend to the dance, but I just want to do it in a cool, cute, or funny way. I don't want it to be too huge and embarassing for him, I just want it to be simple, but memerable. I know this girl who asked her date by writting it in magic marker on this paper. She then gave him the paper and a marker only told him that there was something hidden in the note so he'd draw on it and find it. I thought that was really cute, but of course I can't bite her idea. Do you have an ideas for me, I'm so lost!

Dear Hey!

Hey! I have this cool idea. Why don't you ask your boyfriend (whose name you'd better send me, incidentally, in case more than one guy REALLY REALLY likes you at your school) to check out 'Ask Alice' on next week????!!!!!!!!!!

Then I could write: Secret message for X (or Y, or whatever!!!!!!!!) I happen to know that there is someone in W-ville or Q-city or whatever, who wants to ask YOU, X (or Y etc) to the dance at P school, and apparently you are nice and charming and dead cute and, well, how's about it???

And then all my friends/usual correspondents/readers would say:

  1. what the hell has this lot got to do with classical music????
  2. who is X, and is he really good for her, or not????
  3. is this dance some kind of retro throw-back to the innocence of the 70s or is it, like, some kind of druggy-type bash, which you, Alice, are lending your name to????
  4. or
  5. hey, this is really great: here's this guy and here's this girl and Alice has brought them together for this school dance and hey, we all did that sort of thing once (and yes it was great ...)

Personally, I'm all in favour, but hey, it's your call!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Cordially, Alice

Copyright © 3 December 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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