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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Bursting with good will at Christmas
is classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

I fancy myself an overly ambitious composer and as a result am not much as a musician. I know I need to learn strings and started with cello. I have this insane compulsion to learn by driving myself to play my own works. I did pick up piano that way.

Now we get to the question. I know I need a better handle on intonation as much of my compositions are based on complex variations and the miserable notes I generate actually cause physical pain.

But despite my best efforts I cannot push myself to just do simple scales and repetitious practices upon Evelyn, my cello.

What do you recommend besides Valium?

PS I have gotten far enough with cello in the first month to do a modest public performance.


Dear Rick,

Valium is not the answer (not to this question, anyway!!!!!) and nor is 'repetitious practices.' What you need to cultivate here, as a composer, is an air of lofty disdain for us poor sweat-shop craftspeople down here. Learn enough of the cello (concentrate here) NOT to ask stretches at speed that do our head in, or Himalayan-sized shifts, and bear in mind that there are keys that lie better on the cello (and strings generally) than others, and then, well, go for it!!!!!!!!!!!!

Composers often can 'pick up' the piano that haven't a hope in hell of picking up a stringed or windy instrument. Don't let that stop you, of course, if you really love the thing, but the impression I get is that you're messing about with the cello as means to a (compositional) end, and, believe me, the little buggers can sense that, and never fail to bite back. There isn't a cello in the world not smart enough to know when they are not being played out of love alone and they have about 95 separate sneaky ways of making your life a misery once they've sussed this out ...


Ask Alice

From: An ugly American?
Dear Alice,

It is now December 2004 in the United States of America. However much of the news on MVDaily, and your biography, seems to have last been updated in 2002. Are things really that different in the UK?

Dear ugly one,

Well, hasse a wee fmall ftaff and they do their befte to keep up with the world of claffical muficke as well as they ken.

As for my bio, frankly you do not amaze me. I'm sure I haven't looked at it since 2002, having a life, which I ardently recommend you to get also.

Alice (a drop-dead gorgeous American)

Ask Alice


Being a composer, I particularly enjoyed your article on choirs vs brass players. Brass people adore playing loudly!!!!!! When their parts are marked mp they respond mf, etc. In my own experience, I find that fewer is better!!!!!!

R Jordahl

Dear R J,

You will shortly be hearing from my solicitor, having overstepped the mark on exclamation points, on which I have a little-known (because nobody WANTS to know) copyright.

However, you are dead right about brass.
Happy Christmas!!!!!!!!!!

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

Q: What's the difference between a quartet of flutes and a flute quartet?
A: Three flute players (surplus to requirements) and three string players (taking their places).
Q: Why?
A: Because string players, deep down, believe that string instruments are the only normal/real/proper instruments, so only perverse exceptions like flutes need to be named. (NB This theory accounts equally well for the 'piano trio' with only one piano.)

Q: What's the difference between a quartet of recorders and a recorder quartet?
A: None.
Q: Why?
A: Because recorder players are resolutely pig-ignorant where string instruments are concerned.

Malcolm Tattersall

Dear Malcolm,

Dear, dear, the milk is a bit sour and curdled, is it not??? Don't flautists recognise the time of good will to all men, even if served up on a platter with watercress around it???

Well, we cellists are positively bursting with it, so all I can say is, try Valium, or sex, or a glass of a nice dry white wine, or (as Mark Twain put it) anything barring incest and folk-dancing, and you'll probably feel a bit better in the morning.

Yours with undiminished regard,

Ask Alice

And finally, in a bumper week for questions, I would like to thank fellow cello Roy Middleton for the following little gem:

Fritz Kreisler was lunching at a smart New York restaurant.
'Waitor,' said a lady at the next table, 'Who is that distinguished-looking gentleman?'
'That, Madam,' the waitor replied, 'is Mr Kreisler.'
'Oh, really!'
The lady got up, walked towards Kreisler and said, 'May I please have your autograph? I am really delighted to have the chance of telling you what great admirers of you my husband and I are.'
'Why thank you,' said Kreisler.
'Yes, we're proud to own one of your beautiful cars.'
'Thank you so much,' said Fritz Kreisler, and bowed. He then wrote in the lady's autograph book, 'With kindest regards, Walter P Chrysler.'

Happy Christmas to everyone and thanks for ALL your contributions in 2004 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Copyright © 24 December 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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