Music and Vision homepage


Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Advice on tuition from
classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

Rick the composer here again!

I'm worried about a work (Rhapsody) I'm working on, based on the concept of a complex, multithreaded, harmonically-linked downward arpeggio I came up with: the most important part of Rhapsody's introduction (too seamless to call a prelude).

And I hear in my head, flute and violins. Simple music from a simple composer.

But the flute and strings music I have downloaded all seem to show the sharp edgy sounds of the flutes. In my head they are much smoother and less abrasive.

You know how sweet violins can be. I want the flutes (or flute) to ride along. So the question is: Can flutes play dolce music? And not cut into the strings?


PS Yes, I am serious about the cello, especially about cornering and capturing my wild bow. Bowing is the most difficult part to be consistent with for me. It is almost a Zen thing as identical bow strokes would sound different depending on what was in my heart and mind at the time ... It seems like true love -- but you know how romantic and passionate composers are.

Dear Rick,

First of all I have admit that I am NOT a composer. I was obliged to write the odd (very odd, in my case) piece at Indiana Univ School of music, and they all sounded absolutely rubbish. So your query would be better addressed to an expert on composition/orchestration. However, that is not going to stop me shoving my oar (what does????) which is:

  1. Yes, flutes can ride atop violins with ease. I suspect the problem would disappear with real instruments. This is the second-best thing the flute can do, the best being to play soloissimo.
  2. The timbre of a wooden flute can be soft-toned and lovely, as can the mellow alto flute. It's hard to specify what kind of flute you'd like your performer to buy (!!) but surely an alto flute can be specified.
  3. The problem could even be the key. With a flick of the switch (they tell me: including my husband, who's got one) you can alter your key on these machines, and the edge of the flutes might be softened a good deal. But I bet you've tried that already ...

With regard to your previous letter re playing the cello, well, it's certainly never too late, and can only improve your composing as well. There must be someone in your area as ace at teaching adults as I am (my most recent star, a 62-year-old who I started less than a year and a half ago, just acheived a whopping high honours on her Grade 2 Guildhall exam, and only ever played recorder before!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

(Sorry, brag over. Anyway, anyone could have done that with Val, who is frankly a natural ...)

People sometimes ask me why I prefer teaching adults and this is why:

  1. Adults are paying with their own hard-earned money, and do not want to waste it / their time
  2. Adults are not being shoved into playing the cello by ambitious / pushy parents
  3. Adults can tell you dirty jokes and you are allowed to laugh at them
  4. Adults look enviously at your wonderful bow-arm and say how great it is, not just gawp
  5. Adults can pay to come to your solo concerts and act as cheerleaders
  6. Adults can become real friends and stay for lunch
  7. Most adults can't be bothered with exams, which are a huge yawn unless you're fab / going to be fab
  8. Adults know what they want to play. If you give them Bach and they want The Entertainer then they tell you so and nobody's time / energy gets sapped for nothing
  9. If it's just one of those days, when nothing you propose works and your adult is going quietly / loudly mad, you can simply suggest we nix the lesson and have a coffee instead. Parents of child pupils are strangely resistant to this intelligent and fruitful suggestion, even if you offer to forgo the fee, though why this should be, I have no idea ...

So my advice (assuming you're an adult composer) is to go find yourself a good adult cello teacher, and fast, as an ounce of bow-hand disaster prevention is worth some years of cure.

My advice if you are a teenage composer, of course, is to grow ...


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

Have you heard that our ex-youth orchestra, the DC Youth, is in dire trouble and may close down???

Dina from DC

Dear Dina,

Nobody tells me anything!!!!!! However, at great cost of body and spirit I have tracked down this story via the Washington Post. My first reaction was: so what else is new??? Even when we were in the DCYO (which was, let's see, this is embarrassing, the 1970s) it was in grave danger of being closed down, on average about once a fortnight. It was set up -- and for years conducted -- by the gutsy Lyn McLain, who married a very dear buddy of mine, and who is still helping in an executive sense, and it was a bold vision of bringing music to the poor masses in DC, which is presumably why we had to trek to the grisliest part of mugging capital of the world in order to rehearse. In practice it would probably never have survived for 44 years without the influx of us keen-as-mustard, middle-class suburban kids, whose parents could afford to pay. But we got such a lot for so little!!!: tours to Switzerland, Scotland etc, playing all the Mahler symphonies (McLain was a Mahler FANATIC: it was all he wanted to play!!!!!!!) in our teenage years, and making friends that last a lifetime.

But this does seem a bit more drastic a threat than usual. Basic tuition is still only $120 a semester, and anyone can still join, and I'll bet they still have marvellous coaches on each individual instrument but dear old, run-down Calvin Coolidge High School has turned Scrooge-like on the rent, trying to double it to $93,000 per annum. (This is the school, I should remind you, where the cello sectional room was so historically dark and foul that it was inevitably called, 'The coal mine,' as in, 'Time to leave the canteen and hit the coal mine!!!') Efforts are being made to sort out this financial catastrophe (which seems especially weird as the school system gives the orchestra a subsidy each year of $136,000) but, if it isn't, then one of the first and best of all the USA youth orchestras may hit the skids for good, which would be really sad. I cannot be the only one who, upon seeing, hearing or playing a Mahler symphony (any Mahler Symphony, except the 8th) is immediately transported back a few decades to the run-down grime of Calvin Coolidge High School on every Saturday morning, and to that mind-blowing, spine-tingling, ear-opening thrill of the DC Youth Orchestra in full flow ...

Yours sentimentally,

Copyright © 31 December 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



Ask Alice

 << M&V home              Alice's previous columns >>