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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On practicing and counting,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice:

My lovely 9 year old daughter, 'Miss G' has taken up the cello this year and she seems to practice just as much as I did in my youth. Your memory of those practice habits is uncanny. See busking amongst the sheep and speed cameras.

Anyway, when I dust off the old cello and suggest we practice together she yells at me. Do you have any advice on musical child rearing?

S McNamara, USA

Dear Steve,

So pleased about little Miss G, and, oddly enough, the question you raise has been in my mind recently.
Very recently.
Like, this morning ...

There are, I am assured by people who successfully have their children practice that there are three tried-and-true methods, none of which always work. In other words, it's rather like balancing the national budget. Everyone wants a balanced budget -- or a child who is logical, patient gung-ho to practice whatever instrument it may be (in my daughter's case, the tenor horn) but it always seems, like peace in the Middle East, just around the next corner.

The most frequently recommended methods are these:

  1. Bribery and corruption. My friend Pip Eastop, an eminent London horn player, gives his boys five pence each day that they practice. If they practice every day in a week, they get two pounds. The devious brilliance of this scheme will instantly be spotted: five pence is hardly worth crossing the room for, but two pounds is two pounds and those seven little ticks in the boxes thus pay off. (This system, however, didn't work with Rachel ... She isn't interested enough in money -- yet!!!!!!!)

  2. The ideal parent. This method always works, but I can't always do it. There are times, much though I love the little pain the ass, when the last role I want to play is that of the ideal parent and the last thing I want to do is to hover with an enthralled expression around a tenor horn.

    This is how you play 'Ideal parent': Even if the little twerp only sounds one note in ten correctly, the nuance and timbre of that particular note is so praised and so celebrated that even Rachel wants to make it again -- and again, and again. Then she wants to play the whole line such that my face lights up. And so on. (This method is best performed at cocktail hour, for obvious reasons.)

  3. Regularity. Many of my friends are so efficiently organised that they actually have a slot allotted to the day (sometimes before school, sometimes immediately after it) where, every day, the kid is told it is practice time. The brilliance of this scheme is that the kid comes to accept his fate, just as much as s/he does swimming lesson time, toothbrushing time, or where-are-my-shoes-I-have-to-go-to-school-time. There is a minimum of fussing because it becomes an immutable part of daily routine, and this is far and away the best method.

    It just doesn't work when you have irregular, musicianly schedules, where (some days) the childminder has the child straight from school, and some days she's been picked up and brought home, sleepwalking, so late after your concert that only the hardest-hearted parent can soulessly drag her early from slumber in order to massacre 'Russian Dance' on a tenor horn ...

(If any readers have any other methods, do let me know!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I am a freshmen in high school and I play the violin in the school orchestra. At the advice of a visiting clinician, my teacher has had us count (out loud) and play rhythms at the same time. This is fine for practicing, but when he gives us playing quizzes, he also makes us count and play. If we don't, our grades are severely affected (we can only get a maximum of 6 out of 10 points). He grades us fairly hard and doesn't take into account that counting and playing is difficult for some people. As a clarinet player, I doubt he would know how hard this really is. I was wondering if you had any advice, or if there were any statistics you knew of proving that this was a bad idea. My classmates and I are tired of doing poorly on quizzes because we have to count and play at the same time. Please help!


Dear Lee,

Who is this waste of space?????? He should be named and shamed.

I never heard of anyone being obliged to count out loud while playing, and cannot imagine a performance not being adversely affected by such a procedure. There is nobody (well, I can't do it, and I've played in several major international orchestras) who can play beautifully (with a lovely sound and expressive dynamics) while messing about chirping 'One, two, three,' or 'One, two, three, four.'

My first point is that it's intrinsically unmusical.

My second is that, if you can't count normal rhythms by the time you are in a high school orchestra, you ought to be firmly but fairly advised to quit while you're (not) ahead.

My third point is that I feel you ought to get together with your classmates, forming a quorum, and ask him to give you a chance to play WITHOUT having to count out loud at the same time. If your rhythm suffers (and for your own sakes I suggest clapping the rhythms separately, in order to make sure it doesn't!!!!!) you may have to admit defeat on this one. If it doesn't, your case is made that it is an unfair and unmusical hurdle over which you are being obliged to jump. (If you are shy on this, get your parents involved.)

I really feel very strongly that you are being badly treated here. (You are also free to show this letter to your mum.)

Yours on sympathy strike,

Copyright © 18 March 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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