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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On jealousy and other craziness,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

I play in a woodwind section of a UK orchestra, and I have a problem with the number two in my section (I am the principal). I am fond of this woman, and we have played together for many years (in fact, MANY years ago we had a touching affair, of which I also have fond memories!) I have no problem getting along with her at all. Unluckily, though, she has for many years stopped practicing her instrument and is sometimes not true on pitch these days. She sometimes also holds on to notes a fraction too long. All this is driving me crazy and though, as I say, we are very old friends I sometimes actively dread playing with her. I don't have it in me to get rid of her (although I could) but what can I do?


Dear Anon,

This is a very difficult one, and I don't envy you your current situation at all ... Despite the fact that you had an affair with this person (and this is far too common a thing on tour to raise any orchestral eyebrows) I don't think that your problem is quite as much personal as professional. You have attempted to separate the fact that this person is a friend of yours from the fact that she has turned into a wrecker of your (presumably two- or three-man) section. You don't mention whether your orchestra is professional or amateur but it is clear that you, at any rate, take it extremely seriously, and that your friend at number two is making your life (possibly your daily life) a misery.

This cannot be allowed to continue. I suggest that you ask your number two for a quiet coffee and confront her with the news that her playing isn't quite as outstanding as it once was and that you are upset about it, WITHOUT threatening dismissal. In friendly, unthreatening tones (what you have to say is threatening enough) you suggest that she might practice her instrument rather more than five minutes before the concert.

I'm sure that this will deeply upset your friend, but it does give her several options, most of which would sort out your problem. She might a) admit that there's something in what you say and get scared into recovering her formal technique through practice, b) decide the game isn't worth the candle and resign or c) rebel. Rebellion is the worrying one, and that's why it's so important that there's nothing official about the 'shot across the bows' that you deliver over coffee. Don't start banging the table with how she wrecked your big solo, your career, your life etc. If she storms out straight to the conductor then you'd better be absolutely sure the conductor isn't a very old friend of hers, and is on your side (which he probably would be). It might be a good idea to have a third party along who you could prime to intervene should she get terribly upset and things get out of hand, maybe at the next coffee table, so that this doesn't happen.

Your other two options are less advisable. If you ignore it, you may well give yourself an ulcer and/or destroy the reputation of your section. And if you sneakily attempt to get the conductor to get rid of her on your behalf, she is bound to come running to you saying, 'Save me!' and it'll all come out in the end that (in professional terms) you really don't want to ...


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I am consumed with jealousy! I run an educational string course with a colleague (also female) who hasn't had half the training I have (I won't bore you with all my degrees etc but take it from me that I've got them!) Despite this, it is impossible for me not to notice that my assistant is so talented with children that she leaves me nowhere. Even the teachers assume that she's in charge, which she isn't! She's also a lot younger than I am, which makes it even more irritating. Some days I can hardly bear to speak to her. Help!

Dear unnamed educational person (lots of unnamed this week!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

And -- amazingly enough -- we have anozzer treeky leetle problem here, as my first cello teacher (from Vilnius) used to say ...

Jealousy is a horrible and degrading emotion, as every single one of us knows. Take writers, for instance. We are (to a writer) all devoured with jealousy of J K Rowling, who will probably someday overtake the Queen in terms of wealth and power -- while she is presumably devoured with jealousy of those (better stylists but less imaginative) children's authors who beat her out for all the literary awards ...

Not to mention (stop me if I've told you this before) the famous Broadway story of the (better) violinist brought in as leader of a show, who, DURING THE COURSE OF A MAJOR SOLO found his chair pushed violently from the desk behind (I like to imagine the dialogue here, 'Oops! Oh gosh, was that me??? Dear oh dear oh dear. I'm SO sorry, but my foot slipped ...')

But back to the point in hand. You are honest enough to admit that you are extremely jealous of your assistant -- and who wouldn't be??? Here is someone less qualified than you yet who regularly trumps you in your job, who (appears to be) more popular with both children and adults, and who has oceans of talent and is also a lot younger (I bet she is also about a size 10 and revoltingly beautiful). Yes, she does sound awful to work with, and I sympathize entirely. A definite case, as my father used to say to my sister and I when we got noisy of, 'May good fortune accompany you somewhere else!'

And yet, how lucky can you be to have someone that good willing and happy to assist you? Has it occurred to you that she must also admire you, in order to be willing to hold down her current, subordinate, position? How good does she make you look, going into schools and being brilliant at her job -- yet being only your assistant? If she's as talented as you say, perhaps you can pick up some tips from her, perhaps about APPEARING to really enjoy the job as much as she does? Do you ever catch yourself glowering at her as she enchants the young string players? -- don't go there!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Make a joke of it, 'Sorry, time for the old bat to have a go!' Be the one who claps the most and encourages the most, even if you may not always be the one with the most creative ideas. This marvel can only deal with so many kids at a time; make sure you're out there doing YOUR best with the others. And don't disdain any chance to learn, even from someone who hasn't had your training: which of us hasn't occasionally enjoyed the way a pupil turns a phrase and thought, 'Good idea! I can nick that!'

I'd like to think that anyone with your honesty and dedication can turn this into an OK situation. All musicians have had the irritating experience of being outplayed by someone younger than themselves, and we can all empathize. However, especially in your field, every person has something different to offer, which is the beauty of being a team (also good if one of you is hungover or going through infertility or divorce or just plain fed-up with it all ...)


Copyright © 2 December 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

Ask Alice



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