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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On earplugs, violinists and kids' names,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice

One hears about the necessity for musicians to listen to each other. I realize this makes a certain amount of sense, but can you tell what you're hearing? Don't all those instruments blend together? Or, if you're in the vicinity of the brass or percussion sections, does that 'color' what you hear? On the other hand, I've seen musicians on stage apparently inserting ear plugs. What does that do to the listening?

Curious in Cheltenham

Dear Curious,

Great question!!!!!

Yes, of course orchestra players have to constantly and unceasingly listen to each other, and many orchestral players develop this skill to such a degree that (and you may well have noticed this also) they hardly ever need to touch base with the conductor at all ... However, the blending effect that you mention is matched by the expertise gathered in unravelling the separate strands of tone colour in one's head, so, for instance, if one has ears out on stalks hoping to hear a bassoon cue it simply never occurs that you mistake the sound that you're after for that of the cor anglais playing the same notes a bar earlier.

I made a fascinating discovery about hearing and listening when I learned baroque violin, in the 1990s, and this was it: violinists (and, presumably, violists) CAN ONLY HEAR THE SOUND OF THEIR OWN INSTRUMENT!!!!! -- because the resonance of the instrument is directly under their ear. This means that all those years I wasted thinking, 'why don't they realize how pathetically soft and sluggishly they're playing?' were just that -- wasted -- all because I had no idea how different the experience was, after playing a normal instrument like the cello, where the sound comes out of the box and is shoved forwards ahead of you, compared to the violin, where you are literally playing (ouch!!!!) 'in your (own) face'. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that violin sections are notoriously quieter than cellos and basses. To THEM, the sound they are making resembles the Last Trump, whereas to the rest of us it resembles a very young chicken scratching faintly on a distant fence.

With regard to the ear plugs (as recommended by EU directive 7234230950257239862398423, section B, paragraph 96) this is because the sound (especially the sound of trumpets, at close quarters, so especially back-desk violas and even cellos and double-basses) can literally cause premature deafness. Thus, in this one instance, the EU is fussing to some purpose, and musicians are wearing ear-plugs with some justification. (Second violinists can suffer piccoloitus, as well, if the sound is coming directly towards them, fortissimo, in an effort to be heard at the other end of the hall.)


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

Thank you for lightening up my return to school. I've just had two days of staff meetings and lists of kids who want to learn to blow things.

The kids themselves will probably be fine, but I'm really wondering about some of the parents. If they call their little one 'Khris' 'Rhyan' 'Kalib' (I'm guessing they meant 'Caleb') or 'Crystie-Lee' (No, I'm not kidding, nor are these non-English-speakers, as their second names include Jones and Robertson.) Is this just a fad, or are they being sadistic in setting up the infant for a lifetime of spelling its name three times to each person that has to write it down -- or are some parents just horribly bad spellers?


Dear Malcolm,

Don't know. Perhaps a bit of all these things. Double-barrelled names ('Mary-Jo! Maybelle Arleen! Ya'll come in heah raght now!') always remind me of the deep South of America, and perhaps Rhyan is some sort of botched compromise between Rhys and Alan, but I really can't see ANY excuse for Khris or Kalib, even if one might be of Middle Eastern origin. I mean, what are all these endless 'Name your Baby' books in aid of, if not sorting out these small disaster zones????? In your position, on parents night, I would make a point of observing that they are doing little Fannie-Mae-Susiekins-Morleena no favors in later life (there was a survey not long ago which PROVED that teachers expected a boy called Dwayne to get in more trouble than a boy called John, and acted accordingly).

There was even a girl in one of my (many schools) called Peanut Butter, and no I'm not making this up!!!!!

Staunchly yours,
Alice Yoo-hoo Sugar-snap Santie-claws Jayne Isabellina-Louisiana Purchase Smith

Ask Alice

Dear Alice, we have worked together, usually sitting behind you.


Does this sound (vaguely) familiar? You drive two hours to some point in the UK you had never heard of and on arrival find nowhere to park and end up leaving your car in some dodgy backstreet wondering if you will have any wheels left on when you return. On arrival at the 'concert hall' one nanosecond before the rehearsal starts, you find you have no room, no light and no heat on the platform. The soloist then insists on spending 90 minutes rehearsing a Mozart piano concerto leaving around an hour to rehearse the remaining 80 minutes of music.

In the break you discover there is nowhere to eat and end up having a meat pie of dubious vintage in the back of your car. Back at the hall the 'dressing room' allocated to 30 male members of the orchestra is the size of the average toilet. On opening my gig bag I discover it contains one white shirt better described as grey and a complete stranger to the iron. The only other items in the bag are one black and one brown shoe, both designed to be worn on the left foot and one cufflink. As I try to put on my 'white shirt' I discover the horn section are trying to put their arms into the same sleeve and we haven't even been introduced.

Back on the platform you discover the audience for the night consists of five old ladies and a dog, but at least the dog stays awake for the performance. Afterwards you discover six inches of snow have fallen and, as she leaves, one of the old ladies says to you 'we thought it was Val Doonican tonight'!!!!!!!!!


Dear Bassman,

I have nothing to add. You have said it all. Great writing style, loved the !!!!!!!!!, also the non-white shirt and the vintage of the pie.


Copyright © 27 January 2006 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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