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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

New Year letters from fellow cellos
fielded by Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

I'm worried about my Performance certificate (Trinity/Guildhall) cello exam. My teacher has urged me to play to my strengths -- and no question, my strengths are romantic. However, I've read on the internet site that they would prefer a spread of styles (baroque/romantic, classical/modern) and I think my teacher has got this wrong. How can I explain this (I'm lucky to have this teacher: he is very famous, also very short-tempered.)


Dear fellow cello,

Yes, I fear that you're probably right. 'A balanced programme' is what I found stated on the syllabus, and I think an all-Romantic showstoppers would lose you some points. On the other hand, I've never heard you play, and your teacher has, and perhaps you are a disaster-zone on Baroque and play classical-period music like an idiot. In which case, frankly, it might be worth risking an all-Romantic programme, on the off-chance that you play Dvorák and Tchaikovsky with such variety of tone-colour and mood (and that the examiner had a very good lunch) as to still obtain a high mark in your exam.

However, this is probably not the case. Most Romantic cellists are great at 20th-century stuff, for a start, and I just wonder whether your teacher is simply choosing the music he knows best, in order to save himself time and trouble, the lazy bum.

I see three courses of action before you. Either you (very politely) mention your worries to your feistily famous cello teacher, and risk being blasted out of his studio, or else you submit to his suggested course of action, or else you attempt to separately ascertain (through an unbiased third party) whether you really are quite as lousy at other styles of music as he appears to think you are (by approaching another teacher or performer and getting their opinion.) If you choose option three and are indeed assured that you are perfectly capable of doing other styles, then you could still choose to go along with your teacher's choices for the sake of his fame, but you could also choose to think: 'He is an arrogant so-and-so who is always in a bad mood, and I'm off.'

There is, I understand, a brilliant cello teacher in (I think) Orpington -- now, let me think, Alex, Alicia, Alice, something like that -- McVitties, no maybe McVean -- check it out in the Musicians Union -- who fearlessly allows her pupils to choose whatever music they like and is never ever ever ever in a testy mood, positively a little ray of sunshine, in fact.

Just a suggestion!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Yours sneakily,

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I've written to you before, but you may not remember me. I am principal cellist in a county youth orchestra (it's a good one) and I had trouble with the section. Well, the section is fine (the one who was a pain has gone to university) but I'm not, because I'm having a crisis of nerves and don't know what to do about it. Every time I have a solo I feel as if my bow is going to shake and even if it doesn't shake I still feel terrible (before, after and during). I am seriously thinking of resigning, and even quitting playing the cello, especially as I have GCSEs this year. What should I do?


Dear (another) fellow cello,

I think you've asked about nine questions in one here.

First of all, I am deeply sympathetic: we've all been there. I assume you've tried beta-blockers for nerves? I've always found them useful, though you must never EVER take more than the prescribed amount (Once I was kept waiting so long for my Liverpool Philharmonic no 2 cello audition that I took another dose and almost passed out!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Secondly, if you are really suffering (as you are), and you don't want to move down your own section, AND you have big exams, would it really be so stupid to take a break from the orchestra? I don't think so, but I'd need to know more in order to decide, such as: how hard you have to work in school in order to do well, how ambitiously you've set up your GCSEs, and how much of a failure chucking the orchestra would make you feel. It might actually damage your confidence to withdraw, making you feel like a born failure, and thus be of no assistance.

Thirdly, you must never quit the cello, damn silly idea. The world is littered with grown-ups who now regret quitting the cello/piano/clarinet/whatever. A little break is all that you should even consider.

Fourthly, you absolutely must talk to someone about this. If, like so many teens, you are no longer on speaking terms with your parents, may I recommend an older person, a friend of the family, a teacher (your cello teacher?) a minister or a doctor. (Don't ask your teenage friends, who won't understand how you feel about the music and will be useless.) You may even be seriously depressed, and not realise it, and that'll wreck your big exams more than nineteen nervy cello solos.

We're all behind you!!!!!

Copyright © 6 January 2006 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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