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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On playing the violin, the viola, the tuba and jobs,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Reading through you previous columns, I came across a reference to Perlman and the fact that you'd only once heard him live. Me too: at St John's Smith Square. The main reason why I remember the occasion so vividly (apart from his playing, which was wonderful) was the interval.

He played the first half of the recital on violin, then there was a break while he went away to practise viola scales -- during which they played a recording of him talking about the technical differences between the two instruments. Then he came back and gave a wonderful performance of the Brahms sonatas -- and though it's heresy for a wind-player to admit it, I'm not sure I don't prefer Brahms's viola transcription to the clarinet original.

Frank Cranmer

Dear Frank,

How heart-warming this is!!!! Not only that you recall so vividly Perlman's genius, but because someone out there was (for the purposes, obviously, of musical edification) reading through my previous columns ...

Yours with swelling head,

Dear Alice,

My problem is my son. Most people would say I was lucky, because he is the best lad in the world. He's clever and kind and very talented at the tuba. The trouble is, he wants to do the tuba for a job and even his teacher is against it. There's so much else he could do and the music is just not a good job. His dad is no longer with us so it is all my problem. What can I do?


Dear Marlene,

Probably not a lot. Kids will pretty much be kids, won't they, and go out and do exactly what they want to do -- I can see it in my 8-year-old already!!!!!

However, I don't mean to sound unsympathetic. Try reminding your son that there are probably fewer than 20 tuba players in the UK in full-time tuba-tooting employment, and that tuba jobs probably come up less often than any other instrument -- and that, even on the brass-teaching front, they're likely to lose out to trumpeters, who will always have more eager beaver pupils.

Try reminding him that I got my Musician's Union card last week, advising me that due to fewer members, our subs have zoomed skywards. A young cellist friend of mine won half the awards at the RCM, but he's temping to make ends meet at the moment. He just got a trial with a major orchestra (oddly enough, I had a trial with them back in '87) and he was very excited until he realised that they had offered 14 trials!!!!!!!!! -- though to be one of 14, out of 150 people heard, and 250-ish who applied, still isn't bad (all this for a derisory salary in the low 20,000 pounds!!)

Remind your son that music is one of the FEW professions where there's no salary progression to speak of. You don't work assiduously and get made a senior lecturer, and then a professor, and then a deputy vice-chancellor, with incremental increases, as my husband's done. Every player -- whatever their technique or experience earns exactly as much as every other player (except principals) and the rates just don't go up anymore with inflation -- meaning that the money that seemed quite a lot at 22 seems wildly funny twenty-five years later ...

Part of the trouble is the expansion of the EU. It was bad enough in the '80's and early '90s when I was up against about 100 warm bodies for regional orchestra posts. It's more than doubled, with all the starving eastern Europeans hungry and eligible. Czech and Bulgarian orchestras are also willing to take on film sessions for one fifth of what UK musicians want (which is still less than what the Americans expect). I used to get film sessions myself twice a year. Now even the 'big boys' have this joke after film sessions: 'See you next year!'

But enough moaning. What you want is advice. Couldn't your son hedge his bets?? You say he's clever. Tim Hugh got a first at maths at Oxford and then went into music. It's not impossible to double-major. There will always be a few orchestras, and he might be one of those people who make it. In many university cities, Manchester and Birmingham etc as well as Oxbridge, there are SO many musical chances, at the same time as getting a 'real' degree.

Hope this is useful rather than depressing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Copyright © 31 March 2006 Alice McVeigh, USA

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