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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Correspondence between Tina
and Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH


I am a stage manager with no background in music at all. I wasn't even in band in junior high -- so you can imagine how limited my experience with music is.

I am currently working on a short ballet (1 hour) for which I have no score. I'm not sure where the ballet teacher got the music, but I think she cobbled it together from a bunch of larger pieces that work relatively well together. Rather than trying to call the show using a stopwatch and timing the tracks, I am trying to piece together a kind of 'score' by counting the bars in each piece of music. Once I've done that, then I will be able to call a cue on a particular measure or note within a measure to better 'feel' the show.

Some tracks are quite simple to count with, but others are more difficult. I have no idea if it's because time signatures change within the tracks, or what (I'm sure I sound silly, knowing as little as I do about reading music), but I was wondering if you knew of any listening exercises I could do to better be able to determine the beats in a piece of music that doesn't have any percussion. To be honest, I don't need to be exactly right in how many measures I count, just that I have the proper proportion (for instance, if a piece is actually 2/4 time but I count it in 4/4, someone can still follow it, albeit probably laugh at what I did).

I'm not sure if this makes sense, so feel free to email me if you need clarification. Thanks in advance for any help you might be able to provide.


Dear Tina,

(First of all, nobody going to laugh at anybody for getting the cues right, and even professional conductors waste half their lives arguing about whether a work should be conducted in 2 or 4!!!)

Secondly, I've never heard of such a listening exercise, though any aural training in the UK (Associated Board, Trinity Guildhall) do have tapes where you can decide which time signature fits best -- and there are probably equivalents in the USA. Trouble is, I really don't think that's going to help you much in this immediate situation -- partly because I suspect that you already have enough instinct to determine where the beats are; you just need the confidence to give the cues!! What I would recommend in this case is 'total immersion' in studying the scores. Make a tape of it (however rough it is) and practice your cues in the bath, at the breakfast table, while sitting in traffic, wherever. (Your stopwatch idea would also work, but strikes me as both less musical and too easy. Your cues would probably be jerkier and less accurate.)

Finally, can I suggest that you stop making apologies for your lack of training in music and get some? You might just surprise yourself!!!!


Ask Alice

Dear Alice

Cant the short players in tennis achieve? Who is the shortest tennis player ever? -- and how far has he or she succeeded?

Tina Raj

Hi Tina (a different Tina!!!),

It's impossible to say, of course, who the shortest tennis player ever is, but when the topic comes up (and it does, in professional as well as amateur tennis, all the time) players like Sugiyama of the women and Michael Chang generally get mentioned, as being strikingly short even as ordinary people, let alone as tennis players. These are both top-ten, world-class talents, who spend/spend a lot of their time cremating players much taller than they are -- but it's idle to deny that height helps, or that they might not do/have done even better had they been even slightly taller. This is because the window above the net (on the serve) shrinks for each inch that the point of contact drops ... In other words, taller players have more leeway to miss-hit their serves, and generally more power on contact because of their longer reach and higher swipe.

However, if you're short, do not despair. Short people can be super-fast, both with ground strokes and at the net (do you remember how Sanchez-Vicario used to scramble around to beat taller players?) and the serve is not everything. Remember John McEnroe versus Bjorn Borg: no question that Borg towered over McEnroe, but the smaller, slighter player still sometimes won by clever use of brain and timing. In other words, whereas it's an advantage to be taller, it's not a decisive advantage, in tennis: tennis is combination of speed, timing, guts -- AND power -- and only the last of these has any relevance where height is concerned.

Also, some tennis players lie about their official height. I have this on the authority of Jo Durie, who admitted while commentating that she knocked a few inches off her real height -- possibly in order to make opponents feel they could lob her, when (ha) they couldn't!!!


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I saw you yesterday, and you looked, if such a thing were possible, even more radiant than usual. How come?

A secret admirer

Dear Admirer,
Thank God somebody noticed!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yesterday I had this conversation with my distinguished husband:

Me: Hi darling, notice anything different about me today?
D husband: Uh, had your hair done?
Me: No, darling.
D husband: Er, new eyeshadow?
Me (through teeth): I don't even DO eyeshadow!
D husband: (flailing around hopelessly) New top? Teeth polished at the dentist? Facial?
Me: Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

What I had actually done, gentle readers, is to nerve myself in my 40s to actually have my ears pierced, a laughably simple operation, don't know why it took me so long, except that my hair used to be longer, which hid my ears and made earrings unnecessary, and that I am one of your natural cowards where pain is concerned. The doctor who delivered my only child was thrilled with me, however. I made what he considered the IDEAL BIRTHING PLAN, entitling self to a statue and a plaque on the hospital wall. Mine read, 'I don't want any pain at all. I want the baby constantly monitored. I want maximum medical intervention and I want an OK baby!'

(And in case you're one of those home-birthing-pain-enjoying people, and currently whooping with laughter at the extent of my natural cowardice, had I not had Rachel constantly monitored she'd have had brain damage through oxygen starvation, as it happened ...)

Yours with holes through the ears,

Copyright © 19 May 2006 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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