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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On children's gems, Joshua Bell and The Washington Post,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Alice is currently sponging off her unsuspecting relatives in America, but left these little gems below, culled from Brian Dunn's research.

A teacher was observing her year one class while they were drawing, wandering around to observe each child's work. When she reached one little girl, she asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, 'I'm drawing God'. The teacher paused and said, 'But no one really knows what God looks like'. Without missing a beat the girl grimly replied, 'They will in a minute'.

A number of children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. A nun made a note and posted it on the apple tray: 'Take only ONE. God is watching.' However, at the end of the lunch line stood a large pile of chocolate cookies. A child had scribbled this note beside it: 'Take all you want -- God's watching the apples!'

A Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her five and six-year-olds. After explaining the commandment to 'honor thy father and mother' she asked, 'Now, is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?' One little boy (the oldest of his family) responded glumly: 'Thou shalt not kill'.

One day a little girl noticed that her mother had several strands of white within her brown locks. She asked, 'Why are some of your hairs white, Mum?' Her mother thought, and replied, 'Well, every time you do something wrong and make me unhappy, one of my hairs turns white'. The little girl absorbed this for a moment and then asked, 'Mum, how come ALL of Grandma's hairs are white?'

The children had just been shown their class photograph and the teacher was trying to persuade them each to buy a copy. 'Just think how nice it will be to look at when you're all grown-up! You can say, "There's Jennifer, she's a lawyer", or "that's Michael, he's a doctor!"' Then a small voice at the back of room rang out, 'And there's the teacher, she's dead'.

A little girl was talking to her teacher about whales. The teacher maintained that it was impossible for a whale to swallow a human because, although a very large mammal, its throat was very small. The girl continued to state that Jonah had still been swallowed by a whale. Irritated, the teacher reiterated that this would have been physically impossible. Finally the little girl said, 'When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah'. The teacher, still annoyed, said, 'What if Jonah went to hell?' The little girl replied, 'Then you ask him'.

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,
Have you heard about the experiment in the city you grew up in? The one where Joshua Bell (no less) busked with his Strad on the Washington Metro for forty minutes and only made $30? Only a handful of commuters even paused to register that this was pretty exceptional, amazing violin playing. Only one recognised him. What do you think this tells you about (a) classical music, (b) Washington DC commuters or (c) our society?

Check this out:

Phil McKerracher

Dear Phil,

I hadn't, but, thanks to you, I now have. And, on this Easter day, I thought it was such a fascinating letter that I thought I'd work on it a little.

  1. The fact that commuters didn't register true artistry and greatness in their midst can't really surprise any, half-way competent (let alone professional) musician. I suspect that any member of the (pretty hot) National Symphony Orchestra would have made about the same amount of money -- even any graduating would-be pro from the not-so-far-away Peabody Conservatory of Music. If they were very young and very pretty (either sex) they might have made marginally more -- Had they bucked Bell's self-imposed rule (playing 'really' classical music, such as Bach) and played the theme from Titanic, they might have made perhaps double. But, the sheer, mind-boggling quality of someone like Joshua Bell playing Bach is frankly lost upon 99.99% of the population -- including the 7.889 % which reckons to be classical music-savvy. Even the people who pay bucket-loads to hear him rarely really understand. They're only seduced by the name, the posh surroundings, the aura of elitist professionalism. Most of the applause is the applause of people who expected to be impressed, and therefore are. 9000 would-be Joshua Bells emerge from music colleges annually, in America alone. They would each have received a similar reception.
  2. Commuters (and this will come as small surprise to any musician who has been obliged to manhandle a musical instrument on the tube or train) are the least likely types to transcend the boundaries of their lives for beauty or music. Senior citizens smile at you politely -- young kids curiously. By the very nature of what they've chosen to do with their lives, for most commuters money comes first. Which is why they curse your cello, because they have to wiggle past it -- and why they live as if in a fog of dullness. You could dangle a Caneletto before them, serenade them with Mozart, and introduce them to Shakespeare personally -- they would still only want to know (a) how much C got for a scene of Venice, (b) whether Mozart could teach their kid the piano and (c) whether Shakespeare (God help him) had ever met J K bloody Rowling. They are also always running late. This, however, one can't blame them for, as they probably needed to hug their kid for the only time that week, or their boss had fretted over their missing their train last Thursday. People have talked a lot about slavery in the last month -- but isn't this it??
  3. I have a recurrent fantasy of a country (the UK, say) where classical music is given the same status as a really popular sport, such as football (soccer). A society in which youngsters beg their parents for money to buy on eBay autographs of top violinists like J Bell, where there is desperately hot competition to get on the list of the top violin teacher in town, where youth orchestra auditions are crammed with the same numbers of disappointed parents berating non-practicing kids as the top grammar schools are. All these things will never, frankly, happen, and the Joshua Bell busking experiment has shown us why. Pearls before swine, indeed!!!! We're too coarsened to appreciate the pearls -- or even to recognise a pearl when we see it. A sport like football (object: to get the ball in the opposition's net) is much more suited to the emotional and intellectual capacities of the vast majority of people in the 21st century.

And I'll tell you something else, too. Can you guess what the picture of Joshua Bell, as described in the Washington Post article reminded me of this Easter? A young man in his 30s being quietly crucified: by indifference, by stupidity, by a lack of humility and by a lack of recognition. Artists and comedians even routinely describe performing in front of a dull, unresponsive audience as 'dying'.

But there was one guy who was touched, who The Post describes as the hero of the day: a balding postal supervisor who had once dreamed of a life as a concert violinist.

'On the video, you can see Picarello look around him -- stopping -- almost bewildered. 'There was a superb violinist. I've never heard anyone of that caliber. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn't want to intrude on his space ... It was a brilliant, incredible way to start the day, but all the other people just weren't getting it. That was baffling to me.'

When he left, Picarello says, 'I humbly threw in $5'. It was humble: you can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.'

Poor Joshua Bell (whom I recall as THE prodigy at Indiana University when I was studying there) and poor music. But let's lift a glass to the postal supervisor who's never forgotten the music -- the one on whom the truth wasn't wasted. He was asked, by one of The Post's journalists, whether hearing Bell made him regret the way things worked out in his life. This is what he said: 'No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it's not a waste. Because you still have it. You have it forever.'

Amen to that.

Copyright © 20 April 2007 Alice McVeigh, USA

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