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On cello grades, examiners and braincells,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? 'Hello,
I'm seventeen and just started playing the cello about eight months ago; I really do love playing the cello, but I feel rather out of the musical loop. I am a member of what passes for the string ensemble at my school and the other (three) members have apparently been playing since they could hold their instruments. The violinist, who has perfect pitch and can play any instrument he picks up, is a bit high on his pedestal; the other cellist talks to me only if absolutely necessary and avoids looking at me otherwise. The violist is rather pleasant actually, but she is kind of ... 'out there'. Anyway, am I always going to be slightly behind the musical curve?

Also in a completely unrelated question: I was reading through your column and I was wondering about this grading system of musicians you apparently have ... what is the term ... across the pond. It sounds well organized, intelligent, and interesting, really rather un-American. There isn't an American version? Like I said, I am a bit behind on the musical curve.'
Anon in America

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AliceDear Anon,
It sounds to me as if you must be doing fantastically, if you've been put in the same group as three people who've been playing for a decade, and you've played less than a year. On the other hand, the others' feelings are perfectly clear to me. The violinist with perfect pitch who can play anything (rather like my husband) is secretly thinking 'Why, oh Lord, am I here with all these people who aren't remotely on my amazing level??' The violist is thinking, as violists do, about anything OTHER than what they're doing with the inflated violin under their chin ... probably Proust, global warming or the effect of the exchange rate mechanism on the dollar. The cellist is the one you want to watch. What s/he is thinking is: 'How can I murder the other cellist without anyone's noticing?' The reason s/he's making you feel lower than the floor is because s/he is absolutely furious that you're playing the same part while the violinist and violist have solos. (S/he is probably also secretly furious that you've done so well as to be allowed in, after only eight months of playing.) Do not, repeat not, leave this cellist alone in the same room with your (a) coffee mug (b) cello rosin or (c) car brakes.

Got that? You are only 'behind on the musical curve' because you started late, and have every potential to catch up. The cellist WANTS you to feel like a piece of cheese, so you'll buzz off. The others probably like you well enough but have their own issues. It's up to you if you let this situation get to you. Ideally, you won't -- just take what good there is in the situation (such as playing with a good lead violin) and get good enough to join a local orchestra, where you can start to have fun socially as well as musically.

With regard to your other question, as far as I know (and I've lived in London since 1980 so I may well be 'behind the curve' on what's happened in the US) there ISN'T such a system. Over here (you can check out the websites for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music or Trinity Guildhall performance exams if intrigued) there is a codified system of exams for every instrument, which can be pretty handy, especially when it comes to seating people in orchestras etc. Some people I know have made professions out of being examiners for these boards, travelling all over Asia etc. On the other hand, nothing in life is perfect, and there are several aspects of these exams that are irritating, such as the choice of music imposed from above, the number of scales required to be memorized, the amazing ability of some examiners to have but two braincells to rub together, and the impression given that Grade VIII (the highest) means that you're anything more than unlikely to permanently damage the eardrums of your neighbours. (There ought to be about twenty grades, as my ex-teacher used to moan. Kids inevitably think it's Grade I-II-III-IV-V-VI-VII-VIII-STAR!!!!!!!)

Back in the dark mists of time (this was in Virginia) we had music festivals called solo and ensemble. You could play whatever you liked, whether as soloist or even as a beginner and be given comments and support by a string educator of some description, along with a 'one' (or navy) badge or a 'two' (grey, for some reason!) You couldn't even get a third, so nobody got TOO discouraged!!!! I doubt whether this system was unique to Virginia, but perhaps some American reader could tell me ...

As for the UK cello grades, I don't know about it's being un-American. In tennis, Americans tend to have a similar system, so my friend will brag in her Christmas letter about being moved up a grade. We don't have that here, so if I venture to an open day at my club I can be obliged to play with people whose serves scythe through the air like bullets and invariably catch the line OR with people whose idea of a forehand is something going as high in the sky as possible without socking a bird. This is deeply unsatisfactory to a true cellist like me (see paragraph one).
Coffee, anyone?


Copyright © 4 January 2008 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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