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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On spoil-sports, weirdos and wind instruments,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? ' Dear Alice,
I teach a wind instrument in various schools in X county, in the north of England, and I feel seriously worried that many people I know including me are being corralled into teaching instruments about which we know little or nothing (for example: a flute player teaching clarinet and so forth). I can't help feeling that this is equally disastrous for teacher and pupil alike, but what can I do, without looking precious (about my own instrument) and a real spoil-sport?
(Name withheld)

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Alice Dear anon,

I couldn't agree more. It seems completely crazy to ask teachers -- whether of maths or French or whatever -- to go outside their area of expertise for no very good reason (ie for economic reasons). For example, I was recently asked, in all innocence, by an acquaintance, why I shouldn't teach her child the oboe? -- it couldn't be THAT different from the cello, right?

Er, wrong!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  1. because I can't make a single note come out of the oboe
  2. because oboists, even potential oboists, are -- by definition -- weird, if not always so neurotic as to be certifiable
  3. because producing a recognizable sound on the oboe has been proven to disrupt brain patterns, and I refuse to collude with same, on principle

Aside from the fact that both the cello and the oboe emit noises (with luck noises bearing some small relation to the notes decreed by the composer) it's hard to imagine two instruments more dissimilar.

The trouble is that, to the uninitiated, all instruments seem alike. To those of us who know slightly more, however, they are as individual as people (and sometimes -- embarrassingly enough -- even more individual than some people). This is where the trouble starts. The well-meaning headmaster of a any given school simply wants to know that a kid under his aegis will progress on some instrument (not usually fussed as to which) in order to (a) show off the school to prospective parents or (b) to make a decent fist of a few music exams or (c) to progress to a stage where an ad hoc performance in front of the rest of the school is unlikely to actually embarrass either his/her parents, or the school, or anyone else on site at the time.

However, as anyone who has more than a nodding acquaintance with any given instrument will tell you, every single instrument -- yes, even the recorder!!!!! -- deserves to be treated in its own right, and taught by a teacher fully persuaded of its unique potential, and practiced by somebody believing passionately in the optimum sound that (whatever instrument it is) may be persuaded to produce. This is only partly because bad habits, once captured, are hugely hard to dislodge. It's also because the previously enthusiastic learner is far more likely to give up on music altogether if badly taught.

So my advice is to stick to your guns. Those who know anything (about anything!) will only respect you for saying, 'I wouldn't feel right taking money for doing a substandard job. I teach the flute and piccolo. That's what I do.'

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? ' ' message:
my mum has entered me for a music competition and i don't want to do it

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Alice Dear ?

You don't give your age, but I (sorry, i) recommend that you talk to your mother -- if you can't do this, you must be a teenager -- and tell her that you are unhappy at the idea of doing (whatever competition it is). If she's a wild-eyed pushy mother you may have some fast talking to do, but most mums don't want to put their kids off music by forcing them to jump through the hoops of music competitions. Explain that you still want to play, just not compete, and stress the (dire) impact practicing for the competition will have on the rest of your studying.

You can also tell her from me that I've never heard of anybody winning a competition they didn't want to enter in the first place ...

Copyright © 8 February 2008 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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