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Advice for a flautist
from Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? ' I'm a professional flutist living in a major city. I play in a chamber orchestra where I get along with everyone but ... the first flutist. She is completely twisted psychologically. For example, she'll tell me I play so well but then be horribly jealous; sometimes she'll asks me every five minutes if what she does sounds good (it doesn't -- so of course I must be horribly diplomatic), or else she wants me to count her measures for her. Also, if I so much as speak to the conductor or to another orchestra member she rushes up and interrupts. She is impossible to play with, sooooo out of tune, sometimes adds as much as a beat to a bar, etc, so she makes me sound awful too when I have to play second. Yet whenever I get to play first she is really jealous, listens for any little glitch to make herself feel better and makes dismissive comments about my intonation, sound or phrasing. Then she comes up to me and says 'You sound great, really, you're a fine musician', or 'You're the nicest person, I really care about you', and then she'll back-stab me!! Playing opportunities are rare for flutists where we are, but I just don't know how I will deal with this coming year (I've been asked back for this season). I feel as if my playing automatically worsens around her, it hurts my ears that I pick up her stupid habits, that the musicians must think I'm some nerd. She wants me to play all the hardest parts and wants to dictate what she will play, and, when she wants to play something ... she wants total control as she is very manipulative.

My question is: Can a situation like this be turned around in my favor? She's not the kind of person you can 'talk to'. I don't feel like quitting the group and I feel like winning this situation. How can I concentrate, play well and enjoy myself with such a bad attitude around me? It's infectious or something ... Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Anon flute player

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Alice Dear anon flutist/flautist,

For a start, as you'll have recognized, you have this woman on the run (literally, as one visualizes her scampering around the room trying to horn in on your every conversation!!!) She is clearly really worried, almost certainly because, for all her bravado, she recognises that your playing is far superior to hers (don't get too big-headed here, as she sounds like a genuine catastrophe area ...) There are however, few things in music sadder than a past-it (or never-wuzzer, to swipe John Le Carre's term). One senses real desperation here, for all her appalling behavior.

Anyway, I don't mean to excuse her for sweet-talking you to your face and stabbing you in your absence, which is pretty despicable -- or her manipulation -- and no one ever spoke a truer word than you with regard to bad attitudes being infectious. Follow me closely here: this can infect whole orchestras, like MRSA!!!! Terrible as your plight is, you have to think outside the box here, before it does spread.

You have three ways of dealing with the situation (actually, nobody can 'win' something this hard).

  1. You can carry on as you are, refusing to be drawn in to the principal flute's little games. This could work for you, no question. All you have to do is refuse to commit yourself to any conversation against her, remaining statesmanlike. Chances are that this is your best bet, as it will get your respect of your fellow members (and conductor) and your conscience will be clear.
  2. You can quit. You have signified that you'd rather not quit, so I'm not stressing this one. All I'd say is that you have every excuse to extricate yourself from such a poisonous atmosphere.
  3. You can talk to her. (I deny on principle that anybody is the kind of person you can't 'talk to'.) If you made it clear -- correction, if you can, in all conscience, make it clear -- that you're not trying to unload her in your favor, something could still be salvaged. She is so clearly (and literally!) on the run, lacking confidence, behaving appallingly, and playing like a drain.

If she didn't play like a drain, this is what I would -- out of kindness -- advise. As it is, my advice is to stick to (1) and wait for the conductor to do the dirty work for you.

Good luck!!!!

Copyright © 29 August 2008 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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