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How to be a Classical Music Agony Aunt
I was recently asked, in my online classical music agony aunt column, how I had attained such a lofty position, and whether I was born an agony aunt, or had been obliged to train myself in the rigorous discipline of advising lovelorn violinists, desperate opera singers, suicidal concert managers etc.
In fact, I believe that I was an agony aunt for decades, always ready, willing and able to help, or, as my father prefers to describe it, ‘Quick, courteous, and wrong.’ Several instances of this spring immediately to mind.
I was once on an Italian train, decorating a non-smoking compartment, when an Italian youth entered, sat down across from me, and immediately, with a swift graceful motion one could not help but admire, lit a cigarette. No one but a true-born agony aunt would have so instantly advised him to shove his cigarette where the sun fails to shine. As I recall, I made my point eloquently and well, stressing the mitten he was handing to his cardiovascular system, the lining of his stomach and even to his taste-buds, causing every morsel of his Italian mama’s cooking to turn to ashes in his mouth. In fact, I believe I owe my continued agony-relieving existence to two factors: (a) I couldn’t speak Italian and (b) he couldn’t speak English.
Similarly, I was on Orpington train station one late afternoon when I saw a couple of teenage all-in wrestlers beating up a weedy little guy with gelled hair, who was quite literally squealing for mercy. Despite the hair, which did give me pause — I mean, perhaps the beating might make guys with gelled hair think twice before making themselves quite so publicly repellent; it might indeed, without my intervention, have been a turning-point in the weedy guy’s life — intervene I did, and very educational the whole business proved:
- Lesson one: about fourteen hundred new adjectives added to one’s — already extensive — vocabulary;
- Lesson two: little weedy guys can be very fast runners;
- Lesson three: Orpington railway staff are all either deaf and dumb or off on a tea break, especially when you really, really need them;
- Lesson four: you can feel surprisingly small at five-foot-six-and-a-bit when surrounded by refugees from the World’s Strongest Man competition, especially when you’ve just told them to pick on somebody their own size or you’ll call the police.
And then there was that famous bit of advice I gave to a certain well-known regional orchestra, with whom I worked regularly for over a decade, or until somebody figured out where the noise was coming from. It so happened that I was guesting with this regional orchestra one day, and then playing — the very next day — with a London-based orchestra, in both of said orchestras being conducted by the same guy. Thus I was the only person in a position to advise the regional orchestra’s committee when I heard the conductor tell the London orchestra, ‘Thank God to be working with a decent orchestra at last! That – (regional) orchestra is a disaster-zone!’
Now, thousands of cellists in my position would have thought, rebelliously, ‘Not fair! Not true!’ but only a genuine agony-aunt-in-the-making would have made the swift and brilliant decision to advise the regional orchestra exactly how their guest conductor had publicly slated them, thus making it possible (a) for them to fire the conductor, (b) for the conductor to discover what had happened, and (c) for the conductor to in turn get me fired from the London-based orchestra . . .
Yes! See what just a smidgeon of the best-conceived advice can do, when coupled with really sound judgement? With such an example to follow, it’s a miracle more people aren’t setting themselves up as a. aunts. Just look at what it can do for your other careers!
Of course, it’s not always an easy thing to do. There are days when you get letters that have nothing to do with classical music agony, but instead feature only ordinary agony, an agony which is frankly shared when you have to read the prose in question. I’m talking about: ‘Plz Alice of ask Alice wt worries me is this guy 2 yrs older than me hes like megacool bt never asks me out but i’m sure he likes me . . .’
And yes, I did suggest taking up the classical guitar and trying to forget.
Still, a very fine judgement is required in such cases, and luckily a very fine judgement is what I’ve got. It takes masterly tact not to say, ‘Where was you brung up? Take your dorky adolescent drivellings to some pimply adolescent chat-room where they belong!’ but instead to say, ‘Why don’t u ask him out then, nutcase?’ It’s really only this brand of consideration and tact that truly separates the proper classical music agony aunts from the well-meaning but useless majority of only averagely consoling people.
And then there are the classical music questions that no one could answer. How, I asked myself in vain, do you deal with this one, coming straight off the middle of the bat:
Dear Alice, The dominant in minor keys anticipates the later generation’s preference for the relative major as the object of the principal tonal derivation. Yet, incomparably more revealing is the finding that the dominant’s function as a secondary tonal centre is rejected in a very significant number of this composer’s major-key works, for example, in 178 fast movements (constituting 28%) of his major-key concertos. Although maintaining the assumption that the disparity in tonal structure is modally dependent, it is nevertheless unexpectedly significant, presupposing an extant stability of motivational forward-motion within the nexus of the overall tonal scheme. But is this disparity real or only conjectural? What is your opinion on this vital point?
Well, many agony aunts would have been completely floored by this one, and my first opinion on this vital point was that I needed some caffeine and I needed it fast. But, several glasses of wine later, I decided that the disparity in tonal structure, being modally dependent, was probably consecutively linked to the tonal derivation of the ribbit-ribbit of the poisonous green-with-dashing-red-spotted lesser Amazonian tree toad . . . I was afraid that this ground-breaking new slant on the questioner’s topic of expertise might upset him, however, so I wisely suppressed it. Remember: a really good agony aunt always knows what to omit!
So in the end, with ready tact, I just told this particularly questioner to go boil his head.
So I hope you’ve all enjoyed this little glimpse into the world of the internet’s only classical music agony aunt, and make sure you write to me soon, preferably in English, and preferably using proper sentences, for God’s sake. Just remember, for a gently sympathetic, completely unprejudiced, generous and friendly hearing, write to ‘Ask Alice’ on Music and Vision Daily with your musical agony! Alice specialises in desk-partner relationship counselling, dealing with the bullying conductor in your life, and the care, welfare and mating habits of hermaphroditic Giant African land snails.
Copyright © 2015 Alice McVeigh, all rights reserved. First published by The Strad magazine, the international magazine for professional string-players.