Highly strung

14th April 1995 at 01:00
Michael Church on orchestral life. The Orchestra: the lives behind the music, By Danny Danziger, HarperCollins Pounds 20 0 00 255241 8

The pre-publication furore surrounding Danny Danziger's expose of backstage orchestral life has been an object-lesson in the way journalism distorts. Readers of the Guardian and The Sunday Times - not to mention the Sun - have been given the impression that nothing is further from the players' minds than music and that the London Philharmonic is a hotbed of lust and loathing.

The book itself paints a picture which is far less lurid and far more interesting. The Orchestra is oral history at its most quintessential. Danziger went round with his tape recorder, people spoke into it (often indiscreetly), and the results were poured out onto the page. As with oral history of old, spelling is variable: the surprise is that nobody at HarperCollins saw fit to check names or technical terms with a dictionary. The mistakes are sometimes puzzling, sometimes hilarious. The book should have been published with an educational health warning.

On the other hand, it contains much that bears directly on musical education, and how young musicians are made (or unmade). Don't send your daughter to a specialist music school, advises a violinist who went to one at 12. "I was far too young to be separated from my parents," she says. "I have regretted it ever since" The Menuhin School takes a thorough pasting. "Pretty ghastly," says one musician. "There was an awful pressure to do concerts. A lot of children there were very unhappy." Another is even more scathing: "A number of people I was at that school with have gone through enormous traumas, and many have given up music."

An astonishingly large proportion of the musicians interviewed owe their careers to the fact that they got free - or at least subsidised - tuition when they were at school. A viola player recalls: "One day in the infant school, a teacher came into our classroom and said,'I am the new viola teacher and I need four people. You, you, you, and you.'" An American girl from an entirely non-musical background started on the cello, and only got her first taste of the violin - "the scraggiest you've ever seen" - on the day when everyone in her class swapped instruments. From that moment on, the violin was the love of her life. A boy from Pontypridd joined his local brass band, and as there weren't enough instruments to go round, started off simply playing a mouthpiece. No matter: he practised non-stop, and his father - a miner earning Pounds 2.10s a week - saved up and bought him a cornet for Pounds 8. He now occupies the exalted post of Principal Trumpet.

Many of these players owe their lifelong passion - because, make no mistake about it, music is as important to most of them as the air they breathe - to the fact that their fathers were frustrated musicians. Many come from poor rural communities: their devotion to their vocation, often in the face of hardship, is very moving.

Nobody who reads this book will ever be able to watch an orchestra without being aware of the stress involved. One after another, they all get round to talking about nerves, which are often so bad that they have to resort to tranquillisers. There are some genuinely broken lives on show here - people whose inner terrors have rendered them almost incapable of working at all. And how about a seven-day week for two months at a stretch? Compared with this, even teaching seems a doddle.

The Orchestra: the lives behind the music, By Danny Danziger, HarperCollins Pounds 20 0 00 255241 8

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