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Vox Humana
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Having written elsewhere about the virtues of broadening ones mind to appreciate different styles of performance I have to admit I have my limits. Some months ago I went to a recital by a very well-known organist. It was by some margin the most disappointing performance I have ever heard given by an organist of repute. I am perfectly happy to forgive the odd wrong note, but here every piece abounded with them to the point where they detracted from any attempt to enjoy the music. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has off days and there may have been a perfectly good reason why the gentleman was off-form. However, considering that he finished with an immaculate performance of one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, I suspect that he just hadn't put in enough practice time. Anyway, I voiced a frank opinion to some members of our organists' association who were present and received a fair amount of stick in return; apparently they all thought the performance absolutely brilliant. One person tactfully suggested that the problem was that I knew the pieces played whereas no one else did. Rowlocks. Bar a couple of modern pieces, most of the programme was thoroughly traditional; it didn't take a D.Mus. to hear that all was not right!

 

Now if everyone else was just being charitable to the player I could understand it, but it wasn't a question of being nice; they genuinely didn't hear anything wrong. This was brought home on two subsequent occasions when we had to listen to two people who could barely play at all. One barged his way through a loud, virtuoso piece like a bull in a china shop, getting about half the notes wrong. The other was less extreme and less spectacularly awful, but still well within the "brave attempt" bracket. Yet both players elicited hushed comments of awe and admiration for their talent.

 

Now such views are not at all unusual amongst musical amateurs. I have encountered them on and off ever since I was a teenager. But why, for goodness' sake? The only explanation I can come up with is that these people hear music, but don't actually listen to it.

 

Please understand that I do not wish to criticise the organists here, least of all the amateurs who play for their own enjoyment and are perfectly entitled to set whatever standards bring themselves enjoyment. It's the listeners who perplex me. If they really can't be bothered to listen properly, why on earth do I waste my time learning all the right notes? Perhaps we could all fill our town halls and restore the organ's popularity by playing Widor symphonies in the style of late Messiaen.

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The only explanation I can come up with is that these people hear music, but don't actually listen to it.

 

I think you've hit the nail firmly on the head there, Vox.

 

The way that bad performances sometimes elicit praise is something which has had me irritated on a number of occasions.

 

I remember a recital by an eminent female organist which was very disappointing in its untidyness, which was most unexpected due to her normal virtuosity at the organ. The untidyness was readily apparent and, I would have thought, anybody with a musical ear would have been distracted by it.

 

However, afterwards, I spoke with a fairly big name in the organ world who was in the audience (who had studied under this lady, and held her in absolute awe), and he said that the recital had been one of the greatest musical experiences he had heard in recent times! Likewise, a couple of undergraduates studying organ also thought the recital splendid. I started to wonder if my senses had deserted me. However, I spoke to another organist and he said how glad he was to find somebody else who agreed about how bad the performance had been. He had begun to wonder whether his senses had deserted him too! Were we the only ones in the audience who actually listened?! Were the others just in awe of hearing such an eminent organist perform? ;)

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I attend lots of recitals and mostly enjoy them. As a common feature, I've found that people often seem to play best the pieces I don't actually play myself. This has to do with my having a well-established (personal) aural picture which, of course, is bound to be somewhat frustrated by the non-correlation of what is then heard at someone else's hands. Is it selfish to say that I guess I like best, for instance, a performance of Bach which is most like my own?

 

I would draw a parallel how some people react when faced with a second recorded version of a given work when they have lived for many years with another. What to me (as unbiased observer) seems like a vastly more accurate, better tuned, intellectually aware performance utterly fails for them, simply because they are emotionally attached through habit to the first.

 

Playing cleanly is always an effort for me, and this is most of a challenge when it is on a strange organ. I have, like you, been disappointed when I have expected great things from someone whose work I have known and admired and they promptly turn in an apparently un-rehearsed performance. I'd better not say who it was now, but I heard a recital from one of my heroes once in Westminster Cathedral where the actual (and almost unforgiveable) incompetence of the Bach was firmly balanced by the stunning execution (superb in every way) of the Liszt which followed later.

 

Mind you, non-players sitting next to me can be either moved beyond my comprehension by what I consider to be poor while experienced players in their own right can seriously compliment something which felt quite ordinary at the time to me. Praise from people who really know is the only praise worth having! The rest is not so much praise as a general approval, obviously I am all in favour of this. An audience frequently likes a recital essentially because one chose the right (balance of) music. This is an often under-rated art - why is it apparently not taught anywhere?

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Guest Patrick Coleman

Perhaps the issue lies in exactly why the recital is being given. The effect of a performance goes a long way beyond the technical accuracy of the playing. Some organists may play their potboilers that have not been properly revisited for years, just because they think it will show the organ in the best light; others will present something they have just learned, because they have to play it somewhere for the first time.

 

I am trying to get the organ here played and heard as much as possible, both because it is a very fine instrument (though fallen on hard times) and also because I hope that interest in it will enable the funding of substantial work that is needed.

 

High quality accurate playing is obviously what I would like to hear when we have a recital (this is why Paul Hale and Cynic have played for us this year) but this would please few others than our organist and myself. The principal purpose of the occasion is served when the recitalist delivers the 'wow' moment that makes the audience want to come back again and opens their wallets. It is the panache that ultimately matters to most of the audience.

 

Occasionally I hear pieces played that I can actually play well. The liberties that some recitalists take (not the above-mentioned I hasten to add) - even in recordings - are frightening; and when I hear errors as well, it blows my mind. But again, if it delivers the occasion, then perhaps it has served the purpose?

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Perhaps the issue lies in exactly why the recital is being given. The effect of a performance goes a long way beyond the technical accuracy of the playing. Some organists may play their potboilers that have not been properly revisited for years, just because they think it will show the organ in the best light; others will present something they have just learned, because they have to play it somewhere for the first time.

 

I am trying to get the organ here played and heard as much as possible, both because it is a very fine instrument (though fallen on hard times) and also because I hope that interest in it will enable the funding of substantial work that is needed.

 

High quality accurate playing is obviously what I would like to hear when we have a recital (this is why Paul Hale and Cynic have played for us this year) but this would please few others than our organist and myself. The principal purpose of the occasion is served when the recitalist delivers the 'wow' moment that makes the audience want to come back again and opens their wallets. It is the panache that ultimately matters to most of the audience.

 

Occasionally I hear pieces played that I can actually play well. The liberties that some recitalists take (not the above-mentioned I hasten to add) - even in recordings - are frightening; and when I hear errors as well, it blows my mind. But again, if it delivers the occasion, then perhaps it has served the purpose?

 

Why not aim for high quality accurate playing AND the "panache"? That would appeal to your organist, yourself, and the audience who want the "wow" moment! ;)

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Why not aim for high quality accurate playing AND the "panache"? That would appeal to your organist, yourself, and the audience who want the "wow" moment! ;)

 

Sometimes panache involves risk!

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The experience of hearing a shoddy performance that others could find no fault with is familiar to me too.

 

A few weeks ago I turned the radio on to hear Bruckner 8 being played rather poorly by the BBCSO, and I started a thread about it on the BBC R3 forum. I was strongly supported by some, but others insisted there were no problems at all.

 

It's very odd. Suppose a group of people went for a walk and, on returning, a conversation developed about a mugging that some of the group had witnessed part way round. Suppose further that some of the group said, "What mugging? I saw no mugging." Then, if the accounts of those who claimed to have witnessed the incident agreed, everyone would assume that it had actually happened and that the rest of the group had failed to observed it. But when it comes to listening to a piece of music, those who haven't noticed any problems with the performance seem to think that those who did are making it up, even though they agree on exactly what the faults were.

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Guest Patrick Coleman
Why not aim for high quality accurate playing AND the "panache"? That would appeal to your organist, yourself, and the audience who want the "wow" moment! ;)

 

Which - as I said in my post - is the reason why we have invited top quality recitalists.

 

The point is that some recitalists obviously settle for the panache alone. Or perhaps there are those who just need the money? :P

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Why not aim for high quality accurate playing AND the "panache"? That would appeal to your organist, yourself, and the audience who want the "wow" moment! ;)

 

 

==========================

 

 

I don't know if we have brass enthusiasts on board, but over the years, I have been in awe of brass bands such as Black Dyke Mills and Brighouse & Ratstrick (the latter the new world champions, I belive). It is a competitive world, which although originally designed to better the standards of playing, has now turned brass banding into a sort of spectator-sport.

 

However, beneath that competitive drive is fantastic musicianship, tremendous panache and a certain childlike glee in what they do......all of them being, of course, amateur musicians; who just happen to better than many professionals......er.....or are they?

 

I'm now going to change tac slightly, a pan to a light-music concert involving the late theatre organist Bryan Rodwell, who set out to recreate the era of organ and swing-band in combo. For the purposes, he grabbed a few BBC session musicians, stuck copies in front of their noses, and after a very brief rehearsal, they were playing in concert. For some obscure reason, the whole thing just "took off".......pure magic being the end result.

 

As someone who has given quite a lot of recitals over the years, and played with various instrumentalists/orchestras and choirs, I know the amount of work required to pull off a really good performance, but not being an instant musician in any shape or form, I tend to work meticulously, at a leisurely pace, and thus limit what I do in public.

 

In many ways, this is an amateur approach, for it makes music something of a hobby during my leisure time; having long ago abandoned professional music.

 

I'm sure that part of the problem for organists, is the sheer pressure upon the shoulders of the professionals, who may have to be administrators, choir-trainers, school-teachers, private tutors, guest artists, recording artists and travelling virtuosi.

I really cannot think of any other category of professional musician who has to be so all embracing, just to make ends meet.

 

How many truly professional recitalists are there in the world.....people who do nothing else, and can afford to eat afterwards?

 

Half a dozen? At most a dozen.

 

Doesn't that tell us something about the nature of the organ-market, and the need to supplement recitals with more mundane work, or work which is only marginally related?

 

I often ramble on about Dutch organists, but everytime I do, I know I am being unfair. The best are PROFESSIONAL ARTISTS, who are paid as such, and who do the rounds, playing much the same pieces here, there and everwhere, and to a very high standard.

 

During my own lifetime I have seen the market for organists dry up. There was a time when Radio 3 could muster two full radio recitals a week, in addition to celebrity spots, choral evensongs and even Sunday services on the telly. Nowadays, Radio 3 buys material from fellow broadcasting stations, because that is very much cheaper than going on location to record a recital. Also, at this time, I could have named perhaps half a dozen resident borough organists; even though the numbers were starting to decline. Even in the colleges and universities, there were quite large organ departments, and the successful students would soon be snapped up by the second tier of church appointments below cathdral level. All that has now largely disappeared, and so earning a living becomes ever more vital. With the additional pressures in education, so much more time is now devoted to administration and exam marking.

 

In other words, what we once had has now gone, and if overall standards have fallen, this is possibly the reason why.

 

It seems to me, that everything about the UK is geared towards banishing the organ to the nether regions, and if a few organists strive for the ultimate and achieve it, they are probably doing more than the call of duty requires.

 

The fact is, in a country obsessed with business success, commercial consideration and economic survival, only things which bring in the readies are properly supported. So we see massive amounts of money being used to support the next Pop Idol, or extravagent concerts televised to support the likes of George Michael, Elton John and Take That. This is where the real money is, and in terms of economic return, pop music now exceeds the income of the City of London each year.

 

Art has been sacrificed to commercial interests on the one hand, and emaciated by the political process of dumbing down and "appealing to the masses" on the other. Oddly enough, in the latter case, not even the communists ever went down that particular path!

 

I really do not see the right parameters being established, which could have the effect of encouraging the dedicated musician to become a top-flight organist on the world stage, but hey-ho.....a few do manage to crawl out of the mire, and make a living out of it.

 

I'm afraid that recitalists, and their paying audiences, are both the victims of what exists; or rather, doesn't exist anymore.

 

Personally, I believe I did the sensible thing, and rather than pursue a futile dream, I accepted reality, moved away from music, but retained enough interest to make it a fairly important hobby.

 

 

MM

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... It is the panache that ultimately matters to most of the audience.

Reminds me of an occasion a few years ago when I was playing trumpet in a performance of Brahm's Violin Concerto. I can only assume that the soloist got the job because he was the conductor's brother. The performance can best be summarised as lots of hair flying around the place, manic sawing of the violin, and minimal accuracy. It all looked very dramatic, but was more "vile-din" than violin. As to the audience reaction, you guessed it - standing ovation.

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On the theatre organ side of the great divide, Reginald Dixon once came to play the 3 manual 8 rank Christie at the Astra Llandudno (around 1977) when he was on his "Farewell Tour". The playing was really most spectacularly awful. However, the atmosphere was most spectacularly electric and he could do no wrong in the eyes of his audience! I have often reflected on that evening which for us was so exciting because the great man was actually in Llandudno playing "our" organ. I guess just to have him in the building was for most people, enough, and even if he had come up on the lift playing a kazoo he would still have "brought the house down...."

 

Oh... and the house was almost full - so there were well over 1000 people present - and the phrase going around that auditorium (from many lips) was "Isn't it marvellous??!!!"

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On the theatre organ side of the great divide, Reginald Dixon once came to play the 3 manual 8 rank Christie at the Astra Llandudno (around 1977) when he was on his "Farewell Tour". The playing was really most spectacularly awful. However, the atmosphere was most spectacularly electric and he could do no wrong in the eyes of his audience! I have often reflected on that evening which for us was so exciting because the great man was actually in Llandudno playing "our" organ. I guess just to have him in the building was for most people, enough, and even if he had come up on the lift playing a kazoo he would still have "brought the house down...."

 

Oh... and the house was almost full - so there were well over 1000 people present - and the phrase going around that auditorium (from many lips) was "Isn't it marvellous??!!!"

 

 

==============================

 

 

I once began to transcribe Debussy's "Le Mer" for organ, but the cat jumped up and knocked the ink-pot over.

 

I didn't scrap the project.

 

Instead, I renamed it "Reggie Dixon's storm at sea."

 

MM

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==============================

I once began to transcribe Debussy's "Le Mer" for organ, but the cat jumped up and knocked the ink-pot over.

 

I didn't scrap the project.

 

Instead, I renamed it "Reggie Dixon's storm at sea."

 

MM

 

 

... La Mer please... ;)

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Guest Barry Williams
The experience of hearing a shoddy performance that others could find no fault with is familiar to me too.

 

A few weeks ago I turned the radio on to hear Bruckner 8 being played rather poorly by the BBCSO, and I started a thread about it on the BBC R3 forum. I was strongly supported by some, but others insisted there were no problems at all.

 

It's very odd. Suppose a group of people went for a walk and, on returning, a conversation developed about a mugging that some of the group had witnessed part way round. Suppose further that some of the group said, "What mugging? I saw no mugging." Then, if the accounts of those who claimed to have witnessed the incident agreed, everyone would assume that it had actually happened and that the rest of the group had failed to observed it. But when it comes to listening to a piece of music, those who haven't noticed any problems with the performance seem to think that those who did are making it up, even though they agree on exactly what the faults were.

 

You might think that this is a problem with music and the audience. One of the standard techniques for training barristers is without any warning whatsoever, for a few people to interrupt a law class with a brief scuffle. All the class then have to write down what happened. Not only do all the accounts differ, none of them are even remotely complete. Evidence is that which TENDS to prove a fact and a fact is that which is known to be true.

 

Judging musical performances is notoriously difficult, as music critics with good ears constantly find out, when competent reviews are slated by cloth-eared concert-goers.

 

Barry Williams

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You might think that this is a problem with music and the audience. One of the standard techniques for training barristers is without any warning whatsoever, for a few people to interrupt a law class with a brief scuffle. All the class then have to write down what happened. Not only do all the accounts differ, none of them are even remotely complete. Evidence is that which TENDS to prove a fact and a fact is that which is known to be true.

 

Judging musical performances is notoriously difficult, as music critics with good ears constantly find out, when competent reviews are slated by cloth-eared concert-goers.

 

Barry Williams

 

I 'pre arranged' for a colleague to interrupt one of my lessons in a similar way recently - it was a 'Tutor' session not Music I hasten to add. The kids were so startled when he came in and threatened to thump me that not one moved a muscle - few were able to describe accurately what happened afterwards either.

 

AJJ

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This is an interesting topic.

 

I have heard recitals by the biggest names in the business that were pretty shoddy - or at least, shoddy in parts.

 

One recital contained a Bach Prelude and Fugue that just fell to bits.

 

Another by one of this country's best known names included a Passacaglia that was very scrappy. What is interesting is that the same performer has committed a performance to record on a website which includes a patently wrong final chord.

 

Another by a matching virtuoso included a four bar sequence completely missed out, probably in panic after a wrong piston was pushed.

 

However, what all three performances had in common was that once the performer settled, the recital contained moments of such unbelievable virtuosity that one willingly 'paid the price' of the poor performances to begin with.

 

I suspect that it is partly a question of itinerant performers becoming tired and having not enough practice time on the day, so too many things are 'taken as read', which becomes all too apparent in the performance itself.

 

It may also be boredom on their part, or the feeling that that particular night was not important in the scheme of things - there was a more important concert the next week to which they had devoted more of their energies.

 

Having said that, I am not sure this is entirely acceptable ; if I pay good money to hear a concert performer play, I expect a basic standard of competence across the board - that is what I expect of myself both in my professional life as a lawyer, and in my other life as a performing musician. We all know some concert organists for whom you know that every note will be right as a given. Why should that not be the case with all of them ?

 

As for audiences, I think there is a great deal of 'Emperor's new clothes' ; the star - struck feel they do not have authority to question what they have heard, or lack basic confidence in just trusting what their ears tell them. I told the story of the missing four bar sequence to a friend who simply replied 'that is impossible ... [name withheld] is incapable of playing wrong notes'.

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However, what all three performances had in common was that once the performer settled, the recital contained moments of such unbelievable virtuosity that one willingly 'paid the price' of the poor performances to begin with.

For me this is all part of the "danger" of a live performance. Obviously you don't want to pay good money to anxiously await the completion of a piece without too much more going wrong. But on the other hand, if you want a guaranteed safe performance then buy a recording.

 

Having said that, I am not sure this is entirely acceptable ; if I pay good money to hear a concert performer play, I expect a basic standard of competence across the board - that is what I expect of myself both in my professional life as a lawyer, and in my other life as a performing musician. We all know some concert organists for whom you know that every note will be right as a given. Why should that not be the case with all of them ?

Living outside a major city, I have occassionally experienced professional musicians who turn up with a far more laissez faire attitude to their performance then they would dare to exhibit in, say, London. They do themselves no favours pulling such stunts, since it's a small musical world and provincial music festivals avoid such musicians like the plague. The odd glitch during a live performance I can excuse, but a sloppy performance is disrespectful to the paying audience.

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However, what all three performances had in common was that once the performer settled, the recital contained moments of such unbelievable virtuosity that one willingly 'paid the price' of the poor performances to begin with.

Agreed. I have heard many such performances where the odd wrong note paled into insignificance in the greater scheme of things. That was not the case at the recital I cited though. Quite literally, the standard of accuracy was no better than could be achieved by the better amateurs of our association, though admittedly our members would choose easier pieces.

 

Having said that, I am not sure this is entirely acceptable ; if I pay good money to hear a concert performer play, I expect a basic standard of competence across the board

Well exactly. If I turned in such a scrappy performance I seriously think I would hand back my fee. (Maybe he did; I wouldn't know.)

 

As for audiences, I think there is a great deal of 'Emperor's new clothes' ; the star - struck feel they do not have authority to question what they have heard, or lack basic confidence in just trusting what their ears tell them.

I think this is very true. I don't know that it is that common, but can think of one or two recital arrangers who will only book cathedral DoMs or people with similar "star" status. No matter that there are assistants who can knock spots off some DoMs, they won't get a look-in. I wouldn't like to guess whether this is because they automatically assume that the top men will be better or because assistants don't look so good in the boasting book.

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I'd rather have plenty of panache and personality with the odd wrong note anyday. I've been to some very dull recitals when it has been clear that the performer hasn't paid any attention to the new acoustic or the possibilities of the instrument they now find themselves playing. Notes all fine, registration safe, tempi adequate, but plainly and frankly very dull.

 

One of the marks of a really good recitalist is one who can turn dull music into something greater than the sum of its parts. This brings to mind a performance of the Vesper Voluntaries (not that good music, if it weren't by Elgar we wouldn't hear it as often) by TT I heard.

 

I think this is very true. I don't know that it is that common, but can think of one or two recital arrangers who will only book cathedral DoMs or people with similar "star" status. No matter that there are assistants who can knock spots off some DoMs, they won't get a look-in. I wouldn't like to guess whether this is because they automatically assume that the top men will be better or because assistants don't look so good in the boasting book.

 

Certainly true!!

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I think this is very true. I don't know that it is that common, but can think of one or two recital arrangers who will only book cathedral DoMs or people with similar "star" status. No matter that there are assistants who can knock spots off some DoMs, they won't get a look-in. I wouldn't like to guess whether this is because they automatically assume that the top men will be better or because assistants don't look so good in the boasting book.

 

Certainly true!!

 

 

This is part of the game. Organists frequently book their opposite numbers to play, recitals as return matches etc. because this way fees are kept between friends and reasonably balanced. Just a theory, of course....

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This is part of the game. Organists frequently book their opposite numbers to play, recitals as return matches etc. because this way fees are kept between friends and reasonably balanced. Just a theory, of course....

 

Cynic by name....... :P:P

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I agree that this is an interesting topic, and I find myself genuinely torn. On the one hand, we, as organists know our favourite pieces if not to the point of obsession, then certainly inside out, and any mistake certainly stands out. "Wrong note fiends" (as Alfred Brendel calls them) are an acknowledged phenomenon. Gillian Weir, when asked about this is reported to have said that should she play a wrong note, everyone is happy, because the fiends get to spot their note, and the others, who don't let such things bother them will still have enjoyed the performance! I have heard blemishes in her more recent perfomances, but I feel completely neutral about these because what has remained is her absolute musical intelligence and let's face it, her technique is still pretty darned good, to say the least!

 

On the other hand, I had a lesson in not meeting (or going to hear) ones heroes playing live. At one stage I thought his performance of the JSB Passacaglia & Fugue might collapse (it didn't, quite). I was by turns embarrassed both for the player (no names no packdrill) and that my friend who was there with me (to whom I had raved about said organist) certainly couldn't see what the fuss was about. I was cross that the player, whose Bach had become part of my life, had let me down, sad that it was time for him to throw in the towel. This went beyond the odd duff note about which we shouldn't be so anal. It was, quite simply, an incompetent performance, without much pizzazz either, really. A sad evening indeed.

 

Also, the "panache" argument can be shaky. If you find the performance unmusical and inaccurate, no amount of "panache" (or head waving, in the case of our friend the hairy violinist of a previous post) will atone for it. All you are left with is the incompetent playing of the notes. Could I have done better? Maybe, maybe not, but no-one in their right mind is going to invite me to play at the RFH/Westminster Abbey/ AH etc.

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