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Any Answers?

Smiling your way through a barrage of daft remarks is all part of a musician's life in these days of Meet-the Friends and Be-Nice-to-the Sponsor events. John Robert Brown confesses to a deep desire to come up with a devastatingly witty response - if only he could think of one.

There are no silly questions, only silly answers. That's what I tell music students when urging them to interrogate me in lectures. I do it to encourage the shy, to induce them to talk, reassuring them that the only stupid question is the one that isn't asked. I don't like to lecture in silence, and stupid questions are easier to answer than good ones.

Students may be diffident about questioning lecturers. In contrast, audience members seem compelled to quiz performers. One has only to stand up in public to play, sing or conduct to receive countless interrogations, requests, enquiries and tired jokes from non-players. If there are such things as silly questions, this is where you'll hear them. And you may conclude that there are no stupid questions, only stupid people.

I was reminded of this by a recent report in Classical Music magazine, where audience members at the opera were overheard discussing the musicians. 'It must be a miserable life down there in the pit, playing in the orchestra,' one said. 'They can't see anything, can they? How do they know what's happening?'

It's an unusual treat to be able to eavesdrop on such gems. Usually they are expressed to your face, and an answer required. Presumably, stupid questions are an inept bid to be chummy, to establish contact, merely innocent, gauche, attempts to initiate conversation. They vary along a continuum which goes from friendliness through cheekiness, weedy humour and thoughtless down - yes - to stupidity. But how does one reply?

It helps that most silly questions occur repeatedly, giving you the opportunity to prepare a response.
For instance, 'How do you get that under your chin?' is heard often by double-bassists.
'By keeping my big mouth shut,' is a good, if slightly rude, answer. Other silly-question/double-bass exchanges might be: 'How big is a single one?' ('Half as big') or 'Have you got a woman in there?' ('Yes, my mother-in-law').
As to the conjectural and slightly wittier remark, 'Playing that must take some pluck,' I have no answer. Maybe a bassist can suggest one?

'Can't you play something we know?' recurs with irritating frequency at National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) concerts, an ensemble noted for its original music. Bill Ashton, the NYJO leader, has developed an effective riposte. He turns the question round, asking: 'Can't you know something we play?' That usually silences the questioner. Famously, airline stewardesses (as they were then called) regularly asked Dave Brubeck, 'How many of you are there in the quartet?' Should that happen to you on an aeroplane, no smart rejoinder should be given. In such circumstances only a polite answer will suffice. Better not to irritate the person who is in charge of your comfort and safety for the next several hours. Wise also to answer with a simple yes if anyone asks, 'Would the orchestra members like a drink?' That's not a silly question. Likewise, food should be accepted gracefully, though never when it's offered as part of your fee. You can't put a free lunch in the bank.

Sometimes you have the chance to be cheeky without giving offence. 'Have you played the clarinet all your life?' can be honestly answered with, 'Not yet.' Add a smile to be safe. A smile will also be needed when you are standing in line at the philharmonic box office and someone asks, 'Excuse me sir, is this the end of the queue?'. 'No, it's the front, we're all standing backwards,' is, in truth, a reply I'd love to give, but have not yet tried.

Frequently, the challenge is simply to interpret the meaning of the question. A lady once asked Humphrey Lyttleton, 'Do you play several instruments to demonstrate you virility?' I'm sure Humph knew what she meant. Leaders of function bands turn the translation of gibberish into a skill when they receive muddled requests, such as those from listeners who ask for 'Duke Ellington's Velvet Doll, or Glen Campbell's American Patrol.

Then there's the category of question that could only be answered properly by giving a lengthy explanation. 'How do you get gigs?' is one I dread. 'What does the conductor do?' is another. And I was nonplussed when a member of the audience wandered around the music desks during the interval of an orchestral concert, peering carefully at the parts laid out on the desks. Eventually he enquired, 'Do you all play from the same music?' I knew what he meant, but not how to reply. The answer is either a bald 'no', a very lengthy explanation, or a course in harmony and orchestration. 'How do you memorise all those notes?' belongs in the same category. So does, 'What do you all do in the daytime?' Suggestions for possible answers would be welcome. Another question requiring a lengthy reply is frequently put to improvising musicians: 'How do you know what to play?' Anyone posing such a dumb question cannot expect a serious answer to be offered on the spot. Here again, a joke would get me off the hook, if only I could think of one. Yes - I know. I should improvise.

Classic impossible questions include 'How long does it take to learn the clarinet?' and 'Which is the most difficult instrument to play?' I reply to the latter by asking, 'Which is the most difficult language to speak? After all, until you've tried them all, you can't give an answer. Why anyone would want to know which instrument was hardest, I can't say. Does it matter? I sometimes explain that once you have mastered something it no longer seems difficult. Riding a bike is easy one you can do it. So is asking stupid questions.

Countertenor Andreas Scholl receives more than the normal quota of witless interview questions. He's been asked, 'How does it feel to sing like a woman?' and 'Are you really heterosexual?' As Eric Morecambe used to say, there's no answer to that. Radio and television interviewers can ask scatterbrained questions. Saxophonist Paul Desmond once told a tiresome interviewer, 'You are beginning to sound like a cross between David Frost and David Susskind, and that is a cross I cannot bear.'

'Does it take much puff to blow that?' 'How long have you been together?' 'What do orchestral players earn?' 'Doesn't it make your lips sore?' 'Don't your fingers ache?' 'Do you ears hurt?' These are all asked regularly. Maybe you have good answers, polished, read to fire off? Unfortunately, mine are always pitiful. Musicians in the Glen Miller ghost band are frequently asked, 'Where are the original players?' I wonder what they say?

My vote for the ultimate impossible question was overheard being put to the owner of a barrel organ by an earnest young woman. 'Oh, look, the music's written in Braille,' she said, then asked, 'How do you know when the music's finished?' At least she didn't enquire where the sausages came out.

The one question for which I most need that antiphonal crackle of wit is the simplest preamble of all. It's the warning shot: 'Can I ask you a question?' For that I have nothing better than lame submission. and the ultimate challenge is the one that inspired Charles Ives to write The Unanswered Question in 1906, wherein the trumpet repeatedly poses 'the perennial question of existence'. The strings represent eternity. The trumpet ask the question in a forthright manner, to be mocked each time by the winds, which grow increasingly dissonant with each response. In the end, no reply is given. The strings fade away.

That's the best answer of all.

First published in Classical Music magazine, 19th July 2003. Used by permission.
Cartoon by Harry Venning used by kind permission of the artist. Reproduction is forbidden.
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