We Never Realised You Had it in You

John Robert Brown

I call it the YU response. That is, YU as in 'Why you?' I guess that most successful freelance musicians experience the YU response at some time. For example, say you're offered a broadcast series, or a CD date. It won't be long before someone asks: 'How did you get that?' In other words, 'Why you?'

This summer I experienced the YU response yet again. An invitation to attend a Buckingham Palace Garden Party arrived. Though delighted, I told few people. Yet, on each of the few occasions I mentioned the invitation to anyone I was asked the same question: 'How come you were invited? Why you?'

I've observed a similar reaction when I've had a book published, or my services have been hired by an external institution. Even when I served as the editor of this very magazine, I was asked: "Why you?" It happens to others. A friend of mine has made a distinguished series of contributions to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Edition. On meeting a new relative-by-marriage, one of the first questions the new in-law posed was, 'What's so special about you, that you are asked to contribute to Grove?'

The challenge lies in how to reply. An attempt at a serious answer can sound silly or boastful, or both. Hearing my own attempts at an explanation always reminds me of the old saw about there being no silly questions, only silly answers. There's a strong argument for dishonesty or ducking the YU question. Which is preferable, I don't know.

The YU response can come from anyone: family, friends or fellow freelancers. I may be naive, but I don't think the green eyes of jealousy spark the enquiry. Yet it's likely to be posed whenever any new personal success is revealed. I remember showing my newly published Guide to Musical Terms to a friend of mine who is the principal of a large monotechnic.

'An American publisher!' he observed. 'How did you manage that?'

To give him a serious answer would have taken a full five minutes. Once, he referred to 'Conrad the novelist' when chatting to a lecturer who has an English Literature degree from one of the best universities in the world! Another colleague suggested - privately - that this was to distinguish Conrad the novelist from Conrad the hotelier! Fortunately, he had further remarks to make. I was spared. For the most part my principal friend is a bright fellow; he probably realised that he was in line for a silly answer. Or perhaps he was merely making polite conversation, to which he hadn't given much thought. That's my preferred explanation for most YU responses.

The challenge posed by being asked 'Why you?' lies in the fact that it sounds like an insult. The questioners sound as though they can't believe that you're sufficiently capable or sufficiently distinguished in that field to be invited to make that particular contribution. It's tantamount to saying 'We never realised you'd had it in you,' uttered by Dorothy Parker when congratulating a newly pregnant friend. (The YU question is never asked of newly pregnant women, I guess). Friends can't really believe that they know someone - you - who's been published, or appeared on TV, or made a CD, or whatever. 'If it's someone I know, s/he can't possibly have accomplished anything of note,' is what they are saying. Fame and fortune always occur elsewhere, in a parallel universe, at that mythical party to which lesser mortals are not invited. Remember the old Groucho Marx line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

An elderly lady whom I know has a son who is a senior medical consultant. He advises the people who in turn advise the GPs in his area. Yet, in her own health matters, she will take the word of her family GP against the word of her own expert son. Good for the GP, yes, but frustrating for the son, who will forever be her little boy, and never have his considerable medical expertise truly recognised or trusted by his own mother.

The implication is that the YU questioner too could achieve what you've accomplished if only they knew the secret, or possessed the golden key. The motivation is identical to that which sells those self-improvement books by Charles Handy, Tom Peters, Stephen Covey and Dale Carnegie - the idea that anyone can do anything - as in: 'Can you play the piano?' 'I don't know. I've never tried.' Ask the illusionist David Copperfield how he vanishes the Statue of Liberty, how he 'flies', or walks through the Great Wall of China. We could all do it if we knew the secret. Which, to some extent, is true, once you accept that these 'achievements' come from a lifetime of thought, perseverance and hard work. That's particularly true of playing the clarinet and saxophone, as you well know. But there's more to it than simply knowing the answer to the question: 'Why you?'

Though the above thoughts were inspired by receiving a special summons to a Royal Garden Party, I haven't told you how I came to receive the invitation, have I? But then, as a potential fellow sufferer of the YU response, you'll have learned to cast out your curiosity about such matters.

You wouldn't dream of asking, would you?

First published in Clarinet and Saxophone magazine. Used by permission.
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