Pitch rolling

21st July 2015 | Concerts, Musings | 3 comments

I went to a concert recently (I won’t say where or when). In the group was an older musician playing quite a prominent role on a string instrument. Unfortunately his control of pitch had become unreliable. He was smiling and concentrating, trying to play the right notes, but couldn’t manage it. The pitch wavered all over the place, sometimes horribly sharp, sometimes disturbingly flat. The other players either tried to ignore it or found themselves pulled into its giddy orbit. It was unsettling to watch and listen to.

I happened to know players in the group, and I asked them afterwards if it wasn’t a difficult situation. They explained that it was, but that they didn’t know what to do about it. The player concerned was well respected and had been with them for ages. He was popular with audiences too. His colleagues realised that being a performing musician was still tremendously important to him, in some ways more so than ever. But they were beginning to notice some puzzled expressions on the faces of some of their listeners, and  when the tuning went haywire it was an effort not to show the strain.

Usually musicians themselves are the first to worry about any perceived loss of skills or judgement. They’re famously reluctant to ask for help, and probably step back before they really need to. But then there are others who, for all kinds of reasons, plough on. They may simply need the money. They may feel it’s vital for their mental health to cling on to music and music-making. Sometimes their very difficulties (hearing or otherwise) make it hard to assess the impact of their playing on the rest of the group.

Fellow musicians are all too aware that someone’s hearing problems may have been caused by playing for too long in a noisy environment – next to noisy brass or percussion instruments, for example, or to over-loud amplification. Sufferers may feel that their difficulties are no fault of theirs, and should in all fairness be tolerated by those who know the occupational hazards of this particular workplace. And their colleagues are sympathetic, because they do know the hazards, and sometimes wonder if they themselves will succumb.

So it becomes a question of musical standards versus human needs. In a democratic group there’s no HR manager to step in, rulebook in hand, and deal with the problem in some remote office. Every independent group has to grapple with the situation themselves. Some might ruthlessly get rid of a failing player ‘for the sake of the music’. Others might carry on out of friendship or indecision, until critics and audiences begin to voice their concern openly. Audiences might in fact be tolerant for quite a long time, especially if they have been following the group’s fortunes. But if the musician seems oblivious to the problem, who should eventually tackle it with them? Nobody wants to be the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread.


  1. James

    I used to have close association with a piano quartet group comprising of four men in their 50s. The string players were all leads in an orchestra, doubtlessly good professional musicians. Unfortunately, the violist stopped practicing his parts properly. The group decided to give him a chance and then they told him to leave, mercilessly, even though he was a founding member.
    Now, fifteen years later I am friends with a talented guy running a small, new company in web design. He is 27 years old. He has an employee who has been warned time and time again to fulfil his work commitments properly but he won’t do it and my friend doesn’t have the guts to fire him. My point? Age brings with it frustrations and annoyances but it also brings with it the empowerment to do what is right.

    • Susan Tomes

      Well, yes, an interesting point, James, but I suppose the question remains: ‘do the right thing’ from whose point of view? The right thing from a coldly practical standpoint may not be the right thing from a human relations perspective.

  2. Warwick Lister

    A group having this kind of problem might try (discreetly) having the offending player listen to a recording of a performance or a rehearsal (perhaps best done as a group activity so as not to single out the one player). Often intonation problems that escape unnoticed in the act of playing are all too evident when heard on a recording. Of course if the player’s abilities or hearing have become so impaired with age (or with anything else) that he/she doesn’t hear the bad intonation even on the recording, then the human relations problem looms very large indeed. But I think in that case it would be better for the bad news to come from colleagues in the group,as gently and as sympathetically as possible, rather than from outside.


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