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Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument
by Maggie Cotton
Foreword: Christopher Morley
Pages: 364
ISBN: 1-904444-71-7;
Apex Publishing Limited, PO Box 7068, Clacton-on-Sea CO15  5WN



“Wrong sex, Wrong instrument" was the dismissive comment made by a music adviser when the teenage Maggie Cotton suggested that she should become a percussionist and seek support from the various educational authorities. They could, and indeed ought to have helped her in those early days when she most needed encouragement and help.  However, she was not, and still is not, a person to be put off by blinkered bureaucratic authority.  A more appropriate title could not be imagined for this splendid, heartening and truly stunning book about orchestral life seen and heard from the inside.  After immense determination and hard work - not just at music, but at menial jobs to help with the meagre finances at her disposal - she proved - ever so gloriously - just how wrong that short-sighted music-adviser had been. Sadly this is a tale too often told in those days and probably even today.  She became a member of the City of Birmingham Orchestra in the days when it was just a provincial band; played for many conductors, some not all that marvellous, others more distinguished, but none more  destined to become a legend in his own life-time than Sir Simon Rattle.  She is able to tell the tale of this remarkable change in an orchestra's fortunes with clear-sighted awareness of how it all happened.  The book is written with not only musical insight but with a literary style and distinction that makes for the most compulsive reading.  Many years ago, something  of a similar book was written by the wife of a distinguished Halle player, entitled "Not only music, signora!"  and this could well be an appropriate sub-title to Maggie Cotton's story, for it is not one of those sycophantic "ghost-written"  glossy, coffee-table biographies where the celebrities are lauded and swooned over - as many biographies of world-class conductors tend to be - but is penetratingly down to earth.  It is, in the best sense of the word, a "human" book too: telling of the problems, the joys and anxieties of family life and a concern for others less fortunate than ourselves.  She was persuasive enough to get Simon Rattle, even amid all his growing celebrity as a world-class conductor, to make time to visit schools in the Midlands,  to explore  ways of communicating the essence of musical experience to deaf children, which, along with her enthusiastic prompting he did. Musicians are often accused of being interested only in their profession; their small talk taking little account of the outside world; but Maggie Cotton's book touches so many differing topics: world travel, as she  experienced  it with the CBSO, and in this respect she is a most eloquent and vivid  travel-writer.  She says what many listeners have often thought about the misconceptions which young, inexperienced composers let loose on a big orchestra, have brought to bear on the art of music, so often a matter of  "The Emperor's New Clothes" - and the vast costs such often mindless experiments have incurred.  She brought up  a family, and is keen  on cookery and gardening; all of which she relates with gusto and immense good humour. She is aware that many in "official" positions in the sophisticated world of professional music-making might not like everything she says, because she reveals some of the practices that go on which are hidden from the adoring, starry-eyed public that  star conductors, soloists, administrators. concert agents and the like might not feel all that comfortable about being told.  But this should not put off the reader, for many of the things she comments on are as true now as they were when this writer was an orchestral-player a generation ago.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it should be required reading for EVERY music student aspiring to become an orchestral musician; even if, hoping to remain above the common herd, so to speak, they only want to become a conductor!  Not just music students though: concert-goers, music-lovers everywhere, this is THE book for you!  

Arthur Butterworth

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Paul Serotsky



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