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Review By Paul Serotsky
Arthur Butterworth

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Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument

Author : Maggie Cotton

Foreword by : Christopher Morley

ISBN : 1-904444-71-7

978-1-904444-71-8

Page Extent : 364

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Every starry-eyed young musician who aspires to become a professional orchestral-player should be required to read this excellent book - surely destined to become a classic of its kind - for it reveals just what life is really like as a member of a first-class orchestra.
The author, acutely aware of her own early struggles to achieve her ambition, which she overcame with immense determination, captures the reader's attention not only by the elegance of her literary skill, but with captivating humour too. Many books written about the stars of the musical firmament are full of adulation, but this is far more truthful, so that Maggie Cotton's down-to-earth account rings with far more conviction than all those sycophantic, ghost-written coffee-table biographies. Yet this is not just about a hermetically-sealed, idealised life-style of sophisticated concert giving, it is about domestic responsibilities, the joys, fulfilment - and often the anxieties - of family life; a truly human book, immensely stimulating and inspiring.
Arthur Butterworth - December 2006

Now retired and no longer silenced by a contract, Maggie Cotton presents an honest and long-overdue player’s perspective of life inside a professional symphony orchestra, describing how she became the first female percussionist in what was initially a staunchly male-dominated world.

Now retired after forty years with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Maggie gives a fascinating and humorous insight into every aspect of her working life, including tours, conductors, composers, soloists, colleagues, recording contracts and educational work, as well as her own family life and the social conditions of wartime England and post-war Eastern Europe.

Bolstered by her gritty Yorkshire roots, and naively undeterred by overwhelming odds, Maggie overcame many hurdles in pursuit of her ambition to play percussion in a professional symphony orchestra, in so doing transforming the face of women in that field from one of novelty circus performer to respected professional and colleague.

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About the Author: Maggie Cotton was born in Yorkshire in 1937 and has devoured music since her very early pianistic beginnings as a child. In the late 1950s, three years after leaving school, she trail-blazed her way into the male-dominated profession of symphony orchestra musician, landing herself a contract as a percussionist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Since retirement, having played for the orchestra for forty years (eighteen with Simon Rattle), she has also worked as a music critic, and has at last gathered her experiences, from a player’s perspective, of the colourful and deeply satisfying world of the professional symphony orchestra in her autobiography Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument.

 

Sample page

Music (-z-), n. Art of combining sounds with a view to beauty of form and expression of emotion; sounds so produced; pleasant sound e.g. song of a bird. Written or printed score of musical composition. (Concise Oxford Dictionaiy)

We were rehearsing Symphony No. 4 by Humphrey Searle (commissioned by Birmingham’s Feeney Trust) for the first time.

"You’ve written a glissando, which can’t be played to a note that isn’t on the instrument!" yelled an irate trumpet player, standing and waving his trumpet in the air. This was from one of the mildest-tempered people in the whole orchestra, never known to lose his composure, and certainly NEVER known to shout across the orchestra to anyone. At one point in the same piece, one of the bassoons in sheer frustration turned his music upside down and played a whole page from bottom to top - an exercise in lese-majesty, which amazingly drew no comment from the composer-conductor. I found myself muttering that my part was physically impossible, although I suppose that two or more percussionists could have tangled together and played the intermittent xylophone and vibraphone parts between them. This was an obvious case, yet again, of someone writing for such instruments from a piano keyboard with five fingers per hand instead of for one beater per hand, or two in extremis. The only solution seemed to be to scatter notes around like confetti, but to be careful to stop when necessary, hopefully on the correct note. Written in a disjointed twelve-tone style, the theme we were told was a silent bar: "One! Two!" This was announced by the composer with stolid, uncompromising emphasis. Naturally, most of us saw the silly side to all of this and were hard-pressed to remain serious. Consequently, each time the theme appeared there was a faint, ghostly "One! Two!" in the air from the players during rehearsals, and we had the utmost difficulty in remaining silent during the intense presentation of the premiere performance.

At the concert, I felt very self-conscious, as I had been placed alone with my two large instruments opposite to the rest of the percussion gang, beyond the timpani. Luckily, everything went by without any perceivable hitch, but during the interval I was summoned to see the composer. My heart sank as I entered his room; however, I was astonished as he proceeded to give me a bear hug and profusely thank me for my wonderful interpretation of his piece. Oh dear, what a fraud one felt, but then we have all learnt to keep our counsel we are drawn into such apparent nonsenses. Who played and who heard the previous three symphonies, we wondered, and would our current effort be yet another first/last performance?

 



 



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