Dilemmas: Would it be right to give this girl an expensive clarinet?

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Cathy's met a keen 12-year-old clarinettist who says she can't go abroad with the school orchestra because her instrument is so bad. Cathy wants to give her a new one, but she knows that the girl's parents, whom she hasn't met, are, though poor, very proud. What can she do?


Spontaneously generous inclinations are lovely to experience. They make us feel warm and human; they also make us feel good, which is one of the nicest feelings in the world. But it is better by far to make the recipient of the generous emotions feel good, rather than oneself.

I remember my son, on receipt of a pounds 25 book token from an aunt, moaning: "But if only she'd given me the money!" The aunt felt good - she had been extremely generous and perhaps also felt she was furthering the cause of literature. But after my son used a token to buy nothing more literary than a bound collection of posters, I took to buying them off him and giving him the money to spend on what he really wanted.

So first Cathy must discover whether this girl is, in fact, a keen clarinettist. Children are very good at telling adults what they want to hear. It could be that her interest in the Spice Girls is far greater than her interest in the clarinet, but simply out of politeness she picked on a topic, her vague interest in the clarinet, that would prompt an interested response from Cathy. Were she to receive a brand-new clarinet in reality, her heart might sink, wishing she could have pounds 400 in crisp tenners to go squandering in Oxford Street on a shopping binge.

She may also, of course, be pretty much of a dud at playing the clarinet, which is why no one's ever brought her a proper instrument. Good-enough second-hand ones don't cost pounds 400. Maybe the truth is that her clarinet is fine, but her parents can't forward the fare that's needed for her to go abroad. Or maybe they gave her a choice - either money for going abroad with the school, or money for a summer holiday.

Cathy really has to find out much more about the girl's circumstances before risking giving her what might be a completely unacceptable gift.

If she knows the school the girl attends, she can always ring up the head in confidence. The head may well prefer Cathy to donate a clarinet to the school, one that can be used by any pupil in perpetuity, long after the girl has left. But would that give Cathy the old good-hearted glow? Probably not. She'd have fantasies of the instrument never being properly treasured by one person, or, indeed, properly cherished at all. She'd imagine it being chucked around by oikish amateurs, or being used as a prop in the school play. I think she wants to be sure that this girl gets the gift, directly, and wouldn't like the idea of giving the clarinet to the school where she'd have no power over who got to play it.

It sounds as though I'm trying to curb Cathy's generous instinct, but, rather, I'm trying to make her look at her motives. For whom, really, is she doing this act of kindness? For herself - or the girl?

Now, if she is absolutely certain the girl is desperate for a new clarinet - which she can probably find out from talking to the music mistress at the school - she can then invent any old story about getting a free one, or knowing a friend who had an old one in her attic and was chucking it out. But if she can't find out, or if it turns out that the girl isn't as mad about the instrument as she implied, then Cathy would probably be better off giving the money to a music charity. But that would mean giving up the good-hearted glow.


Is this the true story?

I am a professional musician, and in my experience of teaching young players, many have unsatisfactory instruments in the early stages. Somehow the tale of this young clarinettist "not being allowed to take a trip abroad because her instrument wasn't good enough" does not ring true. Schools usually tolerate a wide range of instrumental quality.

Why not contact the school's head of music? If the story is true, you could offer to buy a clarinet "for the school", to be loaned to this girl until her family is able to buy her a better instrument.


London SW19

A loan is better than a gift

In the Seventies, when I was a music student, I met a man who made me an interest-free loan to buy a good instrument. I paid him the final installment from my first pay cheque as a member of the Halle Orchestra. I always played on that instrument, until I gave up professional music 20 years later.

I shall never forget my benefactor's generosity. Had he just given me the instrument I would have been wary of his motives. But I felt it was truly "mine" because I had also worked to pay for it.

Cathy should write to the girl and her parents suggesting an interest- free loan. Many players have had benefactors, including the late Jacqueline du Pre. If Cathy is rebuffed, at least she will have made a generous offer.


Guildford, Surrey

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia, Ten years ago, two years after I got married, I fell in love with an old girlfriend. My wife left home but, when the affair had burned out, she came back. We now have a lovely daughter, but my wife often reminds me of how badly I behaved.

Suddenly, for no particular reason, my wife told me she'd had a one-night stand when she was on her own. She said it was meaningless to her. But my world has fallen apart. I can't bear to be near her; I feel betrayed, particularly as she's always made herself out to be so pure and me so horrible. I'd leave tomorrow if it weren't for my daughter. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Greg

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