Philip Hensher: Lifelong lessons learnt at the double bass

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The Independent Online

The Festival of British Youth Orchestras has been cancelled this year for lack of funds. It takes place every August in Edinburgh. It's had some problems recently in fulfilling its remit – it's become overwhelmingly a festival of Scottish youth orchestras, last year attracting only one orchestra from elsewhere in Britain.

I don't know whether it was the best way to promote youth orchestras, or whether the money would be better invested elsewhere. What I do know is that youth orchestras are a fantastic thing, and there are few better projects for us as individuals, or as a community, to invest in.

Thirty years ago, a new youth orchestra was launched in Sheffield. There had been a Sheffield Youth Orchestra since 1964, which had muddled through some of the classics to a forgiving, occasional audience of parents and chums. In 1980, a more determinedly professional approach was launched, with residential courses in Derbyshire, full-time instrumental tutors and as high standards as could reasonably be maintained. Where gaps in available talent were evident, they would be filled by recruiting students from music colleges.

I was one of the first members of the City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra in 1980. I was never going to go on to be a professional double bass player, of course. But all the same, the experience proved one of the most interesting and valuable of my life. It might not sound promising, the offer to sit, day after day, getting a piece of orchestral music right, singly and together. But the practice of quiet devotion and seriousness to an art was the most valuable of life lessons.

More than anything, there was the music. People don't necessarily appreciate the difference between knowing a piece of music, however intricately, from the outside, and from the inside, sitting in the middle of a large orchestra. It's not necessarily an analytical awareness – I had no real idea how the substance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony or the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique was formed until I sat down with a score and a CD, years later. But it is an awareness of the fabulous complexity and necessary discipline of, if you like, the moving parts of an aesthetic engine. I don't think anything substitutes for that. Playing the double bass in Brahms 2 was to sense a tiny part of Brahms' intelligence perpetuating itself under my fingers and bowing hand. It ranks alongside going down a working coal mine as one of the most thought-provoking experiences of my life.

There were other benefits. There was the character-forming experience, for a shy person, of being forced into a noisy and various environment – people think of youth orchestras as full of one type of kid, but I can assure you that the personality of the average trombone player is a long way from that of the average viola player. There was putting yourself up for judgement and frank criticism – no terror subsequently touches that of the orchestra audition. Since giving up playing in an orchestra, no employer, no reviewer has much power to intimidate or bully me. After all, in 1980, my bowing technique was gone into in scarifying detail. Nothing afterwards was ever as bad as that.

The CSYO is still going strong, and everyone ought to know just how good many of our youth orchestras are. Perhaps just as important, how useful and important they are to many tens of thousands of people who will not become professional musicians. Tens of thousands clamoured for tickets for the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra last year. If only those enthusiasts could be persuaded to buy tickets for their local, and national youth orchestras, there would be no shortage of funding, and we would all know how wonderful these bodies are.

South African Aids denier was a catastrophe

We've heard a lot about "deniers" in the last few weeks. Before we start applying the word frivolously to people who happen to disagree with us for valid reasons, we might like to contemplate the appalling career of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the former South African minister for health, who died last week. Ms Tshabalala-Msimang was a protégé of Thabo Mbeki, and pursued with him a policy of scepticism towards the scientific consensus about the causes of HIV/Aids. She notoriously proposed a diet of fresh vegetables in place of anti-retroviral drugs to combat Aids, claiming that South Africa could not afford Western drugs and incidentally blocking US funding to assist in the distribution of anti-retrovirals in KwaZulu-Natal. In February 2005, it was discovered that only 500,000 rand (£42,000) had been spent out of 30 million rand assigned to establish an Aids trust, and most of that had been spent on unoccupied offices.

Scandalously, in performing a fulsome eulogy, the South African President, Jacob Zuma, translated her most notorious position into the idea that "medication, especially anti-retroviral drugs, should not be taken on empty stomachs, in order to improve their effectiveness". At an Aids conference in Toronto in 2006, South Africa's display largely consisted of garlic, lemons and beetroot, leading to widespread ridicule. It would be funny if it hadn't contributed to deaths from HIV/Aids doubling between 1999 and 2005. If you eat lemons in the late stages of the virus, you die. If you take anti-retrovirals, you probably survive.

Tshabalala-Msimang was a catastrophe, and her eulogists should have more shame.

Snow enchanted Geneva, and trains still ran

There is, I feel, such a thing as snow envy. In Switzerland in recent days, I've been closely following the enchanting pictures of Britain in the snow with some disgruntlement. In Geneva, a dribble on Tuesday, and then not a sausage. Nothing to compare to the lovely pictures of tobogganers and snowmen emanating from home. However many people assured me that it was miserable, dangerous, and bringing the country to a halt, I still felt rather as if I were missing something.

Then on Saturday the snow began to fall, wonderfully, all over Geneva, and our Saturday night out took on a transformed, magical quality. This is what it's supposed to look like in Switzerland, with snow three inches deep on the parked cars and everyone red-cheeked and muffled up.

Of course, it helps to appreciate it, too, if you're in a country that doesn't have any difficulty dealing with snow. We went to Berne and back by train on Saturday without the slightest problem, and, of course, the services were dead on time. A snowfall which causes cancellation of rail transport in Switzerland would be a really extraordinary event. I can understand that in Britain we don't keep gritters and snowploughs on constant standby, and the roads may block up, but why do train services in Britain collapse when the rest of Europe seems to have no problem? I wish I knew what precautions European rail services undertake that the British seem to have no need for.