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Miss Manners: All professions subject to others’ wit

DEAR MISS MANNERS: For the past 22 years, I have earned my living as a professional musician; my instrument is the viola. I have distinguished myself as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player in North America and Europe.

I am on cordial terms with my colleagues and unfailingly polite to members of the public. In no way do I consider myself extraordinary, but I am grateful to find myself working among like-minded colleagues, and I am constantly looking for ways to keep challenging myself as a musician.

However, the challenges have come in an unexpected form: comments from people who have heard me perform in public with a quartet.

The other night I was approached by a woman who told my group that her son played the violin, but didn’t want to work hard – so he switched to the viola. I reacted with a wan smile, though I found her comments insulting.

Suffice to say I would never denigrate a person or their life’s work in such a fashion. I am afraid these comments are increasing in frequency. It is disheartening, and I’m afraid I may at some point lose my cool. How would you advise I handle such situations in the future?

GENTLE READER: It is not just you. Talk to tuba players; they complain that everyone thinks they are slow-witted and fat. Or harp players, who say they don’t get tipped when they play in hotels or restaurants because people think it would be like tipping an angel.

It is not only every instrument, but every profession that inspires stupid, top-of-the-head remarks under the name of wit. Lawyers, teachers, police officers, postal workers, doctors, accountants – all, and many others, can tell you the inevitable silly remarks they hear upon meeting new people.

The way to deal with them is to answer them as if they were meant seriously. The fellow alumnus could have been told, “Oh, no, I assure you that nobody goes into music professionally unless it is a real labor of love.” And the mother could have been told that her son must be a musical prodigy, if he has mastered the viola without working.

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