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First flute of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra

What route did your studies take you?

I first studied the flute in Iceland, my home country, with the English born Principal flute of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Wilkinson. He advised me to go abroad to summer schools and I went to a few with teachers such as William Bennett and Trevor Wye in the UK, and Alan Marion and Raymond Guiot in Nice. I found the teaching and playing styles very different and felt that the English style suited me better. In France there was a lot of “faire comme ca”, i.e. “do it this way” attitude with the teacher showing the student the right way to play. This is fine up to a certain point, but I like to analyse how things work and realise what one is actually doing in order to progress quickly and I like to discuss and find many different ways of transforming the notes to music. I also enjoyed the way the English school connected music with other art forms and real life, using metaphors, so that the music isn’t just abstract, but has a story to tell. This way you find your way of speaking the language of music.

So, while still studying in Reykjavik I was certain that I wanted to study in England and most of all with William Bennett so I applied and sent a tape recording to the English colleges. I didn’t get into the RAM in the first round, but I managed to get into the RNCM. I went to Wibb’s summer school in London on my way to Manchester the following August and I played the Nielsen Concerto for him. Wibb said these unforgettable words “you’ve developed a hundred percent since I heard your tape a year ago; I regret not having you in my class”, so that was a pretty amazing thing to hear! I hadn’t even started the RNCM when I knew I was going to apply for RAM again.

So, I did one postgraduate year with Trevor Wye and Kate Hill at the RNCM in Manchester. When I was doing my audition for RAM in December and got to the interview I was asked why I wanted to study at the RAM when I was already getting a PGDip. I explained that I simply wanted to become better and the best way would be to study with Mr Bennett! I got a place and had two years at the Academy. In my second year I had both WIBB, Michie Bennett and Sebastian Bell as WIBB had the rule that students could only study with him for one year. It was actually great to have all of them. Michie really helped me to work on my overtones for a good and easy third register. Sebastian Bell was insistent in all areas, music and technique, so it was interesting having lessons with him too. It’s actually very good having many teachers. If they happen to have different opinions you can listen to all of them and make an informed decision about what works for you and they might also be telling you the same thing but in different words, and so one of the explanations might just click with you.

Did you ever think of staying in the UK or other European orchestras after your studies?

I wanted to live in my home country. When I finished my studies in England, my boyfriend (now husband!) and I decided to get some more education, so we went to Paris. I had private lessons with Alan Marion, which was fantastic because I went through a lot of the French repertoire with him. Then there was a moment of thinking “are we going back home to Iceland or are we going to try and audition somewhere else?” We both felt that we really wanted to go home and build our life there, it was both the nature and the people that beckoned us.

We went home with no prospect of ever getting playing jobs. Iceland has a tiny population of only 330,000 people! Still, we do have a symphony orchestra in the capital, Reykjavik, but that’s of course the only professional orchestra. We wanted to try and work in music, there were some teaching jobs and we were prepared to never have any money and wear the same jumper for the rest of our lives! Now looking back at it, it was very idealistic. However, I think one cannot become a musician unless you either are very lucky or have this ideal, otherwise you’d give up the struggle very quickly. During our first year back home we established our chamber group called Camerarctica. Then, after 5 years of teaching and freelancing, a flute position in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra became available.

The position was for the piccolo. The audition was held behind a screen for all rounds and involved playing all the usual pieces and excerpts. I vividly remember playing the dreaded piccolo bit in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 and the feeling of triumph when I got to the end of it having succeeded in getting all the notes to sound loud and clear. Another great memory is playing the slow movement from the Vivaldi piccolo concerto and feeling the intense listening of the panel on the other side of the screen.

So, playing piccolo was my first job in the orchestra and I started in January 1997. Two years later the principal flute wanted to retire, so I auditioned again and won that too. I actually did both auditions carrying a child, so I didn’t have much lung capacity, and I had to do both Daphnis and L’aprés midi. But I was so happy being with a child and I managed to bring that happiness into the music and it all went really well. So, I got the job of my dreams!

Often people ask me about stress, and I tell them that what has helped me most is reminding myself that stress is not helping you. I trained myself to push it aside. It’s easier said than done, but it’s the best attitude to have, and then you can use all your emotions to bring life to the music.

When did you know you that wanted to become an orchestral player?

Orchestral music was always my favourite and I would listen to symphonies rather than flute pieces. I also played as much chamber music as I could and in youth orchestras, but there were not many opportunities in Iceland. Also I was a very late beginner, I only picked up the flute when I was 15 years old! But I studied at the Reykjavik Conservatory and did a Teacher’s Diploma and a Soloist Diploma which involved playing a concerto with the Iceland SO. By the time I went to England I was 24 years old. So you see, in comparison with many musicians I was a very late bloomer, but eventually got to where I wanted to be.

Do you feel your flute playing has changed since you’ve been playing principal in the orchestra?
It’s become easier and better, being in a playing-job makes you a very routined player in the best sense. You get better at sight-reading and keeping your cool in reacting to whatever is happening around you. It’s a balancing act playing in an orchestra, you have to simultaneously be visually following the conductor and the concert-master and listening to the music around you and constantly reacting to what you hear, not to mention managing to play all your notes! We make many decisions every minute regarding the way we play based on what’s happening around us so you never play exactly the same way. The music is alive and always new and this I find very rewarding.

So please tell us about this wonderful musical mouse!

Yes, I have a fictional character called Maximus Musicus who is a curious little mouse that gets to know the orchestra and its music. There are four books in the series, all with CDs and concert adaptions that have been translated and played by several orchestras. People often ask me “How did you get this idea?” but I don’t really know how, just that my ideas pop up out of seemingly nowhere! But I guess it comes from things brewing in your sub-conscious, all the things that you have done and everything you think about. And I have always been interested in the three things that this project combines; music, books and children.

For flute players it might be interesting to hear when this idea came to me. It was on the day of my very first Daphnis! Of course I’d been waiting in anticipation for this concert for a while, and in addition to Daphnis and Chloé, the very first piece of the program was L’aprés midi!! The second piece was Ritual Dances by Michael Tippett, which I felt was like a disguised flute concerto, so all in all it was a huge programme for me. Unusually, I took a nap that afternoon to rest, and there, in the darkness, I suddenly had the idea: To have a small character come on stage and see everything we do, all the funny things and hear all the wonderful sounds. The little character immediately got his name, Maximus Musicus. In Icelandic “Mus” means mouse and you only need a little knowledge of Latin to realise that his name means “a great musician”! I was quite thrilled by this idea, so possibly it helped me to play Daphnis that evening!

I’d already been with the ISO for eight years and played a fair amount of children’s concerts. I’d always been interested to see which programmes worked well and which didn’t and when the idea for this project popped up I was pretty certain that it could work well and therefore I had the impetus to pursue it.

What were your goals with the project?

I wanted to write a funny story with the education hidden within the adventure. I’d often thought that it would be so interesting for the audience to be allowed on stage to experience being in the middle of an orchestra and my mouse gets to do this. In the beginning he sees what the musicians do when they warm up before rehearsal. He hears the harp tuning, the brass players buzzing on their mouthpieces and when the double bass player strokes his strings the mouse thinks there’s an earthquake as the floor is shaking with vibrations. Then he is overwhelmed by the wonderful music that the orchestra produces. Maybe it is because I was such a late starter, but I’ll never forget the very first time I sat in an orchestra. I couldn’t play because I smiled so much, and this is what I wanted children to experience, the wonders of orchestral music.

I put into the story everything that my children found strange and funny and things that I’ve found funny myself. I remember showing my instrument to my kids’ friends and they were amazed to see that I had THREE in the box and their eyes got even bigger when I put the three pipes together into one!

Another thing I put into the book from observing my children is from a time that I took my son to a big band concert. He was about 4 years old and I’d noticed that he liked swing jazz. I was expecting him start moving to the rhythm and have fun, but he stood frozen still and looked at me and said “Mummy, they’re all red in their faces!” So, in the book the mouse notices how brass players have red faces when they play.

Musicians can seem unreal to the audience, wearing the black attire in the lime light, and I wanted to show that musicians are indeed human. In one place the bassoonist is talking about his reeds and says “I was making reeds into the night and I think this one is fairly ok”. So the kids think “Oh wow, into the night”, with empathy.

 

How did you realise these ideas?

I had a long think about my idea and after I’d come up with a few scenes for a story, I took it to our then chief conductor, Rumon Gamba, and asked whether this was something that the orchestra could be interested in. I knew that the book would have to have a CD with it to make a real connection with the music. The conductor said “Yes” and the manager said “Yes”, and they scheduled some recording sessions for the orchestra to record the music we needed. The first piece we recorded was Bolero. It’s a great piece for introducing the orchestra to kids with its beautiful recurring themes, different instruments playing solos and the wonderful orchestration.

People have asked me whether Maximus Musics is a bit like Peter and the Wolf and in a way it is, but the difference is that Sergei Prokofiev wrote music to a story but I wrote a story to music. The main piece is Bolero, we have Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man to introduce the brass and then I wanted to have some famous music while the mouse goes back stage and that’s Beethoven’s 5th Symphony! In the family concerts the orchestras usually play the whole first movement but I’ve made a rather funny 40 second version of it that is used for the school concerts. It’s only a short introduction to this great master piece but enough to whet the appetite of the 4-6 year olds! We also have a very popular Icelandic encore, On Sprengisandur by Kaldalóns, people go crazy when we play this piece about horse-riding. Then the very last piece is Maxi’s Song, a simple tune written by me to lyrics that my good friend, the illustrator, and I wrote together.

 

How did you get the illustrations and the concerts?

The illustrator is a colleague of mine, he plays the viola in the ISO, and as I’d seen some really funny cartoons by him depicting musicians, I asked him to join me. When he said yes, it all just came together and in 2008, two and a half years after I got the initial idea, the book was ready. The orchestra was also ready to play the concert programme with a narrator and the illustrations on a screen behind the orchestra.

Although I thought this project taken a long time, everyone told me that it was actually a very short time to realise a project. The beautiful hard cover book with CD had arrived from the printers and the orchestra was launching the book with both family and school concerts. The hall was full of four to six year olds with only a handful of teachers. Usually, when we did concerts for that age group there would be unrest in the audience and a bit of talking, but as we started there was complete silence! There was so much energy that came from the children who were all focusing on us, we’d never experienced anything like it before. So, there I sat, in the orchestra, and had thought that this project was completed but I got goosebumps realising that this was indeed not the end, it was only the beginning! I felt I had to bring this out to other orchestras.

 

How idid you bring Maxi out into the world?

So this what I’ve been doing, getting the material available for other orchestras in other languages. The Maxi concert has been performed by orchestras such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Queensland SO and West Australian SO in Perth, Ensemble Berlin from the Berliner Philharmoniker, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra played it in the Concertgebouw. We have bookings from Tasmania and Canada and interested parties in Brazil and China – the books have just been published there as well as in German, English and Korean. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra has obviously played it many times and we performed it in a Nordic festival in Washington in 2013. I had a chamber orchestra version arranged and that was premiered by The Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York last year and reached an incredible amount of listeners through a web-cast streaming all over the world. All in all, Maximus Musicus has had 100 concerts around the globe since 2008, that’s a lot of children!

 

So have you before a household name in Iceland?

The books are best-sellers in Iceland. I constantly get to hear wonderful stories of children that love the mouse and want to listen to the recording and read the book every night. They listen to the narration on the CD with samples of the music fading in and out, and after they’ve listened to the story they are ready to listen to all the pieces as they come in their entirety on the CD.

Right after the first book I was asked for more. I wondered what would be most important and decided it was necessary to show that children can also play instruments, not only the grown-ups. Therefore the second book is called Maximus Musicus Visits the Music School and came out two years later. Then my dream was to do a ballet project and in 2012 we premiered a ballet show, Maximus Musicus Saves the Ballet. We had a hundred children from the National Ballet School dancing on stage to music by Glazunov, Ravel and Jorunn Vidar. We finished the series last year with the latest one, Maximus Musicus Joins the Choir, and in the concert we had 240 young choristers singing with the orchestra. We feel we’ve finished the series, it is complete with the four stories from the orchestra, the music school, dancing and singing.

My heart ticks the strongest for music and education. The mouse not only learns about music and instruments, singing and dancing, he also learns, and thereby teaches his readers, some positive life skills like the value of friendship and having the courage to believe in yourself.

Although this project has been an enormous amount of work for almost ten years, I am immensely grateful to have possibly made a little difference with it.

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