First Flute of the English National Opera: Part – 2
Advice for Students and Young Players
As your studying and professional playing overlapped, what did you find to be the main differences between playing with student orchestras and professional orchestras?
Comparatively, the standard is exceptionally high in professional orchestras, and British orchestras are well-renowned for their sight-reading — the speed with which the whole orchestra picks up a new piece is incredible — and sometimes the first play through sounds like it could be a performance. In a student orchestra things naturally take a little longer to get together, but that’s part of the learning curve. As a student going into professional orchestras for the first time, you can’t fake experience but you can compensate with plenty of preparation. The rest of the orchestra is likely to know any standard repertoire back to front so you’ve got to know your part and how it fits in — professional orchestral rehearsals aren’t for learning the piece.
I think there is an attitude difference between student and professional orchestras too. In a professional setting most people are much more relaxed — no one wants to sit next to someone who’s stressed, paranoid, or too self-concerned. Besides which, if you’re playing under a lot of pressure every day, the only way to deal with it is to enjoy playing and have fun with your colleagues.
Having been at a music conservatoire and Oxford university what do you think are the pros and cons of studying in these different types of institutions?
I had an absolutely brilliant time at Oxford and, for anyone who has that kind of academic interest or wants to broaden the way they look at music, I would really highly recommend it. However, if you’re intent on becoming a professional performer it requires massive amounts of motivation to do this alongside an academic degree. I was very lucky that I had a clear idea that I wanted to be a flautist, so I dedicated time to practice regardless of other commitments, but there’s no avoiding doing two or three essays every week at that kind of institution. I remember in my first few terms at Oxford I wanted to have the full university ‘experience’, so I was only sleeping for three or four hours a night because I was so determined to get up early and practice, but also quite determined to go out in the evenings! I also had the benefit of an absolutely brilliant flute teacher in Michael Cox whilst I was at Oxford. That was an excellent motivation to practice, as there was no way I’d turn up for a lesson with Michael and not be prepared. I was often commuting into London for lessons early in the morning before he started BBC Symphony rehearsals, so I’ll admit that I’d sometimes be hungover, but always prepared nevertheless!
From a performing point of view, university was brilliant because there were so many opportunities — it was easy to do one or two recitals every term, alongside orchestral playing and plenty of chamber music. For those weighing up university and music college, the main reason for going to university would be if you have a genuine interest in broadening your view of music. If you have got an inquisitive mind then you will really, really enjoy it.
After studying at Oxford, RCM was completely different but also ideal for me in that it helped me to do the intensive work needed in order to achieve the end goal of playing professionally. The master’s course put a strong emphasis on preparing you for a career in orchestral playing, and how to actually get a job, so it was a step away from the theoretical towards the practical side of music.
Having been to Chetham’s School of Music for two years, what’s your view on music schools and when is it right to intensify your tuition?
Because I came from a state school background, going to Chetham’s for 6th form for two years was extremely intense in comparison. It gave me the boost I needed and, as I then didn’t do my undergraduate at music college, I felt that I at least had a good foundation. However, it can be a very competitive environment, and to be surrounded by that for several years can make you forget that there’s a lot more to life than practise. You have to have a very resilient personality to withstand that pressure and remember fundamentally why you’re pursuing music.
The most brilliant thing for me at Chetham’s, apart from having another stunning teacher in Katherine Baker, was having access to an accompanist whenever you wanted; getting used to playing with a piano and also doing a lot of chamber music was totally invaluable.
How do you feel that your musical education prepared you for your career and is there anything that you feel you were not prepared for when you first began professional work?
I felt well prepared technically; when you’re fresh out of college you have the benefit of having time to practice but it’s a very different story once you’re working. One thing that I wasn’t prepared for is the intensity of a full-time schedule; although we’re very lucky with the amount of holiday we get at ENO, when the season is in full swing there can be six or seven shows a week. You have to perform at your best and bring energy and musical intelligence to the task, which can be exhausting night after night. We often have split days which consist of a rehearsal in the morning, then a six hour break, then a performance in the evening, so you can be out of your house for sixteen hours a day and have to be at the top of your game until the very end.
How did you cope with the usual gap between graduation and receiving your contract (even though yours was quite short!)?
I was very lucky with the timing, and although that gap was scary I was on trial with ENO at the time so had something to focus on. I was also trying to forge links with as many orchestras as possible and applying for every audition that came up. For me it was important not to stop moving forwards and to throw myself at every opportunity whilst I had the momentum of just having left College.
Surprisingly, something I found very useful was doing the Aeolus International Wind Competition shortly after I graduated. I’ve never been the sort of person who has enjoyed competitions, and in a way I don’t like the ethos of ‘competing’ musically. However, it was great motivation to keep practising and striving to improve, which was important to me at that time. It also pushed me outside of my comfort zone as the programme was incredibly demanding: the first two rounds alone required the Berio’s Sequenza and the Jolivet Concerto from memory, as well as Joueurs de Flute, a W.F. Bach Sonata, Prokofiev Sonata, L’apres midi d’un faune, and Roxburgh’s Stardrift — so enough to keep anyone busy for a while!
What advice would you give to students leaving college and starting their career?
Realistically you need to find a way to survive financially. If you’re still waiting for orchestral work to pick up I’d advise doing some private teaching, but only enough that you can comfortably pay the bills.
If you ultimately want to be an orchestral player, strike a balance so that you’re not so oversubscribed doing other things that you’re lacking in time and energy to practise.
Musically, I think getting used to playing with other people as much as possible is essential: chamber music, orchestras, even practise with a friend if you can. You’ll never regret having invested time in practising intonation. The other piece of advice I’d give is to go to as many concerts as possible — there’s no substitute for listening to live music, and absolutely no excuse not to considering how many cheap student tickets are available.
I’d also advise getting as many opinions as possible — going to different teachers, or doing masterclasses, and trying to continue learning and developing your playing. Orchestral academies or sit-in schemes can also be brilliant stepping stones, and help you to get your name out there and play to the right people. It might sound obvious, but definitely do as many auditions as possible; you never know what might come out of them. Getting used to how you prepare, knowing your stamina and how to pace practise leading up to an audition, not to mention dealing with nerves, will be invaluable — you don’t want to experience all of that for the first time when your dream job comes up.
Do you have time to pursue other types of performance work such as solo and chamber concerts now that you have a fantastically busy orchestral job?
Yes, when it fits in with the schedule! For example, this week I’m doing a concerto in Cologne, which I’m very excited about. Obviously there’s not as much time as you’d like to prepare for things, so it takes some advance planning, but solo and chamber playing really excite me and I personally want to keep my career as varied as possible.
Who do you think has been the most influential musical figure in your life?
That’s very difficult because I’ve been lucky to meet so many amazing musicians. I would have to say that each of my teachers has been incredibly important and influential in their own way. My first ‘proper’ flute teacher (that is, excluding the bassoonist who tried to teach me the flute for the first couple of years with some very questionable technique!) was Carolyn Kelly, who was endlessly enthusiastic and encouraging. She has several former students who now play professionally, who were all once in her “Croydon Fluteharmonic” flute choir! So that’s a real testament to a brilliant teacher who was admirably dedicated.
I was then taught by Katherine Baker, Michael Cox, Gareth Davies and Daniel Pailthorpe; at different stages of my progress each of them inspired and guided me in the right direction. I’m still incorporating things that they taught me into my playing; they all have completely different playing and teaching styles, so when I’m practising something I usually have at least four different approaches to try. Each of my teachers has been amazingly supportive and opened up musical possibilities for me – I’ve been extremely fortunate to learn with them.
Do you have any aspirations for the future?
My life has changed so dramatically in the past year or so that it seems ridiculous to second-guess what might happen in the future, or to want for more. As I said earlier, I love chamber music and I’d certainly like to do more of that as my career develops. To be honest though, at the moment I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. To have the opportunity on a daily basis to explore exciting repertoire and play with amazing musicians, that’s exactly what I’ve always wanted!
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