You have taught some of the UK’s youngest and finest principal flutes, Adam Walker (London Symphony Orchestra) and Katherine Bryan (Royal Scottish National Orchestra) at Chetham’s School of Music.
Did you notice something special about them or their playing from the start?
My pleasure, thank you for asking me. Adam was only nine when he came to Chets and was mainly self-taught with all that entails! It was impossible to tell from his audition how teachable he would be; he could barely hold up the flute and had the most obscure embouchure I’d ever seen. But, the sparkle in his eyes was there and we decided to give him a place. I soon realised I wasn’t getting anywhere with Adam, making him go through my masses of exercises, changing his embouchure, so on and so forth. It always was a question of timing – he was a very big musician trapped in a very little body. As we got to know one another I could throw in all the exercises he needed without him noticing too much! When he was eleven he came for a lesson and played the last page of the Nielsen Flute Concerto (to any decent teacher’s horror) and asked -“Geeetaa, I know I can’t do it yet but when do you think I will be able to play this piece?” – “If you do exactly what I tell you, you can play this when you are 15. But you must do this, that, the other first. Are you prepared to do that?” – “Yes!” When he was 15 he played the Nielsen in the BBC Young Musician of the Year finals!
Katherine was another one who came to Chets at quite a young age. She was impressive in the way she absorbed everything and had a unique dedication to her flute. At age 15 she was the first woodwind player to win the Audi Music Competition playing the Nielsen with Academy of St. Martins in the Fields. It sounds like the Nielsen is the only concerto I know – it must be my Danish origin!
Again, here it was a question of pacing everything well and making sure the flame wouldn’t burn out. It’s a completely different ballgame getting a talented student at the age of 18 to getting a student at 9 or 12. It’s a massive responsibility to keep them on the right track for so many years, as was the case with both Adam and Katherine…
Can you tell us about some of your other students?
There have been so many wonderful students over the years, many of whom are now in the profession and many others have chosen to do other things. Some of them are easy to follow, like Alex Jakeman who just left Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra to freelance in London, Cathy Greenwood, Nicola Smedley, Helen Benson in Mexico City, Orquesta del Nuovo Mondo, Helen Wilson who was at RNCM and of course Philippa Mercer who is still at RCM and Joshua Batty at RAM. Nowadays, most of my students are Swedish, and are dotted around the country in various orchestras.
When did you leave Chets? Do you go back there to teach? Do you miss it?
I left Chets 2007, I think. I loose track of time, but my youngest child was about four years old. I had no intension of leaving Chets but with two small children and a husband often away on tour I found it extremely difficult to juggle the balls between the two countries. On top of that, we live in the middle of nowhere with no one to look after the children when we are away – it was a bit too far for grandmother to travel from Denmark to Sweden to babysit every other week!
I have visited Chets a few times since leaving although I haven’t managed to go back as much as we planned. I was very close to my students there and found it rather traumatic leaving them – you are much more than a teacher at a school like Chets. I was a rule breaker, insisting that my students called me Gitte and not Mrs Marcusson. I also fought the supervised practice system in place as it was against my whole philosophy of making a student passionate about practicing. I was forever taking my students out for meals so they could see a bit of life outside their normal environment, I hugged them when they were upset (and happy!) which I believe is criminal?! God knows where someone like Adam Walker, Katherine Bryan or Alex Jakeman would have been without that!
Do I miss Chets? As I said it was very hard leaving, but life moves on and I have close contact with most of my old students there. Many come to visit in Sweden and I think people like Adam and Katherine look at my house as a second home. They have been coming here since the age of 12!
Where do you teach now? Do you accept private students?
Since leaving Chets I have been teaching at Vänersborg School of Music in Sweden, where I take students between the ages of 15 and 22. Its a very exciting school with a lot happening; the students get more than double of what the Swedish music colleges offer in terms of lesson time, chamber music, classes, orchestral playing, playing with a pianist and performance opportunities – a very luxurious program! I’ve taught several students doing Masters and SNOA (Swedish National Orchestra Academy) but I found it unsatisfying since the students get so little resources in their study… Unfortunately most of the students don’t stand a chance of getting a job due to the poor quantity in everything the colleges can offer. Besides teaching in Vänersborg I have my own studio where I have students from Europe and most Swedish music colleges. Of course I teach private lessons as well, but I’m not a one lesson kind of teacher.
What do you think are the most important aspects of teaching? Specific materials or exercises? A particular approach to communicating with students? Demonstration?
Gosh, how long do you have? There is so much! Giving the student loads of confidence is a good beginning as is convincing them that playing the flute is a piece of cake, which it is really – once you can do it!
I try to teach my students not to need me anymore, but instead to start teaching themselves rather than practicing. At the end of the day, you are your own best teacher. It seems to be fashionable today to hunt for the ‘perfect’ teacher – but you don’t have to go very far to hind him/her! The student must have short term and long term goals – after this hour of practice I will be able to…next week I can…… by Christmas I will be able to ……. by Easter I will be able to….. etc. In the beginning we all have a big pile of “can not” and a not so big pile of “can”. If a student doesn’t know what is in which pile then making fast progress is difficult. With structured practice the student should see the “can not” pile shrinking and the “can” pile growing week by week. Keeping a thread between lessons is vital for the student’s progress. Sadly, more often than not a student will play almost random stuff in lessons and not follow it through. In general I feel students are left far too free even at a very advanced level, and that is partly why I write down the essentials of what I say in lessons and always follow up on what we discovered in the previous lesson.
The ability to put a finger on a problem/weakness in a student’s playing and to give them a very clear diagnosis with ways to improve rapidly (without complicating things) is the an important aspect of teaching. Serious flute problems are rare and most things can be sorted out quite instantly.
The psychology of teaching is vital at any level, not least with the very good players who also think a lot. The ability to tune in to each individual player is of course a must for the teamwork to function – no two players should be taught the same way and absolutely not sound the same! I used to demonstrate a lot in lessons but to my horror I noticed that they all started to sound ‘Gitte-ish’, so I’m a little careful now, especially when it comes to teaching repertoire. When teaching basics on the other hand, I find demonstrating really helpful.
It’s important to remember that one is blessed with the best teacher you’ll ever get already – yourself. People always want to find the perfect teacher to sort out their problems but, at the end of the day, you are there all the time, whilst the teacher will only ever see you once a week.
Are you planning on coming back to the UK? We’ve heard there’s a job going at the Royal College of Music…
[Laughs!] You’re not the first to ask that question! I have had quite a few phone calls and texts from the UK recently about the job at RCM. To be honest I feel more than ready to take on such a responsibility and it’s the right time in my life to make that kind of commitment and devotion, which students at Music College need. I have never applied for a job before – I’m only 46- but maybe the time has come.
Many of our subscribers at Principal Chairs are young professionals balancing freelance performing work, teaching and other work. If people have limited time to practice what would you recommend focusing on? Is there a minimum routine you teach students to go through each day
Less practice time is often better practice time! 3 minutes is a very long time if you practice well. Try to find what works for you and combine tone, technique and articulation in one and same exercise such as sequences. By the time you start working you can’t possibly do an hour on tone, 2 on technique, an hour on articulation, an hour on studies etc. and in any case, you shouldn’t need to by the time you work! If you commute you can do wonderful practice on the train, plane, bike or car. You don’t need to blow the flute to learn repertoire. Vibrato and breathing is best done without the flute and finger technique is good to do without the instrument too, at times. Practicing on a pen is quite useful and you can see what your fingers are doing. Practicing is an art which most of us unfortunately learn very late in our career. Learning how to practice before you start practicing saves you hours and hours of wasted work.
Some of your former students we have spoken to mentioned you were particularly good at advising them on how to structure their practice time. Can you elaborate on that?
Some essential questions all students need an answer to and most will find time saving:
What to practice?
How to practice?
What am I trying to achieve (short term/long term)?
It’s like building a pyramid – the first few layers take a long time but then layer for layer it gets faster. If a layer is solid, building on it is not a problem – it’s just a question of time. But if one stone is rocking there is no point going on until it’s solid. Often I see students high up in the pyramid with a rocking ground. No wonder they don’t get the job! Yes, all my students get an individual practice schedule, which we change regularly according to need.
Most of the teaching our subscribers do is at a much lower standard than teaching at Chets or on a specialist flute course. Do you have any advice for teaching beginners and intermediate students?
The difference between teaching beginners, intermediate or advanced students is not as big as one might think. All ages need the right balance in diet, just in different quantities and maybe served in different ways. A child might need the vegetables to be cut in a fun way in order to eat them but nevertheless s/he needs them! Learning has to be fun and I think most young students enjoy practicing tone, technique and articulation when presented the right way. Rule no 1 is not to allow the beginner student to get away with bad technique, which later has to be changed. It takes much longer undoing things than learning them properly in the first place. 99% of beginners have a perfect embouchure from day one. Only when the inexperienced teacher allows the student to go too far too soon (like going into the second octave before the support system is working or playing fast with wrong hand position or uncontrolled fingers) the trouble starts. Don’t be in a hurry to get through those first beginner books. I recommend getting everything sorted in the low register. Teach the beginner student to breathe and support properly and they don’t have to spend years undoing an embouchure with which they can’t play in tune or develop a wide range of colours.
Are there any particular books you couldn’t live without for teaching?
A notebook. I write down what I say in lessons and make sure my students write directly after or during the lesson too – it’s a very helpful tool! All my students have Trevor Wye’s practice books, which are an good all round dose of vitamins if you know how to practice them. More often than not students have all books known to mankind but haven’t a clue how to use them! Moyse Tone Development Through Interpretation and 24 Melodic studies are of course a must, as is 25 Melodic Studies and 50 Variations on Bach’s Allemande. The list is never ending and I use the “good old books” all the time in my teaching.
Who were your teachers?
My brother (a percussionist, Danish Radio Orchestra), Trevor Wye, Clare Southworth, Pat Lynden, Rachel Brown, Pat Morris, a recording machine, my students and myself!
Can you tell us about your own practice routine?
I’m an extremely structured and disciplined person which has always helped me in my practice and which is now a central part of my teaching. I have stacks of notebooks from age 12 onwards with timetables of my practice! I also have recordings of myself practicing tone, technique, articulation, scales, studies and pieces with my own comments. I did that for years playing to my recording machine, commenting on what I thought and then listening to it afterwards. Half the time I found my comments weren’t at all relevant to how I played! Those lessons were worth hundreds of lessons with a teacher, they were cheaper and they made me a good teacher too! My God, you people who don’t know me must think I’m mad (and you who do – be quiet!) I did the right things in my practice from an early age: tone, technique, articulation, intonation, scales, studies and pieces all in huge quantities. Sadly no one told me how to do it, which resulted in a total “start all over again” when I came to Manchester at the age of 19. I never officially attended RNCM, but did all of my studying privately. So, I don’t have any letters behind my name, no paper to say what I can do and no student loans to pay off either!
Luckily I’ve always loved practicing so I was more than happy to lock myself in a room at 6.30am leaving late pm. For a whole year I didn’t play one single piece but I had great fun practicing all the basics. What an incredible feeling after a few months when everything began to fall into place and I could go to my lesson with Trevor and prove I wasn’t tone deaf, which he thought I was for the first three months of studying – “You are sharp, Viking!” was all I heard for weeks! He was right! I was sharp, which is not so strange when you have an embouchure where the corners of your mouth are behind your ears! Thanks Trevor for telling me – if I’d stayed in Denmark I’d still be sharp!
Nowadays practice time is limited and I keep in shape by playing sequences in all keys in endless variations. I make them up and always try and find new ways to keep the brain functioning and keep focus. Sequences are great practice; one can focus on what is necessary just that day. You can turn them into exercises for tone, technique, articulation, flexibility or whatever you like.
You’re married to another flute player – do you perform together?
Yes, when the opportunities arise. When it happens we do a concert for 2 flutes and piano, otherwise it’s mostly orchestral playing. We recorded Brandenburg 4 on Naxos a few years ago…
You’ve got kids, are they musical? Would you encourage them or discourage them to go into music?
Yes, both my children play. Anne-Sofie (who is 11) plays the fiddle and Kaspar (9) plays cello. Until six months ago Kaspar was adamant he was going to be a cellist, but the latest is he’s going to play Wimbledon and be the next Roger Federer! For those who haven’t come across Roger, he’s world no 1 in tennis! Kaspar has got the whole family playing tennis – we even have a personal trainer who comes to our flute concerts! Where Kaspar’s path is going, we’ll see. Anne-Sofie found my old Artley flute when she was 5 years old, just a few weeks after starting to play the fiddle. She put it together and asked me to show her a few notes. I wasn’t too keen to be honest and in the middle of cooking told her how to finger B, A and G. After ten minutes she came back in the kitchen playing a perfect one-octave scale with an embouchure most flute players would die for! I was ready to do anything to sabotage what I had just heard but calmed down when she said that she would stick with the fiddle. Puhhh… two of us is enough!
I only advise my children if they want advice – going into music is definitely not something you can advise people to do, it’s something you only know in yourself! I have never advised my students either, and maybe for that reason a lot of my most talented students do not do music as a career but play to a very high standard. Music is the best hobby in the world (apart from Tennis maybe!)
Do you think kids who go to music schools like Chets have a big advantage over those in non-specialist schools?
Of course there are many advantages in going to a specialist music school. The table is laid for you (which is not always a good thing!) You get a complete package with your main instrument, piano, chamber music, ensembles, orchestra, classes etc. I think you improve faster due to just being in an environment where everyone is doing the same thing. Most importantly you have a platform and get used to performing from a very young age. The performing system at Chets is amazing with endless concert opportunities. Then of course it also depends on the circumstances, the student’s background and most importantly their teacher. In my sixteen years at Chets I lived on the premises three nights a week and four nights every other week when commuting from Sweden. I could see my students every day during my stay for two or three lessons, classes, lunch, dinner, to listen to them performing or listening to them rehearsing with their accompanist – all of that is invaluable! It’s a tough climate at boarding school, and those young students need so much more than good flute lessons. Going to a specialist school is one way of doing it but it’s absolutely not a necessity! It has many disadvantages, too, but it depends so much on the individual. At the end of the day you want to have healthy, rounded people who can look after themselves. Whether they play the flute or not is irrelevant! You automatically live with the pressure that you should become a musician when you have spent your childhood at a specialist music school…
Do you have any advice in terms of preparing for orchestral auditions?
My experience leads me to say that you shouldn’t audition for a job if you don’t believe you can win it. A lot of students do auditions just to get experience in auditioning – it almost becomes a lifestyle! But, when it really counts and you really need the job it’s a completely different ball game. The body behaves in a very different way when it really counts. The kind of experience you got when you just “did it for fun” won’t help much. You should train yourself to always peak in a performance. Auditioning for jobs is badly paid and time consuming so make sure you get the first one!
Would you advise your students to subscribe to and use a resource like Principal Chairs?
Absolutely, I already do. I wish something like it was available when I was a student! From the age of 13 I went to the music library once a week and came away with a bag of LP records and a bag of scores. Listening to all that wonderful stuff I remember thinking “I wonder if anyone can ever tell me how to play like that!” It took some years till I met Pat Linden! Now you just press a button and it’s all there for you.
Congratulations to you for such a marvelous idea!
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