“Music college doesn’t prepare you for how professional orchestra works, who have worked together for years. If anything was out of tune I always thought it was my fault…”
You studied a Chetham’s School of Music with Gitte Marcusson (who we actually interviewed a few months ago) – how was that? What was it like studying there with Gitte as your teacher?
Incredible. Obviously Chets is a boarding school, so you are away from home; it was like having another mum there who is also amazing at teaching flute [laughs]. Gitte was such a support to me throughout the 4 and a half years I was there. I went to Chets at 14, so young but not super young. I think it was the right age for me to go. I wouldn’t have wanted to go any earlier, but equally I’m glad I had that time there. So Gitte was just amazing and so supportive when I applied to the Juilliard school. She came with me to New York and we had a great week! We did quite a lot of sight seeing actually, and then, you know, just popped in and did an audition at Juilliard! It was just amazing to have someone who really believes in you and supports everything you want to do. It was fantastic.
Wow! That’s amazing. Not all teachers are that supportive and generous with their time, are they?
No, no they’re not. But I have to say, if any of my students asked me to go to New York I absolutely would! [Laughs]
What were the best and worst bits of being at the school itself?
I find it quite difficult to think of the worst bits. The best bits were obviously the performing opportunities, the teaching and the friends I met there. Some of them are absolutely my closest friends now, like family. A couple of my closest friends from school are not doing music any more, but we’re still in touch and that’s lovely. The worst bits… well, maybe I missed my vocation as a top sports star (we didn’t do any!) but I don’t think that’s something I need to worry about too much [laughs]. In terms of a broad education, it’s also fantastic there, apart from being great on the music side.
We’ve heard you’ve had a lot of competition success [Katherine won the Audi competition at age 15, performing the Nielsen concerto]. Do you think competitions are an important thing for young musicians to do?
Yes, I do. I think they are a great performing experience, and also the level you have to prepare to is very high, so it’s great in terms of developing that kind of discipline in practice. I think, looking back on it now, I’m really glad I did the competitions, but I always say to people now that music is such a personal thing. It’s so much about taste that if you win a competition – great, but if you don’t it doesn’t actually mean that you are a lesser player than you were before the competition, or even than the person who did win.
So yes, I do think competitions are a great thing to do, but it’s important to keep in perspective what music is, and how personal a thing it is, so that it’s not the be all and end all whether you win. It think it’s good to have a little bit of a competitive edge, but it’s when that kind of overtakes what you believe in your own playing that it can become a problem. Ultimately, I think the most important person to impress with your playing is yourself. It took me quite a while to really take that on board, but now I realise the first person I need to trust in is myself.
So after Chetham’s you moved to New York. Why did you choose to study in the USA?
Well, when I was 16 I was lucky enough to win a scholarship from the Royal Philharmonic Society, which was for overseas study. At that point I hadn’t really decided where I wanted to go for college, I just new I wanted to go to a music college somewhere. I had thought for a while about going abroad because, being at Chet’s, obviously most of my friends would probably go to music college in the UK, and as much as I loved them all, I sort of felt that for my own development I needed to go and meet new people, and be somewhere different. So I knew I probably didn’t want to stay in Manchester, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow everyone to London either. So I did a bit of research into teachers that I thought might be good for me, and Jeanne Baxtresser was a name that came up at the Juilliard School. So, having this great scholarship, I then applied knowing I would be able to afford to fund most of the study there if I got in…. And I did – which was great! I can’ t even really describe the experience of studying there.
New York is my favourite place in the world – I think probably because I spent three very important years of my life there, and I kind of grew up there and learnt about life. Juilliard was amazing of course, but New York itself equalled it, if not overtook it. I was worried before I went to Juilliard, because I’d heard that it was a very competitive environment, and I didn’t really want that. The reality was that it isn’t like that at all. The flute department was so lovely. I remember a couple of months after arriving, we did a Symphony Orchestra concert, and it was Daphnis and Chloe (I was playing the solo, playing first flute) – I came out of the stage door after the concert and there were about 20 of my friends and colleagues there with bunches of flowers cheering, it was incredible. I’ve never felt support like that really – it was great.
Who were your teachers at the Juilliard?
I had Jeanne Baxtresser for a few months, but when she left the department I then moved over to study with Carol Wincenc, who was totally different to Jeanne, but great. I was really lucky actually, to have the benefit of both teachers I think; Carol is a wonderful person – lovely and crazy, and all the good things you need in a teacher!
When did you get your Job in the RSNO and move back to the UK?
I got the job in third year at college, so I didn’t finish the course!
Did you audition for the position or were you invited to trial?
Yes, I did audition – I applied for the job when I was 19 – partly because my Dad actually phoned me up one day and said he’d seen the job advertised in the paper! My Dad’s not musical at all, but he sort of said –“why don’t you audition for it?” I wasn’t really expecting to do my first audition for a big job like that, but I kind of thought, why not? I figured I had nothing to lose and went for it.
So, let’s get this right, your RSNO audition was your first audition?!
Wow! That’s amazing!
Well, yeah, it was a bit odd, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d obviously done auditions at college for things, but most of those had been behind a screen (because of course that’s how they do it in America) so I’d never done a UK audition or anything like it. So I applied and then didn’t hear anything for ages. I presumed they had just laughed when they got my CV and thrown it away…. But, then I did hear about a month before the date that I had been given an audition. So I prepared for it the best I could and I did the audition in London. From that I’m not sure how many players they selected, I think they had been looking for a principal flute for quite some time actually – maybe these were the 4th of 5thround of auditions for the job over the years.
They invited me in, I did a couple of weeks work, they invited me back a few months later and I did another couple of weeks, and about a month after that they called and offered me the job! I’m very lucky – I wasn’t expecting it, and I didn’t really even know I wanted the job until I sat in the orchestra for the first time…. It was actually the very first time I had sat in a professional orchestra, so it was a quick learning curve!
Following on from that; was there anything you feel in particular which you had to learn on the job, anything you couldn’t possibly learn at college?
I would say virtually everything! [laughs] And that’s not because music college doesn’t teach you well, but there are just some things you can’t really prepare for…. the speed at which a professional orchestra works in terms of adjusting and making things work. When you have a set of players who have worked together for years, they don’t really discuss intonation (because it’s nearly always right!). Everyone just listens so intently… there is an immediate awareness of everything, note lengths etc. Say something wasn’t right the first time, it would always be right after that. So those kind of things really! Intonation I suppose is a big one, but I guess when I first joined the RSNO if anything was out of tune I always thought it was my fault! I was really keen to get that sorted straight away.
I suppose, managing the section as well. I was so young when I joined the orchestra, and I was joining a section who had worked together for a long time, so I had to find a way of managing that. The whole woodwind section get along fantastically, and the flutes especially are just like family to me now. I remember, Helen (RSNO’s 2nd flute) called me just after I’d been offered the job and I said “It’s going to be great – but it’s going to be fun as well!” We do have fun – musically and socially – which I think is so important. I don’t know how sections cope when they don’t get along…
So, when you’re sitting on the panel now, for job or maybe extra work auditions, what are the most important things you look for in a player?
I think pulse and rhythm are definitely top of my list, because I think that can say a lot about a player’s orchestral savviness. It depends probably which job it’s for too…. If it was for a 2nd flute I would be listening for a sound which I thought would work with mine, and with flute players particularly – vibrato which I feel is controlled, and can be varied – that’s really important. A really good sense of intonation, knowing that someone can adjust and has good ears… Everyone plays the occasional note out of tune, that’s normal, but you need to know the player has good awareness and ability to adapt and adjust.
Which pieces do you most look forward to playing with RSNO?
I have to say, I pretty much look forward to at least one piece in every concert we play. Next week we’re doing Grieg piano concerto, which I can’t wait to play; I know it’s played a lot, but I think it’s just gorgeous. On our tour of China over New Year we played Enigma Variations, which we have also played a lot in the past, and the flute part isn’t even particularly exciting, but I just love the piece. I love playing the French repertoire, so working with Stephane Deneve over the last few years has been great for that – we recorded the complete works of Debussy which was amazing.
Can you tell us a bit about your solo CD?
Yes, well, the current one which is available has the Liebermann Concerto, the Nielsen Concerto, the Poulenc Sonata (orchestrated by Lennox Berkeley) and the Hue Fantasie in it’s orchestrated version. So they are four of my absolute favourite pieces. The Nielsen it particular I kind of think of as my baby, because I’ve played it for so many different things from such a young age…
I’m in the process of editing a 2nd disk at the moment too, which is due for release in May. It has the Christopher Rouse Concerto, the Ibert Concerto, the strings and piano version of the Martin Ballade and Syrinx, so more favourites of mine. It’s funny really, I actually feel even more comfortable standing in front of the orchestra than in it! We had so little time, just under two days to record each of these CDs; the RSNO were just amazing to work with – they really can play anything! I’m so lucky!