The BBC National Orchestra of Wales Principal Flute
Matthew Featherstone! Matthew is 26 years old and graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2009.
Hi Matthew. Thanks so much for coming to talk to us. Huge congratulations on your new job!
How does that feel?
It feels fantastic! I’m enjoying it a lot! Although it was a bit daunting the first week at BBCNOW, wondering if I was going to live up to expectations, I’m now relaxing more into it. I think what did it was when people started to take the mickey when I made a mistake – then I thought “good, I’m one of them now!” There is something about the wind section there which means I can fit in without having to try too hard to change things about my playing – so it feels ‘right’. I’ve always enjoyed playing principal flute too, so for me it’s the dream job; I never expected it to come so soon…
It’s great that you felt so quickly at home in the section, was it like that from the start? Even on trial?
Yeah, it really was. The first time I played with the section I was on 2nd flute, and I could tell right from then that they were a group of people I would love to work with – they have such a good balance of being friendly and really ‘on it’ professionally. In terms of the other principal players, they work really well together – and the sort of sound and musicality they had I thought was very similar to mine. So musically, and socially it’s great. That’s not to say I didn’t get nervous on trial – I did! But, the thing that helped become less nervous was seeing the trail as an opportunity to play with some great players. Then you kind of think “Actually, I’m really lucky to be here, I’m going to enjoy this” and it flips around to being something much less worrying. I think the psychology of trialing is quite hard, and it’s something I’m still trying to work out. It’s possible to get really paranoid and obsessed with what people think, whereas the other players just want you to be who you are, and if that fits – great, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Actually, getting that overly concerned is not doing yourself any favours either – if you’re trying to hide things and to adapt your playing all the time, you will never know if you actually fit in the section.
So, now you’re there in the job, what music are you most looking forward to performing?
Ahh! Well, we have Shostakovich 5 coming up, Brahms 4 – which I’m really looking forward too, and Mahler 5 too.
As you’ve just stated, are those pieces new to you?
Yes – I haven’t played Shostakovich 5 or Mahler 5 yet, so I’m really looking forward to them. I’ve played excerpts, of course – but it’s not quite the same!
Wow, so you’re learning a lot of new repertoire really quickly at the moment?
Absolutely – last week we did Till Eulenspiegel which was quite fun…. well, fun and scary at the same time! There are a lot of notes, it’s a very exciting piece though.
How do you go about preparing an orchestral piece which is new to you? Do you listen to recordings? Practice the whole part? Practice excerpts?
Exactly that – if it’s a completely new piece I would probably listen to a recording, maybe twice or even three times through to get really familiar with which instruments I’ll be playing with and so on. I might compare different recordings too, to get a clearer idea of things. I sometimes get the score out if I’m feeling really keen or if there’s something which isn’t clear from listening. Then I’ll get to the flute and work it all out really, and see what I can bring to it!
You must be developing as a musician all the time with so much new music?
Well yeah, there is so much collective experience and knowledge in the orchestra that you pick up by just playing with the orchestra. I’m definitely still learning things, such as how much I need to project over the orchestra and how much I can hold back if I want to, getting the right balance really… But I hope I’ll continue learning and improving more and more, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?
I think I’m getting quicker at learning music too. Being in the job is different to being on trial in that respect. When you’re on trial you’ve often got a month’s notice or so, so often I’d have about a fortnight to practice new pieces and get to know them really well. But now, we just go from one week to the next with new repertoire all the time, and there isn’t really time for that. There are a lot of notes, particularly quick passages at the top of the instrument – my technique is improving! [Laughs]
So, do you think there is anything you could recommend doing before auditioning/doing trials which would help people prepare for that situation?
Well yeah – I was a member of Southbank Sinfonia, which is a sort of orchestra academy for young graduates, and I think that was really helpful. I got to concentrate on the skills that make you a good orchestral player, and play in an orchestra day in day out, which gives you a lot more confidence that you actually know what you’re doing. We had a lot of repertoire to go through and it did get me used to having a bit less preparation, but feeling confident enough to go and perform well. It’s funny, because your mind does do weird things when you’re performing, even if you have prepared. But, of course the more experience you get, the better you get at coping with it.
Do you miss living in London?
Leaving London, I was obviously really looking forward to the job, and I really like Cardiff – it has a much more leisurely pace than London! I love the sea, so being in the bay is really nice – there are some lovely walks and great buildings, including the WMC where we’re based. My wife and I have made friends really quickly I think, and people in the orchestra have been really supportive – inviting us to their homes for dinner etc. so it’s been nice for us. Also – Cardiff is actually close to London, it’s what two/two and a half hours by train, so I can always come back, as I have done this weekend for work with my flute, harp and viola trio. Obviously I miss my friends and the busyness of London, but sometimes when I was living in London I was so busy rushing around that actually I didn’t have that much time to catch up with friends. In Cardiff I find myself being more proactive at staying in touch.
What do you enjoy most about BBCNOW?
What’s great about them is that they play a lot of really varied stuff and don’t repeat programs much. So, I have done commercial recording (Doctor Who always use BBCNOW!) educational projects, contemporary music and big Symphonic rep. Even during the trial period I got to see what the orchestra was like. It’s a two way process trialing, so it’s important to assess whether you feel you would enjoy the job, and whether you would fit in.
We love Doctor Who! How was that recording?
Yeah, that was fun. We got to know a few things about what’s coming up in the next season (although strictly confidential!). It’s actually really great music, and it was interesting, working with a click track and headphones.
How about the contemporary music?
Yeah, we do quite a lot of that actually. I really like that kind of thing; getting to learn some really wacky stuff. Some of it is quite tricky but that keeps you in shape and on top of all those extended techniques!
You’ve had trials and job offers from other orchestras already, including for 2nd flute. Can you tell us a bit about the differences between trialing for principal and 2nd?
Yeah, I think that experience really increased my awareness of the totally different role that is playing 2nd flute, and I think that’s something which isn’t taught very much in college – the role of the 2nd player. People underestimate how much you have to play in someone else’s sound. You need to try to almost ‘be’ someone else, in a way – matching pitch, vibrato, tone etc. Also, you need to be good at fitting your harmony in the middle of chords, which is totally different to floating notes on top, which is what I’m used to doing now. It’s easy to do that if the chord is balanced underneath you, so it’s a really important job, 2nd flute. Your role within the team of players is also very different. On principal flute you need, maybe more assurance – you’re part of a team of four principals, and you’ve got to know what to say to your section and how to say it, if you need to. As a second player you need to be a strong support to the principal but also not get in the way… I found it fascinating to be in both positions, and I think you probably understand the 2nd player a bit more if you’ve been through the experience of doing that yourself.
Do you have any advice for people who are trialing?
Well, I’d say, know the pieces you’re doing inside out. Try and be as well prepared as you can, so that when you get there the only thing you need to concentrate on is blending with the other players and reacting to what the conductor’s telling you. I think I learnt a lot about how to blend with the orchestra during the trial and I can put that to good use now that I have all this new music to play. Blending and fitting in is feeling easier and easier as the weeks go on.
You studied at the GSMD – how do you feel the college did in terms of preparing you for your job?
The wind repertoire sessions, which were led by different orchestral players from London, were great as they gave me the chance to learn how to play in the section. I grew up in France and there weren’t actually many youth orchestras or training schemes over there, so orchestral playing was very new to me. Counting bars, sight reading etc – I wasn’t great at all that! So the rep sessions were a great learning experience for me. We had to learn the whole of the Probespiel excerpts book for our fourth year exam which was actually great in preparing me for orchestral auditions, although I hated it at the time, because I’m quite a last minute person and hadn’t allowed myself enough time to learn the whole book! I also got involved in a lot of chamber music. I think you can only be a good orchestral musician if you’re a good chamber player and I think through it I was able to learn about the kind of ‘radar’ that you need as an orchestral player to play with others and react to what they’re doing. I was also lucky to do quite a bit of principal flute playing, with some really good conductors. I was always quite excited about that. I remember my first symphonic rehearsal at college; I was so thrilled to hear this incredible sound! It was very new to me and I don’t think the others quite got why I was enjoying it so much! And of course, my teachers Phillipa Davies, Sarah Newbold and Ian Clarke all played a massive part in my development, and orchestrally particularly, Sarah had some invaluable advice and a great insight into it all!
A lot of what principal chairs is aiming to do is to prepare people better for auditioning. You have obviously had a lot of success in that area – can you offer our subscribers any words of advice?
It’s a bit odd really, because I think in an audition you kind of have to play like a soloist, but also like an orchestral player. So you’ve got to play your Mozart Concerto like you would do in front of an orchestra, but then you’ve also got to know how you would play in an orchestral setting and show that too – it’s quite a surreal thing! You’ve got to show that you’ve got that extra “something” that they haven’t heard yet too. I also think it’s important to ask yourself “why did they put that excerpt on the list” And “what can I show in this that I haven’t shown already?” Other than that, all the usually things really; listen to the repertoire a lot, really know who you will be playing with, get as much advice as possible from orchestral players, in lessons and now by making good use of videos like on Principal Chairs. Learning excerpts and preparing for auditions has taught me a lot actually. Until I started really focusing on excerpts, I hadn’t seen how detailed you can be about playing something exactly as it is on the page, or exactly how it should be stylistically. Understanding the style and the period is something I hadn’t been as ruthless with myself about – but you really do need to do that for an audition.
Anything else you would like to add?
Yeah – just quickly.. I think there is a danger when you’re freelancing to pin all your hopes on auditions and think “I really want a job”. That can add an unnecessary pressure onto the auditions which won’t help. I was once asked by one of the players during my trial what I was doing aside from the orchestra, and I said ‘just freelancing really…’ and they replied ‘don’t say JUST freelancing!’ Freelancing is a great and varied career path, and it can be very enjoyable. It’s so important to try to value and enjoy whatever work you are doing. I know it’s easy for me to say that now, in retrospect, but I do think it’s important!
Thanks so much for coming to talk to us! Before you go, can we ask you honestly what you think of the Principal Chairs site?
It is really is a fantastic resource. As I think I said earlier, there are so many aspects of orchestral playing which you don’t have time to go into in depth on at music college. When you’re there, I do think a lot of the time you concentrate on your individual playing. Your teacher wants to help you with your technique – there’s a lot to get through. Principal Chairs seems to offer master classes on the specific aspects of orchestral playing – in your own home! No need to spend money on transport! [Laughs]. It’s great – I would have found it very, very useful when I was preparing for my orchestral exams at college, but others might use it to prepare for auditions, concerts, freelance work, or other exams.
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