Meyrick Alexander has been Head of Woodwind at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff since 2010.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions Meyrick!
RWCMD now runs an orchestral training programme – what was the inspiration behind introducing a course like this?
My first experience of playing with a major symphony orchestra was in 1971 when I played third bassoon in Ein Heldenleben with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. For the first half hour I was simply too frightened to play, a position I have witnessed with many young players since. Many years later I became a professor at GSMD and I suggested to the then Head of Department Peter Gane that there should be a course to give students playing experience in top professional orchestras. This idea formed the basis of GSMD’s Post Graduate Diploma Orchestral Training Course with the Philharmonia Orchestra where I was Principal Bassoon. Soon the London Symphony Orchestra joined the scheme and the course has produced many successful orchestral players.
On moving to RWCMD in 2010 my first move was to approach Cardiff’s two international class orchestras, Welsh National Opera and BBC National Orchestra of Wales, whose woodwind sections supply the majority of my departmental teaching staff. The Opera already had a successful scheme in place and this has now increased to give RWCMD students a great deal of playing experience every term sitting next to their teachers in the many rehearsals required by a major professional opera house. There have been occasions during the last year where students have been employed on a fully professional basis and some ex-students are regular members of the extra list. The BBC did not have a woodwind scheme but this is now in place and many opportunities are planned.
As I have been an orchestral player all my adult life, I make sure all the woodwind students are involved in a great deal of orchestral playing and every Friday during the Autumn and Spring terms I take three two-hour orchestral repertoire classes – one for first and second years, one for third and forth years and one for Post-Graduate students. This means that students play in these sections most weeks, allowing for rotation, in addition to the many college orchestras that perform every term.
Is the orchestral programme available to undergraduates or only postgraduates?
It’s primarily a postgraduate course but the Opera scheme is also open to 4th year selected undergraduate students.
What are the skills that one hopes the students will leave with after the course?
No student is admitted to the course if they have technical problems. When they start the course, we open the Manual of Orchestral Playing at page one where they soon find that the many concertos, studies and sonatas they have learnt provide only a small part of the requirements. Each woodwind instrument has different challenges: double reeds have to be able to start and finish notes at any dynamic with complete accuracy, clarinets have to learn how to be flexible in intonation and flautists have to realise that not all music is French music! The skills that are taught include teamwork involving tone colour, ensemble, intonation and stylistic awareness. Young players have to play as though they have been familiar with standard repertoire for many years as there is no training ground in the profession.
When sitting on the panel for entrance auditions what are the most important things you look for in an applicant?
When auditioning a 17 year old for the undergraduate course it is often the case that technical ability is not so important. Applicants have been studying for A Levels and, on some instruments, may not have been playing very long. I look for the light behind the eyes – the passion and enthusiasm – and signs of flair and performing ability. I want to avoid those who have dutifully passed their grade exams and are applying to college because they cannot think of anything else to do. Playing an instrument is an intensely physical activity and young players have to be physically strong enough to survive a very demanding course.
Postgraduate applicants fall into two camps: those from other music colleges who usually apply for the Orchestral Performance Course and also a large number of university students who have often not had time for a great deal of practical instrumental work during their academic studies: this group usually have a considerable amount of technical work to do to catch up with the 3rd and 4th year undergraduates and tend to join one of the other postgraduate performance courses for at least their first year’s study. Those who have been already had a conservatoire training are expected to have a good level of technical ability on entrance to their courses.
Cardiff is a small city for a capital but is fortunate enough to support two major orchestras: Welsh National Opera and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Students find that their teacher usually lives a few minutes journey away from college and is playing every week in one of the city’s concert halls. There is also a link with the Philharmonia Orchestra, who regularly visit St David’s Hall. On these days, RWCMD hosts a “Soloists of the Philharmonia” chamber concert in its new Dora Stoutzker Hall followed by a masterclass.
How long have you been a professor at the RWCMD? Where else do you or have you worked?
RWCMD invites a number of visiting players to play and teach for a day – I was one of these for several years. Recent visitors include Ian Clarke, Roger Birnstingl, David Campbell, William Bennett, Ken Smith, Christian Forshaw, Francois Leleux, Mark van de Wiel, Amy Harman, Vincent David and Michael Cox. I became Head of Woodwind in the summer of 2010 and have been on the staff of GSMD 1984 – 2012, RNCM 2000 – 2005 and Birmingham Conservatoire 2005 – 2010. I held playing positions as second bassoon in the BBC Northern Symphony 1973 – 1980 and principal bassoon in the Philharmonia 1980 – 2010. I now play with the London Chamber Orchestra as well as guesting with various other orchestras including RPO, LSO, ECO and BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Would you have found a programme like the one the RWCMD offers useful when you were studying? How is it different from other courses?
My days as a student at RCM were curtailed abruptly when I had the temerity to accept four weeks with a touring ballet orchestra. In those far-off days this was not tolerated and many current professionals were ejected for this crime. Of course all colleges, including the RCM, have a much more enlightened approach now. There were no “courses” in the 60s and 70s – we simply had our weekly lesson and the rest of the time was really up to us. Playing in amateur orchestras and Young Musicians’ Symphony Orchestra were both valuable experiences. The students here are all expected to perform constantly and, as full-time woodwind coach, I hear each one of my 75 students every week. They know that I keep a beady, although supportive, eye on them! In recent auditions, the three main London colleges have all offered postgraduate places to fourth year RWCMD students thus proving that standards in Cardiff are as high as anywhere in the UK.
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