I had a period when I was a young player who wanted to be deep and meaningful and serious and sought to change the world. Lately I’ve become much more aware of how important the charm is in music, as well as all those other serious things. But hopefully if you’re on the same road and you’ve reached this stage you’ve got the dynamic range to deal with this, as well as the range of colours and flexibility. But the really big thing is that all of this came out of my impatience with the instrument
You have a really wide dynamic range, which enables you to have a huge pallet of expression through your sound. At which point did you realise that this is the way forward? Was it a conscious decision?
My whole thing about dynamic range comes from one point when I bitterly regretted having learned the flute! Shockingly, when I was at college I was practicing piano more than flute because I only started piano when I went to Music College so I had a lot of catching up to do. I never did catch up, but still. So I had this impatience with the flute as I felt it was beautiful, but limited. Also I find that I’m a harmony junkie and I often find that what the harmony feeds me is not represented by flute players. I think often flute players will go for the melodic interest and the charm factor, which is lovely and valid in its own way, but they don’t think of the strength of the harmonic event, the melodic interest is part of the instrument and increasingly I realise that. But I had a period when I was a young player who wanted to be deep and meaningful and serious and sought to change the world. Lately I’ve become much more aware of how important the charm is in music, as well as all those other serious things. But hopefully if you’re on the same road and you’ve reached this stage you’ve got the dynamic range to deal with this, as well as the range of colours and flexibility. But the really big thing is that all of this came out of my impatience with the instrument.
Do you mean your personal instrument or just flute in general?
Flute in general. I think that strings and, for example, the clarinet have a massive dynamic range. However, my own instrument didn’t help. It was before I started playing on Louis Lots. It was partly meeting and working alongside some really remarkable players that made me aware of the capabilities of the flute, most notably Jonathan Snowden and WIBB. All I can really remember is hearing this amazing wall of sound and thinking “oh my goodness, that is really interesting”. I have now heard recordings of me when I was young and it definitely did not have the dynamic range.
What I want to talk about, as well, is that flute students need to prioritise. One of the nicest compliments I’ve heard recently was the accompanist of the Oxford Flute Summer School that I did, she said “I’ve got you worked out completely. You’re not giving a course in flute playing, you’re giving a course in music”. That was just so lovely because that is what I feel generally. If you think back historically, people often doubled on many instruments and there was never this narrow complete excellence on one instrument. I just don’t think that it was the point of focus. I think it was more, although there were virtuosos, focusing on people being deep and rounded musicians, who understood what the music is on about. Also there is another thing, which is actually coming back a bit, certainly here in London, about apprenticeship. Historically, musicians who, from a young age, were perceived to be talented would get work incredible early and be mentored, essentially. They were as young as 14 or 15 years old. There is a book by Gerrard Jackson, who was principal in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, I think, and he wrote a book called First Flute. It’s out of print now, but I did read it a long time ago and this guy worked from the age of 12! He started off in cinema orchestras and worked his way up. He was also not from a rich background, which a lot of orchestral musicians were back then. So he worked his way up by apprenticeships. So, as you can see, the great thing was to really understand where the music is coming from. And I think a lot of it is now about being able to play incredibly well and very zealously with virtuosic articulation etc, but I think it is not enough. I taught someone recently who is a very established player and has solo recitals and concertos in top halls around the world and had no concept whatsoever of harmony. So I’ve been giving them harmony lessons. Seriously!
So I think this is just the point that a lot of people just miss out on some of the really important building blocks as a musician, rather than as a flute player. So the thing I feel strongly about is a balanced experience, if you like, of life, of art in general, and not just of life, but of things like philosophy, literature and anything that can build you up as having points of reference. This is the same for any artist in any field: the deeper their experience is of the human condition, the easier it becomes to bridge that gap between experience and communication.
So did you always read a lot then?
Yes, I always read a lot. It was really wide-ranging, so from Classical Greek, right through to modern day writers. If I had a chance to change, really it would be that I should have stuck to the books which were tried and tested, and are much more interested in contemporary culture generally. Most of the works of art that have withstood the test of time have, locked in them, like D.N.A., the experience of humanity, or the human experience. There is a lot of deep stuff to be accessed and to feed off. I think it’s often not as simple as ‘I’ve learned that thing’. It’s more a multi-layered prism of civilisation and one learns what it’s like to be human.
So, somehow one then has to communicate that through the instrument?
Well, that is the difficult bit! Because then what I perceive is that there is too much separation between the two things, and not only that, it’s about your personal life experiences. I’ve had students who can only play happy and ones who can only play miserable. So I think it’s a thing of being almost like an actor, so you have to always have your feelings out and be sensitive to everything so you perceive everything strongly and really ‘taste’ it all. Then you will be able to build up a pallet. Of course one can go a bit insane because of this, but welcome to my world! I think we can say that about many artists in general!
So you would recommend going to art galleries and plays etc.?
Absolutely. Because they are delivered in a very public way, they are often very intimate things, or things with bravura or charm, so it’s a public declamation. Of course music is very different to plays, but it’s not as different as many people think. It’s all still communication, at the end of the day, because a play is a structured performance and, in the same way as with music, you can be transported to a completely different place or other world. So I think that the artists have to have a very thin veneer so they can access this stuff. I believe that students are locking themselves in practice rooms too much and concentrating on nuts and bolts. Of course you have to do it at some point, but it also can be too much! So eight hours of practice can be good if that is what you need at that point of your life, but only if doesn’t actually shut you down. So I think students should look at nuggets of tunes and see if they can perform them in different ways, like if I was happy or really cross what would that sound like? Maybe not established tunes, but definitely not tunes from our repertoire. So be like an actor and present it, because I don’t think people ever experiment with the psychology of the music. If you are deeply tuned in to what the underlying expression of the music is, it’s not always possible to put it into English language thoughts, or just language thoughts, because music is its own language. So it is really exploring what is the music really speaking to you about? So when people approach Mendelssohn’s Midsummernight’s Dream flute solo, often it is completely dominated by the doing of it i.e. articulation, the breathing etc. Have a think, though, what did Mendelssohn actually have in mind? It was simply a lot of fun!
Of course not every piece of music has a deep and meaningful core. However, I always say that the greater the piece of music is the greater appreciation one has for its own musical language. Often if it’s just presented right it speaks better that way than if you try to layer too much onto it of your own personality. But with something less deep, and the material is not so great, the performance can still be absolutely mesmerising. So the performers have to take the charge of the material and then sometimes parody it to make it work! But again that comes down to ‘Do I have the flexibility to do that? Can I access all of these feeling? Do I know where to do it? Do I know how to do it?’
For example today I was accompanying one of my pupils playing the Daphnis solo, and it’s really easy because it’s just two chords, for such a long period of time so that you really realise the importance of when the change happens. Everyone is always practicing their tune so much that often they don’t really understand the full context. You know when the solo goes up to that pianissimo D towards the end? That is the first place where the bass-note of the harmony changes, and it’s also not on the beat, so you have to know that and show that. It’s that kind of level that so few people really have.
Another small example is in the Mozart G-major Concerto in the middle of the second subject, bars 65 and 66: how many people really know what happens harmonically there? Because you are basically on a dominant A pedal and two oboes join and descend in thirds and of course one expects music to go back to D major, but not only does it go to B minor but it actually goes to the dominant. So from sounding A major chord you go to A sharp. So it’s a dominant 7th in a completely different key! Flautists generally take a breath there in bar 66 between the first and second crochet, but does it bring significance to this amazing harmony change?