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In case you missied it, here’s Michael Cox’ first Interview of the Month

Interview with Michael Cox (Artist in Residence at Principal Chairs, Principal Flute of BBC Symphony Orchestra and Professor at the Royal Academy of Music)

You have worked in several of the UKs major orchestras – would a resource like Principal Chairs have been useful to you before that work began? If so, how or why?

Invaluable! Actually I have to say, yes – invaluable, particularly in my younger times and certainly in terms of background information and viewpoints. One interesting thing, which may not be relevant to this, is that as a principal flute you work alone; there’s no one you bump into in the street who does the same work as you… One never works along side of other principal flutes, and socially one doesn’t talk about the working life – it wouldn’t really go down that well! So, it’s actually very rare that you can hear a player’s approach to overcoming particular difficulties – how they deal with the pitfalls and stylistic issues for example.  I think it’s always useful to the learning process to hear other’s ideas, which then either reinforce your own views or give you something to bounce off, clarifying your understanding or possibly introducing an idea you haven’t even thought of before.

Non-specifically to any one excerpt, is there anything in particular you think people should keep in mind when preparing orchestral repertoire in general?

Ahh yes – I feel very passionately about this point. There is one thing in particular that worries me, and that is this business that so few people can play in different styles, and swap easily between styles. One has to show that they understand the particular style of each piece. There are massive differences even within the same era of music. Within the German repertoire there are a lot of differences – one has to be able to play Brahms in a different style to Mahler or Beethoven. Of course it is important to play well, but it is equally as important to let the audition panel know that you understand the music the way they understand it, and then also to bring something special to the piece. Of course you might ask: “How does the panel know how the player auditioning understands it?” Do all you can – find out the repertoire the orchestra performs, listen to recordings, if possible have a lesson with the principal. The main thing is not to feel constrained and let your personality through, not forgetting to be stylistically correct.

How did you find the process of making the Principal Chairs recordings and how was it different from your other work?

The talking part was easy –  you don’t realise how much information you have stored in your head [regarding the excerpts]. So that was remarkably easy, as long as my mind was in gear. However, playing the excerpts without my colleagues (which is something I am now very used to, of course) felt very odd – to put the excerpts down ‘cold’ as it were, seemed bizarre, especially having had years going through the audition process myself. There is also a terrible pressure to play well too, because in a way it is going to be set in stone and evaluated by thousands of people, (thousands of very nice people!) but none the less.. [laughs]

How did you come to be involved in principal chairs and how do you know the other members of the team?

I have taught all of the members of the team at different stages of their careers, either privately or at one of the music colleges.

Is the content of the site finished? Will more videos be added? Will other artists contribute?

The site is not a finished project by any means – we already have twice as many orchestral excerpts recorded than are included on the website. We will be adding content gradually as time goes on and as more people view the videos. We will also be getting other orchestral principals from around the world to contribute videos so that eventually we will have a huge bank of information for subscribers to learn from and enjoy.

If I already have an excerpt book and a recording of the pieces I need to prepare, and I am having private lessons or lessons at music college or university – how is Principal Chairs useful to me?

The idea is that the whole process of preparing will be quicker and easier for you, leaving more time actually in the practice room! The sound recordings are right there for you next to the excerpts, all on one screen – so you have no need to search through recordings or books. You can also come back to the videos again and again at your leisure, which is quite a different learning experience to a private lesson.  A great way to use Principal Chairs is as preparation for your 1:1 lesson, so that you get as much out of that lesson as possible. It is not a substitution. However,  not everyone has access to a principal player of both a symphony and a chamber orchestra for private lessons. It depends very much where you live (players are spoilt for choice in London!) and what your budget for lessons is. The competitive pricing of the site means the information here is available to everyone who needs it, wherever they live.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One of my main reasons for getting involved in Principal Chairs is that I think it is a great thing to get out there. I have a particular passion for getting information out to people through the internet, because it can really go just about anywhere! I particularly like the idea that the information is now available to anyone who would usually have limited access to this kind of material. There is a lot of flutey information in here! Even if the players aren’t specifically preparing for auditions there’s still a lot of info for general playing; sound quality, breathing, articulation, but we are using the music of the great composers, in the symphonic repertoire, as a framework for discussing these issues.

It’s also important for players to know that I don’t want for them to ‘buy into’ my idea of how to play the flute, or that I have the only way to play particular pieces or excerpts. My videos are more about discussing how I deliver the solos appropriately and meaningfully. I am really not saying “this is the way to play the flute”. I’m simply showing how I go about doing it. The main thing I try to convey is that I think flute players should be musicians first and flute players second. I find that this is a bit of a problem for many flautists (possibly more so with the flute than other instruments) and I would like to encourage them out of this way of thinking so they can think more of making music.

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