Principal of the Vienna Philharmonic
How did your studies prepare you for the orchestral playing world? Who out of your teachers was the most helpful in that aspect? And why?
When I think about it, apart from honing the usual orchestral excerpts, my university studies didn’t really prepare me for orchestral playing. I learned by doing: My first orchestral experiences were as a teenager with an amateur salon orchestra and an amateur symphony orchestra back home in my village in Carinthia.
Actually, I think learning to play in an orchestra can only be achieved by playing in an orchestra. Otherwise it is like swimming lessons on land… So it is important to really make use of any opportunity to play in orchestras, in youth orchestras, as a substitute etc. The ubiquitous orchestral academies do make sense. Ideally, one can sit next to one’s teacher in a professional orchestra, listen, play with him/her and get explanations right away why this is played this way, that in another way. This is basically what I experienced in the Karajan Akademie in Berlin, sitting next to Pahud and Blau, listening and learning. And what does one learn then? I think a lot of it is intonation, how to fit into the woodwind texture in various situations. When to lead, when to follow, and when to disappear.
One has to learn great flexibility, and to accept that one can’t be right on one’s own and there is always a bigger picture to consider. And then of course timing, one has to get a feel for that, especially since that may vary from orchestra to orchestra. The most important factor here is learning to listen, where to find the right musical line to follow, to react according to what you hear.
Our subscribers are professional freelancers who are always busy. How would you recommend planning a strategy for your practice before auditions?
I would recommend practicing the right way. Which, in my opinion is the following: First: always know exactly and with the utmost precision what you are doing, so that everything becomes more than reliable, repeatable and unchallengeable.
The flute is great: we don’t have to worry about reeds, so if I do the same thing on my flute, the same thing is going to come out. If not, then it is me who has changed something. I cannot stress enough how important it is to go back to the roots at every stage of practicing and preparing: always check on the very basics of flute playing and don’t take anything for granted. That’s the way athletes prepare. Marathon runners train at a slower tempo for 80% of the time. Race speed almost doesn’t enter the picture till the end.
The second component of successful preparation is extremely important: always trust the music. Don’t lose your faith in it. If you can keep the magic and draw your energy from it, then you have access to positive energy during the preparation, and even under pressure during the audition.
And the third component is: taking your preparation absolutely seriously. Don’t hold back; give it everything you’ve got. Zone in on your weaknesses, practice what you can’t do, analyze clearly and dispassionately what needs to be done. And still know that EVERYONE has weaknesses. Don’t lose courage, face your demons. Set a schedule and keep it, and practice everything ten times more than you think. Then it’s going to work under pressure.
And know this: everyone can play fast nowadays. But a special sound is rare. Of course your technique has to be up to par, but you can be far more memorable and impressive with beautiful sound quality and exciting dynamics. And when auditioning, be aware that you have to convince within 60 seconds. It’s not like a concert, where you have some time to get going, it’s a now or never situation.
Do you remember what was the biggest challenge when playing with the Berlin Philharmonic (when you were at the Karajan Academy)?
The biggest challenge for me was just simply being part of such an orchestra, me, basically a country bumpkin! It was a daily struggle to fit in, to keep up with their very special energy, to accept the act that everybody else seemed to be a hundred times better than me, and to work extremely hard to get better and closer to their extraordinary level. Personally, my embouchure and a lot of other aspects were totally reconstructed by Pahud and Blau. That definitely was some challenge!