You do a lot of touring/travelling, teaching, rehearsing. How do you practice to keep in shape?
Discipline is KEY. But my understanding of the word ‘discipline’ is very different to the common interpretation of the word. Discipline to me means ‘to have the courage to follow my heart’, or ‘to do the right thing…at the right time’
In order to feel happy, energised, focused and in shape I need to make sure I am divide my practice into two categories (in that order):
1. Long-term practice
2. Short-term practice
I very rarely practice technique for its own sake…this way I have more time to jump into memorising and internalising all music I have to learn, while avoiding any temptation to cruise or drift in my practice – that is the enemy, as far as I am concerned. I usually start the day practicing music that I need to play in a few months time (long-term); this allows me to engage with my full intensity while helping me feel that I am in control of the long-term direction of my playing and career. The other reason I like starting with the long-term, is because it helps me avoid panicking about the next concert I am playing – it forces me to avoid running to my flute in desperation! Psychologically, this is not good at all and must be avoided. By the time, I get to my second session of the day, I am fully warmed up and focused, so I practice running through the pieces I am about to perform (short-term), developing my emotional/mental/physical stamina and concentration. This balance keeps me inspired and sane.
What do you think are the important aspects of being a musician these days?
We need to have enormous strength to keep nurturing our love for music and people – this is the source that gives our work meaning and resonance within people’s hearts….this love needs to be present in every interaction with people in an out of the working environment, whether music is present or not. This love is the warmth, energy and communication of our music; it is the hidden element of what is communicating when we play and speak.
I think we also need to present our strengths to situations, not our weaknesses, otherwise every musical opportunity is left deeply compromised. There are very silly stereotypes that have taken root in many people’s hearts (including my own) like “soloists do what the hell they like” and “orchestral musicians blend into their environment”…These generalisations are very harmful and very far from truth and reality; it can be very dangerous to fall hostage to preconceived ideas because we can easily wind up seriously detached from reality. I like to believe that in a good orchestra, every player should play like a leader – and that a good leader learns to be very finely tuned and listening to his/her environment, otherwise their leadership is corrupt.
We also need to know ourselves, our strengths and our limitations. This allows us to make lucid judgements when making important decisions in our lives, whether musical or personal. It is vital to create the sort of attitudes to life, that allow us to thrive and make the best of all sorts situations, while at the same time developing the courage to walk away from situations that we deem to be harmful to our long-term development and sense of integrity.
Do you prefer solo, chamber or orchestral performance?
I am driven from my guts to build up to a very high degree of intensity when I am performing with my duo partner Aleks Szram or when soloing with an orchestra. I memorise all these performances (by the way, Aleks and I both play from memory when performing and recording). This is my starting point upon which I build my musical concepts and energies.
I recently restarted my orchestral career 28 years after leaving the Chamber Orchestra of Europe….this has been a very big deal for me and I am THRILLED to have overcome many limitations that I had imposed on myself over many years. I was very lucky to be offered trials with the London Phiharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia after all this time away from orchestral playing and am absolutely revelling in this great music, the colours, harmonies, textures and relationships that grow out of this orchestral situation. After all these years, I like to think I am still ‘me’, but that I have managed to evolve and gain a huge amount of experience, which has helped me adjust my expectations and learn to trust in people and situations much more than before; this is all really healthy on a personal level, irrespective of where my new orchestral career is heading. I seem more aware of my role, influence and responsibilities as a principal flute within the context of a large body of musicians, and I suppose I am a little less prone to falling hostage to the many awkward situations that inevitably present themselves in large numbers of people are need to calibrate their energies in order to thrive personally and as a team…it is a fascinating challenge that I hope I will be able to explore with over the next years.
Which charities are you involved at the moment?
Through my initiative Towards Humanity, I have been involved with many charities over the years. It is a privilege to be able to use the inspirational qualities of music to inspire support for humanitarian projects – this makes our music very relevant to the world we live in. In spite of being a wonderful profession, it is very easy to hide our heads in the sand as musicians and stop thinking of the wider world….the great music we share with our audiences is capable of lifting spirits and making life better for countless people in a very real way. My CD Vilvaldi’s Children has helped raise several thousands of pounds for SOS Children’s Villages in various parts of the world, which take care of orphans. I have worked with schools for the Blind, Library-on-Wheels in Palestinian refugee camps, schools for the Disabled in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, and many other places where music is capable of leaving a deep mark long after a concert has taken place.
I am currently a Trustee and Artistic Advisor for the charity ‘Friends of ESNCM’, which helps create important links and opportunities in the UK, for Palestinian students and teachers from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, in Palestine. It is very rewarding and inspiring to see those young kids aspiring for a better future, refusing to allow very difficult situations to destroy their dreams and ambitions. This is very powerful stuff to be involved with and it keeps me inspired and connected.
Do you have any big concerts which are coning up to tell us about?
This is looking like a busy season. I am playing the Khatchaturian Concerto in January with the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway. I will also be playing Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson’s Concerto “Shimmering Blue” with the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra in May (this concerto uses a glissando headjoint in the slow movement). Besides these concertos, Aleks and I are touring in Australia and Holland, and are gearing up to play at the Canadian and NFA Conventions….so we are both memorizing a considerable amount of music at the moment. Also, I have just been invited to play in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the prestigious Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, which I shall thoroughly enjoy!
What were the key moments, do you think, that helped you establish yourself as a soloist?
That is not an easy question to answer, but I would say this:
1. In my early teens my step-father (he was a violinist but he taught me during the war-years in Lebanon until I moved to the UK when I was 17) always told me that I was destined to be a soloist. So from quite an early age I had a pretty strong focus/determination/belief that I would become a soloist; I didn’t question it until much later in my career.
2. The BBC Young Musician of the Year 1978 was quite a milestone for me, a year after I started studying in the UK at Chetham’s School of Music. This was the first time the competition had been held and it had attracted millions of viewers (this was before the age of digital TV had taken over, which has marginalized the competition considerably). Although I didn’t win, somehow I made a very big impression that is even remembered today. That competition gave me a lot of confidence.
3. The day I resigned from the COE was of huge significance to me. I talked to Claudio Abbado about it in the interval of a Rossini Opera we were playing at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro and he tried to dissuade me from making the move, but I was adamant…I was driven by something inside me to take a stand and to turn my back on my closest friends and colleagues. This was actually a very painful and difficult time for me, but I felt I was doing the right thing. This was a very formative moment in my career.
The day I left orchestral playing, was the day I decided to be responsible for my own decisions and destiny as a musician; this was a huge turning point for me as a young man….everything changed, almost overnight.
Now, aged 54, I am going through a new transformation – I have come full circle and am rebelling against myself, wanting to engage and enjoy orchestral playing again! It is a wonderful moment of growth and contemplation for me, as I learn to enjoy, trust and work with colleagues again….I feel a deep sense of joy come over me in these situations, which are very inspiring and motivating.
Life never stands still….if it does, there is probably something not quite right – or you are dead!!!
What or who really gave you the confidence to find your own voice on the flute?
I think my soloistic nature often prevented me from looking to other people for inspiration….I was too driven, and perhaps a little too proud (yes, I was even able to resist Claudio Abbado, as much as I worshipped him). This is an aspect of my character that generated great self-belief and character….but at times it also slowed me down and limited my horizons. I suppose we have no option but to accept and be who we are!!
My journey towards finding my own voice on the flute began on a day a few years after I graduated from college, when I decided I would start my practice with a ten-minute improvisation rather than going through my ‘routine warm-up’ which had been frustrating me for some time.
Those ten minutes blew my mind and changed me forever.
Improvisation had often been talked about when I was a student but I never connected with the idea, mainly because I felt insecure harmonically and also because I never enjoyed the ‘jazzy’ improvisations that most people went for, when they improvised. When I picked up my flute that day, it was probably the first time I had truly managed to look into my heart when practicing; I was amazed/shocked at what came out and I immediately recognized the enormity of what had happened in those ten minutes…instinctively I had been drawn to the Middle Eastern modes and sound worlds I had been born into; these had been lying dormant, unused and untapped for years because I had always studied music in a traditional ‘western’ tradition. The raw sound, intensity and feeling that erupted from my flute were so completely different to what I had been trained to do. I could not understand how I had managed to submerge so much depth and substance under endless layers of technique and pseudo-science, for so many years.
From that day, I felt ‘born again’!! I had found a reliable way to access the instinctive and natural in my playing, a way that helped me FACE who I am, rather than deny it. A by-product of that is that I began to feel more comfortable with myself and gradually began to find greater consistency in my playing…because I was blowing more naturally, relying far less on pre-conceived ideas of how the muscles should be used.
That is why I encourage my students to improvise and invent their OWN exercises, rather than basing their practice on other people’s explorations and conclusions.
Finding your voice….is something that you have to do on your own.
Do you find that your flute enables you to play with more freedom, having the quarter-tone system? Is the sound different? Does it make you feel more comfortable when playing?
That is a huge question that would require me to write a book I don’t want to write…and nobody would want to read!!
Before I get into the Kingma system quarter-tone flute, there are a few important myths that are important to break down:
1. I am really not into measuring intervals scientifically; what we refer to as “quarter-tones” can vary very significantly and subtly. Indeed, intonation in general can a very subjective issue. In the flute community this can be a very divisive issue.
2. “Comfort” can be a very confusing and misleading concept too…it is relative to many things fitting into place and should not necessarily be our biggest priority, in the grand scheme of things. Being “comfortable” when playing the flute goes far beyond the physical dimension.
3. Everything comes at a price. We often wind up letting go of one quality in our playing in order to favor another. Similarly, making a great flute is about juggling a great number of priorities and creating an ideal compromise….only to discover that different people will have widely varying needs anyway! It is very difficult to talk about these things without contradicting ourselves or offending others sensibilities!
I have played my Brannen Kingma flute for about 14 years, since around the year 2000. It is a perfectly “normal” flute (‘normal’ is a minefield of a word!)….until you dig beneath the surface and discover the worlds of opportunity that are facilitated by the extra (small) keys, allowing for so many subtle variations of fingerings which are especially useful in the third octave. The fact that the six extra keys are small, allows for very subtle venting and covering.
Almost daily, I am discovering new variations on fingerings that I thought I had nailed forever…so the possibilities are constantly expanding and changing. It is important to understand that the pursuit of different fingerings is not just limited to “contemporary music” or “extended techniques”; we need to be in a state of constant renewal and discovery, whatever the music we play – this is what keeps our playing fresh and flexible.
One of my favorite discoverie
s on the Kingma system, is what I call the ‘vented harmonics’: I find harmonic notes very beautiful, rich and dense sounding, but they can sometimes be eccentric and unreliable in pitch and production – so I finger a harmonic, which I then slightly vent with one of the small quarter-tone holes….the result is often the best sort of compromise – where you attain the best of qualities of more than one dimension!! It is a very stable way of playing very quietly, especially inside a chord.
Developing a flexible approach to fingering influences far more than just the pitch itself:
1) you can risk playing with a wider palette of dynamics and color without compromising pitch
2) manipulating pitch with the fingers actually frees the lips from extra and unnecessary tension, especially when playing in extreme quiet/strong conditions.
Finally, it is always very useful to remember….in the end every little detail helps, but it is not about the instrument, nor is it about the fingering or the sound, the style or the dynamics, whether you vibrate or not, whether you are an outsider or an insider. What matters is the WHY behind your playing; if that is alive and throbbing within what you are giving through your music, whatever you do will have depth and resonance because it will be rooted in life.
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