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How did your studies prepare you for the orchestral world?

The honest answer would have to be: My studies didn’t prepare me, which was certainly, at least partly my fault. But I also happen to believe that no educational institution should claim to be able to fully prepare students for the challenges of our profession, there are simply too many variables on all sorts of levels, and I firmly believe that the biggest lessons are learned in the wonderful school called ‘life’.

So I don’t blame college for not preparing me. They certainly tried to impress upon me that a career in orchestras was pretty much the established route and template for a flute player’s career in performance. But I was always very zealous and focused on my solo playing during my teenage years and into college and beyond. My dream was very deeply rooted and I was compelled to follow my star, I remember that some people thought this was arrogant of me, but I simply was not capable of ignoring my musical instincts in favour of appeasing other people’s (often wrong) opinions about my motives.

However in spite of my ‘negative attitude’ at the time, towards orchestral playing, I did audition for the EUYO and to my incredible surprise I got in! Before I knew it, I was playing in one of the finest orchestras of the world alongside a very young Sam Coles, Jacques Zoon and Karen Jones, under the musical giant Claudio Abbado and other conductors. I was swept away with the music, the people, the energy and the opportunities of this unbelievable group of handpicked young musicians. That opportunity then led to me playing with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for a period of about two years. I was incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity of experiencing orchestral playing of such strong idealism and energy. I had also begun freelancing with other London orchestras but the professional orchestral music scene in London proved to be very different, so I decided to make the big decision of turning my back on all my friends, colleagues and heroes who I had grown to love, but my internal dream was too strong to deny and I had to follow it.

Did you go straight out of EUYO to the Chamber Orchestra of Europe?

Yes. When I was in the EUYO, the COE had just been formed one or two years previously, by many of the leading members of EUYO, with the intention forming a professional chamber orchestra consisting of hand-picked European musicians with the primary aim of preserving the energy and idealism of a youth orchestra. With Claudio Abbado approaching the prime of his career, the COE was established as a touring orchestra that only worked for six months in each year.

Was there any particular piece of orchestral music which is really memorable to you from your time with Claudio Abbado?
Mahler 5 with Claudio was cosmic. Everything about Claudio had a mysterious magical quality that somehow defied belief, his gestures, his shy nature, his animal drive in concerts, his ability to listen, his talent for empowering musicians who had very little experience. I have never played under any conductor who commanded such deep trust and respect and he made it all seem and look so ‘easy’. But he understood that the key to producing these results, was to surround himself with young idealistic players, that is why he started so many youth orchestras and why so many of these young musicians eventually wound up working in the professional orchestras he conducted.

Another uncanny thing about Claudio, he was capable of making a wind section play in tune, just by the way he looked and breathed with us. It was astonishing! He instilled such a sense of intensity, fluidity, security, trust and atmosphere in the way he brought us in, that our entries just seemed so inevitable, so we all breathed with confidence and were much more likely to play in tune!

He was a musical genius.

Did you find that once you were playing a lot in orchestras your approach to sound and performance changed?

When you are thrown in the water you learn to swim. That is the best way of describing any changes or adjustments that I made. When you are young, you adapt to situations without necessarily being aware of the complexities of what is actually happening; the analytical mind does not kick in until later in life (at least in my case). My naivety protected me from freezing, from over-analyzing and from creating unnecessary barriers within myself and towards my colleagues. But there were definitely a few instances when I remember not fitting at all (but surely that happens to all of us from time to time?). This was especially true when I would find myself suddenly playing with Claudio Abbado and the LSO, straight after having toured with him and the EUYO, the contrast in mood, expectations and conditions was very difficult to deal with.

1. For a start, some of the more hardened members of the LSO (the orchestra was a very different band back then- a much more aggressive band compared to now) did not take kindly to Claudio implanting a young flute player in their midst, although I always had a very good friend, supporter and mentor in Peter Lloyd, who took me under his wing with kindness and generosity. Some other members of the orchestra were less pleasant to deal with, in fact, one person was particularly patronising and intimidating, but that didn’t bother me too much, because I was very much aware that I was at the beginning of an exciting and colourful career and he was just behaving like an old and sour man.

2. The other difficult adjustment I had to make, was that every single member of EUYO used to simply attack the music with a very exciting physical energy, but the freelance orchestras in London approached the music in a much more subtle, streamlined and nuanced kind of way; this was a big shock for me to start with but I was quickly learning the realities of the trade. I don’t think colleges can teach you this stuff, the best way to learn, is to be thrown in the deep end and begin interacting with people around you, whatever their level and circumstances. Some people reached out to me, helped, supported and advised me; whereas others were downright rude and abusive, but I took it in my stride. So the big adjustments I had to make, had far less to do with my actual flute playing, than with my attitude and sense of belonging within the group and its environment.

 

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 personality 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 and 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.

 

Who influenced you the most in your flute playing, and who or what influenced or influences you the most in the music making?

I like to think I am a free spirit. When I was younger I used to go insane with admiration, envy and respect for certain aspects of playing by Wibb, Jimmy and Jean-Pierre, as well as a whole host of other players, but I also had a burning desire to discover my own voice and my own magic. I discovered that, as much as I admired these wonderful players, I had to keep a healthy distance in order to protect myself from winding up sounding too much like them. I trained myself to look inwards and beyond flute playing to find my inspiration. For some people, this is perhaps a narrow way of living but it works for me, because I never wanted to be anyone’s disciple and have managed to create the space for myself, in order to find my own voice. I want ‘my own voice’ not because I think I am better than others, but because I am nothing without my own voice.

Masterclass Series Episode 4

Masterclass Series Episode 4

Michael Cox, in partnership with Principal Chairs, presents his Masterclass Series. They were held online during lockdown in the UK in summer 2020. Participants were invited to send in video performances for Michael to watch in a Live answering session.

Masterclass Series Episode 3

Masterclass Series Episode 3

Michael Cox, in partnership with Principal Chairs, presents his Masterclass Series. They were held online during lockdown in the UK in summer 2020. Participants were invited to send in video performances for Michael to watch in a Live answering session.

Masterclass Series Episode 2

Masterclass Series Episode 2

Michael Cox, in partnership with Principal Chairs, presents his Masterclass Series. They were held online during lockdown in the UK in summer 2020. Participants were invited to send in video performances for Michael to watch in a Live answering session.

Masterclass Series Episode 1.2

Masterclass Series Episode 1.2

Michael Cox, in partnership with Principal Chairs, presents his Masterclass Series. They were held online during lockdown in the UK in summer 2020. Participants were invited to send in video performances for Michael to watch in a Live answering session.

Masterclass Series Episode 1

Masterclass Series Episode 1

Michael Cox, in partnership with Principal Chairs, presents his Masterclass Series. They were held online during lockdown in the UK in summer 2020. Participants were invited to send in video performances for Michael to watch in a Live answering session.

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