Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Orchestral Pathways Scheme

The Orchestral Pathways Scheme

by Graham Sheen
Principal Bassoon, BBC Symphony Orchestra & 
Academy of St Martin in the Fields,
teacher, composer & arranger.

Im sitting with two colleagues in a room high up in the Royal College of Music. Its 11am and we are about to start an audition marathon: we will attempt to hear and adjudicate thirteen woodwind candidates before 1pm. It means that each candidate will play for around ten minutes, allowing only just enough time to evaluate the relevant Mozart Concerto and a handful of orchestral excerpts. By the conclusion of the session we will have selected four of the candidates, a flautist, an oboist, clarinetist and bassoonist to take part in the Orchestral Pathway Scheme run jointly by the Royal College of Music and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The Pathways Scheme is now in its fifth year. The BBCSO and RCM have long operated a sit-in programme to enable students to experience the life and work of a professional orchestra. Before Pathways, however, students would probably come for one or two rehearsals at most before another student would take their turn. There was little continuity therefore and it was quite difficult to match the students availability with suitable repertoire. Another problem was that this arrangement was open to students of all ages and abilities. It was decided to formalise the scheme by choosing a single postgraduate student who would then visit the BBCSO on around half a dozen pre-planned occasions throughout the academic year. Each section in the orchestra nominates a mentor or mentors and students attend most, if not all, rehearsals for each project. Mentors offer advice and guidance on aspects of professional life and often prepare the repertoire with students in advance of rehearsals. Free tickets for the performance are always available and each student is encouraged to attend the concert. The students are asked to learn and shadow most of the parts (not just the principal player) and are encouraged to prepare all relevant material. We try, whenever possible, to let our students play one of the parts on their own so that they gain real experience of playing with professionals. At the end of the year each student is invited to play one or two pieces as the sub principal player in (usually) a Radio 3 studio concert. This is not obligatory but I havent heard of anyone who has refused this opportunity. A report on the whole years work is then written by mentors for the students to see.

The Pathways Scheme is an exciting development, though not always comfortable for members of the orchestra. Doing the job itself is one thing, but quite another when a keen and able young musician is sitting next to you and watching your every move! We usually keep some of the rehearsal time for ourselves, especially if the repertoire is a complex contemporary piece with excessive technical and rhythmic demands. There can also be problems created by having an extra player and chair in the section: if the student sits between principal and sub principal contact between them is naturally impaired, but if the student sits further down in the section then the student might have little contact with the principal. We usually seem to find some sort of compromise which takes into account the nature of the repertoire and best role on any particular occasion for the student. Now and then, if these logistical problems are too great, students are asked to come on alternative dates. The whole scheme is reasonably flexible and all our bassoon students so far have been very sensitive to our fundamental professional task of preparing for the performance.

Onstage with Pierre Boulez for the maestro's 80th birthday

Meanwhile, back at the audition, Im struck by the many challenges we face on these occasions. Indeed, I begin to reflect on the whole process of learning and communicating. Nothing like orchestral sit-ins, let alone a comprehensive course such as Pathways, existed when I was a student. Worse still, it often felt as if we were actively discouraged from contact with professionals. I remember having to lurk in the shadows at the back of Goldsmiths College hall in order to hear Giuilini and Stokowsky rehearse the (then) New Philharmonia Orchestra. Approaching Gwydion Brooke, who was principal bassoon at that time, would have been unthinkable and having students sit in professional orchestras would have been considered almost ludicrous. At college, our lessons tended to feel quite disconnected from the actual business of music making. Not the fault of professors I hasten to add, but the system. However, despite the many opportunities available to present day students, the gap between individual tuition and ensemble technique is still a challenge. It is still not easy for teachers to hear their students in the orchestral or chamber music situation so that basic technical problems can remain uncorrected. It is difficult to assess the strength of flexibility in someones tone without comparison with a larger ensemble. I learn a great deal about students on all instruments from my own repertoire and chamber music classes at the Guildhall School of Music. Think, for instance, of the skills necessary to produce a single perfect chord from, say, a woodwind section: every player must simultaneously produce their note at the required volume, pitch, tonal colour and at a precise predetermined moment. That is a fascinating mixture of technical and aural abilities. It can be prepared in the teaching room but actually achieving it mostly happens in the teachers absence. Then there is the whole subject of being aware of what is going on in the ensemble around you and reacting to it. This can be taught in repertoire classes, of course, but how much more effective in a sit-in. When students are asked about their Pathways experiences, the most common response is twofold: professionals play together and for each other and the dynamic range of a professional orchestra is a very great deal wider than the students had been prepared for. I would add that concentration levels are very high also. All these things were a shock to me too when I first started out in the English Chamber Orchestra. Back then, whatever strengths you possessed as player, you had better count quick learning as one of them! Thankfully, my senior colleagues were tolerant and I went on to survive four decades and more in the profession.

Finally, an anecdote about student sit-ins. This is one of those events about which I often wonder whether it really happened. Did I dream this? My colleague Sue Frankel and I often laugh about it. It was way back in the pre-Pathways Scheme days. Let me say that some of the students were more accomplished than others and that one of the less bright ones came to us on a day when we were rehearsing Dvoraks New World Symphony. Anyone familiar with the work of the BBC Symphony Orchestra will know that we dont play concert classics like this all that often: our brief is to present a high proportion of new, unusual or neglected work, though that has changed a little over the years. So, the Dvorak represented a bit of a treat for us. (Yes, I can hear my colleagues in other orchestras guffawing over such an idea!) I encouraged the student to join in the louder bits and just leave the exposed stuff to me. That was the normal plan until I had established how good they were, after which I would try to hand over, if appropriate, some of the more important passages. Despite all my persuasive powers, however, I couldnt draw anything more out of the student than a mousey pianissimo. In fact, much of the time I didnt know whether he (gender is the only clue to his identity that I will give) was playing or not. I decided to leave well alone for the time being, but it wasnt long before Sue and I noticed that the student had fallen asleep between us! Even the loudest full orchestra passages failed to rouse him. Peaceful slumber continued until the very moment at which conductor announced break. At this point our young colleague immediately sprang up, looked around and said, Is it always this boring? I just couldnt have made that up, could I?


Royal College of Music

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Quintet Selection...

Some of our Favourite Wind Quintets

by June Emerson

(and The Canile Quintet)

It was a freezing night in 1969 when five wind players first met to play together in Hertfordshire. It was a successful and somewhat riotous evening and we became a regular wind quintet: The Camerata. Over the years two personnel changed and the name was changed accordingly, but 41 years later three of us were still together, with two others, as The Canile Quintet. Michael, the clarinettist, had suffered for some time with his eyes, and by 2011 he couldn’t see well enough to play any longer. It looked as if it was all over.
By July 2015 however, after several gruelling eye operations and with music enlarged to A3 size, he was ready to have another go. Hesitant and careful at first, by the end of the third day things were pretty well back to normal, and out came the champagne!
We played through almost all of our repertoire, and at the end I asked everyone to name their favourite quintet, and give the reasons for their choice. It was an extremely difficult exercise, and in the end we each chose two. These are the results:

Wendy, flute:
Invitación al Bolero from the Suite Popular Cubana by Dario Morgan, because in a short and beautiful piece everyone has something gorgeous to play.
Quintet Op.56 No.1 by Franz Danzi because there is so much of interest for all the instruments.

Steve, oboe:
Capriol Suite by Peter Warlock because it’s a lovely arrangement of lovely music which is far too good for string players.
Pastorale by Gabriel Pierné because it brings back happy memories of playing it at an outdoor concert in France - oboe offstage at the end.

Michael, clarinet:
Trois Pieces Brèves by Jacques Ibert because it is wonderfully written, particularly the second movement for flute and clarinet. The last movement is a challenge from which we were once saved at an outdoor concert in France by the arrival of the Mistral.
Novelette in C major by Francis Poulenc, because I just love it.

June, bassoon:
La Fille aux cheveux de lin from Debussy Suite No.1 as a sort of test, because it is only after a week of living, eating, drinking and playing together that we can get all the nuances and entries perfect.
La Cheminée du Roi René by Darius Milhaud, because of the wonderful sonorities, and the tender coming together of flute and clarinet in the final bars.

Christine, horn:
Sortie in E Flat by Léfebure-Wély because I want it played at my funeral, and I challenge anyone to hear it without smiling.
Quintette in C major by Claude Arrieu, because it is so quirky, and I love the rich harmonies in the slow movements.

Since its foundation the quintet has raised over £20,000 for various charities, and hopes to keep going for a good while longer. We’ll be celebrating the 50th Wedding Anniversary of Wendy and Michael in 2016.


For accommodating larger size music Michael can recommend

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Jess Gillam's World

Part 4

“One of the best young saxophonists in the UK”
– Snake Davis

October has been a great month for me. After finishing the filming with Barbara Thompson and Jon Hiseman (see JGW part 3), I had two performances of Malcolm Arnold's Saxophone Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings to prepare for. The piece was originally a piano sonata and was arranged as a concerto by David Ellis at the request of Malcolm Arnold. At first when learning the work, I had some difficulties in understanding the music and the emotion it was trying to convey. I decided that to understand it better, I needed to know a little more about the composer and the inspirations for the music he wrote, so I listened to some interesting podcasts about Malcolm Arnold and began to realise why there was an underlying tinge of darkness to the music. Another aspect of learning a concerto I have difficulty with is memorising it - I really struggle to remember my entries and the order of the notes!  I knew this was going to be the case so I have had a photocopy of the score stuck on my bedroom wall since July; I do this with all pieces I have to memorise, and then repeat the passages I have difficulty remembering as much as I can. I have always found this difficult but once it is memorised, I think I can be much more expressive and take more risks with the music.

Jess with conductor John Gibbons

The first performance was at the Worthing Assembly Hall with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra under the baton of acclaimed conductor John Gibbons. The second was at the Malcolm Arnold Festival at the Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton. I enjoyed both performances very much – performing with an orchestra is an experience I love and I find it so different to performing with piano or unaccompanied. I fee like I have to consider everything I play in a much different way and that I have to be fully aware of my role in the piece as a whole at every moment in the piece. I was very pleased with the reviews from both performances!

Jess with Malcolm Arnold Festival Director, Paul Harris

I have also been working on promoting the next event in the concert series  I organise – a concert with John Harle and Steve Lodder. I am really looking forward to this performance; I think John Harle is such an inspiring musician and saxophonist and to see him perform live will be fantastic. I am also going to be performing a piece called ‘Berlin Tango” with John!
As I am writing this blog, my younger sister Patsy is playing bass at a gig at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester with her band “Pesky!” to over 40,000 people. I can only dream of a concert this big one day!


John Harle Concert - Friday 13th November @ 7.30pm
Follow Jess Gillam on Facebook
Follow @jessgillamsax on Twitter

Yanagisawa Saxophones UK

Vandoren UK

Thursday, October 29, 2015


- its uses within a classical instrumental education.

A guide to greater expressivity and 

confidence in performance.

by Melinda Maxwell
Principal Oboe,
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group & Endymion,
Consultant in Woodwind Studies RNCM

Teacher: Ok, here’s the moment at the end of the slow movement in this baroque sonata to invent a phrase of your own, so, have a go.
Student: I can’t do that!
I have heard this reply often and it applies to so many moments in our music making whether playing by ear or inventing ornamentation or cadenzas or even singing, that I get genuinely upset at the level of, I suppose, fear and misunderstanding.

Let us start at the beginning. Improvisation is an enormous subject but I’d like in a few paragraphs to shine some light on thinking about it in different ways.  One of the comments one hears quite often, particularly when related to jazz, is “Oh if you improvise you can play anything you want. Who’s going to know what’s right or wrong”.  And the answer is: “It makes no difference if the music is free, structured, diatonic or atonal. Improvisation is a skill that has to be learnt and practiced like any other skill and whether right or wrong does not come into it”. This may sound confusing but no true improviser enters the moment without having thought about, practiced and explored the parameters first.  Why is this?  Because there are millions and millions of ways of saying the same thing, and this very process is what makes improvising so very special and exciting. If you know the route you may take you can exploit your ideas to their full capacity.

Over the years I have discovered that this very thought - that there are many ways of saying the same thing - has made me rethink how I perform and practice. Invention is a powerful imaginary tool and when you apply it to patterns and phrases you find other ways of playing something just as powerful and meaningful.

Let’s start with practicing.  What I’m about to talk about can apply not only to students at music college but also to younger players.  We all know that to master your instrument you have to spend hours and hours sorting out and improving many different techniques that span, for instance and to put it simply, soft, slow legato playing to loud, fast, clean articulation. These constitute what might be called the basics of playing that need to be practiced on a daily basis. Even if a player has thirty years experience they always return to the basics because they form the roots of all technical control. The point is that the art of playing changes as you develop. You improve slowly over time and as you improve so your exercises need to be tailored to suit. Here enters the first stage of invention. You may notice that while reading (although even if not reading) certain exercises that they have been digested and your mind starts to wander because it becomes boring. At this point invent an additional idea like a change in dynamic shape, how and when to add vibrato or change the articulation and emphasis, and this can enrich ways of hearing what you do. Ways of hearing and listening are of course paramount to exploring how to improve what you do.  Reading exercises gradually becomes unnecessary because you have naturally memorised and internalised them. Once memorised you can shift and shape them to suit you every day depending on what you need to achieve.  The improvising happens when you think while playing of changing the direction because it feels right. This instinctive feeling gives you confidence in what you are trying to achieve. Playing scales can feel like a real dirge but as we know they are essential for tuning, tone, developing key sense and learning fingerings. There are millions of ways of playing scales, the obvious being to change the patterns of articulation and dynamic shape and of course tempo. What if you didn’t start on the tonic and began on a different note in the scale? This would do two things. You would learn to hear them differently and you would discover modes. You would also really learn how they sound. This might develop playing in cycles of fifths and here we start thinking harmonically which deepens our understanding of modulation and harmony.  You may say, but this is not improvising per se.  To which I would retort, it’s the start of taking control of how you play and this then determines what you play, this being the first premise of thinking freely and improvising with your thoughts.

The next stage is to experiment with melody and here the fun starts. You may feel you know Ab major and its colour. If you improvise a melodic shape in this key with a beginning, middle and end, and it could be as short or as long as you like to work effectively, this process activates your imagination and allows you to find out what’s in your inner musical ear. Once you start tapping into this enormous space the possibilities of expression are infinite. This does many things. It nourishes your instinct which in turn feeds into your confidence which then filters into your standard repertoire whether it’s orchestral excerpts or recital pieces. You may also very well find that you begin not to need to read the music and gradually, step by step, start to memorise. Playing from memory is an extremely useful tool because it makes you listen harder which will naturally improve the way you play.

Which brings me to the first exhortation “I can’t do that!” Well now by this stage having attempted some of the above you can begin. In a lot of baroque sonatas there are moments with pauses usually at the end of movements that need a little phrase from the performer that offers their thoughts on the movement they’ve just played. This musical comment in a lot of cases need only be a breath length. If you have already started to play with your instinct in your practicing as described above, this procedure is not daunting at all. In fact it can be of enormous pleasure. To find the right phrase needs a bit of time and thought, and exploring what it could be through improvising, is the key. It encourages you to think about the material in the movement, to understand the style, and to achieve the right kind of expression. This then leads into styles of ornamentation, not only baroque, but classical. This will also inform your listening of great players that you aspire to, doing the same thing.

The next step in improvising could be your classical concertos that will need little cadenzas, and by this stage you may very well have thoughts on how to modulate from key to key using dominant and diminished sevenths, how to design a form, and how to improvise using the classical patterns in your concerto.  I have written three cadenzas for each of the movements of the Mozart Oboe Concerto and I did this by improvising around the material until my ear was satisfied with how they should sound.

Following on from this you may find that you invent something that goes in a completely different direction. You may take a theme from any piece of music and start moulding, fiddling, playing, and improvising with it. This is the beginning of exploring your musical mind that then empowers your musical imagination and confidence.

I’d like to return to an earlier point I mentioned about the millions of different ways there are of playing the same thing. In performance we take a lot of effort in preparing “the perfect” interpretation. Yes there is a sort of ideal way of playing something, but I believe there is no such thing as a perfect performance. Music is a living art and in performance little things may not go in quite the direction that you intended. This can be due to intangible things out of your control like the light, atmosphere or certain conditions. This can be off-putting and frustrating and there is a sort of feeling of resigning to a negative or insincere delivery because how you wanted it to go has not happened. If on the other hand you have internalised the music and prepared many versions that may differ in small details of how you think it should sound then this approach is a much more musical, enjoyable and of course daring way of performing. You can tailor the performance to suit the moment. It also gives the music energy, spontaneity, drive and commitment. This way of gently improvising as you go brings you much closer to what performing is really about.

Needless to say this is now getting very advanced and the one thing to remember is that there should always be ample and regular time to explore all these stages. These processes cannot be learnt quickly. It takes time and patience and can go on for the rest of your playing life. The wonderful thing about it is that it gives you the freedom to find out what is your artistic voice and after all, this is the beauty of learning an instrument. It mirrors your personality and who you are. Improvising gives your musicianship integrity by furnishing your musical mind with tools that will enhance your listening and your performing.  


published by Emerson Edition

for oboe & drone


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Competitive Music Festivals

Competitive Music Festivals

by Liz Childs
  Trustee, British & International Federation of Festivals
Founder, Bedfordshire Woodwind Academy
Teacher & Flautist

A Music Festival is a community event offering a performance platform for amateur musicians, allowing them the opportunity to perform either a set piece or a piece of their own choice to an audience and receive constructive feedback from an Adjudicator.
Most festivals are what we call 'competitive', although there are some that are non-competitive festivals and others which offer a mixture of both.
In competitive festivals each performer will receive a mark within a category, which is arrived at by the Adjudicator adhering to a set of criteria and descriptors. These are usually published in the syllabus and sometimes in the programme as well. There will therefore be a winner of each class.
Many festivals have trophies which are awarded providing a certain standard has been achieved. There are also medals and certificates to be gained. Some BIFF festivals have been running for very many years and in fact some were supported by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar so there is an impressive history. There are nearly 300 in the UK and some International ones too.

Who can take part?

Anyone who is an amateur musician, though the performer can be accompanied (if appropriate) by their teacher or a professional accompanist. Some festivals actually engage the services of an accompanist.

How do I find out about my local Festival?

Visit and you will discover an interactive map showing you all the festivals in the UK and lots of other useful information too. Most festivals have their own websites these days.

How do I enter?

You will be required to complete an entry form, either online or as a hard copy, which will either be on the festival website or in the syllabus. There is a small fee but these are always really reasonable. You will be required to pay when you submit your entry.

How do I know what to play?

Festivals produce a syllabus which is unique to their festival in which you will find all the types of classes available for entry. There is usually a very wide range of classes - some are repertoire genre specific, some are organised by grade and others maybe organised by age. Some festivals offer 'own choice' and some require 'set pieces', whilst some may include both.

I've never performed in public before!

It really doesn't matter. There will certainly be a suitable class for you to enter and it's important to remember that, as with everything we do in life, there always has to be a first time we do it!

What should I expect on the day?

You will have received notification from the festival as to the time of your class. Programmes and tickets for the audience will be available on the door. You will perform in 'your class', listen to all the other performers and then wait for the adjudicator to finish writing the comment sheets. Once the adjudicator has decided placings within the class, he/she will then get up and speak to everyone in the venue, giving informative and constructive feedback on the performances and then announcing the placings - e.g. 3rd/2nd/1st or whatever the festival has decided upon in terms of winners and runners up etc.

What are the benefits of performing in a Music Festival?

The benefits are numerous, but the really important ones include:
  • The opportunity to share with a live audience a piece you have learned and really enjoy.
  • Experiencing the feeling of satisfaction of preparing and then delivering a piece.
  • Discovering a great deal about yourself as a performer and experiencing the 'buzz' factor - this could in fact be life changing.
  • Developing one's own communication and expressive skills.
  • Receiving valuable feedback and constructive criticism.
  • Listening to others either playing/singing a piece that you may never have heard before or playing/singing a piece you know and can then compare interpretations of.
  • Having to think on one's feet, deal with nerves and cope and continue if things don't go quite as planned.
  • Having the opportunity to play in a notable local venue and adjusting to a new and quite possibly exciting acoustic.

So go on, give it 'a Go'!

To find a festival close to where you live, visit
where you will find an interactive map alongside lots of other useful information.

I am always happy to help anyone with any aspect of the above
so please feel free to get in touch.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

RNCM Saxophone Day

RNCM Saxophone Day

Sunday 8th November, 2015
"One of the most popular events we stage here during the year, RNCM Saxophone Day is a major happening in the sax calendar. We throw open our doors and welcome players of all ages and abilities and present a day jam-packed with participatory workshops and concerts. As is tradition, we kick off the proceedings with the now legendary Massed Saxophone Orchestra and this year there’s also a concert by the Apollo Saxophone Quartet.
But you don’t have to be a sax supremo to get something out of the day. You can simply enjoy watching the brilliant performances and take the opportunity to interact with our guests to find out something you always wanted to know about the saxophone but were afraid to ask…"
Rob Buckland & Andy Scott
Artistic Directors

The day is jam packed with activities to suit all ages and abilities, and includes workshops, recitals, ensemble sessions, masterclasses and an unmissable evening concert.

To complement all this there will be a large number of trade stands in attendance, so you'll be able to try out and buy instruments, pick up some accessories and browse through our extensive range of saxophone sheet music!

Tickets can be purchased for the full day or for specific events.


Click here for more details and booking information

Click here to download the Sax Day leaflet

Royal Northern College of Music

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Launchpad Prize Winners' Profile No.5: Abelia Saxophone Quartet


Emma McPhilemy - soprano sax

Hannah Corcoran - alto sax

Isobel Williams - tenor sax

Catherine Hanson - baritone sax


The Abelia Saxophone Quartet are a young and energetic Manchester-based ensemble currently studying at the Royal Northern College of Music under the tuition of Rob Buckland. Recently, they have been awarded the Trevor Wye Woodwind Chamber Prize and have also been named the RNCM Ensemble of The Year; The Chris Rowland Prize.

Abelia Sax Quartet with Timothy McAllister

During their time at RNCM so far the group have received coaching from chamber music specialists such as Carl Raven, Andy Scott and Huw Wiggin and have performed in public masterclasses for Johan Van Der Linden, Ainars Ŝablovskis and for Timothy McAllister at the World Saxophone Congress 2015 in Strasbourg. The quartet recently commissioned new works by RNCM composers as part of a January 2015 composition festival, and followed this with a live performance on BBC Radio 3 contributing to the ‘BBC Young Artists Day’.

The group has given recitals at venues including The Cosmo Rodewald Hall (University of Manchester) and The Carole Nash Recital Room (RNCM) as part of the Spotlight Concert Series, Buxton Opera House, The Lowry (Salford Quays) and many other local venues. Abelia have also accompanied Philippe Geiss in his solo feature recital at the RNCM Saxophone Day 2014 and are looking forward to recitals later this year at St Martin-in-the-Fields (London) and Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester).


Friday 30th October @ 1pm
Monday 2nd November @ 1pm
St Martin-in-the-Fields, London
Friday 6th November @ 1pm
Cross Street Chapel, Manchester
Wednesday 25th November @ 1pm
St Ann's Church, Manchester
Sunday 6th December @ 3pm
Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

June Emerson Wind Music would like to thank Rob Buckland for organising the 
awarding of the Launchpad Prize at the Royal Northern College of Music.