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.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Jess Gillam's World

Part 3

“Stage animal”
– BBC Young Musician 2014

This weekend, I have spent two days filming a music video for “The Sky’s the Limit”, a piece written for me by renowned saxophonist and composer Barbara Thompson.  Barbara and her husband, Jon Hiseman, came up to the Lake District for three days with Asue Azar to film me playing the piece in various locations with stunning scenery.
“The Sky’s the Limit” was written for me to perform at the World Saxophone Congress in July and is a piece for alto saxophone, piano and strings. Barbara says, It leads the saxophone into groundbreaking areas while retaining melodic and rhythmical elements. The saxophone is a very exciting instrument to write for because it has so many variations of tone and colour and the player can make his or her sound unique. It is a real treat to write a piece for such a talented young 17-year-old saxophonist, and I hope this will be the first of many collaborations”.
Jess with Barbara Thompson
Filming the video was a very interesting experience and I enjoyed learning about how this world works and it also gave me a chance to appreciate the natural beauty of where I come from. However, I was a little nervous playing on the top of a crag looking over Windermere – I wasn’t expecting an audience and people were gathering round to see what was happening! The sound in open air just did not travel no matter how much I attempted to project and make the sound sing. I began playing saxophone when I was 7 in the Barracudas carnival band so I am quite used to playing on the streets but this was quite different – no PA and no buildings for the sound to bounce off meant I could only produce a very dead sound. This meant I had to think about all other elements of playing a piece of music a lot more because I knew there wasn’t very much I could do about the sound projection so I considered rhythmic accuracy, dynamic control, vibrato control and articulation in a much more meticulous way than I usually do but the performance was not comparable to one indoors where all of these elements can be projected!

Jess playing to the elements!
We also filmed at Birkrigg Common, very close to where I live. Jon asked me to stand on the trig point and this was quite a scary place to perform the piece – I am very clumsy at the best of times and playing without being able to move took a lot of concentration! 
Working with Barbara and Jon has been a truly inspirational experience – they are both so dedicated and passionate about what they do and really live and breathe music. They have both had very successful and varied careers and listening to their anecdotes and stories about gigs and the lengths they used to have to go to even just to record music is fascinating! Barbara has inspired me with her music since I was 12 years old and to now be working with her is quite a surreal experience! 8 years ago, Barbara was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and the way she continues, still composing and creating music, is quite unbelievable.
Jess at Windermere
Jon is now editing the video and it will be released on YouTube once the editing and recording has been completed.
I have also spent a lot of time this month practicing the Malcolm Arnold Saxophone Concerto as I will be performing it with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra in October at the Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton and at the Worthing Assembly Hall. Preparing a concerto is something I really enjoy and trying to connect information about a composer with the themes and moods in their music is fascinating and I am really looking forward to performing the piece.


Worthing Symphony Orchestra
Sunday 11th & Sunday 18th October @ 2.45pm

Malcolm Arnold Festival

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

Yanagisawa Saxophones UK

Vandoren UK

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Preparing for Music College Auditions

First Impressions:

Audition Tips

by Kevin Price
(Head of Brass and Percussion,
Royal Welsh College of Music Drama)

Travel Well

Avoid travelling on the day of the audition. A night in cheap hotel or B&B is a good investment and easily outweighs the embarrassment and cost of a missed audition due to transport problems. Be careful to pack copies of your music to give to the panel and to read all audition requirements with great care, packing a copy for last-minute reference during your journey. Aim to arrive at least one hour before your allocated time in order to acclimatise and feel relaxed. Avoid excessive caffeine and sugar in the days leading up to the audition and take plenty of long walks or light exercise before the big day.

Dress well

Make sure that you dress in a way which reflects your professionalism and dedication. Wear smart clothes that you have worn before (new clothes or shoes can often feel uncomfortable and make you a little uncertain). Suits and ties for men always look good and long smart casual for ladies works well too. Low or medium heels are also recommended, as it is common to see high heels undermine efficient posture and breathing strategies on the day of a performance or audition.

Perform well

Remember that the panel wants to discover what you know, rather than what you don’t know. They will ask you questions which are always intended to relax you and to discover what you are like as a person and as a musician. Try to be open, to smile and to take time to answer questions thoughtfully. Prepare your own questions too, as the panel want to see your enthusiasm and to gain an understanding of your aims and long-term goals.

Audition requirements vary greatly between colleges, with some asking for “set works” and others offering a “free choice” of repertoire. Choose from the “set works”, selecting pieces that you are comfortable with. It is important to offer two pieces which contrast in style and that are of at least Grade 8 standard. You do not necessarily need to choose pieces which are technically demanding. It is best to select repertoire which you can play comfortably and which shows off your musicality.

Remember that the 10-15 minutes of your audition potentially represents the first stage of your College course, therefore the panel generally views the audition as part of the “learning process” and as an opportunity to provide you with constructive feedback and advice. We are looking for “learning people” who respond to advice and constructive criticism, as opposed to a “perfect” performance on the day.

The 'S' words

Scales are the “alphabet” of music. They build brain patterns and physical reflexes that enable us to respond instinctively to the written suggestions of composers. Not all colleges ask for scales in auditions, but a working knowledge of the Grade 8 scale requirements will do you no harm. The confidence that scale preparation gives you will also help to develop a better ability to deal with the other “S” word: sight-reading. When looking at sight-reading, take your time and pay attention to details of tempo (candidates usually play too fast when under pressure) and musical moods. Details of articulation and note-lengths are commonly overlooked, along with dynamics. Try not to focus solely upon “the notes”, but always aim to convey the emotion and moods of the music. My peripatetic teacher at school always said “You are allowed to make mistakes, but you are not allowed to be boring!”

(Grant Jameson, winner of the BBC Young Brass Award 2015)

Although brief, I sincerely hope that this advice will help you to feel more relaxed 
on the big day. Remember - we want you to do well and we are here to help,
rather than to judge you.

If you are organised and work hard, you can achieve anything.
Good luck!