Thursday, November 26, 2015

How I Stay in Shape

by Bob Ashworth
Principal Horn, Opera North

Whether it’s getting ready for Ein Heldenleben after a six week break, playing such varied repertoire in the same week (Cole Porter’s ‘Kiss Me Kate’, Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’, Janacek’s ‘Jenufa’ and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4) or looking further ahead to SIX – yes, six - Ring cycles(!), it’s important to stay in shape.

What exactly does this mean for horn players (or any musicians)? There can be no doubt that horn playing (as with any musical instrument) is a very physical activity – I still regard myself as an athlete although it’s a while since I’ve done any serious running. After lots of athletics at school I went through the usual fad in my thirties (and I’m not knocking it) of doing 10K runs and marathons and it was certainly physically draining. But looking back now I think I got more from the mental strength behind it and I find more and more that the determination and staying power is so applicable to horn playing. Staying in shape for horn playing doesn’t necessarily mean doing a 5-10K run every weekend or going to the gym – it’s more than that because it’s both mental and physical. For the past few years my physical stuff is what Alfred Brain used to do – a lot of digging – not exactly aerobic fitness but looking after three  allotments is a great escape from the pressures of playing principal horn. But that’s still not the whole answer either. You have to do the 5-10K runs and marathons, but in horn playing terms. It’s the preparation and perseverance that I found from running that are the key elements.

My preparation for each of the Ring operas was to play them from beginning to end, obviously without most of the rests, in a single practice session. For Das Rheingold this probably took slightly over an hour – not too long – but at the end I knew that MENTALLY I could get through it. The same with the others – although possibly slightly longer for each opera. Not sure yet about my preparation for the whole cycle in a week....

My preparation for Ein Heldenleben, throughout my summer holidays, was the same, play it through so it feels familiar and do-able.

For the varied repertoire, as with all of the above, it’s a case of keeping everything on the boil – especially the basics – which comes from a ‘warm up’ (moving into ‘extended practice’) which is constantly being refreshed by tapping into varied material – my own Warm Ups (obviously but constantly re-vamped) plus re-worked elements of Farkas, Schlossberg, Ree Wekre, Kling, Caruso (Carmine not Enrico! – and therefore Julie Landsman too), Yancich, Schantl etc. – all of which, even though seemingly diverse, are coming from the point of using air efficiently, like a singer.

So, for a training regime (both mental and physical):
  • repetitive work – but you must keep the repetition interesting
  • stamina work – push the boundaries BUT don’t overdo it (hard but pragmatic decisions to be made here)
  • gentle work – to relax, ease off and enjoy yourself
  • rest – SO important to all athletes

Have fun!


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