Thursday, March 24, 2016

Jess Gillam's World

March 2016

Jess Gillam is now a 
June Emerson Wind Music Young Artist 

What a month! I have been busy this month competing in and preparing for the BBC Young Musician competition. In January, the Category Finalists for the 2016 competition were announced and I was delighted to have reached the Woodwind Final. The Woodwind Final took place at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on March 7th but until the programme has been televised, the results have to remain secret!

BBC Young Musician - BBC Four coverage
BBC Young Musician - Concerto Final

Entering and being a part of this competition has been a fantastic experience and I really have learned a lot from it. The competition offers such a huge platform for young musicians and I have loved being a part of it.

Preparing for the Category Final was extremely enjoyable for me. The thing I focused on most was trying to be in complete control of my saxophone at every single point in the performance. I attempted to work out the absolute extremities of my playing at both loud and quiet dynamics. Often, especially in performance, I lose control of the instrument when I am playing loudly and I was determined not to let that happen in this performance so I worked on tone quality and control as much as possible.

Rob Buckland

I worked on this with Rob Buckland in my lessons quite a lot; pitching and thinking about every single note was something we regularly worked on but I knew it was going to be difficult to replicate in a performance! With John Harle, I had also been working on having an absolute sense of presence during the entire performance and this helped me to stay completely focused throughout. I was quite nervous before I performed but once I had stepped onto the stage, I didn’t have any room left in my head for nerves! I knew the only thing I could think about was the music and performing it the best I could.

Jess & John Harle

Something I often find difficult is thinking about the music as a whole at the same time as thinking about each individual note. I think every note has a certain importance but I think that the overall shape and mood of the music is a lot more important and I have been finding it difficult to strike a balance between these two ideas. I think learning the pieces from memory helped me with this as I was able to think about the shape and the overall movement in the piece while simultaneously remembering that I can only play one note at any one time and all I should be thinking about is that very note!

I absolutely love performing and the adrenaline and risks that go along with it and this was a performance I certainly did enjoy I hope you will too if you manage to watch it! The Woodwind Final will be televised on BBC Four on Friday 15th April.

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BBC Young Musician - BBC Four coverage
BBC Young Musician - Concerto Final

Yanagisawa Saxophones UK

Vandoren UK

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Keep Dreaming...

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

I was born in New Zealand. I first saw a trombone when I was four, in a brass band. That was the beginning of lifelong obsession. The only was problem was that my arms were too short, so I learned the trumpet and hung from the cross-bar of my wardrobe, hoping for gravity to solve the problem. Eventually, my arms grew and a trombone arrived. I loved it.

For my 12th birthday, I was given a record of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, called Easy Winners. The first trombonist was called John Iveson and I had never heard anything as beautiful. His playing sounded like gold. That was the beginning of my second obsession; to travel to the UK and to learn from John. I worked in a music shop, worked on a farm and did as many paid jobs as possible throughout my school days in order to save for my big trip to the other side of the world. Practice sessions always began at 7am and I tried to imagine that I was training like an All Black, working towards a world cup. I worked through all of my ABRSM grade exams and used some of my savings to order music and recordings. None of my school teachers or friends really understood this total obsession: why would anyone want to leave a gorgeous county like NZ and risk everything on the other side of the world?

Early inspiration from the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble quintet

Despite my mammoth efforts to save enough, the NZ dollar was very weak against the pound and it seemed impossible to get enough money together in order to stay long enough in the UK. I worked through my ABRSM grades and eventually sat my LRSM in Auckland. The examiners asked me about my aspirations and when they heard my story, they asked me to return the next day in order to record my recital programme, which was sent to ABRSM in London. ABRSM wrote me a letter, confirming three years of scholarship support to study in London. I still can’t believe that happened! I flew to the UK with a suitcase and a trombone, knowing only one person in the entire country. It’s now 27 years later and I am still here, having spent time as Principal trombone of RLPO and now as Head of Brass and Percussion at RWCMD. I can’t believe that either!

KP and the RWCMD Brass Ensemble in Llandaff Cathedral

Music has made my life into an adventure. I had no idea what would happen when I stepped onto the plane, heading for London. John Iveson and I became good friends and his teaching enabled me to take a step into the music profession in the UK. Along the way, I have met so many of my musical heroes and have been introduced to an incredible array of people who work in music. I met one of them yesterday. She was visiting Cardiff to hear the BBC Young Musician competition at RWCMD. She runs a famous music company that I have always used to buy my books and sheet music. Her name is Rachel Emerson, from June Emerson Wind Music. You may have heard of it…

Rachel and I have been in contact many times by email and through the music orders that are placed by RWCMD, but we had never met. Yesterday, we compared stories and soon realised that our lives have both been shaped by an obsessive love of music and of musicians and that we feel totally committed to supporting and nurturing the future of our art form.

Given that you are reading this, I suspect that you feel the same as us. If so, my advice is to totally dedicate yourself to music and try to regard your life as an adventure, with music leading you along the way. You will meet incredible people, hear amazing sounds and will never know what is around the corner. It can be scary at times, but it’s always enormous fun…good luck!


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Some Thoughts on Practising

by Helen Paskins
Freelance clarinettist and teacher

Practising can be great fun. I was delighted to hear from the parent of one of my students recently that she happily practises of her own accord. So why is this not such a common occurrence?

In my view, the reasons for not practising are normally far more complex than straightforward laziness. In fact, I am not sure that laziness is ever really the problem and sussing out what is really stopping practice from happening can be really helpful.

Firstly, I think students need to be really clear about what practice is and how to do it. This is where a good teacher can come in. Setting clear, achievable and measurable goals is vital. As I mentioned in my article on scales it is failing that troubles us, what we like best is to succeed. This is why so many people like to practise the things they can do already! The trouble is that in the long run this isn't going to be hugely useful. It is also a good idea to develop a structure for your practice. It can be very beneficial to warm up with technical exercises, long notes, scales and articulation patterns which get the key essentials for good, even sound production in place before you begin working on pieces.

It also enables you to bring your brain from whatever it may have been thinking about previously into musical focus before you start on the main work of your practice.

I feel that all lessons should be a template for good practice techniques. If we can take something we can't do and turn it into something that we can then the practice feels good and will help us to improve therefore, ironically, inspiring us to practise more. The reverse is also true though. Practise something in a rushed, un-rhythmical way or without paying attention to accurate notes, accidentals, articulations or good posture and you will wind up feeling frustrated. Internally you will know that you are being careless. This feels bad. You leave the session not wanting to do anything further. Added to which these mistakes are likely to rear their ugly heads again because the option is now in your fingers. For some reason, bad habits can seem to stick much more stubbornly than good ones which is why it is best, if you can, never to play things without good quality attention. I teach my students to check in with their emotions when practising. They are a really good barometer for how well you are getting on. 

Our feelings are really important drivers in other ways too. Alison Balsom talked a lot about the inspiration for practice in her wonderful Desert Island Discs interview. She described the importance of the friends she has made through music and the excitement of discovering different pieces/performers for herself. The power of the social connections we can make and voyage of intellectual, emotional and even geographical discovery that music can take us on really can help to get us hooked on practising and keep us there. Having friends to chat to who love to explore, enjoy and care about music too can really help to keep you motivated and focused. I have witnessed again and again how a group of students playing music together can create a special chemistry which keeps them all so much more enthused and engaged and how this then feeds into their personal practice.

However, with the best will in the world there is another problem. Children (and adults of course!) these days can be incredibly busy with huge numbers of activities to try and fit into their days. It feels like everyone wants a piece of them. This is where being realistic is important.  I had one student who used to get up early and practise before school. For a lot of teenagers though, their body clocks just can't cope with this. For other people, the problem might be their next door neighbours. Fine. It must be what works for you. However, if you tie practice to some free periods when friends are in lessons or do it every day just after or as a break in the middle of homework or any realistic and regular slot in the week then it is much more likely to be feasible and therefore to happen. Deciding to practise 2 hours a day when you simply do not have that time in your life is only going to make you feel guilty and very likely not achieve much. Ironically, if you commit to a very small slot, for example 10 minutes a day, you will probably do more because having started you will get involved and interested.

This article is in no way meant to be comprehensive. However, I have found that working with these ideas and a compassionate/realistic approach to what can be achieved can be really helpful. At the end of the day, playing an instrument is an incredible experience and fun. It involves solving problems, being honest and patient with ourselves and being creative. If we are open to the idea that gratification might not always be immediate, but that working
rhythmically (more vital than many people realise for satisfying practice),
in small chunks,
and with
care, attention, good listening, imagination
and appropriate body use/awareness,
can lead us to solving all sorts of tricky passages,
then it can be an incredibly rich and rewarding experience even, and perhaps especially, for the smart phone/internet generation.

Being alive now is in fact an incredible opportunity. There are so many resources online to help us make practice even more productive than perhaps ever before. There are websites like to help us with sight-reading so that you can check what you are doing is actually correct. The ABRSM has aural apps to help with aural. You can have a metronome and tuner on your phone so they are always with you. On Youtube or Spotify we have access to an unbelievable quantity and quality of recordings and videos which can inspire us and help us to learn about the harmony, accompaniment or different ways of playing/phrasing the same thing. Using Wikipedia we can inform ourselves in seconds about the background of the pieces and composers. IMSLP will provide you with the orchestra parts or scores for almost anything out of copyright.  Wow.  How lucky we are. Let's get practising!

(I am grateful to David Warwick and Nicola Summerscales for their very pertinent input into these thoughts.)


Helen's edition of 'Syrinx' by Debussy for bass clarinet is published 
by Emerson Edition (E700) and available from June Emerson Wind Music here.

More information about Helen Paskins can be found here