Who or what inspired you to take up the bassoon and pursue a career in music?
I was a violinist in school and only started the bassoon because I wanted to be with my friends in the wind band. I went to music college as a violinist but I was given second study bassoon lessons because they were quite short of bassoons at the time and so I became involved in the woodwind department – it felt like home.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My teachers had a massive influence on me. Their inspiration gave me my love for the instrument and my love of playing. I also find my students inspiring – they challenge me. I think the two-way relationship in teaching is really important – I’m there to challenge them and raise their game, but it comes back to me as well.
At the RPO we’ve worked with so many amazing conductors and soloists that I could name, but there are two people we’ve played with during my time there that have really inspired me. The first, from a musicianship point of view, is Martha Argerich. Playing for her is an absolute dream. The other one is Shirley Bassey. I was completely starstruck when we played Diamonds are Forever with her. It was amazing, she just walked on and stole the show. Opposite ends of the spectrum perhaps, but both amazing people.
You’ve started your new role as Head of Woodwind in the most challenging of circumstances. What has your experience been like so far?
In a way it’s been good, I’m not running around the building like a headless chicken, so I’ve got time to read Academy policies and get to grips with how things work. It has also given me the time to meet all the wind professors individually over Zoom and find out about life in the Woodwind Department. As much of their performance work is on hold at the moment, they’re a bit freer so it’s a good time to take stock. On the other side of the coin, I’ve been very involved in the recruitment process for next year, which is one of the most crucial parts of my job. It’s been a very difficult time for everybody, but I’ve been grateful for a little extra time to get to grips with things. The support that Keith and the other Heads of Department have given to me during this time has been really brilliant.
How would you describe the Academy experience and why do you think students should choose to study here?
It’s easy to answer this question. On my first day teaching at the Academy, when I was filling in for my predecessor David Chatterton, I was a bit apprehensive about it because the Academy has such an incredible reputation. But when I got there, a student met me at the door and right from that first experience I was welcomed so warmly and with such a friendly manner and attitude. That’s been a thread that has run through my entire time teaching here, and has only grown since I became the new Head of Woodwind. The sense of being a family is clearly really important to everyone at the Academy and that’s why students should come and study here. Teamwork is really important in music and the Academy brings a real warmth to that.
How has the pandemic affected your professional music life, and have you taken anything positive from it?
The pandemic has affected my orchestra, the RPO, in a massive way. Before the pandemic we had crazy schedules, and to have that taken away was really gutting. As we go on, the forever extended end points have been really difficult, and the constant uncertainty is the biggest challenge. Initially there was a silver lining in that it let everyone rest and take stock of what is important, but of course we all want musical life to return. One positive is that I did an awful lot of practice at the beginning of lockdown. I did a few collaboration videos in the first lockdown and the process of putting yourself through recording those sorts of things, for example recording four different versions of me playing Baby Shark, is quite eye-opening in itself!
This lockdown is definitely worse for me, in terms of not knowing what the orchestra is going to do. Three years ago, we were in San Francisco playing The Firebird and it’s hard not to feel sad about it, but we have to be positive and know that we’ll be back there and, my goodness, it’s going to feel all the better for it.
What would be your desert island disc?
It would either be Strauss opera or Beethoven symphonies. Some people get tired of playing Beethoven symphonies, but I never do. I absolutely love playing that music. But with Strauss opera there’s something so intriguing about it. I would have difficulty choosing! Then again, I would perhaps go off piste and choose Shirley Bassey. There’s so much power in that music too – it’s so evocative.
Have you taken up any new hobbies or learnt any new skills in lockdown?
I don’t know if it counts as a hobby, but I’ve done a beginner’s course in yoga on Zoom with one of the cellists in the RPO. She’s a yoga instructor and at first I did it to support her but then I realised it was the most relaxed I’d ever found myself, as well as being pretty hard work. My colleagues were very surprised I was there! I spent most of the time doing reeds though – I made 200 contra reeds during the initial lockdown.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to your students?
I think the mark of a good wind player is being able to hold a true legato line of music. The essence of great musicianship is playing a tune really well and capturing people’s imaginations. If I hear someone make technical slips, I can forgive them because of nerves, but I can generally hear whether they have a sense of legato and, to me, that is about good support and connecting notes within a phrase. One of the best ways to learn is to listen to how other people do it, so if you are a woodwind player, you need to listen to string players and singers. You can fly around your instrument, and the technical requirements in the wind syllabus at the Academy are fiendish, but you need to make sure that you can really hold a true legato line on your instrument.
Photo by Fiona Hanson