A genuine passion and love for the music I’m playing drives my performances. I love analysing scores, figuring out unique opportunities for interpretation, experimenting with new sounds. But back in 2010 during my undergrad, I could barely pick up my flute without feeling like a failure.
I felt so out of place within the world of classical music. I felt like I wasn’t behaving in the right way, like I was missing a level of understanding and that everyone around me knew of my ignorance. It was because of that feeling that when I finished my undergrad I stopped playing flute almost entirely. I ran away to China which was about as far as I could go, put my flute in a dark cupboard and barely picked it up for a year.
I was taught flute in a very typical, classically focused way. Once a week a teacher came into school, we drilled through scales, worked on classical pieces, then during the week I practiced those classical pieces to pass the next exam. But in my free time I was listening to Spice Girls, Bob Marley, AFI, Red Hot Chilli Peppers (this is spanning a good few years remember!) Like many state school classical instrumental students there was a huge disconnect between the music I was listening to and enjoying and the music I was playing.
Perhaps it’s because of that disconnect that students report feeling passionate about music just not in the classroom, and maybe it’s the reason why people are most likely to give up an instrument during secondary school.
I moved from China to Spain fully expecting my flute to find a new dusty cupboard to live in, to never see the light of a Spanish sun. But two things happened to change that narrative.
First, I made some amazing friends who loved music. They part owned an old warehouse that they’d converted into practice rooms/recording studios/hangout spaces and we’d meet up and jam and have an absolute blast. There was no pressure for the perfection that classical music demanded, no formality or hierarchy in our relationships, and I didn’t feel that internalised inferiority complex that I’d built up around playing.
They made it so relaxed and easy to just let go and play that I didn’t even notice my walls breaking down.
I’ve written in more detail about the benefits of switching up music here
Secondly, I started playing contemporary music. For the first time I was playing music by composers who were still alive, and I was connecting with it. It was exciting. There was a vibrancy to it that I hadn’t felt for a long time.
And I learnt extended techniques. For so long I’d been working on the same techniques I’d been learning since secondary school in the same way, but here was something new. Flutter-tonguing, multiphonics, tongue-rams; there was suddenly as endless possibility of sound to explore. And the extended technique work I was doing improved my ‘normal’ playing – to sound multiphonics with ease you need very good control of your embouchure and your breath.
I started playing in more bands, performing on bigger stages and festivals. I joined GU-RU, a cosmic dance explosion, which allowed me to improvise and gyrate and be as weird and unexpected on stage as the rest of the band. It was fun and challenging. As musicians they push me to explore sound and performance in a way I never have before, but there’s an acceptance amongst us that sometimes those choices don’t always pay off. And that’s OK, we move on and explore the next challenge.
But when it came to performing classically, my old fears started to creep back in.
Was I breathing too loudly? Was the sound vibrating unevenly? In bar 293 should I be shortening the note? I started questioning everything again, and it began to impact on my performances. I couldn’t let myself go like I could in other types of music because I was constantly replaying everything I’d just done.
Then in 2017 I played a recital at Leicester Cathedral in partnership with De Montfort University. The programme started with a Bach Sonata (circa 1717), then the Martinu (1945), Trillium (2000) and finally Lee Spreadbury (amazing keys player and band leader for GU-RU) joined me for a couple of stripped back versions of GU-RU songs.
With each jump through time I felt my anxieties fade. The more contemporary the music I was playing the more at ease I felt. It could have been because I was getting more comfortable on stage but the way I was rehearsing each piece was different. How I’d imagined the performance of each was different. The expectations of the audience for each was different.
When you perform a historical canonical piece there are assumptions about how it will sound. For some players working within or subverting those assumptions is their speciality. They take their audiences on a journey through time, connecting to another world. It’s their passion.
It’s not mine.
My passion is playing pieces that are new, that still are open to fresh interpretation, that might divide an audience, that might never see the light of day again or become the next must have in the flute portfolio.
Learning what my passion was changed everything. Literally. It changed how I teach. How I connect with other artists. How I market myself.
I took the spontaneity and energy from band gigs and put it into my contemporary practice. The breeziness and forgiveness of mistakes went in too. I rehearsed intensely but added space for creative interpretation, finding markers that linked with other contemporary styles or arts. I thought more closely about presentation movement.
When I was doing my undergraduate there were two career paths for instrumental performers-either join an orchestra or be a soloist with a manager. But the reality of my journey has been completely different. And with a shrinking number of orchestral places available, a portfolio career has become the new norm and education should be embracing this.
Once I accepted that my own career vision was quite different to what I had been taught it should be, and could not be measured in the same way, I felt liberated. Recognising my own authentic self as an artist, and working to make that the best it could be, rather than working to please classical gatekeepers and audiences has bought joy back to my flute playing.
What’s your passion as an artist or creator? Are you still on a journey of discovery? Let me know in the comments!