At the end of 2019 I was starting to morph into a ragged shell of a human after a packed-out flutey year. Exhaustion was definitely nipping at my ankles, begging me to take a little break. You see, in 2019 I gave 8 public recitals, ran 4 Boho Flute Retreats here in Cornwall, released a solo tango flute album, started recording a second solo album and also taught hundreds and hundreds of 1:1 lessons. Don’t get me started on also mothering a wild toddler, too in between all of that!
Maybe it’s the blissful quiet I’ve given myself since 2020 started, but this year I want to refine even more about what I give and do in my playing, teaching and performing. So, I’ll start with this little blog post to kick off my thoughts. Here we go:
1: That you need to keep torturing yourself by playing music totally unsuited to your tastes
Yesterday I had a session with a 19 year-old I will call Tamara. Though playing for a few years, she hadn’t touched her flute in months, and mostly felt isolated from it all. She was unmotivated in her playing, and more importantly didn’t know if she should be a flautist because preparing for an exam didn’t thrill her. Equally she felt meh about working through the usual flute method books. Here is how our session started:
ME: “Ok, what’s one of your favourite songs these days?”
Tamara: “You mean a song out of one of my method books?” (she shows me an etude that was beyond her ability at the moment, and wouldn’t have been able to play then).
ME: “No… I meant something that you will sing over and over, and can’t get enough of. Something that you adore lately. Any song. Doesn’t matter what it is.”
Tamara: “Oh…well, I like ‘Ocean Eyes’ by Billie Eilish. How come?”
Me: “Great. We’ll work on that.”
Tamara: “I didn’t know I could play THAT.”
Yes, folks (and Tamara, if you are reading). You can play any music you want. Anything. Anything. Anything. Please don’t box yourself into a genre or style if it bores you to tears. Please, please I am begging you to make your musical choices based on how obsessed you are with it (and always be obsessed, even if it it takes you a while to build that obsession).
Tamara, by the way, just emailed me a recording this morning of her latest rendition of ‘Ocean Eyes’. Her ornaments and tone styles that we workshopped in the lesson was now out of this world. Sparked by the ‘permission’ I gave her to think out of the box, she practiced in a way she hadn’t in eons. And more importantly—she is playing again. And you know, that’s all that really matters in the grand scheme of things.
2: That any one really needs an overly fancy flute.
When a student tells me they’re going to splash serious cash on a new flute —when I also notice that they aren’t into playing their current flute (even if it is a perfectly functioning instrument)— I inwardly sigh. Sure, it’s nice to have a glitzy instrument with all the trimmings: platinum risers, rose gold engravings and fancy bespoke headjoints. But for me, the leveller and poetic justice of music making is that a £100k flute ain’t ever gonna buy you a lush sound or make your audiences shiver with glee. That is, without the other investment you need to give first (ie practice).
Bet you didn’t know this: I completed an undergraduate flute performance degree on an intermediate silver-plated Gemeinhardt (are you shaking your head yet?). Hey, I won a place studying at the Guildhall School School of Music in London on that flute!
And? My current flute is from 2003, bought from the legendary and delightful flute dealer Ellen Ramsey. It’s a classic, solid silver heavy-wall Miyazawa, with a low B edition. By today’s standards, it’s nothing overly fancy. Like any loyal relationship, I plan on using it for as long as it still wants to play for me. I take exceptional care of it and it takes care of me.‘Nough said.
3: That I need to reveal every single thing I am working on/ teaching/ playing/ eating…
Some of the most beautiful musicians that I have encountered are the ones so entrenched in their writing/ playing/ teaching/ performing that they remain largely out of the social media limelight. Or if they are in the limelight, it’s because their output was so outstanding that they didn’t have to force themselves there. They don’t have to continually shout it off their (Instagram) rooftops every single day. Why? the world wants what they offer, regardless. You can probably guess that I aspire to be this type of person, too.
I have come to accept (finally—finally—FINALLY!) that I don’t need to pretend anymore that I want to share a photo of the (delightful) chocolate- chip cookies that I just made—I really don’t. (Though ironically I will probably enjoy your photo).
Instead, my favourite forms of sharing are in my 1:1 flute lessons with you, when I am performing on stage, any recordings I release, and of course, writing this blog— in which I pretend we are having a chit-chatty coffee and a donut together, so I don’t get too shy about sending it.
4: That my artistic duality is a negative thing
Listen, I am a bag of paradoxes. Case in point: I don’t always love my own playing, but then some days I feel its like a million bucks. Somedays it feels like it’s totally falling apart. On the other hand, some days I will play hours on hours with a feverish obsession. Somedays I’ll bunk off a practice session because I’d rather do something else entirely. Most days I adoooooore my teaching. Some days sitting in that space with a tricky client’s flute problem is the last thing I feel like solving. Sometimes that feeling will change by the hour. That’s just how it goes for me (are you dizzy yet?).
All of these complex paradoxes about my career used to make me think that something was ‘wrong’ with me as a musician. I used to really be ashamed about it. Maybe if I didn’t want to breathe flute playing day in and day out then I wasn’t passionate enough about it? I used to think that I needed to love it all of the time in order to ‘make it’ as a musician.
These days, I have learned that I can be this and that as an artist— and even at the same time. I use my paradoxes to my advantage— it certainly helps me be really open and curious in my playing and to never assume anything.
Though this might seem a flighty approach, one thing keeps me grounded in it all: I don’t let the times of creative disinterest or boredom stop me from playing. Younger me would wait to play when I was feeling ‘inspired’. Now I don’t wait. Ninety percent of the time I still show up even when I least feel like it. I then wait for the magic to appear. Sometimes it does. Sometimes not at all. And life goes on.
5: That I need to keep pushing all the time to make things happen
If you had met me at aged 25 years, you would have met a shouty hustler— and not in a cute way, either. (Lucky for you that this was before social media was a thing).
I tended to avoid the concept of ‘letting things happen naturally’. Instead, I felt a feverish urgency to push for the chance to play at the ‘best venues’ win ‘top’ orchestral positions, and generally try to have everyone think I was the best thing since instant organic mac and cheese was invented. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with reaching for the top-shelf. Though in my case, I tended to always need artistic recognition because of the underlying feeling of never being ‘good enough’.
When I literally let all that go (insert major career burnout story here), my career started to shift in profound ways.
What did I (gradually) try instead? I started creating things for my flute clients that I absolutely luuuurve doing: this blog, making recordings, offering bespoke magical flute retreats, and giving annual recitals with musicians who really float my boat. I decided to stop shouting endlessly about it, too. Sure, I let people know what I do, but not aggressively, not out of control, and certainly not hustling for the sake of hustling.
The real kicker? I have more work offered to me from the places that I used to hustle for work (insert my own hand to forehead moment).
How about you, what do you no longer believe about your playing?Would love to know your thoughts in the comments below. Enlighten me, please.