I am 50 and life could not be better. I’m earning a living with my lifetime hobby, working with friends, including Marie-Pierre Langlamet, the Principal Harpist with the Berlin Philharmonic, who comes to inspire our students at Trinity Laban and is a dear friend, decades after we studied with the same teacher (Jacqueline Borot) back in the 80s.
I’ve just returned from three weeks in Germany – two weeks in Baden-Baden and one week in Berlin – playing Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. When not playing myself, I was watching concerts and operas, enjoying the many receptions organised for the orchestra, cooking dinners and visiting the spa.
The orchestra and singers are totally amazing and Simon is a much loved conductor. He’s always considerate to all the players and keen on building a personal rapport with every member of the orchestra, staff and extra players. He always seems to have time for everyone – even me. We had a nice chat about the music scene in London and remembered common friends and colleagues.
I played with the Berlin Phil under Simon Rattle for the first time four years ago, performing Wagner’s Die Walküre. Then came Symphonie Fantastique in two of the very last concerts under the mythical baton of Claudio Abbado.
It was such an overwhelming feeling. After returning almost every year, it is equally overwhelming, yet now I feel at home with the orchestra. The players are so friendly and treat me as one of them.
Working with these wonderful musicians got me thinking: what makes them special? What should young students do in order to aspire to enter orchestras of that calibre? Of course there are huge natural talents at play there, and a passion and devotion for music that goes well beyond the aspiration to join such an orchestra. All are soloists in their own right, not just rank and file players even if they are sitting in back desks. Many have solo careers, teaching positions and chamber music groups on the side. Music is the buzz that makes them alive. And they have very interesting side lives away from music too: Ignaz, a viola player, has designed and constructed a flight simulator in his living room, with extra additions to improve the ‘cockpit’- the very kind that pilots use to train to fly passenger planes…
So, here is my advice for aspiring musicians:
Be interesting, interested, curious and enthusiastic.
See no limits to what you can achieve and go for it, with purpose, tirelessly, and never stop at any obstacle: consider them as an extra bonus to sharpen your skills and goals.
Treat every public performance as a magical and unique event, and take something away from it.
Use your inner and outer ear to bring to life the most beautiful sounds you can think and dream of.
Never tire of getting better. Practise as if you were your best friend, teacher and mentor, and treasure all advice given to you to get better.
Feel the way you imagine and produce sound, and take responsibility for absolutely everything you do.
See no limits to what you can achieve.
Be over prepared – but never under.
Broaden and refine your technical abilities and find a wide palette of different articulations, colours and timbres. Make your instrument an extension of your natural body and be free to express yourself musically. Work in all styles of playing: you will be playing such a broad range of composers – you need to become a flexible, fluid and powerful tool the conductor can rely on. You will need to be a soloist and at the same time able to blend with a section and imitate everyone’s phrasing.
Listen to all kinds of music and acquaint yourself with all orchestral repertoire, the different styles of performing with different orchestras and conductors. You need to recognise that sound anywhere, just by hearing it. Your ear will become sensitive and when you audition for them they’ll recognise you as one of them already – because their sound is something you grew up with.
Be a positive and enthusiastic musician. People who want to work with you will also choose you because you are fun to be with. Touring includes social time spent together, and if that is wonderful the whole experience is incredible. Knowing how to cook helps – I prepared a few dinners while I was in Germany – and I can assure you it is an excellent way to make friends!
Aim to be the best you can possibly be, and at the same time recognise and admire talent and skills and greatness wherever you see it. Learn from it and make it yours too. Always aim to achieve new, higher standards. Don’t become “good enough” but be curious about learning and become the best possible musician you can. The rest will happen around you and you will be chuffed!
And finally… Listen! Listen! Listen!
…to as much music as you can.
…to your teacher’s advice.
…to your inner and outer hearing.
…to your dreams and aspirations.
All the players in the Berlin Philharmonic have extraordinary technical and musical skills, paired with the wildest imagination and strict discipline. That is an extraordinary cocktail for success. Are you listening? Are you working on it?
One final piece of advice:
Make a wish, make it happen, and enjoy music along the way!
Head of Harp Studies