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The man with the golden flute: Sir James Galway

The supreme master of the flute, Sir James Galway has played for world leaders and sold more than 30 million albums but his appeal is thoroughly down-to-earth – as lapsed flautist Karen Stretch discovers

The supreme master of the flute, Sir James Galway has played for world leaders and sold more than 30 million albums but his appeal is thoroughly down-to-earth – as lapsed flautist Karen Stretch discovers

It isn’t often that I’m nervous about an interview but this diary date with the greatest living flautist, Sir James Galway, has my nerves jumping.

Not since I scraped through my Grade 8 flute exam back in 1990 have I felt the same sensation of a flickering, tense stomach and slight breathlessness. Then, it was because I definitely hadn’t practised enough. Now, it’s because my flute is sitting unloved, untouched and slightly tarnished in its velvet-lined case, brought out only for the occasional flourish at Christmas time. I feel guilty.

‘Do you play?’, asks Sir James, back home in Switzerland briefly between concert dates dotted around Europe. ‘Yes, well… not so much now’, I mumble.

‘Never mind that. Did anybody ever show you how to improve your breathing technique?’ he asks. I shake my head. Switching immediately into teacher mode, Sir James explains that his breathing system is different from other flute players. ‘When I was in the Berlin Philharmonic, I reassessed my breathing with a professional singer and went and had some lessons’, he recalls. ‘A month later, we played L’apres-midi d’un Faune by Debussy and I played it in one breath – but I couldn’t have done it without the lessons.’

There is something refreshingly down-to-earth about Sir James’s approach to the instrument that has brought him fame and fortune. Although he is undoubtedly the most gifted flautist of his generation, he is also at pains to point out that such riches are largely down to hard graft and repetitive practice. At the Galway Flute Academy – which includes a 10-day Summer flute festival run together with his wife, American-born flautist, Lady Jeanne – Sir James sees aspiring performers of excellent potential expecting a magic solution to fast-track their career.

‘You might think this is a bit strange but if you were going to write a paper on calculus, I presume you would be able to do your 12 times multiplication, division and add and subtract – but that’s the scales, the tone production, the study of certain aspects of the flute and when you’ve got all that together, you can do the calculus’, he explains. ‘A lot of people come to me and they want to play the Nielsen Flute Concerto but the problem is they can’t play the flute – because they haven’t got the addition, subtraction, you see. So for each morning for about an hour, I coach them on these muscle-building things so that they can do the big job at the end. It doesn’t happen overnight – that’s the problem.

‘A lot of people think that if they get a lesson from me they’ll be up and walking on the water but it’s not really true.’

The key, he explains, is practise, practise, practise. Scales, arpeggios, orchestral excerpts, special fingering exercises, fingering for the high notes, fingering for the low notes and all of these things have to be done every day.

‘That’s why the flute is a bad instrument’, he adds. ‘Because it’s dead easy to play to a certain degree but to get past that is something else.’

For the young Sir James growing up near East Belfast docks in the 1940s, playing the flute was a natural activity for the family and local community. ‘You know, we all joined the band,’ he recalls in his soft Northern Irish lilt. ‘We had clarinet players in my street, accordion players and accordion bands. One lady played the banjo and a couple of people were singing. My dad played the flute, my grandad played the flute and my uncle Joe who taught me played the flute.

‘The good thing about the flute bands was that they had really very good instruments and I knew from a very early age that I would play.’

As a teenager, Sir James went to study the flute at London’s Royal College of Music, going onto the Guildhall School of Music, then becoming an orchestral player with Sadler’s Wells Opera (now English National Opera), the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO). His big break came in 1969 when he landed the job of principal flute with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, going on to become a soloist six years later.

The heady years that followed included guest appearances on prime-time TV, hit records such as Annie’s Song (which reached number three in the UK charts in 1978), the Royal Variety Performance in 1979, plus shows with musicians including Elton John and The Chieftains.

Such diversity of experience has undoubtedly contributed to the mastery and warmth Sir James demonstrates in his tours, concerts and masterclasses the world over. We are speaking after his recent return from talks with America’s Notre Dame University over a new initiative for a week’s Master Class Residential Programme at the university’s Global Centre at Kylemore Abbey, Galway.

‘While I was there, I coached a whole bunch of kids and there were two concertina players, three flute players, four Irish flute players and four violins,’ he recalls. ‘We all got along like a house on fire. From my playing with The Chieftains, I know the form that the traditional music takes – ABA – so I said OK, at the beginning, we are going to have the violins playing ABA then the next ‘A’ I will join in with the concertinas and then the next ‘B’ everybody is in.

‘They thought it was marvellous and you never heard such a racket! One gentleman said it was the most moving experience of his life.’

While there is a strong sense that the community playing – the warmth and the camaraderie – are where Sir James is really at home, his talents are still very much in demand in the more formal arena of the concert hall. On 7 December 2017, he will play the inaugural concert of the International Visiting Artist Series at the newly refurbished concert space at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, following a two-day masterclass for students at the city’s Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Later that month, he and Lady Jeanne will perform a programme of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn with the ZKO (Zürcher Kammerorchester) in Zurich. ‘You know, when the Royal College of Music [in London] remember who I am, they ask me to give a class,’ he remarks, wryly. ‘It’s not often enough to make a difference and you have to speak to people more than once!

‘When you are teaching, you have to present the whole philosophy about what it’s about. Not just say: ‘This little bar is pianissimo here and diminuendo there’. That’s not what teaching is about.’

The mechanics of playing still fascinate Sir James, though, and he has been very hands-on with the development of the flute to enable future generations to improve and learn with the best possible instrument.

A partnership with American flute firm, Gemeinhardt, has created the Galway Crusader Series Headjoint, constructed to Sir James’s specifications and precision-made by machine. ‘When I first played it, I wanted to play a recital on it and Jeanne said: ‘No – you can’t – you’re the guy with the golden flute!’,’ smiles Sir James. ‘That means it’s like a Jaguar car and every one is the same. You don’t have anybody making the head joint and scraping out the mouth-hole while they are talking to somebody.’ Retailing at US$3,800, the flute is a far cry from Sir James’s specially commissioned iconic 20 carat ‘Galway’ Nagahara flute (and about a tenth of the price) but he is practical about the financial limitations of the amateur musician and earnest about the importance of them creating the best sound possible.

‘You don’t have this ‘hit and miss’ [manufacture]’, he adds. ‘Every flute is, I would say, 99 per cent the same and the headpieces themselves are a big hit with all the jazz players because this headpiece helps them so much.’

In the same vein, Sir James’s First Flute online teaching series offers pre-recorded lessons, sheet music and exercises for flautists of all abilities to access wherever they are in the world and there is even the chance for live one-to-one Skype lessons with Sir James or Lady Jeanne if you’re lucky enough to get an appointment in their busy schedule.

Due to turn 78 on 8 December 2017, there is very little sign of Sir James slowing down at all and he is a strong believer that playing the flute regularly has definite health benefits. ‘I’m using different parts of my body, lower abdomen and belly and muscles when I’m playing and it helps keep your body moving,’ he smiles. ‘At my age, your dexterity is limited. You tend not to run after buses and things like that and you think: ‘I’ll just get the next one!’

Along with the glistening golden flute, this sense of contentment is undoubtedly well earned and for anyone lucky enough to encounter the kind determination and focus of Sir James, it’s enough to make you brush the dust off your flute case and give it another go. You never know…

About the author

After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.

Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.