Interview with Stephen Clark
Stephen Clark was born in Glasgow in 1983 and began playing the flute when he was 14 years old. Having initially studied with Sheena Gordon, he continued his studies with David Nicholson, Helen Brew and Janet Richardson at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama from where he graduated with Honours. Whilst still a student, Stephen was a major prize winner and in the same year won both 2nd prize in the Mozart Concerto Competition and first prize in the prestigious RSAMD Concerto Competition. Stephen completed his studies with Richard Davies and Michael Cox at the Royal Northern College of Music where he received a Scholarship. He has also received tuition more recently from Sir James Galway.
As a soloist, Stephen has performed throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Finland, Canada, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Croatia, Mexico, Chile, Egypt, Libya, Malta, Australia, UAE, South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil, Norway, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Slovenia and the U.S.A. He is a past recipient of the Musicians Benevolent Fund/Oxford Flute Bursary Award and has served as a performing artist on Lord Yehudi Menuhin’s Live Music Now Scheme!
How did you come up with the concept for your latest CD?
I always really wanted to record movie music. I'd played a fair bit of it as an orchestral player and there was always an energy among the players when we got to do it. I think in some ways it's as close as classical musicians get to being rock stars! So in many ways it was always in the back of my mind. The challenge though was finding a way to make it work. The orchestra had to be huge to get an epic sound that film music requires. This of course brought budgeting issues and the simple fact that the flute is not the most powerful of instruments was another challenge. So the music had to be selected very carefully and then arranged into versions that would be successful and allow the flute to take the lead. The whole process took almost two years from the day I first had a chat about doing it through to finding the right music and the best arranger and orchestrater. The music was arranged by Adam Gubman who is an incredible composer based in LA. He is heavily involved in scoring for movies and has quite a CV! I was incredibly lucky that he agreed to take the project on. I honestly think he is a genius. He was so enthusiastic and committed and I think he was actually quite intrigued because a solo flute doing this kind of stuff is so out of the ordinary. Without him I just can't see how this album would have come together. Once Adam got to work and music started to arrive, actually learning my flute parts took some time. I had to edit and adapt some bits to make them more "flutey" which was challenging and took a lot of experimenting and thought. Not to mention just the sheer technical demands of some of them. I also like to play everything from memory so this took a while to memorise whilst still having to work a full concert diary to earn my living. Then finally the design stage of getting the right look for the product. This was really important to me because I needed it to move away from the usual stereotypes of the flute. It's an unusual album for a flute player and I needed the artwork and look of the packaging to reflect that. We needed something strong, bold, eye catching and unique to reflect the music that we recorded. We initially discussed a few different ideas until settling on the Superman idea only about two weeks before the actual photography was to happen. In the end I was so delighted with the artwork. I think the team who did it were really seriously outstanding. They were so creative and showed such perfectionism. They didn't stop until they got it absolutely right. I'm incredibly grateful. Recording is so overwhelming at times but you're only ever as strong as the people you're working with.
SoundTracked was the second solo CD I've recorded and I always imagined that once I was done I'd need a break from even thinking about number 3. But of course it's hard to do that and the ball is already rolling for the next one. It's always been my ultimate dream to record the Mozart concertos. It's the music I enjoy performing the most. Sadly though these would probably never sell quite as well as the more commercial recordings. So the idea is that the sales of the previous two will be able to make the Mozart disc justifiable! That's the plan anyway. We've already discussed a potential orchestra which I'm so excited about. Fingers crossed it works out. I've also got sketched out a plan for a recital disc for flute and piano with some really interesting rep. A few of the pieces have never been recorded before but I've been performing them recently in some concerts and at a few flute conventions and events and they seem to be really well received so that an idea also. Time will tell!
Who were your music mentors? and what did you learn from them?
I've had some great teachers over the years. My first introduction to music was when I was about 8 years old at school in Scotland when we, as a class, learned to play the recorder. Our class teacher called Mrs Mcechnie was full of energy and I loved it. That was the beginning. I started the flute a bit late I think. I was about 14. I wish I had done it earlier as I think it would have made life a bit easier. My first teacher was Sheena Gordon. She is a very successful flute teacher in Scotland. I was lucky to have her. She had retired from a successful orchestral career and was now committed to teaching. She again managed to fill me with an enormous enthusiasm and love of music and flute playing. To the point where at about 17 it really became an obsession. I think I used to drive my parents mad with the constant noise and playing in my bedroom. I then went to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now called the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as they have since added a ballet school too). I had two main teachers there. The first was David Nicholson. David gave me a great grounding and eduction in the French school of flute playing. He had studied with Geofrey Gilbert, Marcel Moyse and Jean Pierre Rampal. He had played for 40 years as the principal flute of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra so he really knew his stuff. We got a great foundation in all the Moyse excercises, the standard Études and the main flute repertoire. It was a small college. There were only about ten flute players in the whole establishment spread among three different flute teachers. David had a great way of allowing each student to develop their own style, sound and personality as a musician whilst still playing in a way that would be accepted and hopefully would allow us to be employable. In Scotland, I also studied with Helen Brew who is the 2nd flute in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. She was a totally different style of teacher to David and it was a great combination. Helen enlightened me to all the ways a flute can be played regarding colour and blending. She had an incredible attention to detail and I couldn't get away with anything! There was no better feeling than knowing you had impressed Helen (which didn't happen very often but when it did........wow! I was on top of the world!). It was a great education. I also took piccolo lessons with Janet Richardson who was the piccolo player in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Janet knew the orchestral repertoire inside out and back to front. What I really admired about Janet was how straight forward she was. It was incredibly helpful to have someone so experienced say "Don't do it like that......it needs to go like this" and then explain and demonstrate why. I don't think piccolo was ever my calling in life and I think Janet probably knew this. But so much of what she taught transferred directly into good flute practise. It was very useful. Then for postgraduate study I moved to England and accepted a place at the Royal Northern College of Music. I had two teachers there. Richard Davis is principal flute in the BBC Philharmonic and was very focussed in his teaching of orchestral skills and building a methodical practise routine. I also studied with Michael Cox who was principal of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Michael is the most outstanding player. Your life would change just listening to him playing right there in front of you. It was text book, perfect flute playing. Very inspiring. Again I took piccolo lessons. This time with Jo Boddington of the Hallé orchestra in Manchester. Jo had done it all and spent some time helping me become a more flexible pic player. There was a time actually were I was able to go into an orchestra on the piccolo part and do not too bad a job (or at least fool people)! I thank Jo for that. After college I took classes with Sir James Galway both in America and Switzerland. As well as being just a spectacular flute player, Sir James has the most incredible work ethic. I've never known anyone to be so dedicated or practise like that. He is the Moyse/Taffanel/Gilbert/Rampal of our generation. He has the most unbelievable wealth of experience as an orchestral player, recitalist, concerto soloist and teacher. I really felt it would be crazy not to go and try to learn his method. So I did. And it's been a great experience.
3 things you would offer advice for a young flutist?
1). Trust your teachers and trust your own judgement. Most of the time these won't clash. But it's important to be honest with yourself and do things for the right reasons. Do your best to fall in love with music before flute playing. Because there will be days when sometimes playing doesn't go too well but your love of music will be the thing that makes you give it another go each day and not give up over despair and panic. I'm saying this purely from personal experience!
2). Practise your scales every day. I actually can't find the right words to explain what I mean by this. The word "practise" makes in some ways this sound unemotional and disconnected from music. But it doesn't have to be. I love playing through my scales. I do it every single day and can't tell you the benefits it serves to my playing. I don't find it boring or tedious. I love the challenge and love seeing the rewards. A few years ago I got into running. At first I hated it but then over time I got a bit addicted. The "no pain/no gain" mentality kicked in. I lost weight, got fitter, had more energy and just felt better in every way. I feel this is pretty similar to my scale practise every day. Once you know them and don't worry about playing wrong notes it becomes a real pleasure making them beautiful and enjoying the results. It's the foundation of a solid technique which in turn is the foundation of playing music as expressively and as committed as we possibly can.
3). Be nice to people. I've said this before in other articles and interviews and I still stand by it. It's such a privilege to be a musician. The world of musicians and flute players (like any industry) includes the odd individual who lets competitiveness, insecurity or arrogance get the better of them. Don't be like that. And certainly don't feel threatened by them. Just love what you do, do the absolute best you can every day and feel delighted we get to do it and do it with like minded people. Plus your friends and contemporaries now may become your colleagues, bosses and auditioners in the future. There is no greater feeling than making incredible music with incredible friends.
Was there a pivotal moment that was essential to creating the artist you have become?
My career and life have changed quite a bit in the past few years actually. I really love what I do and love being a musician. But there was a time when I didn't feel so satisfied a few years ago. In fact I felt like I was really letting life go past and I was achieving nothing and in many ways felt I had more to offer. I was playing with people who didn't seem to share my love of music and teaching with teachers who didn't seem very enthusiastic about what they did. I felt very trapped. I had a long conversation once with two colleagues at the time who always tried to offer me life advice and one day in particular had noticed that I wasn't very happy. I explained to them how I felt unsatisfied. They listened and offered me some advice: "Accept your lot in life. Enjoy what I already was doing and do it well". It was one of the most single most important moments in my career so far. Immediately something clicked. I realised I must never, ever, ever accept my lot in life!!!! I couldn't have disagreed more. A month later I had left all my jobs and contracts, moved city and I've never looked back since.
Can you give us 5 quirky facts, hobbies or passions!
1). I absolutely LOVE Nutella!! Like really love it. I'm kind of obsessed.
2). When I tuned 30 I made a list of 30 things I really wanted to do over the next 5 years. Almost like a bucket list. I'm now 32 and I've completed 14 of them. These include a real mix of things. Some of the ones I've completed are going cage diving with great white sharks in South Africa, record a solo album, have a silly picture taken "holding up" the leaning tower of Pisa and eat the pizza voted best in the world in Chicago. Ones I've yet to complete are to walk on the Great Wall of China and propose at the top of the Empire State Building.
3). I've just entered my first marathon! It's happening in October and I'm terrified. I broke my foot in late December and it's been a slow recovery process so I thought this would be good motivation and something to hopefully get me going again. I'm doing it to raise money for Cancer Research UK.
4). I'm really allergic to cats even though my parents had 2 of them through my whole teenage years. I don't know how I survived!
5). Im a proper Apple geek and have genuine feelings of love for my iPhone. It drives my friends crazy at times. But I spend my whole life on the road and on airplanes and having an iPhone has changed the quality of my life as a travelling musician hugely. Having my diary, all my music, currency converters, emails, Facebook and FaceTime etc. in my pocket is the greatest thing ever. Big love to Apple and iPhone makers. You guys are the best!