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Rachel Brown

Victoria Jicha | September 2011

   Rachel Brown is one of the busiest flutists around today. Frederick the Great could well have had her in mind when he said, “Every day is 24 hours too short.” She performs and records with such orchestras as the Academy of Ancient Music, the Hanover Band, the Kings Consort, Collegium Musicum 90, Ex Cathedra, and the Brandenburg Consort. She is also involved in several publishing ventures, and is currently professor of Baroque flute at the Royal College of Music in London.

   Brown grew up in London, England, and her first instrument was the recorder which was quite common there. “My mother started a new teaching job and there was a music teacher at the school who was fresh out of college. She arranged for me to have private lessons with him; in fact I was his first private pupil. He taught me to play all different sizes of recorders. He also ran a children’s orchestra and would give me the flute parts to the music they were playing, but I had to play them on the recorder. This did not really work for pieces like Mozart’s Symphony #40 or Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony. Eventually I got a flute.
   “I auditioned for the Royal College of Music, which had a Saturday school for children. I played the first audition on recorder, but in the six weeks between my two auditions, I got the flute. Although I only played it for about three weeks, I decided to do the second audition on flute. They thought they had the wrong child. After I explained, they asked me to play the recorder and gave me a scholarship. I insisted, however, on continuing to play flute as well as recorder. That is when I began to feel like a flutist.
   “I was put in a recorder consort, which was wonderful because it is the nearest thing to playing in a string quartet for a wind player. The consort teacher, a gruff sort of man, said I should have private recorder lessons, and I was too scared to tell him that I did not really want them. He checked our schedules and saw that I had time free when he did, so the next week I started recorder lessons with him in addition to the flute and piano lessons I was already taking. That kept my interest in earlier music alive. Then a new recorder teacher, Ross Winters, revolutionized my playing. He took me back to basics and sorted out my technique. He taught me all about articulation and ornamentation.”
   When Brown was 15, she went to Trevor Wye’s Summer School in Canterbury. “My parents didn’t know quite what had happened to me when I returned home. I was a completely different person. Those three weeks really opened my eyes. While I had been at the Junior College at the Royal College previously, I was not really aware of what was going on in the flute world and the music I could be playing. Suddenly many different ways to play the flute began to make sense. I had had good teachers up to that point, but none of them had really been flute teachers. My first teacher was a violinist, and even at the Royal College my teacher was an excellent pianist who also played the flute.
   “With Trevor’s teaching I realized that, if playing the flute was what I wanted to do, I had to get working. There was a lot of catching up to do. Also, the whole experience couldn’t have come at a better time really, because if you are going audition for college and take playing the flute as far as you can, you have to be self-motivated. That kind of motivation will never come from a parent or teacher pushing. Suddenly a child has to wake up and discover that this is what they want to do. I just knew that I had to go to Manchester to study with Trevor and I don’t know what I would have done if I had not been accepted.”
   She was accepted at Manchester to study with Trevor. “They only took two of us that year, so I was incredibly lucky. He was a tough teacher. He demanded so much. Just the amount of music we had to get through was incredibly hard work, and at the same time I chose to do an academic course at the University. A high school Latin teacher had encouraged me to consider taking a double major, knowing that I would be bored without the intellectual stimulation. Trevor was dead set against the double path, but I decided to do it anyway and just not say anything about it. He discovered what I was doing after about six weeks, and he was not pleased. We reached a mutual agreement about it, however, and I continued on both paths. I think he could see that the academic course allowed me to explore something a bit more. It was very grueling and rigorous, but I would do it again. College is just four years of your life so you have to give it all you’ve got. You are there to work and to learn.
   “I also started playing Baroque flute. There was virtually no early music played at the college at that time, so the university people found my attempts at learning my way on the Baroque flute very interesting. Oddly enough, Trevor always insisted that his students take the Baroque flute and recorder exams, but gave no instruction on the instruments. Students were just expected to learn the instruments on their own. I asked to borrow a Baroque flute over the summer holiday at the end of my first year, and when I came back, he took it away from me and locked it up in the cupboard. There is nothing like removing an item from somebody and telling them they can’t use it to make them want to do it.
   “That year we had a Theobald Boehm Centenary concert in Manchester. Trevor had planned to do a history of the flute and play all the various instruments himself on the first half of the concert, but I think he got a little worried about playing the Baroque flute in public. One day I walked into my lesson, and he said, ‘Brown, you know something about this instrument. How would you like to play it?’ From that moment on, he completely supported my interest in Baroque flute. He arranged for lessons and loaned me instruments. He even wanted me to do part of my final on the Baroque flute, but I said no. I had come to study modern flute and would play Bach on a modern flute.”
   When asked if she ever has an uncontrollable urge to listen to Mahler or Strauss because she so often plays early music, she laughs. “Yes, I think we get pigeon-holed way too early these days. There is no reason why a musician should not play music from any period. I love playing music of other periods; in fact, a lot of music that I perform does not go early enough. In the beginning my interests included playing Medieval and Renaissance works.  At flute conventions they ask you to do that one thing for which you are most known, but that is rarely the only thing you do. Juggling two instruments is similar to being bilingual. There are millions of bilingual people in the world; the degree of their fluency is another thing. Anyone can pick up two instruments and play reasonably well, but that is quite different from sounding at home and at ease on both instruments. However, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.”

Historic Practices on Modern Instruments
   In the 1960s when players discovered treatises by Quantz and C.P.E. Bach there was growing interest in Baroque performance practices. Brown comments, “Many more of these treatises are available now, although a few have gone out of print already. The Quantz book went out of print briefly, and I wrote to the publisher to suggest that they reissue it, as there was a special Quantz year coming up. They initially said they had no plans to reprint it, but did a year later.
   “I would go so far as to say that if you can read only one 18th-century treatise, you should read Klavierschule by Daniel Gottlob Turk. I found it in the Guildhall Library when I was teaching there. It’s not about the flute, and it is actually from the time of Mozart, but he had read Quantz and C.P.E. Bach. He had some interesting comments about what they said, how time has moved on, and what he would favor in the 1780s. It is clearly written and it is much easier to find information in Turk’s book than it is to plow through pages and pages of text in the Quantz. Unfortunately the English translation is out of print.”
   When asked how much of the early music style, including vibrato and articulation, can be applied to silver flute, she answers, “it is not whether you play with vibrato or not because there are millions of types of vibrato. If you put a whole line of people up across a stage and ask them to play, their vibratos will all be different. There are so many different types of vibrato and ways to change it. Sometimes someone will say, ‘This is how the flute sounds without vibrato.’ They then play the flute so straight and lifeless. In fact vibrato is less important if there are shapes within the phrases. Then when you add vibrato, it provides some direction.
   “On the Baroque flute, vibrato is a bit different. I think of vibrato on Baroque flute as highlighting a particular note rather than enriching the general tone. On a modern instrument we generally use a bigger sound, fuller and more even, that can carry throughout the instrument. On the Baroque flute you have to vary the way you blow. Some notes you blow much, much slower, and others you feed more air. Because of the cut of the Baroque flute’s embouchure hole, the player may be required to vary the angle of air more frequently than on a modern instrument. So to apply vibrato in the same way on both instruments is not usually a good idea.”
   Brown teaches at the Royal College of Music, but has resisted being pigeon-holed on any instrument. She is very enthusiastic about her pre-school program. “I run a children’s music group called Hummingbirds; some of the participants are as young as 18 months and two years old. The oldest are four. It is amazing what they can do, including singing and playing lots of percussion. The last few years I have focused on rhythm. I wrote a couple of stories and plays, and the children made the scenery. They recognize rhythms according to characters they are playing. My hope is that when they start an instrument, music will not look like strange hieroglyphics to them. The groups are very small, and I do not teach them for the money. It is just nice to do something different, and I love working with children.”

Other Projects
   Brown has just published two volumes of previously unpublished Quantz Sonatas. “About 14-15 years ago, I did a research project in Berlin at the Staatsbibliothek. I kept thinking that the G Major Concerto is pretty good, so why couldn’t 20 or 50 or 200 of his other works be pretty good too? I suspected that the G Major was just the tip of the iceberg.” She came home with lots of music that had not been published before. “Everyone knows the Quantz G Major Concerto, but there are 300 sonatas and 300 concertos that nobody knows.”
   The new edition of these Quantz sonatas includes “a copy of the facsimile, so that people can look at it and make their own choices about what to do, a clean edition representing the facsimile, with the flute and bass part together, as they would have been in a single book. Because the flute player can see the bass line and the figures, they can tell what the harmonies are. Of the 300 concertos in Berlin, every single one shows the bass part under the flute line in the slow second movement. That is unusual, because of the 300, only 3 are written in score form at all. The slow movements are written sometimes rather plainly, so that the player has the freedom to ornament. With the bass line under the flute part, the flutist is given a map and knows what chords to use for the ornamentation. In the new sonatas edition, I have also included some of my thoughts on how to apply things from the Quantz book including his articulation recommendations.”
   “I have so many half-started projects, that I do not know how to get through them in one lifetime. I am planning to write a book on articulation and ornamentation – a sort of practice book for the Baroque flute. I want to write something about trills and ornaments for children, so that people coming into the art do not have to read a big, long book.”

   Brown has an extensive discography on a wide range of historical flutes. One of the most challenging projects was her disc of virtuosic music by Schubert and Boehm, on three different 19th-century flutes with three radically different fingering systems. Sadly that is now out of print, but Chandos Records indicates it can be downloaded from their website. The C.P.E. Bach Concertos and Quantz Sonatas and Concertos discs were exciting voyages into new territory, using wide-bored copies of Quantz-style flutes. She has recorded many chamber works by Handel and Telemann including a collection of sumptuous Handel arias arranged in the 18th-century for flute. These she found in the British Library and reinstated the original string accompaniments. More recently she launched her own label with a recording of the complete Telemann Fantasias, and her next plan is to make a tribute to Bach. Many of her recordings are available through her website, where you can also read many of her published articles on Handel, Mozart, Quantz, and Telemann.   


Tips for Playing Baroque Music

By Rachel Brown

1. Develop a flexible embouchure so you can lip out-of-tune notes up or down and use this flexibility to shape your phrases.
2. Cultivate a wide variety of soft, more pronounced articulations and combinations such as ti-ri and di-d’l and use these meaningfully.
3. Play slow melodies – chorales, folk songs and vocal arias – with special attention to the phrasing and emphasis of the words.
4. Play dance music to develop a sense of strong and light beats and incorporate this into everything you play.
5. Practise trills in different ways – short/long, fast/slow/accelerating, and with and without termination.
6. Incorporate ornamentation (both from sources and improvised) into your daily practice.
7. Play from manuscripts, facsimile or Urtext editions wherever possible and notice what they tell us.
8. Learn to recognize what the figured bass means and its implications for the hierarchy of chords and stresses within a phrase.
9. Seek out new and interesting repertoire – there is still so much to dig up!
10. Set up a Baroque chamber group (the best is flute, violin, cello and harpsichord) and immerse yourself in some of the best music ever written for our instrument.