Sarah Kirkup takes a flute lesson with Emmanuel Pahud – but all is not as it seems…
I have a flute lesson with Emmanuel Pahud every week. Really. It’s not that expensive. And even if he’s in the middle of touring, he’ll take a break to visit me at home. I’ve relearnt Schubert’s Trockne Blumen with him (my recital piece at music college), and he’s encouraged me to dust down my Marcel Moyse De la Sonorité to practise breathing techniques. He’s also helped me improve my intonation and tone down my vibrato, and made me look at tonguing in a whole new way (less attack, more air!).
Am I his star pupil? I’m not sure – he’s never heard me play (except once, actually, for Classic FM magazine several years ago). Confused? Let me explain. Pahud is just one of many renowned wind players on Play with a Pro, the world’s first video-on-demand HD movie library for classical music education. Launched by Royal Danish Orchestra clarinettist Adam Simonsen last year, Play with a Pro’s website is a treasure trove of masterclasses, warm-ups, orchestral-excerpt blitzers and fascinating interviews. Learning Brahms’s Second Clarinet Sonata? Try downloading a lesson on the work by Charles Neidich, professor at Juilliard. Having trouble with Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata? Consider taking tips from Hansjorg Schellenberger, ex-principal of the Berlin Phil. And if only my oboist friend had seen François Leleux’s lesson on making reeds, perhaps our evenings sharing a house at University would have involved more drinking and partying and less cutting and scraping.
The idea for Play with a Pro started four years ago, when Simonsen toured Brazil with the country’s National Symphony Orchestra. During this time, he became acquainted with many extraordinarily talented young musicians, all of whom wished to educate themselves further but had neither the economic means nor the opportunities to do so. ‘I wanted to be able to bring some of the wonderful knowledge about classical music to a much broader audience,’ he recalls.
Being a musician himself, Simonsen was quickly able to enlist the support of fellow orchestral players, Pahud being the first. ‘He believed in the project and supported it from the beginning,’ says Simonsen. ‘We were this tiny company that had come up with a crazy idea, yet he saw something in it that he liked.’
I may not be having lessons with Pahud in person every week, but I do manage to speak to him on the phone. And, apart from ticking me off for having not practised the Mozart Concerto in G since having my lesson with him for Classic FM in 2007 (oops), he is in an upbeat mood when it comes to talking about Play with a Pro. ‘Kids can get so much information from new media, and we have to help them choose the right source,’ he says. ‘I know a lot of people have been trying to do something similar, but the professionalism of Play with a Pro, in terms of how it looks and sounds, is something I haven’t seen anywhere else.’
Pahud has a point. This isn’t a handheld camcorder job, with wobbly images and distorted sound. The production level is of the highest quality – not surprising since Simonsen’s experienced camera crew and sound engineers are all either musicians or have a love of classical music. The website itself is pretty slick, too. Once you’ve installed the Play with a Pro Movie Player, it’s simple to select the video you want, pay for it (prices range from $4.99 to $39.99 depending on the length and number of components of the video, although some titbits are free) and watch it as many times as you like. Building your library is easy enough because new videos are becoming available all the time. The instruments currently represented are flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and, stretching the definition of ‘wind’, French horn, trumpet and tuba. Simonsen’s goal is to eventually sign up between three and five artists for every wind and brass instrument, each offering something different – whether that’s as an orchestral player, a soloist, or a great pedagogue. As I write, Simonsen is preparing to upload a new movie with Pahud, as well as welcome bassoonist Sergei Azzolini, clarinettist Ricardo Morales and trombonist Stefan Schulz to the site for the first time. ‘We want to have different nationalities – and women are lacking right now!’ says Simonsen. ‘All the artists we ask are very busy, so finding time to film them has been our biggest challenge so far,’ he continues, ‘but there hasn’t been one artist we’ve asked who has said no.’
Perhaps, like Pahud, they see the benefits of reaching out to a bigger audience. Play with a Pro currently attracts visitors from 55 countries, and its forum on Facebook – an enlightening read in itself – has nearly 7000 fans. ‘I’ve noticed improvements in my sound almost immediately,’ writes one professional trumpeter. ‘I have found out who I want to study with because of this site,’ writes another follower, a student bassoonist.
No one is for a moment saying that online learning is equal to a one-on-one, face-to-face lesson. As Pahud tells me, ‘It’s never the same as talking to students and having eye contact, but at the same time this is a great way of identifying with both sides, with student and teacher, and it’s still information that’s worth sharing. I wish I had been given the opportunity to access this much information when I was a student.’
And of course, with Play with a Pro, there’s no one to tell you if you’re doing something wrong, to motivate you when you can’t be bothered or, crucially, to praise you if you’re doing well. But, for me at least, it’s rekindled that excitement I used to have for the flute, reminded me of the repertoire I used to love playing and, most thrillingly of all, allowed me a glimpse into the teaching methods of one of the greatest living flautists in the world today. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go and practise…