With a classic BRIT award and two Grammy nominations in hand, Sony artist Amy Dickson is one of the leading lights in the classical saxophone world. I caught up with Amy to discuss her career and approach to practicing.
NM: So Amy your journey started in Australia. How old were you when you first began learning saxophone?
AD: I was very young. I started when I was 6 at my primary school which was just down the road. I was already playing piano and my piano teacher suggested I try saxophone because it’s such a diverse instrument.
NM: So that would make you just grade 1 in school? That’s pretty young to start on sax.
I was really lucky because we lived in the middle of nowhere. We only had a couple of neighbours and Melinda was one of them! She just happens to be one of the most gifted teachers I have ever met, even to this day. So I was really lucky.
NM: You went on to be the first saxophone winner of the prestigious ABC Australian Young Performer award which led to a recording with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. What an amazing achievement.
AD: I recorded the Dubois “Divertissement” on my 18th birthday actually! That was really nice because it gave me a recording which I could send out to people. At that stage I wasn’t entirely sure who I wanted to study with. That was before the internet really had a lot of music on it and I only had a few saxophone cds because, as you will know, they were quite hard to get your hands on in Australia.
So, I used that recording to contact various teachers in Europe. I knew who I liked to listen to so I began by coming over to Europe and having some lessons with those people. I knew that I needed to come and make the move from Australia.
NM: There are definitely so many more opportunities to study classical saxophone in Europe than Australia.
AD: I was lucky that my high school had a gap year program and they were able to set me up with a prep school in Hertfordshire here in England. So I spent a year here doing that, working on my studies during the days but taking the train down to London in the afternoon to take piano and saxophone lessons. I hadn’t decided yet which instrument I wanted to focus on.
“I enjoyed playing jazz very much but always felt very comfortable playing classical”
On the weekends and school holidays I also managed to have some lessons in other parts of Europe. So I kind of got to know the teachers over here and at the end of the year I decided that I desperately wanted to study with Kyle Horch at the Royal College of Music because I think he has just the most beautiful sound out of anyone. I also dearly loved the playing of Arno Bornkamp so I also studied with him.
NM: When you were getting started on saxophone did you naturally make the decision to focus on classical music? Was it just something that resonated with you?
AD: I played in big bands throughout my childhood. I enjoyed playing jazz very much but always felt very comfortable playing classical. Part of me thinks that I was more nervous playing jazz because I was the only girl in the band.
Because I could read music pretty well they usually put me on lead alto. I used to be really scared of boys and got very nervous playing in front of them. Whereas with classical it was different. I was generally playing with a pianist and I could just do my thing and relax.
NM: You have a very busy schedule these days. Are you off to the USA soon?
AD: Yes, I’m playing in Cincinnati in a couple of weeks, then Berlin the week after that. Then Australia, Cyprus and Japan. Some of these are solo recitals where I try to put in some really contemporary music with a couple of transcriptions of older pieces, plus some standard repertoire. I think it’s really important to mix things up a bit.
So far this year I’ve been on tour with the Scottish Ensemble and I’ve been playing the [Alexander] Glazunov Concerto and the [Giya] Kancheli “Night Prayers”. Of course this year is “Glazunov year” because he turns 150 so I’m playing that quite a bit.
NM: What’s coming up next for you on the recording front?
AD: My next cd which comes out in May is going to be slightly different. It’s three contemporary concertos by Australian composers which are recorded with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. One is by Ross Edwards called “Full Moon Dances”. One is by Peter Scunthorpe called “Island Songs” which he wrote for me in 2011. And one is a new version of Brett Dean’s “Siduri Dances” which he and I worked on together a couple of years ago.
I’m very fond and proud of this project. It’s something I’ve wanted to do all my life.
NM: And was that recorded in Sydney?
AD: Yes it was great. Playing all three Australian composers with an Australian orchestra was wonderful. I find it really interesting how different orchestras play different composer’s works. If I’m in the country of origin of those works they seem to be played with an instinctive something that you don’t find anywhere else. For example if I go to America and play John Williams, they play it differently to anywhere else in the world. There’s just something in the blood. It’s the same with Australia. We’ve all grown up knowing Peter Scunthorpe’s music for example and I think we all just “get it”. We know all the little inflections.
When Ross and Peter were writing the works for this new album, they would send bits through to me and they were quite different to what you might interpret from just looking at the music. Although their playing was very accurate to what was written, music can be interpreted very differently.
NM: When you approach practice what do you find is the most important thing to focus on? Tone, technique?
AD: Both. The saxophone can be quite a cumbersome instrument so you need to be very accurate fingerwise. So, technique is a huge, huge thing. I think the most basic and important thing is breathing. The thing that my teacher told me when I was 6 years old, and the thing I still make it my job to do every single morning is to spend quite a long time on long tones.
I’ve been getting quite into yoga over the last couple of years. It’s hugely beneficial to playing saxophone I find, and it’s teaching me how much of a muscle the lungs are. And, how that can affect your playing enormously. So to warm up those lung muscles before you start to play is so important.
NM: So is yoga helping in terms of strength or control, or is it a combination of the two?
AD: I started yoga in the first place because the saxophone is a very ‘one sided’ instrument. All the weight of the instrument is on the right side and my back was really starting to suffer. I was starting to get scared that my back might give way before a concert and I knew I had to fix that quite quickly.
The thing I love about yoga is that you’re learning to take control of your body. And I find that you really feel much healthier. By doing yoga every day it naturally extends into your playing. The saxophone is a very physical instrument. It’s a heavy instrument. We can’t let that dictate how we play.
“Yoga is really beneficial to my playing”
For example when I travel with music I do master classes at colleges. I’m amazed at how many people I see who bend over when they play, especially with soprano sax. What they are essentially doing is squashing their lungs and they just aren’t taking in as much air as they can. That’s obviously going to affect their tone production and a million other things. If your back isn’t as strong because you’re bending over, then it’s going to affect how your fingers work and so on. We can be distracted from the music by imbalances in the body.
NM: So it’s all about understanding your body better so you can play better?
AD: Yes for sure. I really can’t play in high heels any more because I’m just not balanced. That’s also about endurance because in a solo recital I stand up and play for 45 minutes, have a break for 20 and play for another 35 minutes. It’s quite an intense time and if you’re travelling around doing that all the time it has to be perfect. You can’t just say “sorry ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got a bit of a sore back today”!
NM: And with your long tones, is there a certain way you like to approach them?
AD: It changes from day to day for me. Another thing I’ve learned from yoga is that every single day your body is different. The way you practice yoga changes from day to day and it’s the same with long tones. You play a note and realise that there’s some imbalance or you’re not able to play as long a note as you may have yesterday. You have to be really receptive to what’s going on in your body and try to stretch everything out so you can get back to where you want to be.
NM: So long tone practice is really a time to iron out any kinks – I guess a real ‘warm up’.
AD: It is definitely. It’s listening to your body, listening to your sound, your reeds. Working out where you are on that day. It’s slightly meditative.
NM: There’s an enormous amount of pressure on you with your schedule. You must really enjoy performing.
AD: I love it. But, I have had to gradually learn how to deal with that lifestyle because you just can’t be ill. I had a concert tour 3 years ago. It was a month long tour with orchestras and on the very first rehearsal someone coughed on me – they had a really rotten cold.
“I try to get in at least 5 hours of practice each day.”
That cold followed me around for the next month to the point where the morning of the last concert I was in a hospital bed because I had a reaction to one of the drugs I had been prescribed. I still had to do the concert that night.
I learned a huge lesson that day that I need to be very careful what I eat and drink, who I meet, how much sleep I get. You can’t really be a party animal.
NM: It’s like being a professional athlete I guess?
AD: Yes. But because it’s not like being a professional athlete you can fall into the trap of not treating yourself like one – and then you suffer. So you have to really think all the time about looking after yourself.
“Where ever I am I make sure there is somewhere for me to practice.”
NM: One of the things I love about learning classical saxophone repertoire is the technical challenge it presents. How do you go about maintaining your technique when you’re on the road so often?
AD: Wherever I am I make sure there is somewhere for me to practice. That’s a big thing. I do have to practice for a certain number of hours every day or I won’t have the stamina I need. It’s the most horrible feeling when you get on stage and half an hour in you feel your lip start to get tired. You’re completely distracted by the thought “will I or won’t I get through this piece”. I’m determined to not have that feeling – I just hate it more than anything.
NM: So can you give an example of what your daily practice schedule is like?
AD: When I’m not on the road I try to get in at least 5 hours of practice each day. That will include listening time but I do turn my phone off and dedicate that time each day. I do often fail to get all that time in because life gets in the way but that’s my ideal amount of time.
NM: Do you have a strict structure for how you spend that time?
AD: I am really organised with how I spend my practice time but that changes daily because I’m learning so much repertoire all the time. Each day I sit down and work out what I need to get done.
“I’m learning about 20 new pieces at the moment that I’m performing in the next 3 months!”
NM: Have you got certain things like your long tones you mentioned earlier that you like to include in each practice session before tackling new material?
AD: After my long tones I do like to play a little bit of Bach actually. It’s great to play because it shows everything up. Because I play so much new repertoire ( I’m learning about 20 new pieces at the moment that I’m performing in the next 3 months!) it’s really nice to start with something that I know.
NM: Do you work through published collections?
AD: Actually I like to transcribe pieces that I hear. So I’m constantly looking for new repertoire and I make a point of setting aside time to do that. I like to try out new things.
NM: So do you mean cello sonatas, that kind of thing?
AD: Yeah, and a lot of flute actually. I’m very aware of not doing repertoire that’s going to offend people but with the flute repertoire it’s been played on so many other instruments. And I think it fits so nicely on the soprano sax.
NM: I often get asked for tips on how to memorise music. You must be an expert at this with the amount of repertoire you have to prepare. Do you have any tips on that?
AD: I’m afraid to say that I just remember it! My only tip is to take it for a walk
For me I generally sit down to learn a piece and after a few playthroughs it’s in my head. But then that day or the next day if I’m walking somewhere I don’t listen to music, instead I listen to the music I’ve been learning in my head.
There’s something about doing this away from the technicalities of the instrument that I find really let’s me think about being creative with the music.
NM: Congratulations on the success of your recent album “Summer Place”. It’s a lovely recording and it’s going so well for you. With your last 3 albums you’re really bringing classical saxophone to a wider audience.
AD: I hope so. My dream is that one day, probably not in our lifetime, the saxophone player will be able to have the same soloist career that somebody on the violin or the piano can. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!
All saxophones are Selmer Series III
Selmer C* mouthpieces
I like Rovner ligatures because the sound is so even however I am trying different ones too. I find it very interesting how different a ligature can make you sound.
Vandoren traditional strength 5
Sometimes I’ll use a 4 but generally for me it’s 5.
Size 3 ½ Vandoren reeds.