Name: Katherine Bryan
Musical Recommendations: Carlos Nunez, Olivia Chaney
Website: If you enjoyed this interview with Katherine Bryan, you can find more information about her on her website.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started age 7, but had been playing the piano for a couple of years at that point. My mother was a pianist and taught at home, so I used to see and hear lots of pupils coming in and out of the house every evening. Both my parents were hugely supportive of me from the beginning, and I believe that is so important for young children. Another early passion for me was acting, and so performing was always something I felt comfortable with.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Despite being a flautist, my main influences have actually been performers of other instruments, and also singers. The flute has never been as prominent a solo instrument as, for example, the violin or piano, and I have been keen - from a young age - to try and change that, both in terms of the way the instrument is played, and also with the repertoire that I choose. This has resulted in my recent passion for transcribing music originally written for other instruments (my latest album Silver Bow is a collection of pieces from the violin repertoire) and exploring how that can challenge me in terms of my playing. It also brings well known and well loved pieces to audiences but in a different guise.
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results – and possibly even your own performance?
My flute is a Brannen silver flute (an American flute maker based in Boston) I use a head joint made by JR Lafin based in Germany. It has a gold lip plate. The silver/gold flute debate rages on! I believe it is so subjective to the player, and I personally prefer the body to be silver, but my gold lip plate gives a bit of extra brightness to the sound. Flutes, however, are so dependent on the player. A beautiful flute to one person could be simply a metal pipe to someone else!
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
In a lot of ways, they are still the same. My main challenge is convincing people that the flute is a strong solo instrument, not just simply an orchestral instrument. I love music, I love performing and communicating with an audience, I just happen to be doing it via a flute. So the challenge for me is to continue to maximise what the instrument can do, and what I can do as a musician to interest and move people. On a technical level, I perhaps have fewer difficulties to overcome now than I used to, but maintaining a strong playing level (and finding enough practice time to learn new repertoire) is more challenging these days, the busier I get.
What are some of the most important and influential interpretations to you personally, both live and on recording – and why? Which interpretations have perhaps entirely changed or questioned your perspective on a particular piece of music?
The Flute Sonata by Francis Poulenc is one of the most well known and loved pieces in the flute repertoire. I'd played it many times as a student and in the early stages of my career. It wasn't until I was preparing to record the piece that a conductor friend of mine gave me a DVD of Jean Pierre Rampal and Poulenc himself playing the Sonata. It was a revelation. It just suddenly seemed so much more French to me – that probably sounds silly, but the spontaneity and immediacy of it really struck me. It certainly changed the way I thought about it and I approach it very differently now than in those early days.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I have a music room at home, and that is a real den for me. I have a grand piano in there for rehearsing, and store all my music there. I also have a huge mirror, which I use a lot - both for myself and also for teaching - to check posture, and also get a sense of how I present myself when I play. I live in the country, and that sense of space and peace is great for my focus, and I also find it inspiring looking out across the hills. It's very difficult to practise without a real sense of concentration. I have to be clear headed. The beauty of what I do though is that emotions make music, so it doesn't really matter if I'm upset, angry or joyful... I can put those feelings into what I'm playing in some form. Technology, for me, is distracting when I'm working; I can't even read music from a tablet device, it doesn't feel right! Maybe that will change one day.
Could you take me through the process of interpretation on the basis of one of a piece that's particularly dear to you, please? What do you start with when working on a new piece, for example, how do you form your creative decisions and how do you refine them?
I think most of my ideas come quite naturally, and in terms of creativity, most of what I do is instinctive. My priorities with any piece are phrasing and musical line. Also character and colour of the sound, and using as much variety as possible in my playing. It has been very interesting recently as my latest projects have been transcribing violin music. I try to avoid listening to too many interpretations, and make my own decisions first. With the well known violin piece Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, just playing it on the flute gave it a fresh feel, so one of my main objectives was to use a large range of colour and vibrato to bring my interpretation to life. I try to practise a piece like that in big sections so that it develops naturally. I am also not afraid to allow things to develop spontaneously in a concert; I think you can tell when something is too rehearsed or formulaic.
With more and more musicians creating than ever, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
I think collaboration is important - classical musicians that open up their world to other worlds can find something truly new. I love folk music, the purity of it. Using it in a classical concerto form is something that interests me. Jazz too. However, I do feel that artists being original simply for the sake of being original can sometimes create something that is not particularly successful. For me, music must speak to people, and is not something to be observed or admired, but felt. A great example of someone that gets it right is Wynton Marsalis. He has always been an artist that I hugely admire, and the violin concerto he wrote for Nicola Benedetti is a fascinating example of how different worlds can meet to create something really amazing.