We asked Janet Webb, recently retired Principal Flute of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, some questions about her life with the flute. I’m sure you will enjoy hearing from Janet drawing on her 37 distinguished years with the orchestra. She will be performing this Saturday, 10 February with Louise Johnson (Principal Harp, SSO). For more information, please click here.
David Leviston: When did you start playing the flute?
Janet Webb: I started at age 10
DL: What do you love about the flute?
JW: I love the sound. I also love the beautiful parts the flute plays in the orchestra.
DL: Is there anything you dislike about the flute?
JW: Can’t think of a thing! Except maybe that there are only 4 in an orchestra.
DL: Did you choose the flute or did the flute choose you?
JW: When we were told to pick an instrument at school, I chose the double bass. However my parents didn’t want to buy a bigger car so they told me to choose something else. I picked the flute not really knowing what it looked like, opened the case and thought, “so that’s what it is.”
DL: Do you feel that different instruments match different personality types?
JW: It does seem to go that certain instruments seem to attract certain personalities. I have a feeling that flautists tend to be a bit extroverted!
DL: Do you play any other instruments?
JW: Of course in an orchestra you also play piccolo, alto and even bass flute. For my second major at university, I studied recorder – sopranino, descant and treble. I also play the piano.
DL: Have you had formal training on the flute ie. Conservatorium or University?
JW: I studied flute in high school at the Canberra School of Music. I also obtained my Bachelor of Arts/Music there.
DL: How important do you think that is for a career in performance?
JW: Attaining a degree has its place in training you for a job. Apart from learning the craft of your instrument, there are other facets of music that you need to know about in order to get a job. I am sure many of you wonder why you have to learn the history of music. It is essential to know HOW to play music of different ages and composers. Hearing other good players of other instruments is of benefit. Have you ever wanted to sound like a beautiful cello? Harmony helps you to know what chords you are playing, how it relates to the music and how to tune them when playing with others.
DL: Do you think music as a career can be potentially all consuming?
JW: A career in music does demand a very big commitment. It is our love, our hobby and our livelihood. We tend to spend a lot of time with fellow musicians because of the hours that you work. Living with absolutely no routine means it is hard to commit to other regular activities such as exercise classes! But as long as you love it, it’s ok.
DL: How do you maintain a work vs practice balance?
JW: As with everything – we do what we can. As the SSO programs change every week – and sometimes 2 different programs in a week, it was all I could do to learn and practice the current program. Often after a 5 hour rehearsal day, I would have to practise after dinner until late. Any other concerts (chamber, recital) you are preparing for have to be fitted around that.
DL: How do you maintain a work life balance?
JW: Having a family (I have 3 children) ensures that you don’t let music totally run your life. It helps to maintain a balance – music is not life and death!
DL: How important is the type of flute you play on? Silver, gold, wood, system?
JW: We choose the type of flute according to what suits us, and the type of tone you want to produce. I have played on silver, gold and wood during my time in the SSO. Each time I changed, it was because I was looking for another sound or possibility. Personally, I find that gold suits me at the moment. I like its large, rich and smooth sound (rather like the colour).
DL: How well do you know the details of the flute you play on?
JW: I’m afraid I don’t know much – I only know that I love it.
DL: How important have teachers been for you in your own learning?
JW: I was incredibly lucky to have learnt from Margaret Crawford and David Cubbin. They were so inspirational! Margaret gave me an amazing love of flute and music. It was so much fun!!! David Cubbin gave me a fantastic knowledge of technique – he could tell you precisely how to do something in words.
DL: How important is teaching of others for you as a process?
JW: Teaching is good for all of us. I find I learn so much from my students. Often, when I put a solution into words it makes things clear to me!
DL: What is your favourite piece of music?
JW: It’s very hard to say – I love it all, but probably Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel.
DL: What is it about this music that you like?
JW: I love the impressionist sounds of the orchestra, and sweeping melodies. Of course, the flute solo is a favourite – to listen to and play!
DL: What’s it like playing Principal Flute in a big symphony orchestra?
JW: It’s the best job in the world! It’s exciting, scary, challenging and moving all at the same time. Being in an orchestra allows you to play the best music ever written. Our flute repertoire is limited – this way you get to play Ravel, Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven, R. Strauss etc.
DL: How important are people skills when playing music in groups?
JW: Very important. Being respectful and amicable are traits that are taken into account when appointing a player to an orchestra. We also work very closely with each other.
DL: What has been the highest point of your career?
JW: Being appointed Principal Flute in the SSO! What an honour and a privilege.
DL: What has been the lowest point of your career?
JW: When our chief conductor Stuart Challender died. We were both young and appointed to the orchestra around the same time. The orchestra loved him.
DL: What advice do you have for someone wanting to pursue a career in music performance?
JW: If you love the flute and music – go for it. Be prepared to work hard – but you will reap the rewards. Don’t sit around and wait for someone to ask you to play – make your own opportunities – and have fun!
DL: You have had a number of different instruments. Did you change because you wanted something different or better?
JW: I changed mostly because I was looking for something different. We are always evolving as a player, trying to improve and looking for new sounds.
DL: How much do you think the player impacts the result and how much difference does the instrument make?
JW: No matter what instrument you are on, you will still sound like you. Different instruments and materials suit different ways of playing and personal taste.
DL: Has the flute been good to you?
JW: I love my flute!! I am still working on getting the most out of it that I can. But if you mean to my life? I have had the most wonderful life playing the flute. It has been full of fabulous music making, excitement, friendship, inspiration and travel. I have been very fortunate.