We asked our new National Sales Manager, Mark Xiao, some questions about his life with the flute. A similar interview will appear each month featuring other artists from around the flute world.
David Leviston: When did you start playing the flute?
Mark Xiao: I started playing the flute when I was 10 years old. I had already been learning piano for a year before that.
DL: What do you love about the flute?
MX: Its tonal variety and capacity for expression would be the first things that come to mind. Also, how it can integrate into music from just about any culture. That’s not something you can say for most instruments and is a testament to its flexibility and all-embracing appeal.
DL: Is there anything you dislike about the flute?
MX: Controlling intonation. It’s the bane of my existence. And being asked to play softer.
DL: Did you choose the flute or did the flute choose you?
MX: It’s both I think. You always start by having an idea of what you want to do, what you want to play, what you want to like, maybe based on past influences or preconceptions. But then when it finally comes down to making the choice, you are often surprised by the decision your heart makes. You must feel that the instrument is right for you and that’s something that can only become apparent when you are honest with yourself. For me, I always wanted to become a pianist, but it was simply not for me, not my way of expression. The flute, both as an instrument and the types of repertoire it attracts, suits me much more. In that way, I guess it can be said that the flute chose me. Although come to think of it, I wouldn’t need to worry about intonation on the piano…
DL: Do you feel that different instruments match different personality types?
MX: Perhaps it’s not matching the personality type per se, but I do believe that most people who chose the same instrument share similarities in their personalities. That’s obviously a blanket generalisation and there will always be exceptions, but I think there must be some common thread weaving between all of us who chose the flute, for example.
DL: Have you had formal training on the flute ie. Conservatorium or University?
MX: I have a Bachelors of Music from the Australian National University under Virginia Taylor and Vernon Hill; a Master of Arts in Music Performance and a Master of Arts in Specialised Music Performance for Soloists from the Zurich University of the Arts under Matthias Ziegler; and a Master of Arts in Contemporary Music from the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich under Andrea Lieberknecht. I have also done a one-year residential course with Trevor Wye in the U.K. I want to note that I would consider my training from my very first flute lesson to be formal because I always knew that I wanted to be a professional musician. So in that sense, my formal training began with Tony Barnden followed by Alan Hardy, two people that I owe much to.
DL: How important do you think that is for a career in performance?
MX: I have always been very lucky to have had the chance to learn from these great pedagogues but also from many other teachers throughout my degrees, which is a benefit that can only be possible from studying at these institutions. It was also incredibly worthwhile and fun to have been able to work with other musicians from all walks of life.
DL: Do you think music as a career can be potentially all consuming?
MX: Yes, and I think it wouldn’t be worth doing otherwise.
DL: How do you maintain a work vs practice balance?
MX: I’m lucky in that I work in a flute shop! So I occasionally might get a chance to play a few notes during office hours and then I would practice for a couple of hours after the shop closes.
DL: How do you maintain a work/life balance?
MX: My life has always been erring more on the work side, but I do make a point to spend as much time with friends and family as possible. These are the people that keep me grounded and remind that the world is a lot bigger outside of my tunnel vision.
DL: How important is the type of flute you play on? Silver, gold, wood, system?
MX: Well, since working at Flutes & Flutists, I’ve come to realise that I can be perfectly happy with almost any flute. Even a Haynes Amadeus AF580, which although only a fraction of my flute’s value and theoretical capabilities, can allow me to express a great deal. It may not have the exact sound I like but it’s still very good! But the ideal flute allows me to express myself much more freely, without any restrictions. Ideally, we as musicians would simply want to be able to play a phrase like how we hear it in our minds. Of course, practicing is absolutely necessary in order to give us the skills to achieve that, but having the ideal flute certainly helps! The material it’s made from definitely makes a big difference, but more precious materials don’t necessarily mean better.
DL: How well do you know the details of the flute you play on?
MX: I have come to learn a lot about flute configurations and every detail of my flute, but it wasn’t always the case. It can be interesting to know but I don’t think it’s entirely vital in terms of the actual playing of the instrument.
DL: How important is the teaching of others for you as a process?
MX: Most teachers find that you tend to learn a lot about yourself when you teach others. I think this is completely true, and you need to be extremely empathetic to find the best advice for each individual student. It’s like internalising the student’s current state, becoming them in a sense and then working outwards towards improving.
DL: What is your favourite piece of music?
MX: If I had to choose one, it would probably be Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, played on the flute of course! But it’s a difficult choice also between the Reinecke Flute Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Violin and Piano Concerti, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, Smetana’s Má vlast and just about anything by Mozart, Bach (J.S. and C.P.E.) and Vivaldi.
DL: What is it about this music that you like?
MX: For me, all these pieces are what I would call perfect. Not a single note is out of place or too long, the music simply flows. It’s as if the composers reached out into the spaces around them and pulled the phrases out of nature. Given the connection between music and mathematics, I strongly suspect that people will be able to, if not already, analyse these pieces mathematically and determine exactly what makes them so.