Amy Dickson – the music of Philip Glass and how she had to redefine her breathing

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To mark the 80th birthday of Philip Glass this week, saxophonist Amy Dickson has expressed her love of the composer’s music through an album released for Sony Classical. The record – simply titled Glass – includes two important arrangements highlighting the flexibility of the composer’s music, and showing how well it transcribes for Dickson’s instrument.

In this interview with Arcana she talks about how the arrangements were made, how she had to develop a whole new form of breathing for the recording, and how Take A Breath, her campaign for primary school children, has touched thousands around the world.

As always, to start with, Arcana raised the traditional question:

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I’m not sure I can! I do remember starting on the piano when I was two, and having music lessons early on. Pieces of piano music still take me back to early childhood. My fondest memory is being drawn in by a cassette that we used to listen to in my mum’s car. I would be absolutely rapt while we listened and then we would press rewind and listen over again. The piece I remember most was Andalucía by Ernesto Lecuona. I learned to play it on the piano after my mum went to great lengths to find the score of it.

How did you develop a love of the saxophone?

There was a great teacher, Melinda Atkins, who isn’t that much older than me. I had lessons with her from the age of six. It was just meant to be, she was absolutely amazing for me, and the chances were so slim of something like that happening. We looked at a lot of different styles of music, she was really cool about jazz and classical, and never made me think there was anything I couldn’t do. I was her student in Sydney until I went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18.

I played in jazz bands through my childhood years, and I had the widest range of musical influences you could imagine! I played piano classically, harpsichord in music from the Baroque, while for the saxophone it was so wide ranging. I feel very lucky to have had great teachers, and they have inspired me to have no boundaries. They helped me learn whatever I could, and I also have had parents who are very keen to give me opportunities. I am eternally grateful for that.

Has that approach carried with you to your recording career?

Yes. I definitely had no idea before it about a grand plan. I work from year to year and like to record whatever I feel particularly passionate about. I have recorded some really diverse repertoire so far, and I have no idea where I will be in five or so years – and I don’t really want to know either! I love playing with new and different people all the time, and that’s so interesting. There is no set path as a classical saxophonist, the only way to go is to be open.

What attracted you to the music of Philip Glass?

I feel very emotionally pulled towards it. When I first heard the Violin Concerto I fell in love with it. It was all to do with a place where I was in my life, and it tugged at my heartstrings. I thought about transcribing it, and that was ridiculous in a sense because there was nowhere to breathe! That was when I learned how to circular breathe.

The pieces from The Hours are particularly beautiful too – Morning Passages is lyrical and a complete piece in itself, and is remarkably complete for a film score. The Violin Sonata is similar to the concerto in terms of structure and content. I immediately felt as strong a pill to this as I did to the concerto, but it’s harder than anything I have ever played. Technically it’s tricky, but the element of stamina required is something else – there really is nowhere to breathe, nowhere with a beat’s rest. Since learning how to circular breathe I have dealt with that, but it really is playing constantly for around 25 minutes.

What is circular breathing, and how did you learn it?

While you’re breathing out, you sniff in through your nose and put more air into your lungs. You manipulate the back of your throat to put air into your cheeks, so then you release the air and sniff in again.

It’s a question of separating the muscle groups so that you can manipulate them. I knew a few people who did something similar, but I decided I wanted to play the concerto, and I set aside 20 minutes a day to learn how to circular breathe.

It took around two weeks, and was like learning a new life skill! It turned out to be the first steps, and it was six months until I felt I could really do it while I was playing, as the sound could be disrupted. If you can separate your lip muscles from your cheek muscles, it is much more instinctive now, but I still have to think carefully about it.

amy-dickson-glassWhat has the reception been like to your Glass recordings, and have you heard from Glass himself?

It’s been amazing. I got a message from Sony this morning to say that overnight the video had reached one million hits on YouTube. Philip has been very pleased with it too. Generally he doesn’t let other people touch his music.

Had you heard his previous work for saxophone before starting on this?

I got to know the Façades when I was doing the first transcription. I think the best way to get to know a composer is to listen to as much of their music as possible.

What was the inspiration for the ‘Take A Breath’ campaign?

The focus is to teach children to breathe well, but it stems from playing the Glass and teaching myself to breathe again as an adult.

I have spoken to experts about this and realised that children develop bad habits as they get older. As we get older, so much of our lives could be improved by breathing better. I was going into schools with the Children & The Arts charity, and we noticed that the kids would run and run around the playground, and could then calm themselves down if they took a breath and could breathe properly.

If I had been taught that as a child I would have benefited greatly! Over time with the kids we have developed a saxophone playing elephant – Ellie – that they can relate to. The children called her that, and they would pretend to have a trunk that they would breathe air into. They would breathe through it and it would put air in their tummies. All through the exercises we imagined they were playing a note on the saxophone.

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It’s amazing seeing children remembering these exercises and being mesmerised by them. Some of the children said how it had helped them when they had fallen over, taking their ‘elephant breath’. It’s about having a tool for emotional resilience too. It was amazing seeing these little people doing elephant breaths before exams.

Could you recommend a piece of Philip Glass that you wouldn’t normally play?

There is a violin piece that I have been particularly drawn to – the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin.

Finally, what does classical music mean to you personally?

That’s really difficult! (Amy pauses) What is classical music? I think the term is difficult, I say I’m a classical saxophonist but I don’t play classical music – I see that as being music from between 1750 and 1820.

If you look at classical music it’s difficult to define. I reckon that in fifty years’ time they might call some of the pop music of the 1970s and 1980s classical music. We’ll have to wait and see!

Amy Dickson’s Glass is out now. For more information you can head to her website, where the Take A Breath campaign can also be found