Profile
William Bennett in conversation with Edward Blakeman


    William Bennett was born in London in 1936. His parents were both artists (his father worked as an architect) and he had early ambitions 10 follow in their footsteps. At the age of 12, however, he began to play the flute and went on to become a pupil of Geoffrey Gilbert at the Guildhall School of Music. In 1958 he won a French Government Scholarship to Paris, where he studied with Fernard Caratge and Jean-Pierre Rampal, and at the end of his time there won a medal at the International Music Competition in Geneva. During the 1960's he also studied with Marcel Moyse.

    He began his orchestral career as a member of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. He later joined Sadlers Wells Orchestra and was then principal flute for some years in the London Symphony Orchestra. He now plays with the English Chamber Orchestra and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and devotes much of his time to his solo career and to chamber music. He has played in the Prometheus and Vesuvius Ensembles, been a frequent guest artist in the Melos Ensemble and is now a member of the newly formed Dartington Ensemble. He also had duo partnerships with Clifford Benson (piano), George Malcolm (harpsichord), and Osian Ellis (harp).

    William Bennett has made numerous recordings and given master-classes in many countries. Since 1983 he has been Professor of Flute at the Hochschule in Frieburg im Breisgau. His many experiments in improving flute design have resulted in instruments now being produced with the William "Bennett Scale" by various makers in the USA, Great Britain and Taiwan.

    William Bennett is one of life's enthusiasts and an altogether larger-than-life character! (If you look him up in the International Who's Who you will find his hobbies listed as "winemaking and cockroach-baiting"!) I spent a very entertaining morning with him in the "flute workshop" at the top of his house, listening to old records, looking at instruments and talking about flute playing. He had just finished recording the Bach B minor Suite ('again!') and the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto. There were various concerts coming up as well as one of his regular trips to teach in Germany. So, with such a busy life, how does he keep his playing in peak condition?

E.B. Do you do a lot of practice?

W.B. Yes, but it might surprise you what I do. I usually practice tone and articulation, but very little nowadays of what people mistakenly call 'technique'.

E.B. Can you explain what you mean?

W.B. Well, people think technique is playing a lot of notes fast. That's ridiculously easy on the flute, it has the simplest fingering of any instrument. Having done my scales with Geoffrey Gilbert, I don't have much trouble with that sort of thing. (If my fingers have gone all weak and sloppy I sit down at the piano and play my Dohnanyi finger exercises!) The things which are difficult are tone production and articulation.

E.B. Do you have particular exercises for these?

W.B. The triplet exercise from the Sonority Book by Moyse is the most useful for flexibility. I also do a variation of the chromatic exercise, starting on the note B, at the beginning of the book. I usually begin with the harmonic series - finger low E, then produce the octave and the twelfth - and on that note try to get my sonority, a vocal sonority, with the minimum effort of the lips. Then I spread the tone from that third harmonic back to the second and finally to the low note. Then I try to match the notes around the middle B in the same way. My technical thought on this is that we need to control the direction of the air the amount of the mouth hole covered, and the speed, width and depth of the air stream. Articulation is how you inflect the column of air and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the tongue, although most of the time we use our tongue to do it. You can't get the articulation until you've got the tone right. Articulation is utterly dependent on the tone being properly focused and focus means getting the harmonic in tune.

E.B. How much do you think the actual instrument is an important factor in playing?

W.B. Very little. A good instrument is always a fantastic help, if it is the one which will give you what you are looking for. If you have a burning desire to make such-and-such a sound, you might find an instrument that gives you that quality, but the more important factor is having the sound in your head. A good instrument is one which removes obstacles from getting what you want. I think flutes have been greatly improved in the last 20 years, particularly the headjoints.

E.B. Is the headjoint the most important part of the flute?

W.B. No, it's a fairly balanced thing between the headjoint and the body. There are some bodies which are decidedly stuffy, pulled in at the joints, and resistant. I think the body and the head are equally important and they also have to have some son of balance, which I don't fully understand, but I just know this balance exists.

E.B. Do you mainly play on one headjoint, though, and swap it around different flutes?

W.B. I've got a large number of headjoints, but there's only one which I've played on very much in the last few years. That's a Bonneville: not silver, but silver-plated German silver, with a lip-plate that I made. I'm constantly trying other headjoints in rehearsals because I can see that my Bonneville has a limited life, the metal has worn very thin in pans.

E.B. You referred a moment ago to producing 'my sonority'. I've always been struck by the particular qualities of tone in your playing. Can you explain what you are aiming at and how you achieve it?

W.B. How can one put that into words? No two people have the same experience, or even hear the same thing, and their experience of playing the flute is going to be what they've heard... I could start by talking about the things that have influenced me. The first was as a boy, noticing that the flute sounded much better than the recorder, rounder and fuller. Then when I was 12 I won some money at the village fete (for some of my drawings, I think) and I bought a record of the Busch Chamber Orchestra playing the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto. So I got my first record of Moyse. Shortly after this my godfather gave me some records including the one of the D major Mozart with Moyse. (Eventually I was to find out that for me, Moyse was the favourite. This really was it!). Then, at 16, I started having lessons with Geoffrey Gilbert and every time I heard him playing on the radio I thought, "Oh, that's wonderful. If I could only play half as well as that, I'd be happy". Geoffrey was the best teacher in the world as far as I was concerned, and I still think he is. In fact I am constantly remembering and being thankful for having had the luck to have learnt with him.

E.B. Were there other flautists who influenced you early on?

W.B. I got a record of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Georges Laurent, which was wonderful. That was a luminous sound of a very special sort. Then in 1955 when I was in the Army we went to the States on tour and Geoffrey said. 'Oh, you should look out for Joseph Mariano'. In Washington I met a pupil of Mariano's and he sold me a 'Mariano-model' headjoint, a Powell. I just couldn't believe the tremendous ease and power of getting all the notes out of it. Then we went to Rochester and we had a free day and I went to hear Joseph Mariano teaching. It was fantastic. He made the biggest sound I'd ever heard, and lots of different colours. It wasn't a big forced sound. I decided I was going to try pulling out the flute like he did. It meant that I had to approach 'pianissimo' in a completely different way, I had to open the hole much more and play much looser. I promised myself to play on the Mariano headjoint for three months - opened out and blowing much sharper than before - and I don't think I've ever gone back again to the place I started from, so Mariano was a very big influence. He and Richard Adeney were the first people I noticed using different colours on the flute.

E.B. Do you think your interest in drawing and painting made you more aware of trying to find colours in sound?

W.B. I don't quite know, but I do remember on this same tour of America with the band, we went through the Eastern States in the Fall and I hung out of the window of the Greyhound-type coach looking at the colours. I was associating the colours I saw, these fantastic golds and yellows and browns and reds - impossibly beautiful colours - with something I was imagining I had heard in Kincaid's sound in the film Faniaisia, which I remembered seeing when I was about 12. Except that when I went to see Fantaisia again when I was 21 in Paris, I was expecting to hear the same sound and I didn't like it any more! What had happened was that I had taken a memory of a sound and it had developed with me and then when I heard it again it was a frightful disappointment.

E.B. You mentioned Richard Adeney as an influence.

W.B. Yes, Geoffrey Gilbert and Richard Adeney were the players I was fascinated by. Richard, because he had colours that nobody else made on the flute. Oliver Bannister is another player who influenced me tremendously. There's a wonderful sound and a wonderful use of it. Albert Honey also made a lovely singing sound in the. Radio Orchestra and he talked me into going to study with Caratage in Paris. When I was there I heard Fernand Dufrene and it was absolutely startling to me that the flute could be so beautiful and so big and so varied. He was apparently always in tune, and had the same ability as Oliver Bannister to combine his sound when playing in octaves with another instrument so that a completely new sound came from the combination. His playing was always noble and dignified, and I once heard him play a whole phrase of a solo in Petrouchka with absolutely no vibrato - it was spine-chillingly wonderful. Dufrene has inspired me to try 10 make those sorts of sounds on the flute, and probably the reason why I'm still playing a Louis Lot In preference to anything else is because Dufrene always got those magic sounds on a Louis Lot. I also had four lessons from Rampal while I was in Paris. I went not being a great admirer of his and I came away quite a fan! Rampal was very good for me in his attitude to making music - shaping scales, and taking risks, and generally enjoying it.

E.B. How did your lessons later on with Marcel Moyse help you to develop your playing further?

W.B. When I went to Moyse, which was in 1965 I think, he was always talking about singers and what they did with the sound - the 'inflections'. Moyse showed me much about how to listen and I started more consciously imitating singers. I remember being in the Festival Hall one day when April Camelo was singing. This was the breakthrough for me. She sang a phrase which was so fantastic with a wonderful sound, and I remember thinking, 'I wish I could make that sound'. I picked up my flute for my phrase that followed, and it came. I felt it in my throat, a little triangle - an equilateral triangle about an inch on each side - and that's where the sound came from. It wasn't outside, in front of the lips, or somewhere down the tube of the flute, it was in my throat. For the rest of the concert every time I played I could feel the sound being produced there. I didn't have to think any more about what to do. I realised this was what Moyse had meant by saying, 'Don't think about the lips, they think for themselves!' I went back that night and started practising 'vocalises'. I played them and I sang and I tried to get the feeling the same. I'm still teaching this. I found I could get the sound in my body and this little triangle in my throat extended itself downwards until it went right to the bottom of the ribs, across where the diaphragm is.

E.B. The idea of a triangle seems rather strange.

W.B. It was the sensation as it appeared to me. An inspiration or a vision is what you perceive. If it's an angel, it's an angel, not a frog! I got a triangle.

E.B. Your playing style has always impressed me as being very vocal. Are there other singers who inspired you?

W.B. My greatest admiration amongst the singers is for Janet Baker. Just after I got back from Paris I played in a student production of Gluck's Orfeo and there was a girl singing who was just wonderful, and that was Janet. I became a fan others from that moment. The first thing you notice is something of the quality and depth of her sound, but in fact it's the inflection which is so wonderful and this is that I learned with Moyse. He was talking not about the sound, he had no fixed idea about that, and was very generous to people with completely different concepts of sound. It was what you did with it that mattered.

E.B. Were there other opportunities to work with Janet Baker?

W.B. I remember once in a recording session: King's College, Cambridge, being right in front of her engulfed by this wonderful sound. I noticed I could perceive the note she was singing an instant before you could actually hear it. On the flute you can think the quality of sound you want - you hear it just before you play it -and the body takes over and does it for you. Rather like Moyse saying, 'Don't think of the lips, they think for themselves!' Which I have realised is also true of the diaphragm.

E.B. Did you ever have a chance to discuss any of this with Janet Baker?

W.B. I met her once on a train going down to Bath and we had lunch together. I had found out about pitching notes - you pitch the higher notes higher up in your body and I was doing the same on the flute - and she said she had a way of deepening the high notes by reaching them right from the bottom of her breathing apparatus at the back. Then she said, 'Another thing I do when I sing is try to bounce the sound off the soft palate'. And I said, 'What's that?', and she said, 'Oh that's the bit at the back of your throat that feels cold when you breathe in'. She taught me how to breathe! If you take in a breath that strikes the air cold on your throat, the apparatus of your stomach works without thinking about it. 'Don't think about the diaphragm, it thinks for itself!'. Taste the air as it goes in and cools the throat, without making any noise, and you have breathed well. People have terrible trouble with breathing because they think about the stomach. People also have terrible trouble because they hold themselves so badly, of which I'm also guilty, but at least I'm fighting it!

E.B. Do you get nervous before you play?

W.B. I used to get very nervous because I was desperately trying to prove that I was good, and I was also fighting a flute which didn't work. Since I've been to Moyse I get less nervous. He showed so much about looking for what one was doing in the phrase, that one's mind gets taken up with how to produce the phrase rather than worry about oneself.

E.B. Is that the only way to overcome nervousness, by the power of your concentration on what you are doing?

W.B. I don't think it's the only way; you see being nervous is an obstacle. If you've got an obstacle, you can walk round it, jump over it, or remove it. There are all sorts of approaches to this. Years ago I used to get very nervous and then I realised that I would be drinking two or three black coffees before a performance to make sure I had properly woken up. It didn't always work. Sometimes I'd get dry in the mouth and then I found out from somewhere that coffee stimulates the adrenaline too much and beyond a certain point you get that drying up syndrome. So when I had something important to play I went to the other extreme: no black coffee at all! That was one way of combating that sort of nerves. But nerves tend to come on you in a different guise each time. I had 'the shakes' once, when I did my French Government Scholarship, which was the most important audition I've ever done. I had to prove that I was good and I just couldn't sleep at all the night before. I went up and I just shook (I don't know why they gave me the scholarship!). I don't know what one does about the shakes, except find out how to hold oneself well so that it doesn't get too much in the way. It can be some other form of nervousness the next time, you don't know what it's going to be. So really Moyse's way is the best one: immerse yourself in the music so much that you haven't got time to think about yourself, because it's worrying about being good enough that makes you nervous.

E.B. Do you play from memory at all?

W.B. Quite often. Sometimes I play the Mozart D major from memory.

E.B. Do you think it's a good thing?

W.B. I started it as a conscious effort. I used to play everything from memory as a schoolboy, it was completely easy. Then I stopped, I don't know why, I never bothered about it. But when I went to Moyse I was fascinated with the memory of this man, and I asked him about memory and he said. 'You cannot study my memory, it is memory by love'. He would take up a conversation that he had left off two or three years before with somebody. Once in Boswil I played the Schubert Variations and he said to me, 'Oh yes, we discussed this theme in Saint Amour three years ago'. He seemed to remember everything with a special clarity and it appeared to have something to do with his perception. So I determined that I would play one or two things from memory and I found that in working at something in order to memorize it one did learn it much better.

E.B. Does it then help to liberate the performance?

W.B. This is of course discussable. It's interesting that Moyse apparently never played without the music. I did a tour playing the Mozart D major with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and I made myself do it from memory. The first performance I had the music there, but very low, and I didn't look at it. After that I decided I could do it. Ever since then I've played it from memory and I do find that provided one is sure enough of one's memorization (of course slips do occur) it forces a greater element of communication. It improves your understanding of the music. The process of making sure of the memorization makes you aware of the 'question and answer' clement in the phrasing - orchestra to you, or your own phrase to your next phrase, the rise and fall. After all, you are face to face with your audience, and it makes you somehow more persuasive in putting it over. It forces eloquence upon you!

E.B. What general advice would you give to young players?

W.B. Do a lot of listening, but not only to flutes. When I was 15 at school I made a guitar and so I very quickly got to know about Julian Bream. That man makes so many colours on the instrument and I wanted to play like that on the flute. That was a very important influence on me because I found out how to shift your hand up and down on the strings and change the sound by the different parts of the finger you use and I began experimenting with how to achieve these changes on the flute. I also have a great collection of records of Adolf Busch and Kreisler and I've realised in recent years how much my listening to those two people has influenced me. I can remember wondering how Kreisler got those wonderful double stops with both parts sounding equally good and singing fantastically. Then there is some way he was with the articulation - articulating but not stopping - I don't understand it, but I want to do it!

E.B. You've made many records yourself. Of the ones currently available, which are the most representative of your playing, do you think?

W.B. Well, all I can really say is I'm pleased with some of them! The one I actually tend to think back to, although not strictly typical, is the Handel Sonatas, on Philips, where I used my conical Boehm flute. I liked what came out. I was very surprised when I heard it - a wooden conical Boehm, made by Rudall and Rose in about 1845, held together with elastic bands!

E.B. I remember first hearing that record and wondering about the sound of the flute. It didn't occur to me that you were using a totally different instrument.

W.B. It has a smaller volume, but in a way it's much more responsive to what you do - particularly in the articulation - than a cylinder Boehm flute. The conical bore has some advantages and there's a more human sound to it. Of course you can't use it in a big orchestra.

E.B. What about your plans for the future? Many instrumentalists nowadays seem to be turning their attention towards conducting.

W.B. I took some conducting lessons when I was at the Guildhall and they were very good for me because they showed me how to use breathing in order to give an 'up beat' and that's helped me tremendously in chamber music. But I don't have any ambition to conduct; it doesn't concern me, I don't need that power, somehow, I'm still looking for something else.

E.B. So you find there's enough to think about with just the flute?

W.B. Well I've got an awful lot I can't do! I'm still trying to solve some of the problems, still trying to make it sound alive. It's what I want to do and it seems to have a lot of challenges...

© Edward Blakeman, 1985