Twice GRAMMY-nominated Amy Dickson performs throughout the world and is widely regarded as one of the finest rising musicians of her generation. In recent seasons, she has performed at the Royal Albert Hall, Sydney Opera House and the Konzerthaus, Vienna. Amy also made history in 2013 by becoming the first saxophonist to win a Classic Brit Award, as MasterCard Breakthrough Artist of the Year.
She has commissioned new works from composers such as Brett Dean, Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe, Graham Fitkin, Steve Martland and Huw Watkins. She has also transcribed works from Philip Glass and John Tavener, pieces originally composed for stringed instruments.
In addition to her performing schedule, Amy is an ambassador of the Australian Children’s Music Foundation and of The Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts.
With a wealth of experience as a soloist and chamber musician, Amy shares her performance experience in the Chester Alto Saxophone Anthology.
She sat down with us to talk all things music and her favourite pieces from the Anthology.
What is it about your instrument that initially captivated you?
I think it was the sound, and I think it still is. There’s just something about the sound of the saxophone that makes my ears prick up no matter where I am.
Do you remember when you first heard it?
I was six when I started playing, so I can’t remember much before that. I loved the sound of it from the very beginning.
Do you have an earliest performing memory at all, of playing the saxophone in public, perhaps?
I started on the piano before the saxophone; my first performance was at the age of three. I can’t exactly remember my first performance on the saxophone, though.
Are there any points in your career so far that have helped you shape your attitudes to practising and performing? Influences or people that have helped you out, guided or inspired you?
I have had various teachers over the years. I had a wonderful teacher, Melinda Atkins. She started me off when I was six and taught me all the way through until I was 18. She’s an enormous influence still. She came to one of my recordings a few years ago, and sat in on the sessions. She always says just the right thing.
Then, I came over to England and studied at the Royal College of Music with Kyle Horch. I came specifically to study with him because he’s very, very gifted and so very dedicated as a teacher and takes great interest in the development of his students. He’s selfless, and has the most beautiful sound I think I’ve ever heard being produced on a saxophone.
I also went to study at the Amsterdam Conservatory with Arno Bornkamp. There are elements of his playing which still inspire me, specifically his musicality and phrasing. He’s constantly very inventive and creative.
I think all three teachers had very astute minds, and are constantly thinking of the best way to present a piece of music, a phrase, a note, or an articulation. I was just very lucky to have such present teachers who were thorough and very passionate about what they do, and selfless in how they allowed their students to create their own world of music, whilst creating and developing their own technique and musicality.
Practising is often purely considered to be time spent honing repertoire and technique with your instrument to hand. Do you have any methods you use to practise or memorise music that don’t necessarily require the use of your instrument?
As I get older, I realise that the need to memorise is less important than I thought it was when I was younger. I used to memorise all my music and now I think it’s very important to know it, and to know it well enough to be able to play it from memory, but it really doesn’t matter if you’re performing it from memory or not.
Do you find yourself sitting in a café looking at scores? Or on a train, or plane?
I’ve always found walking to be the best way of developing the shape of a piece of music. So, if I am at the start of learning a new piece of music and I have played it through a few times at home, I then take it for a walk (obviously without my saxophone!) and play it through in my head.
Have you any advice for conservatoire musicians looking to break into the performing industry? This is something you’ve achieved yourself coming through the RCM.
I think a very simple answer is to follow your own path and be acutely aware of your own gifts and passions. Don’t try to follow anybody else’s path, because no two paths are the same.
It’s quite easy to attempt to replicate someone else’s career, isn’t it?
Yes. Something you might consider a success for someone else is perhaps something that they don’t regard as success at all. Often, people say to me “Oh you did this, isn’t that wonderful”, and I think, “Oh yes, but I didn’t think it was wonderful”.
Perhaps this is the influence of reality television? It leads to people not thinking for themselves so much and desperately trying to emulate others.
It is a trap of modern society for sure.
What is the most unusual or pioneering project that you’ve taken part in? Whether it was a performance of an avant-garde work or playing in a community event with hundreds of children involved?
It was my transcription of Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto, and subsequently, my transcription and recording of his Violin Sonata and pieces from The Hours soundtrack. The initial challenge lay in trying to give those pieces my own take and turn them into saxophone pieces. And then, in performance, the circular breathing, stamina, and technical challenges of trying to produce a good sound throughout.
Do you have a favourite piece from The Chester Saxophone Anthology?
I love the Ibert Histoires as a complete collection – I think they’re gorgeous. I think it’s great to have Bach and Handel in there, from a development of technique point of view. It’s a very well-rounded album.
15 popular works for Alto Saxophone with Piano accompaniment featuring selected works from the major exam board syllabuses, spanning Grades 5 to 8 and beyond.
Includes pull-out part, and performance notes by Amy Dickson.