Being a clarinettist

 28 May 2012

Matthew Hunt is a clarinettist with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and Ensemble 360, a Sheffield-based chamber group. He spoke about how he developed his career as a professional musician.

Ensemble 360. Photography by Benjamin Ealovega
Ensemble 360. Photography by Benjamin Ealovega

Starting off in music

"I come from a musical family, none of whom – apart from my uncle – are professional musicians. When we were five and went to school we learnt to play the recorder and had piano lessons.

"Like any instrumentalist, you have to find your voice, your sound production, your means of expression."

"When I was about six or seven, a friend of my parents who taught clarinet heard me playing the recorder and said, 'does he want to learn?'

"I was given a clarinet and found that I was quite good at it.

"I progressed quite quickly at an early age but lost interest in my early teens. I then joined the youth orchestra when I was about 14 and it really sparked me off and I was back in it.

"I used to wonder about becoming a musician and whether I was good enough, whether there would be a career. Slowly it became evident that it was what I was going to do."

Training as an instrumentalist

"I went to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London for four years. But I didn't feel satisfied or ready and knew that I'd have to go on somewhere else. I wasn't happy with the way that I played and I didn't feel confident as a clarinettist.

"A friend suggested that I go to a French clarinet teacher in Paris called Pascal Moraguès. I managed to get a scholarship from the Countess of Munster Musical Trust to go and have lessons with him.

"I lived in Paris for two years and had lessons once every couple of weeks. It was much less intensive than being at music college, but gave me some time to do music – not because I had to, because I wanted to. Also I met the teacher that clicked most with me.

"I felt that we understood each other, and I really wanted to learn from him. And I did learn a huge amount."

"Like any instrumentalist, you have to find your voice, your sound production, your means of expression. I knew that I wasn't in control of the instrument in a way that I wanted to be and he showed me how to do that.

"I'd had very good teachers up to then, but they taught me different things."

Working as a professional musician

"I played with lots of different orchestras as a freelancer. Through being invited to play with orchestras such as Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, I met people who are in my current orchestra, The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie.

"My New Year’s resolution that year was to spend less time working abroad. But on New Year's Day I did a concert with them and they asked me to do two months' work with them in the summer. I said yes, I'd love to – and so my New Year's Resolution was broken immediately.

"I played with lots of different orchestras as a freelancer, where I met people in my current orchestra."

"They asked if I was interested in a job at the end of those two months. I said that I was not interested in a full-time job, but I'd love a part-time one.

"After a bit of negotiating and talking about it we worked out a way so that I had a half job. I also have a job in Ensemble 360, a chamber group based in Sheffield. Together those two jobs probably amount to two-thirds of my work.

"Through the years I've built up more contacts, a lot of which are abroad, and get asked to play various chamber music and solo concerts in England, Europe and the States.

"I get asked to do freelance work here, which sadly I don't have a lot of time for now. I'm in a very lucky position to be offered more work than I can do."

Achievements in a musical career

"I suppose if you presented my 22 year-old self with my current CV, I'd be disbelieving and probably over the moon. But of course once you're doing it it's a very different thing.

"As a chamber musician there have been a lot of great moments, such as our IMS Prussia Cove tour concert at the Wigmore Hall a couple of years ago. That definitely stands out.

"As a musician, it's such a funny thing when people say, 'did you enjoy the concert?' Well, yes you did. But it's always a balance of trying to enjoy yourself, keeping your concentration, keeping calm enough to play well yet also excited enough to get involved with the music.

"Unbridled, effusive joy is rare. I can't think of moments of absolute ecstasy where I could say: 'that was the proudest concert of my life'. They all have had their moments and some have had better moments than others."

Building a career as a musician

"When I look at my peers at music college, those that now have successful careers are the ones who loved it and stuck at it.

"Those who have successful music careers are the ones who loved it and stuck at it."

"A lot of people were very put off by not immediately having a nicely-paid career. They went and did something else.

"Some were distracted by spending too much time teaching to earn enough money. Teaching is a wonderful thing to do but you have to make sure you have enough time to look after yourself as a musician and have enough time to practice and to develop.

"That requires single-mindedness and a wish to have a playing career that you enjoy. You perhaps have to put the financial side of it to the back of your mind whilst that's going on.

"I realised that playing a lot of chamber music was going to be very important to me and made sure I devoted enough time to that. I now earn a major part of my income from playing chamber music.

"There's no easy way of making a living out of it at first. You have to be pretty determined. You have to carry on developing and trust that the career will follow."

Developing as a musician

"The place that I've really learnt the most as a musician has been at the International Musicians’ Seminar, Prussia Cove. Through doing the Open Chamber Music seminar I met some really amazing musicians from all around the world who really opened my eyes.

"The first time I went there, I was about 26. I was in a group playing Brahms' Clarinet quintet with Stephen Isserlis. That was such a lesson – there was no luck involved, no mystery about it – he just thought about it more than anybody else and wanted to know more about the music.

"I've continued to be inspired every trip that I've taken there. To look further, to understand more, to get inside the mind of a composer and discover what they were trying to convey. That is what makes me buzz and makes me tick.

"Of course you have to learn to play your instrument very well and that's another branch of it. Working with people who carry on looking inside the music, that's what keeps me growing as a musician. It's a lifelong journey that I hope will never stop."

Support and mentoring advice

"My most important mentor was Thea King, who taught me at the Guildhall. She was so wise, and knew so much about the music.

"To look further, to understand more, to get inside the mind of a composer and discover what they were trying to convey. That is what makes me buzz."

"She explored the music more deeply than anyone else I'd met and she remained a mentor until her death. She was someone that I'd ring up and speak to regularly and ask advice.

"I remember her saying things like, 'just make sure that you're good enough and the work will come to you. Just make sure that you carry on working and carry on being interested. Don't necessarily think that you've got to get the career by doing all the promotion work yourself.'"

Advice for a career in music

"There are fewer set career paths in the business, and fewer jobs for life. Increasingly musicians will have to be more adaptable, will have to invent their own careers.

"There will always be some orchestras that operate on a full-time basis, but people will have to branch out more, play different kinds of music, do more educational work. This is exciting. A mixed career where you do a number of different things keep you interested and keeps you on your toes.

"You have to feel happy in your own skin as a player. Then you've got to decide really what kind of career you want and not lose sight of that and not accept that it might not happen. The people I know who are successful have thought about it more and worked harder and carried on pursuing that goal."

"When you are lucky enough to do a job like that – where actually you are really interested, as well as doing it as your way of earning a living – it can be a hard thing if it's not going well and you're feeling down about it.

"It's also a wonderful thing because it's like a hobby and job rolled into one. The important thing is to keep it as a hobby and job rolled into one."

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