Sally Walker: ‘The festival is such a beautiful thing to offer to a city‘

Artist Profile by Marilyn Chalkley

Learning to play a historical wooden flute when you have always played a contemporary one, is similar to the process of learning a second language, or becoming bilingual, says Sally Walker. In fact, the transition is so significant that it is the subject of her PHD.

Sally is playing both Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D Major KV285 and performing Beethoven’s Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola Op. 25 in “Beethoven for Breakfast”, on classical flute, with the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra for CIMF. She is also performing in Mahler’s Song of the Earthwith the CIMF Ensemble, conducted by Roland Peelman, a piece she has played with the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival and she enthuses is ‘extraordinary’.

Sally has a distinguished career, and has toured and recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras, not to mention performing with many othersinternationally and locally. She is no stranger to festivals having appeared in the London Proms, and the Salzburg, Lucerne, Tanglewood and Edinburgh Festivals.

Born in Canberra, she began her earliest musical training with Judith Clingan on recorder and was accepted into the ANU School of Music at the age of twelve. She learnt flute with Virginia Taylor and Vernon Hill before studying in Sydney and then overseas. She is now Lecturer in Classical Woodwind at the Australian National University School of Music, is regular Guest Principal with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Principal Flautist with the Omega Ensemble. She has had a number of works composed for her, not least by Elena Kats-Chernin.

So back to the PhD. ‘Learning an instrument like the classical flute for me is like learning French or German which shares some words with English, so you can run into traps of ‘false friends’, where you recognise one fingering but it is for an entirely different note and also ‘false limb sensations’, where you are used to a key being there and suddenly there isn't one!’

Ericsson’s key studies on violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music proposed the theory that to develop expert skills in playing a musical instrument, you have to invest 10,000 hours of practice. Sally says ‘the literature I've read suggests you need to do 3000 to 5000 really focussed repetitions of a particular fine motoric combination until it becomes automatic. That is actually quite a lot of time if you add it up to daily musical practice, but it is what you are aiming for, when learning new notes on a different instrument, and committing them to long term memory.’ Sally has been performing on the classical flute for over ten years.

‘I've played the Mozart numerous times with a wide range of musicians, but I will be viewing it differently this May because of performing it on a copy of a historical instrument that would have been used at the time of these compositions. The wooden flute has a round, soft edged tone. It has a conical bore, so it has a different overtone series to the cylindrical bored modern flute which means it has and unusually varied and wide timbral palette. The modern flute has been designed to have an equality of sound on each note; that was a very much a 20th century development.’

Sally has read historical treatises and immersed herself in the history of the time of the classical flute.She says new information is always being discovered. ‘But there is always a limit on how ‘historical’ you are are able to go. I joke with my instrument maker about this; if he really wants to replicate this instrument accurately, he needs to make it by candlelight without electric tools!‘

Sally has a very emotional link to performing in her own city. ‘When we're performing in other places people first know me as a musician whereas, people who come in Canberra might be people I have known from wide cross section of life; school, cross country running, social projects and so on.

Sally loves the way the festival just takes over a city the size of Canberra, with so many people involved. ‘ I think the volunteers with the Canberra International Music Festival are extraordinary. I have had memorable conversations with drivers. The festival is just such a beautiful and engaging thing to offer to a city.’

Greatest Mozart 1 Saturday, 1 May 2021 6:30 pm & 8:30 pm Fitters' Workshop

Beethoven for Breakfast Monday, 3 May 2021 8:30 am Embassy of Ireland SOLD OUT

Mahler’s Song of the Earth Sunday, 9 May 2021 6:30 pm 8:30 pm Fitters' Workshop

Photo: Rohan Thomson