By Helen Spielman

Helen Spielman is the author of A Flute in My Refrigerator: Celebrating a Life in Music (available from Amazon.com and Amazon.com.uk) and is a performance anxiety coach who works with musicians internationally via Skype and phone. Please visit PerformConfidently.com


“It’s just disgusting that anyone can play the flute that well,” whispered my girlfriend between pieces as we attended a National Flute Association Convention concert, listening to Swedish flutist Göran Marcusson. We were mesmerized by his dazzling technique and gloriously singing tone; astounded by his impossibly soft pianissimos and the complete relaxation of his body. At a rest in the music, he hitched up his pants as casually as if he were in his own back yard. He made brilliant flute playing look as easy as tossing a ball. Definitely disgusting.

     Many conventions later, at the recent one in Las Vegas, I invited Göran to tell me his story. I’d heard him perform several times in the interim, worn out his CDs, and added his name to my personal list of Favorite Flutists of the World. We sat in a quiet room at a small round table beside a window where the sun streamed in from a bright blue sky. Göran wore a black shirt with a mandarin collar and light khaki slacks, but what captivated me were his direct, intense blue eyes and his open, handsome face. I sat back, loving the Swedish accent in his near-perfect English, as he freely recounted his stunningly remarkable history.

     “Yes, I will tell you my story—my flute story, and how I dropped into the business. And I will tell how I came to be here today, playing a concerto at the NFA convention.

     “I was a flute owner from the age of 8. Because my mother played viola and cello and my father played organ and piano, there was always music at home. I wasn’t particularly involved. I was into things kids are interested in, like sports and aircraft. I was determined to become a pilot. It was not just a kid’s dream, because I had an uncle in the Air Force, and I built models and knew and read everything about aircraft.

     “One day when I was skate sailing on the ice, I had a bad crash, and when my mother looked at my back she said ‘Oh my god, your back looks like an S.’ I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis and within half a year needed an operation. This would save my life but put an end to my dreams of being a pilot. I had to stay home for a year and could only go out under supervision. My grandmother and grandfather, a piano teacher, took care of me, and with him I began to play the flute a little every day. When you start to practice regularly at age 13 or 14, you develop so fast, and I began to like it. My passion became playing from my father’s scores along with the records in his extensive collection. I thought it was so fun and I did it every day. I lost a year in school, but then I got a flute teacher and through him, I began to play in the local amateur orchestra. The first piece I played with them, as second flute, was Brahms’ First, which I had played many times with the record. That was such a fantastic experience. Music became a new lifestyle for me.

     “At 15 or 16, I auditioned for conservatory. Of course I wasn’t good enough, but I was determined to become a musician. At 19 or 20, I lived a normal life as a student with all my friends, except that I practiced flute. I had never been to music school even though I continued to audition frequently.

     “I didn’t know what to do. Should I go into academics or what? I auditioned again but didn’t get into any Swedish music school. I decided to give myself a last chance, so I really practiced hard for a year. I thought I’d get in with no problem, but again, I wasn’t accepted. At that time I was really, really sad, depressed, crying, realizing I couldn’t have my dream. When I look back, I can see why. They didn’t know who I was. I had never attended a master class or taken a lesson from any of those guys on the jury. 

     “Meanwhile, to survive, I was working in a brick factory and started to drive a bus. I had passed my music history exam, but still I wasn’t able to study the flute at a conservatory. At that time, I was actually encouraged by a teacher in Stockholm, from whom I took lessons, to choose another profession.

     “Then, suddenly, I received a letter from the local tram company in Goteborg, the second largest city in Sweden, far from where I lived, saying that they were looking for a flute player for their wind band. The band members played two days a week and drove trams three days a week. I was standing there, thinking, ‘This is it. Here is the crossroad.’ I took the audition and got the job. So I started to drive a tram, and played a couple of days a week. I thought I’d give this a couple of years, and then really become a flute player even without an education; that I was going to make it anyway. After three years, though, I realized it would be impossible to get into the pro scene without having been in a conservatory.

     “I took my first master class when I was about 22 to 23 with William Bennett and Trevor Wye at England’s International Summer School at Ramsgate. That was an eye-opener and changed my total approach. I partly realized why I hadn’t gotten into school. I was wild. I had little understanding of style and phrasing. William Bennett, a fantastic teacher, talked every day about the French school, Moyse, Taffanel and Gaubert, how to treat music, phrasing techniques. I realized I had never done that.

     “I decided to make one final audition when I was 24 to 25 years old. I only applied for the school in Goteborg because I had so many friends there and I didn’t want to move. I was second on the waiting list, but very soon I was accepted. And suddenly I had a place.

     “So that’s when I started my music education. My advantage was that I had technique and tone even though they were undisciplined. And I’d been living with Jimmy Galway’s recordings and I wanted to sound that way.

     “After about a year and a half in school, a dispute occurred with a conductor who every student wanted to get fired. Because I was old (about seven years older than the others) and verbal, I was the one picked to carry the message to the board. So they said I was a troublemaker in the flute class. They offered me a position in another school just to get rid of me. I had to go down on my knees on the phone with my teacher and the office. I said I had to stay, that leaving was not an option, and I promised to be quiet, never open my mouth, and do my studies. My teacher accepted that, and then had to go on a long concert tour. In his absence we had some fantastic visiting teachers, like Robert Dick, Trevor Wye, and Jimmy Galway.

     “At that time I took the initiative, on my own, to apply for the National Flute Association Young Artist Competition. That’s one of the times when I’ve been so unbelievably lucky. I won the competition without knowing what the hell I was sticking my nose into. I had no clue what it was about. If I knew more about it, I probably would’ve been afraid to go. But it was 1987, and I wanted to see the world. I had to consult with Trevor Wye about how to make a program. He said, ‘You start with something academic to present yourself as a musician. Then you play something beautiful to please them, and then you show off at the end.’ 

     “My life changed completely from then on. Up to that point, I always had to struggle, to convince people, to prove myself. Here I got acknowledgment that I was good, that people liked what I was doing. Suddenly at home people looked at me differently; I got publicity, gigs, and subbed in orchestras. I began to take classes with Jimmy Galway in Dublin and Switzerland. His was the sound I was striving for, that singing sound that makes you so joyful. We became good friends, we played duets, and it was fantastic. The class had a scholarship which included a crystal flute from Waterford. Jimmy didn’t want a competition so he left it to the students to decide, and they voted that I would get the scholarship and the flute. Jimmy came to Sweden and generously presented it to me on Swedish TV.

     “I had better confidence, but even though I was old—in my 30s—I developed my flute playing through continuous practice. I knew so much about planning practice sessions and had a clear direction. I studied pieces very fast. Today, people don’t always have a clear goal, how they want to sound, why they want to sound like that, why they play flute, what they want to do. Once they know that, it’s easier to practice.

     “Finally, I started to play concerts with the best ensembles in Sweden, and to play flute concertos, all the pieces I had always wanted to play.

     “There are some problems in the music world. The people who judge auditions—they have an impossible job. I had such a strong desire to perform with my flute, I dare to say that nothing could stop me. If you can survive the problems, it makes you stronger. Today, I can’t say it was bad. It made me the person I am. If a young person asks me what they should do, I never tell them to quit, even if it looks hopeless. Some adults come into classes relatively late in life, and I cannot say, ‘don’t do this.’ They might have the same desire I had.

     I know from my own world, the satisfaction of doing this doesn’t change whether you’re doing it in Carnegie Hall or a local church. You have the same emotions going, it’s just that you’re doing it in different places. And if they’re aware of this, then it’s never too late. There’s always a repertoire and opportunities and a place to play for everybody. And if you have an open mind when you go to a concert, you can hear a mediocre player but still receive the message and feel happy.

     “I can tell you a good story about having a dream. I remember a 1983 James Bond movie called Octopussy. I bought the soundtrack and often listened to the fantastic alto flute playing while driving the tram, and I had a dream that maybe someday I would play this stuff, to be part of a motion picture. In the late ’90s I lived in London. I was invited to a party at the home of the great English flute player, William Bennett, and across the table was flutist Adrian Brett. I had heard rumors that he was the one who had done this movie and so I asked him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s me.’ He told stories about how they recorded it. ‘And you know that alto flute? I have it here. Do you want to try it?’ And 15 years later I had come full circle, suddenly holding the instrument that produced those melodies. He said he didn’t remember where the tune started or how it went. I said, ‘Well, I do.’ I remembered it started on a G, and I played it on that flute. And we had such a laugh, and I was so happy.

     “One of the records I listened to when I was 17 was Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Later, for a short time, I had the great privilege of playing first flute with the London Symphony Orchestra. The last concert before I moved back to Sweden included The Rite of Spring with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. And that was also a moment of the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, an affirmation that there’s hope on this planet, and that dreams can be fulfilled. I was doing in reality what I had dreamt about 20 years before.

     “I don’t know how the desire to play and the motivation to go to the practice room results in these dreams; I don’t know how the road leads to them. The universe kind of curves into your life, and it happens. There is hope for everybody. The impossible can happen.

     “I couldn’t be where I am without the fantastic examples on recordings. But with recordings, we’ve lost an understanding of what the great composers did at their desks or pianos. When they wrote a piece out of their heads, only life—on rare occasions—could reproduce the piece. Everybody would listen. Today you have to push the music into people’s ears. We’ve lost the listening. My wife and I threw out the TV six years ago.”

     I asked Göran whether he works to keep his body so relaxed. “Of course. You have to check on your body, make sure it’s in balance. Work with your vibrato. It’s impossible to make a good vibrato if you have tension in your chest, stomach, or throat. Once you know how you want your vibrato to sound, you must relax to achieve it; anything tense inside will stop you from making a good singing sound on the flute.

     “Work with the tone as a voice, so it reflects emotions just like singers. We use the same muscles and expression as when we’re laughing, crying, screaming. When vibrato is mechanical it is dead—it may give a color to the tone, but expressively it’s dead. When vibrato transmits your inner emotions, like joy or despair, it’s alive. When a person laughs, you hear if it’s fake, or tense, or if it’s a profound, happy laugh. When a person cries, you hear if it’s desperate or if it’s made up. You can hear nuances and levels.

     “My goal is to open up those channels. I do my daily practice exercises adapted into Moyse or into scales so I can let out my inner feelings and relax. Check your body; there’s always something going on: an arm is lifting, eyebrows are frowning, or the forehead is tense, so relax it. Move slightly when you are practicing. If you’re a stick it’s uncomfortable. Always work with your vibrato and move—but no big movements—and unlock what’s inside.”

     Göran, 42, lives in the countryside outside of Goteborg in a remote place so small that “it’s not even a village.” His wife, Gitte, is a flute teacher, and they have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Anne-Sofie, a newborn son, Kaspar, and two cats. Göran enjoys spending his free time gardening and cooking.

     Göran Marcusson plays principal flute in the GoteborgsMusiken Wind Ensemble, which also serves as the Swedish Air Force Band. He teaches master classes and performs as soloist with orchestras around the world. Göran teaches at Wildacres Flute Retreat in North Carolina every June, and at the Newport Music Festival in Rhode Island each July. He has arranged and published a number of flute pieces and released seven solo recordings on the Intim Musik label and can be heard as soloist with many GoteborgsMusiken recordings on the Naxos label.

     As we wound up our conversation, Göran said, “I have a true fascination for life. I think Bach is the greatest at being able to say that what we see in front of us is more than we human beings can believe. Such enormous feelings express what is beyond humanity. What’s going on is unbelievable and it’s big. When we think about it philosophically, not technically, it can’t be put in words, but some composers can put it in music and tell us something about our existence.

     “I’m very happy to realize I don’t understand. I can form my life in a way that I dream of, and I am now picking the fruits of those dreams. My tool is my flute. Problems become so small. Experiences of life become big. If I smile at the world, the world smiles at me.”

This article appeared originally in slightly different form in The Flutist Quarterly, Winter 2003 and is used by permission. Copyright 2003.