Scaling to New Heights

Sir James Galway, left, talks about his musical career and growing up in Ireland during a discussion with Frost School of Music Dean Shelly Berg.

By Michael Malone

Sir James Galway, left, talks about his musical career and growing up in Ireland during a discussion with Frost School of Music Dean Shelly Berg.

Scaling to New Heights

By Michael Malone
Master flautist Sir James Galway says that to become an accomplished musician, “practice your scales like there’s no tomorrow.”

Sir James Galway, a University of Miami Presidential Scholar and among the most acclaimed musicians of our time, shared memories about being knighted by the queen of England, winning a barrage of music competitions as a boy in Ireland, and offered insights on teaching and learning music as part of a public interview Monday with Frost School of Music Dean Shelton Berg.

Drawing on lessons from his own extraordinary musical career, “the Man with the Golden Flute” urged budding musicians to seek out performing opportunities.

“Play as much as you can, anywhere you can,” said the spritely Galway, chatting in his Irish brogue. “You never know who’s going to be there in the audience or what direction the appearance will take you.”

The conversation took place in advance of “Sir James Galway in Concert” with the UM Frost Symphony Orchestra, a program of music of Mozart, Cimarosa, and Berlioz, on Friday, October 27 at the Arsht Center. Lady Jeanne Galway, Galway’s wife and special guest at the upcoming concert, also attended the session, helping her husband from time to time with names and details from his illustrious past.

Galway grew up in a Belfast, Ireland, home surrounded by musicians. His father, grandfather, and “Uncle Joe” all played flute. Not always in sync with his “pa,” Galway “went around the corner to learn to play with ‘Uncle Joe’ who was a much more sympathetic teacher.” 

Once as a teen, Galway won three different age categories in a music competition. On receiving the top prize—“they only gave us a pen, not even a cup, for each win”—the official initially thought Galway must have received someone else’s award, but was amazed to learn that the tri-winner was the same teen prodigy. 

He went on to study at London’s Royal College of Music. When he “learned everything that I was going to learn there,” he transferred to the Guildhall School of Music, an independent music and drama school in London. In preparation for his audition at Guildhall, he played through the scales he’d been instructed to learn.

His instructor listened, then snubbed out his cigarette and picked up his own flute to demonstrate a far superior version of the same exercise. “It was an eye-opener,” Galway remembered, “I realized that if I could learn to play the flute like that I was really in the right place.”

One of the most highly regarded musicians in the world, Galway has sold more than 30 million recordings worldwide and has collaborated with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, and Sir Elton John. His musical talents can also be heard throughout television and film soundtracks, including “The Lord of the Rings.”

Galway joined the Frost School of Music as a Distinguished Presidential Scholar earlier this year, offering his first master class in March 2017. His upbeat and whimsical teaching style have drawn rave revues.

“In addition to the insight that you share, I really love to see the joy that you show in teaching,” Dean Berg commented during the interview.

“I’m so happy when the kids get it right— sometimes I have to work like the devil to get them to get it,” Galway quipped, adding: “You have to show them how to practice, it isn’t ‘right’ if you’ve played it once or twice—it should be right 10 times without a hitch.”

Both Berg and Galway agreed that building a rock-solid foundation is the key to successful musicianship. Scales are to music what addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are to calculus, Galway said.

Schubert Huang, a second-year student in the Frost School’s Music Business and Entertainment Industries (MBEI) program, attended the lecture. Huang works and lives in Houston, while studying for the MBEI online—he flew to Miami specifically to attend the conversation.

“It was an opportunity to see and learn from a legend,” said Huang, who took up playing the flute a year ago. “There was a voice calling me to play music,” and he celebrated his one-year anniversary of budding musicianship hearing tips from the master flautist. 

Any advice for young musicians, Berg asked.

“So it’s not been so bad for me,” Galway replied, grinning a bit at the understatement. “The industry has changed, so it depends on what you want to do. But whatever you want to do, I would advise you to practice your scales like there’s no tomorrow.”