Gerard McChrystal - Irish Saxophone Soloist - 10
About Gerard McChrystalGerard McChrystal comes from Derry, Northern Ireland. He studied at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester and later at The Guildhall School, London and with Frederick Hemke at Northwestern University in Chicago. Gerard has performed in over 35 countries, recorded numerous albums and has worked with orchestras including Philharmonia, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, National Symphony of Ireland, Stuttgart Staatsorchester and the Orchestra of San Francisco Ballet. Gerard was artistic director of the British Saxophone Congress in London and he has served as an adjudicator at the 5th Adolphe Sax International Saxophone Competition in Dinant, Belgium. Gerard is Professor of Saxophone at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, London. I initially got to know Gerard through him performing my compositions. I was immediately captured by his immense enthusiasm and at last count he has given over 100 performances of my piece Ku Ku. Sneaking in with a dual citizenship, I was fortunate to be invited by Gerard to perform at the British Saxophone Congress when he was artistic director. When we can, we try to catch up for a drink and as you will hear in this interview, he is full of life and loves a laugh. My pieces, Melbourne Sonata and Melbourne Concerto are both dedicated to Gerard.
- A lot of my career was an accident.
- I was a really serious clarinet player but I was always number two.
- I loved to play along with my dad’s record player, especially Baker Street.
- Working with John Harle at the Guildhall School of Music.
- Studying with Frederick Hemke at Northwestern University.
- It was tough growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland.
- I thought I knew everything and I knew virtually nothing.
- My life has been a beautiful zig-zag.
- I wish what I knew then what I know now.
- To practise you have to get rid of your ego.
- I learn things under tempo and let adrenaline take me over the line.
- You must a program a piece in a concert for a reason.
- I like pieces that are virtually impossible to play, I like the challenge.
- I have played Ku Ku over 100 times, it is a real party piece.
- The first performance of a piece is just an introduction.
- Make sure that you play pieces that you really know.
- We are running a program with 50% male and 50% female composers.
- I love getting guests in to work with my students.
- A love of travelling and touring, food, the larger human experiences.
- John Harle’s contribution to the saxophone in the UK.
- I like to be antisocial before walking on stage.
- The great energy of the Apollo Quartet.
- We are in trouble when we don’t know we are making mistakes.
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Gerard McChrystal
Please enjoy the transcript of this podcast episode. With thousands of words in each episode it might contain a few typos and may also have been edited for clarity.
Barry Cockcroft: I would love to know how you got started playing the saxophone?
Gerard McChrystal: It was really weird. It was an accident, like a lot of my career. I was a clarinet player. I was a really serious clarinet player, and I was auditioning for the Royal Northern College of Music, and I had set my heart on going there. It’s a bit tricky really because where I grew up in Ireland, in Derry, I don’t think anyone had ever been to music college, so no one really knew what it was.
Gerard McChrystal: And weirdly, what had helped me is that there were three really good clarinet players who I grew up with, and we all sort of competed against each other. We were pushing each other, not really realising that we were any good. Then, my class at school, we did music, out of the four boys who did A-level music, three of them went to conservatories. I don’t think it’s ever happened since then.
Gerard McChrystal: So my clarinet playing was okay, and I was a really serious player, and that was what I was going to do. But my piano playing was awful, and I needed a second study for the RNCM. I was seventeen and it was September time and in those days, the auditions were in March, so it was going to be March in the six months later when I was 18. I went up to the local wind orchestra. And the thing is that the other clarinet player was younger than me and he was first clarinet, so I was always his sort of number two. And that would be state.
Gerard McChrystal: Even in school I didn’t play first clarinet. Everywhere, I always played second clarinet, which was kind of fine. But I always wanted sort of play the tune. There was that soloist in me. My whole childhood I played second clarinet. Anyway, the conductor of the wind band, he said, “Oh, Brendan Bradley’s gone off to Queen’s University and we need now someone to play saxophone.” And I can still remember that moment. It’s like… strangely the first time I ever heard a saxophone was the guy who played first clarinet. He got to play saxophone in L’Arlésienne Suite No.1 in the orchestra. He sat next to me playing this saxophone. I went, “Ooh, I kind of like the sound of that. That sounds a bit different to the clarinet. Sounds kind of cool.”
Gerard McChrystal: So, my hand went straight up. As actually did his, and the principal flipped and all three of us put our hands up. And I think I got it because I was the probably… I mean, I’ve told these guys the story afterwards, and they’ve always laughed and said, “No, that didn’t happen.” But it did happen. I believe the conductor thought, “Well, principal clarinet, principal flute, they need to stay where they are. But Gerard he’s more dispensable because he’s only our number two.” So I got the saxophone.
Gerard McChrystal: Three weeks later I came back to a rehearsal, and I remember we were playing Percy Grainger and Shepherd’s Hey and stuff like that, and there was a couple of sax solos in that. When I started playing, the tenor player, turned around to me, went, “How’d you do vibrato?” And I said, “I don’t know.” and I didn’t realise, but I was playing and I was using vibrato. I’d self-taught.
Gerard McChrystal: And that’s how I started on the saxophone. I played pop music. I grew up with all girls, five sisters, no brothers, and for love nor money, couldn’t get a girlfriend. So, I think I was probably stalking people. I’d sort of chat to people, but I could never ever have the courage to ask somebody out. And then I’d go back feeling really sad for myself and I’d play my saxophone along with my dad’s record player.
Gerard McChrystal: I used to play Lionel Richie’s Truly, Baker Street. It was a great time actually because the early 1980’s. There was so many great pop tunes around there that all had the saxophone. Supertramp were out at that time, so I learned loads of John Helliwell’s solos. All of that type of thing. So I went to the Royal Northern in the March. I took the saxophone along and I learned The Swan by Saint Saens off my dad’s record player. I don’t think I learned the whole thing because I think the needle stuck, so I went and played the clarinet and I play Poulenc and I played Stravinsky.
Gerard McChrystal: Then on the saxophone, I bust The Swan and I didn’t think too much more of it. Then, later they offered me joint first study. Apparently after my audition, they walked out and were really excited… they were pleased about the clarinet playing, but they were really excited about the saxophone. And when I went to the RNCM, over the next four years, they gently pushed me toward the saxophone. I think I started really taking it serious in about my third year. Up until then, I didn’t take it seriously. I had a whole summer where it sat in its case.
Gerard McChrystal: I had borrowed a Yamaha. So I went to music college with a borrowed Yamaha. The cheapest Yamaha you can get, a student model. And I had a real hard mouth piece with a chip out of it. I think eventually in my second year, someone gave me a C* and that was as scientific as I got. I had an experience in my third year at music college when I first picked up a soprano saxophone. I thought I could just play it. I sort of knew what to do with it. I never really had any lessons on it. And there was just this piece, it was called The Winds of Nagual and it was conducted by Clark Rundell from Northwestern University, who’s still there at the RNCM.
Gerard McChrystal: It had this beautiful soprano saxophone solo. And I played it. And afterwards, some people came up to me and they were crying. And I went, oh my goodness, what’s going on here? And it just… it was me assigned. And of course, having never being able to get a girlfriend, I was very good at playing sad music. And I… seriously, it’s defined my whole career. I’m so glad. I’m so glad I didn’t score when I was younger because I mightn’t have had any career.
Gerard McChrystal: Anyway, whenever I was at the RNCM, that just… that day, I suddenly realised, you’ve got something here. You can effect how people respond. Clark suggested me to go to Northwestern, he said, “They’ve got one of the best teachers in the world, Fred Hemke.” And I went, “All right.” So I thought, I’ll do that. And then in my fourth year, John Harle came to the RNCM and he heard me play, and he said, “You should come to the Guildhall.” So I ended up doing both. I went to the Guildhall after that on saxophone and clarinet, and then I went to Fred as a master’s student.
Gerard McChrystal: It was kind of a strange start. All thanks to Brendan Bradley going to university. We’re still in touch to this day. He’s followed my career.
Barry Cockcroft: You know, I played the clarinet first before getting onto the saxophone as well.
Gerard McChrystal: Did you?
Barry Cockcroft: But I didn’t play second clarinet, I played fifth clarinet.
Gerard McChrystal: I mean, that… any lower than that and you’ll fall off the stage.
Barry Cockcroft: No, seriously, after one year, they begged me to play the saxophone because I was so bad at the clarinet.
Gerard McChrystal: So you started playing the saxophone due to popular demand, then?
Barry Cockcroft: I bought the… the school I went to, they actually went out and bought a new saxophone just so I’d get off the clarinet.
Gerard McChrystal: That is the way to do it. That is a great… I’m going to give that career advice to the students.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s the secret to getting a free instrument.
Gerard McChrystal: It’s funny we talk about free instruments because where I grew up… and this is during the troubles in Northern Ireland, so Derry was a really tough place to grow up in, but yet, we had this amazing education system. And in the midst of all of this, they had this system where it was like a fiver a year and you would get free instruments and when I said free instruments, I had a pair of Buffet Prestige… they were Buffet R13’s, a double set A and Bb because I was in the orchestra. And they allowed me to keep those instruments when I went to music college until I got my own.
Gerard McChrystal: I was able to go to music college with two clarinets and a saxophone that the local education authority loaned me. That was for three years, then I gave them back once I’d been able to afford to get my own instruments. So it’s really… it was an amazing kind of system. And they’ve still kind of got it, they’ve still managed to hang on to it. So it’s incredible, very grateful to them.
Gerard McChrystal: The weird thing is, I failed… talking about the clarinet, I started actually in a local wind band, a marching band. I started actually on the trumpet. My dad got me a trumpet, and he was in a band. I played second trumpet. You know when you’re going (singing), I thought, I can’t spend my life going (singing) like this. I thought, there has to be something more to life than going (singing). And I heard all the clarinets flying about and I said, “Well, I quite fancy being over there.” So I said to my dad I wanted a clarinet.
Gerard McChrystal: At school, I’d failed the aural test that decided if you had any talent in that. So they said, “You can’t have an instrument.” So initially, I failed that test. For the first couple of years, I couldn’t get an instrument. And one night, my dad came back from the band rehearsal and gave me clarinet, and that got that started. I’m still in touch with my first teacher. I think our teachers are really important. I’m very grateful to them all. They have such an influence on our careers, both positively and negatively. So it’s kind of funny.
Barry Cockcroft: I was going to ask about your teachers because you, obviously, saw a range of teaching styles as you went through, first as a beginner and then at a high level doing a master’s in America. What was the big difference when you went to learn with Hemke compared to what you’d had before?
Gerard McChrystal: I’d realised that I knew virtually nothing. And I though I was… seriously, I’d gone to Fred and I was really successful. I had this kind of purple patch where I had never won a competition, and I needed to win… I mean, Northwestern, it’s a private university. So Northwestern, I had to find a way of funding it. When I went to Northwestern, I won this competition, the first thing I ever won, it was worth a lot of money in Ireland called The Lombard and Ulster Foundation, and it virtually funded my whole year, and it was on TV.
Gerard McChrystal: And then the next week I was in the final of the… the wind final of the Royal Overseas League. I actually didn’t care about that competition because I’d already done what I needed to do. I just turned up not thinking about it, and I won. I mean, I didn’t win the final because I wasn’t really… it sounds awful, I wasn’t really that bothered. I changed programme, I changed pianist as well, in between the wind final and the main final, and just did different repertoire.
Gerard McChrystal: So it was a really amazing experience because when I went to Fred, I’d won all these competitions and I though I was going to be completed as a saxophone player, I said, “Right, it’s going really well. And I’m going to go to Fred and be finished off.” And when I came out, I thought, oh, I’m just starting. It was such a sort of… I think it’s that Marcel Mule thing about Fred really, because it’s from the ground up. It’s everything. It’s not just your scales and all of that, it’s the complete experience.
Gerard McChrystal: It was really interesting from that point of view. But I think that’s kind of normal because when I’d been at the RNCM, I’d been really focused on the clarinet. I had been doing the saxophone as well, but I think my focus had been on the saxophone… the clarinet, sorry. And when I went to the Guildhall, although I had a great time studying with John Harle and things, I had a bad accident. I had a really bad crash on a bike, so I was out for a whole term, injured. So I didn’t really get the full experience. I was also doing clarinet with Jack Brymer then.
Gerard McChrystal: So I was kind of getting going, and I think that’s what happened is that, when I went to Fred, I had a whole year just to focus solely on the saxophone. Northwestern insisted that I… they offered me a joint place. I could’ve done clarinet, I think it was Robert Marsalis, but they said, “You do clarinet or the saxophone. You have to choose.” And I went, “Okay, I’ll give the saxophone a crack and see what happens.”
Gerard McChrystal: It was literally… that’s been my career. I’ve never really… I think perhaps I could’ve been a bit more focused. But I’ve never taken life too seriously. Being really focused and driven, I do it in bits, and then I chill out for a bit.
Barry Cockcroft: So would you describe your career as very organic then, it’s not been a planned stage by stage?
Gerard McChrystal: Yeah, it’s been a really long… it’s been a beautiful zig-zag. I think my career has been… my life has… people are much more important to me, so the music’s been a sort of soundtrack to my life really. Everything I’ve done has always been as a direct result of my experiences. So sometimes albums and things, they’re been because I needed to do it because of relationships or something like that. So, yeah, organic is the absolute word. It’s just kind of… just been what I wanted to do. I’ve often wondered if I’ve been a bit indulgent. I thought, well, it’s been a good laugh so why not?
Barry Cockcroft: So you could describe music as an excuse to meet different people.
Gerard McChrystal: Yeah, the relationships and the people have been the most important bit for me. I love… and the thing I love about the saxophone, it’s not the performing, it’s just sitting down and playing it. You see, whenever I began, I began in a little bedroom in Derry, growing up in the 1980s, sitting playing along with a record player feeling a bit sorry for myself. So that sort of experience for me… I didn’t realise, but that experience of me sitting with an instrument and being initially self taught, it meant that the saxophone taught me.
Gerard McChrystal: I’ve always believed there’s only two ways of playing the saxophone, one’s fear and force and the other is feeling faith. And you just have to decide which one it’s going to be. When we study it, I think we intellectualise the saxophone, and we start telling it what to do. And I think that’s when it sometimes goes horribly wrong because we add… when you think about something, we innocently add tension. The key is not to think. That’s been… I say to my students, stop thinking. Feel. Forget to think. That’s why, your brain’s getting in the way.
Gerard McChrystal: I think that’s really how I’ve put the instrument… and my career has always been what feels right, and that’s why it’s been in so many directions really.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you say the experience of studying overseas, first of all, was it important to you in terms of your development? And would it be something that you recommend to other musicians?
Gerard McChrystal: It was the life experience. Chicago… I was… I’ve always been a big fan of Gene Rousseau. I met Gene as well… actually Gene was the first big saxophone player I heard. I remember he played Denisov, Muczynski and came to the RNCM. And I couldn’t speak afterwards. I didn’t realise what a saxophone could do. Actually, his recording of the… the Dubois recording that he did. That’s the first thing I ever heard, and I went, oh, I can play fast as well now. At that stage, I thought all it could do was play Diana Ross and Baker Street.
Gerard McChrystal: I went, oh, it can do a bit more as well, than that. That’s interesting. So it was interesting experience. I actually… must be my age, I’ve just completely forgot the question.
Barry Cockcroft: I was thinking about Baker Street before. I’m surprised you weren’t tempted to play that for your audition piece when you first went to study.
Gerard McChrystal: I’ve played it so many times. I’ve played it so many times, that piece. I like playing… I still play Baker Street, that’s still one of my favourite things that I… I do a saxophone karaoke thing. I do… I’ve done corporate stuff, I’ve played it in shopping centres. I was in… I think I did a thing in Portugal João Pedro’s amazing festival in Palmela. I did a concerto there a couple of years ago, and the day before, I was in a shopping centre in Derry playing Baker’s Street to a crowd of about a hundred people with a PA with a backing track. And I was having the time of my life.
Gerard McChrystal: I love the fact that I can play Stevie Wonder and all of that, and then the next day I might be playing Ku KU or the Celtic or whatever. I kind of like the contrast between the two things.
Barry Cockcroft: Now you’ve been playing for decades, really. Can you describe to me-
Gerard McChrystal: I have, yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s crazy, isn’t it? It sneaks up on you.
Gerard McChrystal: It does. I know. Does that mean I have to grow up? No. Oh, damn. No, let’s not go there.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you describe the way that you practise now, compared to how you practised when you were first learning the instrument?
Gerard McChrystal: I wish what I know now, I knew then because… well, as you can tell, I was completely unstructured. I haven’t… I have very simple ways of practising and that is how I teach. The first Joe Allard’s arcs of learning. Joe Allard’s like… I think he’s my hero. I’ve lots of hero’s, but Joe is up there as one of the biggest influence, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him.
Gerard McChrystal: I met a guy who told me a story about Joe Allard, he said that Joe talked about two arcs of learning. One is… you get two arcs of learning, one is where you want to be and the other is where you are. And if you don’t practise where you are, you will never get better. And I realised that in between those two arcs, is another one, which is the arc of where you think you are, and that’s where we practise something where we think we can play it. That’s the classic, when we walk into a lesson and all of a sudden, the thing you could play perfectly five minutes ago falls apart. And that’s where you’ve discovered you’ve that you’ve been practising where you think you are.
Gerard McChrystal: So what I do is that I have musical traffic lights. Red, amber, and green. I put a metronome on and then I have another thing which is called DARN; dynamics, articulation, rhythm and notes. And I pick whatever I’m practising and I break it into those four components. Of course the tuning is a given, you have to always play in tune.
Gerard McChrystal: So that always in the background. So I’ll just pick the notes, put on a metronome, and I’ll start playing. If I can play it perfectly and I’m in the green, my mind starts wondering, and I starting thinking about what I’m going to cook tonight. If I’m not in that position, then I’m playing too fast. The amber is where it’s a bit tricky to play, and the red is, of course, you should stop, you shouldn’t play that fast. Really the key with my practise is getting rid of your ego. I think the ego is a terrible problem that it stops us being the musicians we can be.
Gerard McChrystal: It’s not a moral thing, it just gets in the way. It’s… because our insecurities are all part of our ego as well. So, for me, I try and put my ego in the bin, which is quite hard. It’s a big bin, it’s all right. And as I walk in and I sit down and I start practising , and until I can just play… I remember when I first learned the Melbourne Sonate, I remember just being on holiday, and I was sitting practising , and I was daydreaming, playing it at about half speed, I think. It’s the only speed you can daydream playing the Melbourne at.
Gerard McChrystal: I wasn’t thinking about it, and my fingers were just moving. I went, that’s now in the green. It’s only at that point do I add in the rhythm. And then you… and as soon as you add in the rhythm, you make a mistake because … maybe it’s the bloke and multitasking, I’m not sure. Then, it’s articulation, which is the… that’s the bit we leave out actually, and it’s the humanity of the music, so it’s hugely important. And then of course the dynamics, that’s the expression, the soul of the music.
Gerard McChrystal: And as soon as we put in dynamics, then I realise I have to start again because if you’ve got something really passionate, then you use… instantly we use more pressure. I’ve tried it. I mean, how do you play really, really passionately in forte and not use extra pressure in your hands? Because we can’t help but project the emotion of the music onto our body, onto our fingers. So once I’ve done that, and then I can play it like that, I’ve hit 50%. I feel really happy because I’m halfway there. I tend not to make it to the tempo. Actually, when I first played the Melbourne, I tried this as an experiment that worked really well, in that I didn’t learn it faster than 75%. So I did it first in NASA in America, when I hit 75%, I reckoned that adrenaline would take me over the line.
Gerard McChrystal: I think it’s a bit like a marathon. You know, like a marathon, you sort of train, do 22, 23 mile, knowing that the last 3 mile you’ll just do with your spirit and things. And it worked. It was a really interesting experience. I’ve gone the other way now, actually, because the great thing about digitising music is that I’ve got these little loop things that I play with. I now practise at 110% just in case the orchestra, or whatever, start rushing. Yeah, you know the key for me is control of grounding ourself and control of rhythms. It’s not about practising it. It’s all in your head.
Gerard McChrystal: Most saxophone players, I’m always astonished by the technical level. Like I’m just about to do the competition in Slovenia soon and it’s like… we’ve both been on the Adolphe Sax competition jury, and it’s humbling. I just… it was just such an incredible… I felt so proud to be a saxophone player doing that competition because the level that these guys are at at such a young age… It’s just mind-blowing what they’ve already managed to accomplish. Often what separates them, is just, the ones on the day who can relax and just play, and not think.
Gerard McChrystal: So it’s… my practise is much more methodical. I think when I was younger, I was just more indulgent. I got away with really dodgy technique. When I won the overseas league, my… the pianist who played for me in the final she said, “you shouldn’t have won that competition because technically the clarinet player that won was much better.” And I said, “You know, you’re absolutely right. Technically she was miles better. But I won by a unanimous jury because I was able to perform.” And I realised, for many years, I was pulling the wool over listeners eyes because my musical intentions were so strong that people didn’t hear the mistakes.
Gerard McChrystal: But then after a while, I started noticing them and it just really bothered me. I thought, well, if I can nail all these technical bits, then I can be more fuller as a musician. That made a massive difference because you start realising that you don’t… you can’t play everything. For me, there’s lots of bits of the repertoire. And I thought, well, if I wanted to play that piece, it might take me a year and I’m not actually that crazy on it, so I’m not going to spend a year of my life. I can’t mention the piece because it’s so famous, but I’ve been asked to record it twice. I might do it later on but I just was never really into it. It didn’t really appeal to me, so I’ve never played it. There’s some composers, I’ve never played any of their music because I think it’s great, but other people can play it. It just doesn’t… I don’t get it. It doesn’t turn me on. So unless I’m actually… someone says, “I need you to play this piece.”
Gerard McChrystal: I’ve decided that I just want to play things I believe in because the music’s so demanding nowadays that if you want to play something… if I’m going to give a year of my life, then it has to be something I believe in.
Barry Cockcroft: One thing I’ve noticed with your programming is, first of all, when you choose a piece, it seems to be a very conscious choice that you choose this piece for a reason, and once you’ve learned it, you play it many, many, many times. I’ve seen other people have a different approach where they’ll have a new piece, they let it go, they have a new piece, let it go. They’re constantly learning new music. Could you describe, perhaps, how you’ve come about that idea of touring pieces of music, of playing them over and over, memorising them, really integrating them into your performance?
Gerard McChrystal: Well, I suppose the thing is that there’re a lot of pieces I’ve played one. Lots of the saxophone repertoire, I’ve done once. I think I’ve done the Françaix Five Exotic Dances once. I think they’re great. I did them once. I’ve done Light of Sothis once. I think, in the end, that some of the… a lot of the pieces they… I enjoyed playing them, and after the performance, I was happy with it so I didn’t play it again. There was a piece in Wilson called Drive, and I missed the top F# in front of my students at a concert. For the next year, anytime I walked into the room, one of them would play a top F# and they would all laugh. And I thought, oh, thanks guys.
Gerard McChrystal: So they reminded me of that night. I was doing a thing at the Guildhall, and I played that piece, and I didn’t miss the top F#. I played it fine, and I haven’t played it since. It was kind of, done that and then I’ll move onto the next thing. It’s a lovely piece. I think the reason why I keep playing some other pieces, Coo Coo’s a classic example, is it’s just so hard. I can’t even… I love playing it. It’s great fun, but I think there’s things where because it’s still a challenge, so I don’t want to waste my time with things that are easy to play. I don’t want to flat line as a performer.
Gerard McChrystal: There are some pieces that are just so lovely to play, Booza’s Aria, Rudy Wiedoeft, Deep Purple, that I play because they’re so enjoyable. But most pieces, there’ll be things about it that are challenging and Melbourne is a great challenge to play. I like pieces where it’s virtually impossible to get through your performance without dropping a note. And I kind of like to see how close you can get. I like that kind of challenge. And I suppose… see, for me, there are certain pieces, especially technical ones… because I had no technique, I was self-taught, so I had virtually zero technique.
Gerard McChrystal: So when I graduated from RNCM, I played pretty well, but I was just kind of getting around it and kind of getting around Creston. But there was always those key bars that just weren’t there. So that’s a piece that I love, but once again, once you get past that, then you do move onto other things. So that’s why I would keep at something like that because there’s still a challenge in it. The other thing, of course, is the bit about getting new music out there. I’m sometimes on a mission about something that I think’s really important. What I love about Coo Coo is it’s so human. I’ve played it in so many… I’m now 100 plus performance. I love the fact that you can play a piece that is contemporary, it’s got slap tongue, circular breathing, all the part tricks and yet it doesn’t… you can always… the great thing about Coo Coo is it doesn’t sound like a fire in a pet shop because it’s about a chicken.
Gerard McChrystal: You may not know anything about the saxophone… incidentally, I once played that at a major music series, concert series, and afterward the chairman came and said, “That must be the single most difficult piece of music we have ever had performed in our series.” And they’ve had string quartets and everything there and I said, “Yeah, that’s probably right.” But the fact that it’s about a chicken, then everyone gets it. As long as you can slap tongue, of course. And once you get that, that’s the humanity of the piece, even though it’s about a chicken. Of course, Coo Coo is a human story, isn’t it. Dancing and death and things, you know? So I think that’s really important.
Barry Cockcroft: We were first in contact… many years ago, you wrote to me one day, I was living in Canada at the time, working at the Banff Centre and you wrote to me desperate to get the music for Black and Blue because you had a sudden recording or something came up suddenly. You didn’t have the part with you. You wrote to me, could I get it to you? And that started off a dialogue. As that dialogue continued over the years, and I saw you start to play really widely… you were playing all over the place, playing my music, which was fantastic for me. That’s one of the draw cards I like as a composer, is to write music that will actually get played and will be played by someone who can play it very widely because that is what can bring a piece to life.
Barry Cockcroft: The first performance of a piece is not always the best performance. It often needs many goes. And I like that about your development of your career is you can take a piece of music and then continue to play it for years. And each performance is going to be a little different. A little more, I think, have a little more understanding to it and it evolves. I think that’s a really important part of music, that it’s not just a museum that we go and see the one type of performance but we see music evolve over time.
Gerard McChrystal: Yeah, it’s really interesting, isn’t it? Because I always think the first performance, it’s very special. There’s an energy about a first performance, a premiere of anything. But it’s just an introduction. It’s just… it’s kind of getting it out of the way. I always think the first performance for me, is that’s… it’s only until you do the premiere is then when you… that’s when you find out what you really have to do with the piece. It’s… I know of conductors, for example, who have recorded all of Beethoven’s symphonies, and they’ve done it three times in their career because they’ve come back to it, and they’ve just seen it from so many different angles.
Gerard McChrystal: And I like the fact that I can come back to pieces and I see different elements. It’s interesting as well, because we play them at such different speeds. Generally, we play them faster. What I like is then, you start getting to a stage where then, you start playing it slower again, and that’s when it becomes really interesting. And it’s something saxophone players don’t do enough really, is play slowly enough because I think we’ve got to a level where we can just do such amazing things, and I think we sometimes forgot… forgotten that people have… normal people have to listen to it. At times there can be a disconnection. And we’ve world congress coming up, it’s always really fascinating.
Gerard McChrystal: I’m really aware of the fact that the classical saxophone is in danger of being a… it’s something that’s become a very academic thing. It’s very widely taught at conservatoires, in university, and all of that. There’s lots of these kind of symposiums and conferences and all of those types of things, and it’s very easy to spin round all of these. Of course, then you’re dealing with a really, really high knowledge base. You don’t have to explain everything, everyone knows what’s going on. So you can start then, at a really, really high level of things. And what I find is, I like just taking… I like playing at those things just to get over the… it’s a kind of leveller isn’t it? It’s always humbling playing in front of fellow sax players. It keeps us sharp. I think it’s really important.
Gerard McChrystal: I’ve taught… I’ve had a… I’m mates with Arno, Arno Bornkamp and he’s playing at the world congress, and we were just talking about it and talking about how much practise you have to put in when you play at a world congress because any of these major saxophone events is… that you just have to make sure that you’re really on top of your game when you play this because everyone in the audience is going to be a saxophone player, and that’s really healthy.
Gerard McChrystal: But it’s only a tiny bit of what our career should be because. The bits that really… the other bit that really matters is just people, the general public. What we’re saying to them and what we’re doing for the saxophone. That’s the bit that’s hugely important because that’s the bit that is the bigger picture of getting the saxophone into the orchestra and getting it programed into major concert series and getting promoters to see the instrument as something that is equally viable to a violin and not just some kind of novelty.
Gerard McChrystal: So that’s… that bit’s really, really important and I think if we play too fast… some of the stuff we play’s so fast, it just flies over peoples head, and they just… they hear a blur of notes. Some… I’ve heard performances of the Desenclos where you cannot actually hear the harmonic changes of the cadenza and thought, what’s the point of that because the beauty of the Desenclos cadenza are the harmonic changes and the melodic side of it. The faster, higher, louder, that’s a kind of young thing as well. That’s something I’m really aware of as well as… I think it’s something to be avoided as well.
Barry Cockcroft: How do we get the music more into the general community and out of academia?
Gerard McChrystal: Well, I think the thing is, is that we have to take risks. If they can get bites… Coo Coo. I love the fact that I can play a Bach Sonata and promoters will like that because I always think with concerts, Gerard, make sure you play stuff that they know. Come on. We need to make sure a couple of well-know pieces, Gerard, a couple of… it’s always that. So I’m always happy to do those pieces, I love lots of transcriptions, and they can sound amazing on the saxophone. And then I like, in the middle of it, playing something contemporary because once you’ve got an audience in, if you perform strongly enough, you’ve got them sort of in the palm of your hand. Then they’re ready to take something, whatever, something new.
Gerard McChrystal: And afterwards… I remember I was playing the Decruck at a concert and someone came up to me afterwards and said, “That was such a revelation. I didn’t know her music.” And it was just an amazing experience where they said, “For me, that was the highlight of the concert because I discovered something magical and new.” And that’s a really important thing that we can do. It’s an amazing… the saxophone is incredible, isn’t it? Because where I work in Trinity, we’ve got this new project called Venus Blazing and it’s kind of trying to address the balance, that there hasn’t been enough focus on women composers, and there’s been a balance about programming things.
Gerard McChrystal: We’ve taken a year, where the challenge is 50% of our programmes have to actually be split into male, female composers. I thought, well, the saxophone… it was great… For solo repertoire, we’re way ahead of the game because it’s been so forefront. So many of the composers… so many of our female composers.. you think about Paule Maurice, Gotkovsky, and it goes on like that. And it was great. At a meeting, I said, “Well, we’ve already got… we’re well on our way with that.” And there’s so many things about the saxophone that are unique. I think all these different… it was always different to the… where society’s norms were. If you think about its influence in jazz, all of those things. I think these are things that saxophone players need to tap into. What makes a saxophone different?
Gerard McChrystal: I sometimes wonder… An answer to your question, is that I’m not sure us constantly playing transcriptions is the way to get the saxophone into the general public because, as amazing as it is playing Paganini on a saxophone – it is extraordinary – one has to ask themselves, does it sound as good as a violin player playing the same music? The Bach Cello Suite sounds beautiful on an alto saxophone but can we seriously argue that in a concert series, having a world class cellist play it, are they going to be able to pit those two performance on a par?
Gerard McChrystal: And the thing is, for us, what it has to be is that, I love dg transcriptions, and there are certain pieces that they can sound just as good… they sound, not better, but they sound different. I think the key is, when we do transcriptions, they better be different. And if you add that, then it’s valid. That can be a place, and the rest of it… but the thing that it’s a no-brainer is that if you get quality new music that’s been written for you, then you don’t have to go through the justification.
Gerard McChrystal: Graham Fitkin’s Hard Fairy, I’ve just been examining it at a couple of conservatoires and I’ve been associated with that piece. It was written for John Harle. I think actually, when I first performed it with Graham, I think it was the premiere because no one had actually performed it at that stage. It’s an amazing experience. And it’s great that 25 years on, young saxophone players are still playing that piece and getting really excited by it. And you see when you… I’ve played that in the Wigmore Hall in London twice. People go bananas over that piece. It’s just so beautifully written for the instrument. Coo Coo and Melbourne, they go down a storm with listeners. People like it, and there’s no justification. It just is what it is because it is written for the instrument.
Gerard McChrystal: I think that’s what we have to do, just keep plugging away. Getting stuff written all the time in the hope that you’re going turn up your next Glazunov, you know? I think that’s the key for us is constantly doing things. Because I have heard people do extraordinary things, violin concertos played on the saxophone, but there’s always that one bit that doesn’t work. There’s always that one bar and you go, “Oh.” It just… it will never… why not? Because it wasn’t written for the sax. It’s very impressive.
Gerard McChrystal: I suppose part of my nature is… my whole life has been about, sometimes… about just that one bar. It’s that one bar that you can’t play. And if it’s not possible, I sometimes wonder, why are you playing the piece then? Because there’s something defining about that. Maybe it’s me being too narrow-minded, but it’s something that does strike me, that the whole generic thing has to be possible for the whole narrative of the music to come across.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you describe to me your typical day as a teacher?
Gerard McChrystal: Well, I tend to do… I have very high focus and energy levels. High octane. I’m a very sort of… I’m not a driven person, but I have a lot of energy. I’m blessed with a lot of energy, I do very intensive days there. And I just… I don’t really like taking breaks. I like getting into a kind of flow. What I love about Trinity would be, I always do saxophone choir, which is just the best thing. They’re fantastic students. They’re hilarious. They’re very funny. And thankfully, they definitely don’t take me too seriously, which is really important. So we’re all a team, and it’s great. The rehearsals are just such great fun.
Gerard McChrystal: It needs to be because a lot of the music’s really demanding, and they’ve got pressurised concerts. When push comes to shove, I want them to have fun on the day and not be stressed about it. A lot of one-to-one teaching. We do group lessons, which are great fun. And my favourite thing is, we do faculty classes, which I sometimes take, but we generally get people from outside. For example, this year… we’ve had lots of different people have done them. Joshua Hyde came in and did one, Jerome Laran’s done one. And we have lots of people come in from the outside, visiting colleagues. People from the pop, jazz world. Everything. People from the West End come in and do these classes.
Gerard McChrystal: I like doing them every now and again. So I like this difference because I’ll do different things. Also, I examine. So this week, I was in as a generalist for exams, so I was teaching the saxophone and I was also sitting on a jury of vocal exams, guitar exams, and piano exams, which was absolutely fascinating because we do blind marking. I know nothing about the guitar and you’re sitting with the professor from the Royal College and the Chair, and you have to blind mark what you think someone got. You get these little kicks where at one… during the after… I got certain feel of how the instrument works, and later in the afternoon, I blind marked bang on with the specialist and you go, “Yes!” This is kind of nice. I’m in the zone for that.
Gerard McChrystal: I love the… Trinity, they’ve helped me develop just as a general musician. There’s a lovely atmosphere there. It’s not competitive. It’s all about developing your different strength and what I love about teaching there is, when we start spotting that a student is more comfortable with pop and jazz, we, in lessons, the next year, we will adjust their balance. We share students. We don’t really have any students exclusively. So I work very closely with a colleague called Mel Henry, and we get on really well and we work as a team. We work also with a couple of guys, Nick Foster from the jazz department and Martin Speake, and we share students with them as well.
Gerard McChrystal: So if we see… I’m always really fascinated to see how these students are developing because my thing is that, the education system sometimes fails students when it’s too narrow, and the students end up jumping through hoops. We shouldn’t be doing that. It’s not about getting it first. It’s not about passing your exams. They’re there as challenges. What we’re there for is to monitor the development and see what direction they’re developing in. As soon as people start picking Hot Sonate Phil Woods and they start moving towards that type of repertoire… and then some of the cross over things, Andy Scott, all those great things, I start wondering, maybe you’re interested in improvising and all that. So I do a bit of improvising, and we start that as well.
Gerard McChrystal: If I hear that they’re more comfortable in that, then I will then start developing, so we get… you get a colleague involved the next year. And by then end, there’s some students where I’ve ended up teaching them exclusively. And by the end, they’re doing nearly all their lessons with a jazz teacher and I’m only doing 8 hours a year. That’s how it works. Also, some of them double. They also do double. Sometimes as well, we then actually change the balance towards clarinet and flutes. It’s just all… We’re there for the students, not the other way around. That’s what’s really important. That would be by typical day. So just standing from the outside in just seeing, how are they getting along? What can we do more for them? And that’s always what I love about working there?
Barry Cockcroft: How are you able to balance your teaching commitments with your touring and your practise and all of these other things?
Gerard McChrystal: The hardest thing is getting practise in. What I try and do is get in and practise first. I have tried staying on, but if you’ve been in doing all these different things, working eight sometimes ten hours, and you’re doing all these different things, all’s I want to do is go the pub. The idea of picking up a saxophone and actually practise properly… psychology as well, when you’ve been teaching, your brain goes into a different space. In one respect it sounds like you should be able to practise really well, but when you come to practise yourself and do it, it’s a different thing, so I try and do that first. I’m lucky that the conservatoires are very flexible, so we can take time off and all of that.
Gerard McChrystal: That’s why I work at the conservatoire. Recently Trinity, they said to all the staff, “Can you just say what day you’re going to be in?” And everyone started laughing. I said, “What week? What year?” And I said, “I wouldn’t actually know until a month before.” And if I get… some extra work comes in or something comes in at short notice, I love the fact that, nine times out of ten, I can say yes and just go and do it and adjust it. As long as it’s not a commitment to a gig at Trinity, also working Cardiff at the Royal Welsh, if it’s not one of those, then I can just change things and the students are cool. They want us to be out doing things because they know that I’ll bring back something cool.
Gerard McChrystal: I did bring back a good anecdote, which is always important. They like the fact I meet all their heroes as well, that kind of thing. And also bring back new music. So it’s all… it all works really nicely. It’s not really an issue. I don’t think, also, with playing the saxophone, you… I do little bits, I often go… my average thing is going away for five days to a week. I try and avoid… Every now and then, I might do a two week tour, but luckily I don’t get… but I can’t get involved. I suppose the things I say no too, it’s a big commitment where you get involved in a project where you’re going to be on tour the whole time because then, it’s not going to happen.
Gerard McChrystal: Those big shows and all those types of things, I just couldn’t do because you’d then be compromising what you’re doing. There are some teachers that they’re… they have got the balance right. And the students they’ll notice. They notice that you’re not around, that you’re not focused. They’ll notice, so I just don’t go there.
Barry Cockcroft: You’ve performed in something like 35 countries, I would imagine therefore, that travelling and touring is a really important part of your music making. What is it about travel that you like so much and that you’re drawn to?
Gerard McChrystal: You’ve got me sussed Barry, haven’t you? You ever thought of a career of a psychoanalyst now? Loving being a saxophone player. That’s my thing. I kind of see life as a kind of journey, you can see my career has been a kind of journey. And even on a weekly basis… like last week I was in London for a bit, and then I came home. I always come home really late. You can get a late train. I sometimes get home at two in the morning or something like that. Then I get up the next morning, cycle to the station, hop on a train and head across to Cardiff, which takes three hours. I sit on this lovely beautiful train journey, it’s not very fast, not very reliable, and it’s perfect for me, and lovely views.
Gerard McChrystal: I travel down to Cardiff, and I say to the students, I… it’s my… I call it my holiday job because it’s so lovely down there. They’re such a nice bunch. And I go down to… I did seven hours yesterday, but quite often I do five, six hours, something like that, get on the train and come home. And it’s lovely that idea of a journey. So I do that on a weekly basis. And then the travel to other countries, it’s just the people you meet because you experience countries in a real way. For example, I was on a tour in China with an orchestra and I met Tony Young, (Tan Yang) from the Beijing conservatory. I did a masterclass for him, then got him a ticket for the concert. I was just playing the Old Castle from Pictures at an Exhibition and Mussorgsky.
Gerard McChrystal: Afterwards, we went out to this local Chinese restaurant near my hotel, I had a fantastic meal and a lovely time and met some of the locals, that kind of stuff. And then later that evening, I went into the same place with some of the orchestra and got ripped off. So it’s a really funny experience because all of a sudden we were just being treated as… it absolutely happened. I remember as that evening went on, the price got more… every round got more and more expensive as they realised all… getting more and more drunk, so the price went up. That sort of… we suddenly became tourists. So I don’t really like going on holiday as a tourist because the tourist experience, generally, is just getting ripped off for me, and I like the fact that you go to countries but there’ll be a connection there.
Gerard McChrystal: One of my favourite things is going to Portugal because initially with my ex-student Henrique Portovedo, and then João Pedro Silva from the quartet, when you could do Portugal, and we go to Lisbon, and I go out with João Pedro and we go out to these fantastic local restaurants in Palmela, and you meet all these people. It’s an amazing experience. Just a privilege to do these things. That’s the bit I love because you’re getting to meet people in a real way. You’re not this walking wallet, which is how a lot of people are viewed when they go on holiday.
Gerard McChrystal: You make a little… you take something away and you give something when you go to these places. It’s that experience that I just adore, that’s… and then you play music for them and I think when I play music from that country, it’s really special. I really like premiering things. I often bring things from that country to there. I like the combination of playing their music and also bringing stuff of my own. It’s a kind of… I don’t know. It’s like a kind of party where everyone bring something. It’s like bring a nice bottle of wine or something, or someone brings some food.
Gerard McChrystal: It’s that bigger human experience, it’s the true experience. I think it’s just… it just feels very real to me, and then it feels valid and that’s why I love doing that so much.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one piece of music that you could play, what piece would that be and why?
Gerard McChrystal: Melbourne. Seriously, your sonata. I’m not just saying this because it’s us. Because you dedicated it to me, and it’s something close to me and, emotionally, I’m very attached to it. I’m a bit obsessed with it because it’s nearly melted my little mark six. It’s pushed that instrument to the absolutely limit of what an old horn can do. I’m just sort of fascinated, can I do that piece on an old saxophone? And that’s… that would be the piece. That’s where I am… if you ask me next year, I might have a different piece but that’s where I am today.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s funny. You said before that you were on holiday and you were practising . I just find, with saxophone players, saxophone players go on holiday to practise instead of sitting on the beach.
Gerard McChrystal: Yeah. Well, I did go to a jacuzzi later on that evening, had few beers. It’s the whole thing, isn’t it? It’s very hard to stop, isn’t it? If I don’t practise every day, it’s always… when I wake up, it’s one of the first things that’ll be in my head. How am I going to get me… and I have a little to-do list, and if I haven’t done my to-do list every single day, it’s… I actually write down in my to-do list, practise. It’s always in. May 31st, practise. May 28th, practise. It’s just always in there. And in the midst of everything I have to do, the amount of times I actually write in… yeah, looking… the 10th of the 5th, pay Joshua Hyde for his class, sort out my timetable, sort out me parking permits, practise. I actually write it in to remind myself that I have to do that. It’s every day.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, talking of practise. If you’ve just got one hour to practise, how would you spend your time?
Gerard McChrystal: Just go slow. Yeah. I do… all the time, I do laryngeal exercises, Joe Allard’s stuff. I do all that all that time, harmonics and the low notes, long notes. Little studies. I love doing little… Ferling, just the best. I don’t do difficult studies. I think, why bother doing difficult studies, just play a piece of music. So Ferling and Klose. But Ferling’s my fave. I think they’re the best studies that you can do on the saxophone. Do those.
Gerard McChrystal: And then often I’ll just play really slowly. I’ll have a crack at something and then I’ll sit and play it at fifty percent. I just try to find the green. It might be just be an Irish, I’m just constantly trying to find the green in that one hour, that’s really important.
Barry Cockcroft: Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone and why?
Gerard McChrystal: Of course, being from the UK, I’m biassed, it’d be John Harle. I think John had a massive influence. I wasn’t with him for long as a student but just really influenced me with a different accent and just amazing pieces that he did and it’s really… I just find what he accomplished… he still… it’s not past tense, what he is accomplishing. Very fresh and interesting and very personal to him.
Gerard McChrystal: Actually, some of the pieces, a lot of the stuff, I don’t play because it was actually so… it struck me that if you had something that is really personal to you… I think that is what I got from him, and why I really went along my own path. I like…. I’ve played the Nyman concerto about 30 times, but always in the back of my head… it’s his piece. These are his pieces that were all done for him. That really something very important, that you have stuff that you get associated with that of a quality. So that would be my answer to that.
Barry Cockcroft: If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make them?
Gerard McChrystal: I think it’s when we don’t realise with making mistakes that we’re in trouble. Of course, if you don’t care about mistakes, that’s the day to give up. I don’t worry about making mistakes because, of course, the great thing about making a mistake is that you realise it. We’re always doing our best, aren’t we? When you practise, if you’re not doing your best, just don’t bother. So with doing our best and the thing is, when you make a mistake, we’re aware of it… the key is with mistakes, forgive yourself. I can’t understand when people get so upset about mistakes.
Gerard McChrystal: I’ve just read a book called Do No Harm, and it’s by a brain surgeon called Henry Marsh. He was talking about making a tine mistake, someone had had an aneurism or something like that and you wreck a patient, and he talks about… he wrote a book about all of his mistakes, and he became a world class surgeon. But he said he was once visiting this home, and there was somebody in there, completely paralysed… and he said, I did that. And I thought, that’s real. And actually what we do isn’t as important as a bus driver.
Gerard McChrystal: I had a bus driver came on one of my courses in Benslow and I said, you’ve a more important job than me because you’ve got the safety of all those people and their lives in your hand with what you do. It’s a really important job. I just play the saxophone. If I make a mistake, nobody dies, get over it. It’s the mistakes I don’t know I’m making… the one I love is that 20 years playing Creston first page, oh, it is an A#, it’s not an A. Everyone knows what I mean.
Gerard McChrystal: It’s that moment. A student pointed it, “Gerard, is that not an A#?” Shit. You just… it’s when we’re playing wrong notes. So I have actually learned to… from Daniel Barenboim, the conductor, I’ve learned that, when you practise, the way to spot mistakes is… you know the way I talk about my DARN breaking everything down? You must look at the music. When you look at the notes, look at the music as if for the first time. And if you can do that, you’ll spot your mistakes.
Gerard McChrystal: The problem is, what we do is we look at music and we go, “Oh, yeah. I know how that goes. I know what I have to do.” That’s when we’re making a mistake because we’re assuming we know what’s going on so I get to spot mistakes because I look at the music, I focus on the notes and I go, right. I say to a student, “Play that bar. Just look at the notes. Are you… what percentage are you at?” And if they don’t say 100%, I go, “Why?” And they never, ever say 100%, and they’ve actually played it perfectly.
Gerard McChrystal: And I say, “Why is it not 100%?” And they said, “I never looked at it like that.” They’d just assumed. That how they spot mistakes. And that’s very, very important, I think. But the mistakes, get over it. It’s just music and if you found an error, it doesn’t really matter. I think we get too head up over it. Whatever you do, don’t attach your self-esteem to a mistake. You suddenly don’t become a bad human being just because you’ve dropped a note in Coo Coo, for get it.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you believe that few people agree with?
Gerard McChrystal: That’s a really interesting question. Oh, yeah. I know what… I don’t know anybody who agrees with my interpretation of Glazunov, because I think everyone’s got it wrong. You know at the top of the second page of Glazunov, actually it’s on the top of the page… Glazunov in the Leduc version. Well, X marks scherzando right? And I think a lot of Glazunov is playful. I mean, what’s going… he writes things like allegro moderato there because he wants it to flow. And the amount of times that I hear Glazunov and it sounds like (singing). Give me a break. We’re going to have a funeral march for the next 13 minute. Where the bar?
Gerard McChrystal: And then you get to the scherzando bit… I think Glazunov has to move, it’s generic, it’s rhapsodic, it’s melancholic, it’s autumnal. When you get to the scherzando bit, everyone plays it (singing) and then they start pulling it around. Then they get to the semi quavers and they go, “Oh, I’ve… top of the page, Marcel Mule etudes.” (singing), and they do it exactly in time. But if you look at the music, it’s still part of the scherzando. It’s not meant to… I don’t believe it’s meant to be played exactly in time because, if you look at the score, it’s not until later on that hello actually marks the crochet temp accelerando. I think up to crochet equals 120.
Gerard McChrystal: So whenever I play it, I always think of the Russian bit (singing). So I… I’ve done it with orchestra, and I get them to go (singing), like that. And I do it kind of like a Russian folk dance. I’ve don’t this in… I’ve done it in a couple of conservatories. I remember doing it in Belgium, I remember doing it in Vienna, and they said, “You’re just wrong.” And I said, “You’re just all following the party line. You’re just doing it the way Mule did it and everyone else… everyone you know.” And I’d be interested… what people think. But Glazunov’s amazing, and I think that, how can we turn out so many recordings that sound the same? What’s going on? Why is everyone playing it… it’s like it’s the holy grail of the saxophone.
Gerard McChrystal: It’s the thing that I think people don’t agree with is my… anytime I’ve played my interpretation, it really gets hotted up towards the end. I think, bits of Glazunov, if you get the tempo wrong, it’s really boring. That middle section, I just sort of glaze over when people get the tempo too slow. So I’ve done it with orchestra, the last two pages, everything’s pushing really towards the last chord. So I really get… I move it on, and it’s great fun. And that’s how I play it. Most saxophone player don’t like it, and I don’t care.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, what’s the most important thing that you do right before a performance? Before you’re walking onto short-term, what do you do that makes you feel good in a performance?
Gerard McChrystal: I’m really antisocial. I’m a very sociable person but the first member is… the first key point for me is, keep any family members away from me. My family know, don’t approach me before a concert because I get distracted. I’ve had a couple of concerts where I’ve had chats with people just before I walked on stage, and I’ve walked on stage and not been focused. So my key is to ground myself. I do… you probably don’t know that, but… I’m quite a relaxed person, but part of me is I get panic attacks for like, I don’t know, 50 years, maybe. Nearly, like all the time. Really weird. But I didn’t get them when I performed. I didn’t really get nervous.
Gerard McChrystal: So I learned how to ground. How to deal with them was to ground myself. So I use grounding techniques, and it’s really important for me. So I just sort of sit, I focus on the room that I’m in. What I try and do… actually, anyone who suffers from nerves, panic attacks, anything like that, that blow in a brown paper bag and ground… leaving.. if you can put yourself in the moment, in the moment in life where you’re at, you’ll stop them. The key about performing is we get… that’s my headphones going a bit weird, I think. Did you hear a noise?
Gerard McChrystal: But the key is to ground yourself. And what I do is try and stay in the moment. So I look around the room, I look at something, I look at a clock, and I just stop thinking about anything else and just look about the room, put my feet on the floor. Then I start breathing in and out and listening to my breath. And then I start looking in my body going, how do I feel? Do I feel nerves? Do I feel pain? Do I feel stress? Where about in my body is it? And I look at it. I try and feel where in my body it is.
Gerard McChrystal: Then I look at it and I go, why is that? And you’d be amazed that when you have pain or stress os something and you do that in the moment, that it sort of dissipates. There’s a thing about nerves is that we empower… we have a choice. I say to a student, “We have a choice, you know?” Emotions are there before we perform, but we have a choice how we react to it. We don’t have to go with it, we don’t have to go with the fear. I just look at it in the eye, and I think, we have to be courageous like that.
Gerard McChrystal: Most fears, when you look at them, they actually dissipate into thin air because a lot of the time it’s just our imagination. If there is that bar that I’m nervous about I go, oh, that’s one bar. Don’t worry about it, just get over it. I ground myself. The key about music, the beautiful… and the reason why music maybe music has been the soundtrack of my life is that when you play a piece of music, the only way you can play it is not in the past or not in the future, you have to be in the moment of that very note, that semiquaver, you have to play that one before you play the next one.
Gerard McChrystal: When you really get locked into that, then you’re really doing something. You’re really grounded, and you’ve got a chance of expressing it. That’s my constant goal, is to stay in the moment. Because of my psyche, it’s really important for my wellbeing actually, my mindfulness, those bits of life… so that what I try and do is, try not to make the performance of my life too separate. I don’t like… I had a lot of boom and bust and it was really bad for me, it was really unhealthy for me. The boom and bust of pieces. I remember, once I was coming off the stage I’d done Panic by Harrison Birtwistle in Germany. I’d been so psyched up for the gig, and I walked off stage and I went, was that it?
Gerard McChrystal: I had this massive flatline, this massive kind of near a depression. And I thought, I can’t live like this, I can’t have these ups and downs, I need to make the performance of my life much more a contour. And that’s what I… that’s my key before any performance, and they’re all treated the same, it’s… I don’t prioritise. It’s just the next gig, whatever it is. That’s how I do it.
Barry Cockcroft: With hindsight, could you give your younger self a piece of advice that would’ve benefited your development, looking back?
Gerard McChrystal: No. I just thought, well done son. I have no regret. I have no regrets. I wouldn’t have done it any different way. I’m really happy with how I went. It was so unstructured. It was so… slightly chaotic. It was so sort of piecemeal. It was great. I just had these very diverse influences and I just went with my instinct at one time and, yeah… going to Chicago, all right, I’ll do that. Actually, I never answered that question because… the thing about travel by the way, about going to a country like Chicago, it changed my life because just being there getting to meet all the Irish out there and all… I’ve still got friendships from that and getting to… amazing city is such an eye opener to… there’s a big world out there. That’s the thing. It gets you out of your tiny little conservatory, and all the tiny little place, and the small-mindedness that can happen. It opens your head and body and spirit to the world. That’s what really matters.
Barry Cockcroft: What are some of the changes that you’ve seen in the saxophone world during your career? And what are some of the things that actually haven’t changed that you thought might’ve changed.
Gerard McChrystal: In the UK, the biggest change has been the exponential growth of the saxophone. In my second year at there RNCM in Manchester, I was the only saxophonist. The next year I was really lucky because the guys from the Apollo quartet and suddenly I had some mates. They were all really good as well. It was great to have that energy. By now in Manchester, there’s a really very healthy, big saxophone department. In Trinity, we have about 12 students. All the conservatoires have between… the academy is much smaller but most of the conservatoires have between 12 and sometimes more students. It’s really the exponential growth. The technical level is massive. It’s huge how that’s developed. The repertoires developed massively.
Gerard McChrystal: The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that you have a human being blowing down a conical tube with a vibrating reed. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed. When I was in my early twenties, my first teaching job, I put together an embouchure work out partly influenced by all my teachers who all influenced me, Joe Allard, Saxtet, the quartet I was in as well… we did stuff. I just put it all together for the students, and that was over 25 years ago and I still use the exact same thing. Nothing’s changed. It’s a bit more sophisticated, the order of things high school changed, but the basic concepts, they haven’t changed. I just kind of think that will never change. Human beings and how the saxophone works, that’s the bit… we have to come to terms with that. It just is what it is.
Barry Cockcroft: Where can people find more about your activities? Are you up to date on your website? Do you like social media? What’s your choice for keeping people informed?
Gerard McChrystal: I have a Facebook page, Sax Sax Sax, like a fan page. I do have a website, but I very rarely update that because… they’re sort of becoming defunct really because social media is the was forward for me. I use Twitter and Instagram and LinkedIn, they’re nowhere near as interesting, I think. For me, I think there’s something about Facebook that is very of the moment. It’s also very… it really suits me because it’s really informal. I like the fact that… this is a typical Facebook experience, I was doing the Glazunov for RadioToday with an orchestra and I put all the details on Facebook. A couple of likes, whatever. On the morning of the gig, my hotel had an automatic pancake maker, and I went, wow, this is amazing.
Gerard McChrystal: I took a picture of the pancake coming out of the automatic pancake machine. 100 likes instantly. That’s what I love about Facebook. Something completely inane and they go, okay he’s doing… yeah, he did a good Glazunov, but what about those pancakes? That’s what I love. I love that the… less we take ourself too seriously. That’s what I like about it. The key is, don’t take it too seriously. We’re blessed to do what we do. We’re lucky to do what we do. We have a job that we enjoy. If you’re getting depressed and worried about it, there’s always the pancakes.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, my final question for today. You’ve already made such a great, incredible contribution to the saxophone. What do you see for yourself in the coming decades?
Gerard McChrystal: Oh, I’ve got so much to do. I think my main thing is sopranino. One of my clarinet teachers, Alan Hacker, sadly died. Just before he died, he gave me a Selmer series 2 sopranino, a beautiful gift. I went to see him and I brought him some… I love cooking, and I made him some homemade pesto and he gave me a Selmer saxophone. I’ve got this little sopranino. And I blew it and he said, “I’ve had this for my whole 30 years.” And I blew it and he went, “No one’s ever made it sound like that. You should have it.” When he died, I went to his funeral and his widow Margaret said, “I want you to play that little instrument in his honour.” And I replied, “He always did have a weird sense of humour.”
Gerard McChrystal: So I’m obsessed with the sopranino. I think it’s the most magic of all the saxophones. I think it’s an incredible instrument. Not many people play it well and it’s not… it’s not tune, but it’s perfectly in tune. You can play it perfectly in tune because you can play it perfectly out of tune, so it’s ying and yang. So it’s… I think my next recording, I’m sort of… I’ve got a really nice record company who give me years to make albums, and I need it. I’m to pushed… I just make albums when I’m ready. So I’m exploring repertoire for that. So I need to do that.
Gerard McChrystal: I also need to record a lot of the pieces. I haven’t recorded Gary Carpenter’s sonata. I haven’t recorded the Melbourne Sonate that was dedicated to me. I haven’t recorded Nigel Wood’s Cries Of The Stentor. There’s all these pieces that are, I think are becoming important in the saxophone repertoire, and I haven’t put my stamp on them because… especially the Gary Cartner because it was written for me. I thought, I need to record that just so people know what I think about it, where I’m coming from. And I think I need to do an album of all my pieces that were… all my pieces.
Gerard McChrystal: I started composing. I started working with loop stations and actually, at the World Congress I’m playing one of my own pieces based on a poem by Seamus Heaney. So I’d like to compose more. I’ve like to learn to double tongue. I can do everything else, but I can’t double tongue and my flutter tongue’s a bit dodgy. I’d like to learn to double tongue and do it really well. But I can single tongue so fast that I haven’t actually found a piece that I do need double tongue in. I do that, and then I might find something. That’s an interesting little geeky… that’s my geek thing. So any tips, please send me any information to sax.com. That’s interesting. So yeah, I think there’s still… that’s what I’ve got to do as a player.
Barry Cockcroft: Well, it’s a privilege to hear your enthusiasm for your playing.
Gerard McChrystal: I’m still that child… I’m still that kid in the sweet shop.
Barry Cockcroft: I think that level of love of what you do is very evident in the way that you perform, and I’ve no doubt that explains why you always have an audience when you play.
Gerard McChrystal: Oh, thank you.
Barry Cockcroft: So Gerard, thanks for your time this morning talking with me. And I look forward to seeing you in three weeks time at the World Saxophone Congress.
Gerard McChrystal: Fantastic. Thank you very much. Bye.