Lars Mlekusch - Swiss Saxophonist & Conductor - 12
About Lars Mlekusch
Lars Mlekusch is a saxophonist, conductor and educator. He was appointed a professor of saxophone and chamber music at the Music and Arts University of Vienna at the age of 26, and since 2015 he is the saxophone professor at the Zurich University of the Arts.
Lars Mlekusch has performed throughout the world as a soloist, with orchestras or in chamber music. For ten years he was a regular guest saxophonist of the Klangforum Wien and has been the saxophone soloist of the Vienna based ensemble PHACE.
He has been invited to teach masterclasses at many renowned institutions such as the Paris Conservatoire, Conservatorium of Amsterdam, Chopin University of Music Warsaw, Royal College of Music London, Bejing Central Conservatory and leading universities across the United States.
He has been on the faculties of the European Saxophone University Gap and the Arosa Music Academy. He was a jury member at many international competitions such as the International Adolphe Sax Competition in Dinant, the Jean-Marie Londeix Competition in Bangkok.
Following his career as a saxophonist, he is now pursuing a career as a conductor. As such he has appeared at Konzerthaus Wien, the Cité de la Musique Strasbourg and the National Concert Hall Taipei. He is the Artistic Director and conductor of the MIT saxophone ensemble in Taiwan.
Lars Mlekusch is the founder and Artistic Director of both the Vienna International Saxfest and the Zurich International Saxfest. He is a Selmer Paris Artist.
Although I had known Lars for a number of years, I don’t think I really got to appreciate him until we were in Dinant, Belgium together. It was during the Adolphe Sax Competition 200 years edition, and to celebrate there was an outdoor concert for hundreds of saxophonists in the freezing cold. With the best of intentions, Lars and I attended all the rehearsals and started the performance marching in the streets when we might have been easily distracted by a warm and cosy pub out of the cold rain. Over some much deserved Belgium beer, I discovered Lars’ thoughtfulness, deep thinking and his reluctance to give easy answers to hard to questions, or hard answers to easy questions.
- Starting the saxophone because it is golden, different to the clarinet.
- Learning with my teacher’s teacher’s teacher.
- Working with Marcus Weiss.
- Boring scales and a lot about music.
- Becoming curious about composers.
- Studying as far away as possible.
- Master’s with Fred Hemke at Northwestern University.
- Recommending students to study abroad.
- Private study with Claude Delangle and Arno Bornkamp.
- Giving masterclasses with Tim McCallister and Christian Wirth.
- Founding the Vienna Saxophonic Orchestra.
- Performing withsoloist ensemble Phace.
- Teaching without being systematic.
- Living with focal dystonia.
- Canceling a big concert for the first time.
- Advancing a career in conducting.
- Studying with Emilio Pomarico.
- Improvisation is something significant that every musician should try at least.
- Keeping kids creative.
- The subtle art of avoiding answering questions.
- Remaining in the moment.
- Dissemination of saxophone knowledge through social and other media.
Transcript of podcast interview with Lars Mlekusch
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: 00:00:06 Lars, thanks very much for joining me this afternoon. I would love to start by knowing about how you got started with the saxophone.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:00:14 Thank you, Barry, for inviting me. The saxophone was not my first instrument. It was a recorder, piano, followed by clarinet and then I played in a wind band, sitting first chair clarinet, and then there was this empty chair on tenor saxophone. So one day they asked me if I would like to play the tenor saxophone. Of course, I wanted to play the tenor saxophone. It’s golden’s; it’s not that black thing. I started, we were renting a saxophone from a music store. I started practising without having a teacher in the beginning, so for probably one year, I was trying by my myself. I’m looking at some at some finger charts and just trying to make that thing work.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:01:09 Then I started playing in a band, a wind band. And at that time I was very interested in jazz. My parents listened to a lot of jazz music rather like Dixieland and New Orleans jazz, old style. I heard saxophone a lot, but of course, that was all jazz saxophone. I started playing jazz just a bit for myself and then later also had some jazz combos. I had my first teacher maybe one year later, who was not an actual saxophone teacher. He was an engineer, and he also played saxophone in a wind band, and so he was taking care of the young kids and trying to help them with the saxophone. Which looking back was maybe not the ideal situation. I had to change lots of things when I finally had a, let’s say a real saxophone teacher who knew how to play the instrument, which happened maybe two years later. So that’s, that’s the whole how the whole thing started.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:02:19 So what age were you then?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:02:20 It was rather late. I would say the saxophone, maybe the first notes on the saxophone I played when I was a 12.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:02:35 So does having an engineer as a teacher, does that explain your love do precision?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:02:41 I don’t think so. I don’t think he was that influential, maybe that was not his influence, there were perhaps other people more responsible for that. So it was okay, you know what I mean? He loved music, and he could somehow keep my motivation going and all of that stuff. So for that, he was good. Maybe not about the perfect embouchure.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:03:12 Did you have to fix things that you learned by yourself for a while? Did you have to adjust those later on?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:03:20 Yes there were some things. I remember once, that was actually when I already studied. Once there was a masterclass, somebody coming in from abroad, I think it was John Sampen. I played the Berio IXb, and then he looked at my fingers and said that should take care of my position. I played a bit flat, almost bent, not nice round like fingers. Oh yeah, maybe you’re right. He said, but don’t look at my fingers because they’re not a good example. He played a recital later, and I noticed that. But still, he saw it, he mentioned it, and I tried it, and I guess I succeeded. There were a few things about embouchure, but generally, it was not a disaster, like really bad things where I had to change everything.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:04:39 And your first real specialist teacher – who do you consider that to be?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:04:47 My first real saxophonist was a classical saxophonist who unfortunately passed away three years ago. He was a student of Iwan Roth and later of Marcus Weiss who became my teacher later. He also played in a quartet which was called the New Art Saxophone Quartet with Klaus Pfister on the soprano saxophone. Klaus won, I think second prize at the Geneva competition, in 1994 or something like that. His name was Gert Müller, a German guy. He was a strict teacher. I learned a lot of things with him, and later I played, when I became a student in Basel of Marcus, I played a quartet with him, my first teacher, so we did that for a while. I think until I went to Chicago for my studies.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:05:53 So Marcus Weiss, he’s legendary. How would you characterise his teaching?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:06:04 When I was a student, I could still see, or at least guess, the influence that Iwan Roth, his teacher had on so that the methods, we use some of his books like the scale books. I felt like he adapted his teaching to every student. Maybe there was not like a very strong system behind it, like that he would do with almost every student the same program. Of course, there was some technique to do, but this was not something he was overly interested in doing, which I understand. It’s boring with these scales, but it’s an important part, and we did it. It was a lot about music.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:07:13 I felt like he was not so much about the saxophone. Marcus is a fantastic musician, and that is something he’s passing on to students. Of course, working with him was an opening to the whole world of contemporary music, which was something that I was not familiar with before. It made me open up to become very curious about working with composers, etc. So this was a significant input that I received from him.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:07:55 How important was it for you to go to Northwestern to study with Hemke?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:08:00 This was a very, very important for various reasons. I mean I studied in Basel which was maybe 60 kilometres from my hometown, so it was very close. I had the desire to go abroad or far away, once from home and there were different ideas and options. I thought about Paris, I thought about Amsterdam. But I felt like those are also a bit too close now. No, no I want to go further. I knew that Marcus also studied with Fred Hemke, so I talked to him about it, about this idea. He was supporting me and encouraging me to get to know Fred. I went to a masterclass in Norway, and I met him. I think went there twice. Then I applied to Northwestern for the master’s program, a one-year masters program and went there. It was essential to be away from home, to be in a different country, a different cultural environment, to live in, or live close to a big city – Chicago, which we don’t have in Switzerland, cities like that.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:09:33 And so all of that and meeting people from all over the world studying at Northwestern, not just saxophone, other instruments or other departments. And of course, last but not least the work with a Fred Hemke. It was always inspiring and motivating. He let me do a lot of contemporary music. He wanted me to do it, and I think because it was something maybe it was not done so often at that time at Northwestern. I guess he felt that it would be interesting also for the other students to hear something new and new repertoire, even some European composers that were maybe not so popular or well known in the states at that time. Overall it was a crucial year for me to study and to live in Evanston or Chicago.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:10:36 Besides the saxophone people who step out of their home environment for a period, do you think that’s an essential part of personal development?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:10:47 For me it was. I think every student who can do that should do it. Things also change because it’s, it seems to be much easier nowadays to get those experiences. In Europe we have this exchange program called Erasmus, which, allows people from universities and conservatories that are part of this program, to spend, to spend one semester or one year at another school and not lose any time. They would still get the credits and everything. It’s part of their bachelor and master’s program. You can do that once in either program. That’s an excellent tool for young people, musicians to discover different environments. Different approaches to music also and be surrounded by different people and a different language. I would support that, and I do recommend it with my students to do that. And there’s always some exchanges happening in my class also.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:12:19 I was thinking about your path there. Your first teacher learned with your second teacher, a second teacher learned with your third teacher. There’s a fascinating parallel running.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:12:31 It’s true. I never thought about it so I couldn’t get out of that. Yeah, that’s true.
New Speaker: 00:12:39 BIG ECHO IN AUDIO HERE – FIX!
Barry Cockcroft: 00:12:39 I mean, teachers have a significant influence, but sometimes you can follow the path of your teacher unknowingly.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:12:49 Yeah, it’s true. Maybe I wasn’t conscious of that. I mean, when I returned to Europe or Switzerland after Chicago, for maybe two years, I took private lessons with Arno Bornkamp and Claude Delangle. I was not doing regular studies with them, but I travelled to Paris and Amsterdam and got some different ideas and inputs as well. I was curious about other approaches, maybe an idea about the saxophone and music.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:13:26 You participate in this as well. There’s a lot of master classes offered, particularly in Europe with visiting artists, rotating around. People can take classes with you at opportunities. Do you think the access to so much differing advice let’s say, or different perspectives is a good thing or can it be too much?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:13:51 I think that entirely depends on the person, on the student, how they can deal with different kinds of information. For one person it can be very confusing maybe and distracting and irritating while another can take it and try things and then finally have his or her way of dealing with it. That’s true that there’s such a vast offering of masterclasses nowadays. I don’t know if it’s too much. The students have a lot of possibilities to choose from. When I was a student, I did not have that many. Maybe I went to Gap once and then I did those two masterclasses with Hemke in Norway. That’s basically it and later the one saxophone week in Amsterdam. I think there was the first saxophone week that Arno organised.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:15:11 At that time there were not that many masterclasses as is nowadays, so it was a bit more limited. But as you say, I also teach in some of those. I was teaching in Gap for two years and then various masterclasses in Europe and the one that I do every year now for maybe eight years or nine years in the Swiss mountains in Arosa. I did this alone the beginning, and now we are three teachers with Tim McCallister and Christian Worth, which I think is a lovely combination. We are very good friends yet, on the other hand, we are very different players, or we believe differently aesthetically about the saxophone. So the students get entirely different approaches and ideas.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:16:09 I love teaching, so that’s why I keep doing those things. Finally, it’s up to the students if they want to take advantage of that or not. If they’re going to try to get a lot of different input or if they prefer to get maybe not lost in having too much information to deal with.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:16:50 Was it in America that you started being interested in conducting?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:16:57 Conducting was something that goes even further back. When I was in high school, I took conducting lessons in this kind of wind band program. I did some certificates when I was maybe 16 or 17. I never really conducted wind bands. I mean occasionally, but I was not so interested in going in that direction, but that was the first step. I also had a big band when I was 15 or 16, and I was leading the big band. I mean, you cannot call that conducting, but I was still like having this big band in front of me and playing Glen Miller and Benny Goodman. I played clarinet, saxophone and a little bit of shaking my hand, more or less. So that was maybe my very first experience. Then, during my studies, I was not doing much of that. I did some conducting from the soprano chair in the saxophone quartet!
Lars Mlekusch: 00:18:15 When I started teaching in Vienna, and I suddenly had the desire to create this saxophone ensemble, which I was not at all interested during my studies. I always wanted to play with different instruments, not with saxophone. I had a quartet, but the one in Chicago was fun. This one year experience was with great people that were a lot of fun. We did some competitions and travelled and practised or rehearsed almost every day and that was a lovely experience. Other than that I was more interested in playing with cello or piano or percussion or electronics, which came out quite soon to have a duo with electronics. When I started teaching, I felt a need to do a saxophone ensemble. It was also to give the students the possibility to play together in a bigger group, to do some transcrIptions and even new music. Then I formed a student ensemble and started conducting again. So there was maybe the first time after a more extended break to try again. And later founding this other saxophone ensemble, the Vienna Saxophonic Orchestra, which it was more the idea of having a professional group. There we did quite a lot of performances.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:19:46 I had a lot of fun conducting, but, but finally I realised I don’t want to conduct only saxophone ensembles, it’s quite limiting. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also limiting. I’m now thrilled and lucky that I do not only conduct saxophone ensembles, so I work with contemporary music ensembles, which I played in a lot as well with various groups in Austria and my former soloist ensemble Phase is now inviting me as a conductor, which is excellent. I’m honoured to do that. I was very nervous for the first project to be suddenly not sitting in the ensemble but in front of my colleagues and it is a different thing. It went well, and I think in five minutes I was quite relaxed. We had a lot of fun, and we travelled to The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival last fall. Other performances follow now at Vienna modern music festival and others. So that’s a lot of fun. There are some possibilities to conduct chamber orchestras or also bigger orchestras, which I hope will become more… we will see.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:21:14 What’s the difference in preparation between playing the saxophone and conducting a group?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:21:19 We will probably talk about that later, but when I reduced my activity as a saxophonist and also the practice time, I first thought, okay, what I’m going to do with that time now that I practice less. I immediately realised that studying and preparing the scores is hugely time-consuming and it never stops.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:21:47 As a player, of course, we can always kind of go deeper into a piece and get to know the piece better and the technique that those are interpretation. There’s always something we can improve or go on to explore. I feel that as a conductor, when you study studies scores, it depends on the pieces also, of course, and on the complexity, maybe of the work, but I feel like with most of the time you never know the score well enough. I have somehow this feeling, and there’s always something more to know and to see and to understand. And so I spend a lot of time on my table just preparing scores with pencils or coloured pens and markers and trying to analyse in a rather practical way to understand the piece.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:22:56 This is done in your mind as opposed to an instrument orally?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:23:03 Yes. I have a piano. I do use the keyboard sometimes, and it depends on the piece. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. If you do a spectral piece, it doesn’t help you at all. If you do tonal pieces, it’s also sometimes not necessarily. If the harmonies are clear, then it’s not so necessary to play it on the piano. My piano skills are limited. I can play a little bit, but I’m not good at score reading or playing on the keyboard. There are sometimes, and there are some occasions where I used the piano. I had to conduct a piece by Heinz Honniger, an early piece by him for ensemble and singer, and it not 12 tone, but it’s still in that tradition and sometimes really had a hard time to get my inner ear to understand what’s going on really. So I needed the piano for that, to get a better idea. It’s mostly done just on my table and with a score reading, preparation like that.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:24:28 That’s the first part. And then, of course, there is also the whole questions of the gestures to use. This is another thing, what is the most efficient to communicate with the ensemble or the orchestra, which is clear and if required as expressive enough. That is something that I need to practice.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:24:59 Has conducting given you more in-depth insight into the music that then helps your saxophone performance?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:25:05 I think it was a motivation to think deeper about music too. I felt like when I played saxophone repertoire, of course, it depends on the repertoire, but when I played sonatas with piano, of course, I knew somehow what the piano is doing, but only somehow – some pieces better than others. But I felt I never really studied the piano score as, as precisely as I would do it now as a conductor. I like to know what’s going on in the orchestra or the different parts and together really. To have a deeper or a stronger idea about the piece, about the structures, about the form.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:26:01 I think this also influenced my saxophone playing and even my teaching.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:26:11 Now. I am going to backtrack a little bit about teaching because we established this little parallel through or teachers. Is your education of your students now based on the work that you did with your teachers or have you developed a new direction?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:26:31 I assume there are things that I do in my teaching unconsciously that are influenced by my former teachers. But I’m maybe not aware of it always. Well, some things are just like repertoire. Some repertoire that I did as a young student is still kind of on my list, on top that I feel that students only need to do that. I’m not thinking so much about it if it’s essential or if there could be other pieces. Sometimes I do. I guess there are some things I take from my former teachers. Other things, I think it’s normal that you get a lot of different ideas from your teachers, different approaches and then you find your style. You take, I’d say the best which is maybe not the right word to try to find your style. Perhaps in choosing the most convincing things from your different teachers and make it your own. Perhaps not everything that worked for your former teacher works for yourself. So it’s a process. I’m thinking so much about that, like thinking about what is my way of teaching. Maybe I should.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:28:28 Maybe we teach how we are.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:28:30 When you asked me before about my first teacher Marcus, and I felt like he didn’t have this very strong systematic approach to teaching, and I think I’m quite similar in a way. I try to take every student differently and see what he or she needs most. There are some things when we talk about a technique that needs to be done, but also some students come with already like very high-level skills on that. It’s not necessarily to go through the whole program again, and you can focus on other things. For some students is maybe more important to open up their musical horizons, to explore new repertoire that they didn’t do with their previous teachers or the country from where they came. I have students from all over the world, and I would say they come from a very different background. Also, I don’t see my job to unify them put my stamp on every one of my students so that people would recognise when somebody plays. Oh, he sounds like a Lars, and I don’t want that. I think that will be terrible for me. I would not appreciate that very much.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:30:15 Would you say your musical career has developed through a plan or has it developed more organically?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:30:24 There was no plan. There were some maybe ideas I had. There were some things I had in mind that I wanted to do maybe or achieve. And teaching is one of them. So I always felt that one day I would like to be able to pass on some of the things that I learned or that I believe in, I love to students. The performing career, there was no plan for that either. I was not particularly interested in doing competitions, as a student. So competitions, were not for me like I would say they were not for my career planning something that I wanted to include in what I did, so it just had to work differently somehow.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:31:32 I was from the very beginning interested in collaborating with composers, and that’s what I did as a student a lot, and later on I always found that much more interesting than to study some of our repertoire on and on, in order to possibly succeed in one of the competitions. Maybe that would help me to achieve something else, that was not really what I was interested in. So, the teaching part came along very early somewhat unexpectedly. I was lucky to get this teaching job at a university in Vienna, their conservatory when I was 26 or 27. From the very beginning, I had students who were a bit older than me, and it was not strange, but an unexpected situation, but I loved the possibility that I got to build up a saxophone class there. There was no classical saxophone class, so it was something I could build up from scratch and try out things. I hope my former students are not listening, but there was a lot of trial and error also. There was something I had to, and I had to experience. I had to try things and see how high it goes. I was lucky to get that opportunity, and it was always a vital part of my life as a musician, the teaching part. At the moment I wouldn’t think about stopping, I like teaching.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:33:34 It seems like leaving Vienna was a difficult decision because you overlapped jobs for a little while. It must have been crazy working two jobs, but was it difficult to move on?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:33:52 Well, let’s say first that Vienna, of course, in a great city, especially for music. It has a long tradition as we know. A tradition can also be a bit hindering. It can be a bit strong and way too complicated to move on, to try new things. It’s a lovely city in which to live. At first, I couldn’t imagine going back to Switzerland, to live in Switzerland, my home country. Then when the professorship in Zurich, at the University of the Arts, came up, some people asked me would you apply. I don’t think so. No, no, I don’t want to go back to Switzerland. But then thinking about it, I was like, why not. The school has just moved to a new building, with fantastic facilities and I thought, okay, give it a try.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:34:57 It’s always entertaining to go through that process again. To apply, to go through hearings and you have to play again, you have to teach in front of a jury, you have to interview, and it’s always something. Nerve-wracking and exciting. So I did it, and when I got the job, I was delighted of course. And then, but also I thought, so how can I do both, how will I do that? I started in Zurich. I had to reduce a little bit my contract in, and I did both for three years, a bit more than three years, but at some point, I realised that it is not going to work out. I could have done it probably if my teaching would consist of just giving lessons and maybe that’s it so that then it would work, but there’s a lot more than that.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:36:05 So all the projects that are like to do with students, chamber music, ensemble, interdisciplinary projects, they take a lot of time. They require you to be there in person. And to do that at two places basically at the same time is not possible. So I was getting a little bit frustrated. I felt like I’m now in two places, but can I do my thing at either one? So= I realised at some point that I had to make a decision. So I did, and I decided to stop in Vienna because I felt Zurich offers more possibilities for students and teachers. Also, it’s nicely located in Europe. It’s maybe even a bit more convenient than Vienna to travel. You can take the train to Paris. It’s the centre of Europe, even though Switzerland is not part of the European Union, but it’s still in Europe. Also, my parents live, not in Zurich but not far and it’s a good feeling to be closer to them again. They’re also getting older – they’re no old! It was the right decision. And finally, I could just put all of my energy into my job and the work I do in Zurich.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:37:48 So you’ve gone full circle, you went as far away as possible, and you’ve come back as close as possible.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:37:54 I never expected. Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:37:58 Now you mentioned composers. You’ve premiered a lot of works, you’ve worked with composers. How important is it for a performer and a composer to collaborate?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:38:10 Well, speaking of my experience, I’ve had different experiences. Sometimes it happened that a composer would write a piece for me and there would not be any, let’s say communication was happening before. No back and forth or any exchange of ideas. So just one day in the mail, you receive this new score, the piece dedicated to you and you’re like nice.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:38:43 And it’s free.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:38:45 Exactly.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:38:47 So it can work, and it can also be really like a pleasant surprise because you probably really don’t know what you will get, what to expect. So it’s kind of a like a child opening the thing, what’s it going to be like? Whereas when there is a real collaboration happening before, it’s probably the outcome is less of a surprise, but I like the idea very much to exchange thoughts about music, about the aesthetics, with composers. I’m not saying that I want to influence them on what they write. Sometimes it happens because you have this kind of session where you meet, and they compose, maybe asked you to play something like this or something like that. They are looking for some sounds or possibilities of extended techniques, how to overlap specific extended techniques. That way, it can become a very kind of personal piece which sometimes results in the challenge of how to write, how to notate it, how to write it down, especially if things happened through improvisation. And then they’re like, yes, exactly like that. What did I just do? I think we all know this is a process like you do something kind and it sounds great. Then how would that look on paper for somebody else also to understand what to do? Even for yourself, to reproduce it. It can be very tricky. This happened a couple of times.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:40:51 There was one experience I had with the Austrian composer Bernhard Lang who is one of the big names in Austria. He wrote this series of pieces called DW – Differenz/Wiederholung. This piece he wrote for me, is it like a concerto called DW 24 “Loops for Al Jourgensen”. For that piece, there were, a lot of sessions we had together. A lot of a tryout and improvisation and then getting to the point of yes, so how, how shall I write it? And especially the cadenza in this piece is a quite like this kind of left and right-hand independence patterns and then overblowing, and kind of the tonguing is also a not synchronised with the fingers, etc. So it’s this, superposing with different actions and the result can also never be 100 percent predictable. It’s always something you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. We tried somehow to find a way to write it down that also somebody else would understand.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:42:26 Sometimes of course nowadays it helps also when you have a recording. Maybe of the saxophonist who premiered the piece or who knew, let’s say, what to do to get the results. When you listen to that, you can probably get a better idea of what to do.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:42:50 is there a piece of advice you could give to people that enables us to have a long and healthy performing career?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:43:02 It’s a tricky question, especially if you’re asking me because I think most people know about my focal dystonia that I suffered from already for many years. It started in, it’s always hard to tell when, when the onset was, but I guess it started already in 2004 or maybe 2005. I realised there was something strange in my fingers like I felt like I didn’t have 100 percent control above my left hand – the pinky. Of course, would I did, probably what almost everybody would do is practice more.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:43:51 That’s the first thing we usually think it’s a lack of practice or maybe a wrong way or so we just tried to analyse it a bit, for yourself and try to find out what do we have to do differently in order to make it work again. Then spend hours and hours and hours. It’s not only the physical work, but your mind is starting to focus on that particular thing so much that you almost get obsessed with it. It’s something hard to accept that we don’t have full control of our body movements. Because we have something clear ordinarily clear in our mind what we want to get and then the body doesn’t do it. So there was a challenging situation for me, and it took probably two years to get diagnosed about this unpleasant thing called focal dystonia.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:45:01 It was good because it had a name. Finally, okay, I have something. It’s something. It’s not just me let’s say, but there’s something not normal, it is something that is perhaps not my fault. That was the positive thing, that thing had a name. Then, on the other hand, the not so good news was, my doctors, told me that there’s nothing really to cure it or there’s no real therapy for that. This was not so nice to hear. They said in rare cases, and it disappears, etc. You should do more sports, you should do this and that, it can help, but we don’t know. That started in 2006 when I had the diagnosis, and then there was the option to go through a retraining program, it’s a neurological thing, dystonia, it’s not a physical thing. It’s your muscles getting wrong information or maybe two different bits of information at the same time. So it’s cramping, or it just does weird stuff, and it’s something tough to understand, why is that happening?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:46:47 The retraining is trying to reprogram your brain for those movements. But that means you have to do the movement slightly differently. Otherwise, you always fall back into the old pattern. That can be a very long process. They tell you, you cannot play concerts anymore. You have to play super slowly, like a beginner, but much slower, like really slow. I thought about this idea, and no, I can’t do it, especially if nobody can guarantee you that it will work now. I think if we knew that, okay, you have to go through this a three year or even four-year process and then at the end of the journey you will be able to play again as before or even better. Then maybe more people would do it. I was not ready for that, and I felt like a to invest so much energy and time for something where the outcome is so unsure. I haven’t heard of any cases where it was successful.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:48:04 So I thought, no, I have to somehow focus on something. I have to get my mind on concentrating on something else other than on that actual problem. During that time I studied arts management. I wanted to get in touch with people from outside the music world. I was always interested in interdisciplinary projects or collaborations. In that program there were people, philosophers, architects, there were other musicians, musicologists, lawyers. It was a very mixed group of people, and it was interesting to talk, to meet with them and to get some fresh ideas about life in general. I felt like it helped me as a bit to shift the focus and I still kept playing. I took medicine, a Parkinson medicine but they don’t use it for Parkinson’s disease anymore. That’s the only real thing they offer you primarily for dystonia. That’s what I did. And I tried some botox therapy.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:49:47 You’re looking great.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:49:48 Thank you very much. So, and unfortunately, it didn’t help that much. It’s not very predictable. It’s not reliable let’s say. Every time it can be different, and it’s difficult to deal with that uncertainty. Also, the other medicine has a lot of side effects. You don’t feel you’re yourself, and you don’t feel your own body anymore. Still, I did that for three, four years, I think, on and off. I wanted to keep playing. I wanted to perform, and I did it. There was one moment, I got this invitation to play a solo performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, with a very classical standard program and now realised that no, I couldn’t do it. Maybe I could do it, but it’s more to prove to myself that I can do it, that I could go on stage, I can play that repertoire. But I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it because I was, a lot of the focus of my focus would be on surviving, and I realised that’s not what music is about.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:51:16 That was the first time I cancelled a rather big concert, but I felt that I didn’t want to go through that. After that, it was much easier to cancel a lot of things and to reduce activity a lot. Then I realised that the conducting part, as I said before, it was always there. I understood that I still wanted to make music, I wanted to be onstage. I need to work with other musicians. It was a natural thing to pick up the baton, although I mostly do without, to get back on that journey. It was also already before in 2008 and 2009. I took lessons with a conductor that I admire a lot. I worked a lot with him as a saxophone player, Emilio Pomarico, who was at that time teaching in Milan at the school that Claudio Abbado founded. I went to Milan maybe once a month to study conducting, that was privately. And then only recently I did some more conducting studies, with a Spanish conductor who many years ago he was teaching in Freiburg in Germany, new music and conducting. He is a very experienced conductor and a good teacher. So I felt like I still want to, you know, I did a lot by just doing it, but I felt like I need somebody again who’s just watching me and telling me what are you doing and then trying to improve. That’s what I did, and now I’m very happy and lucky that I get to conduct, I get to be on stage, I get to share music.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:53:32 I still play the saxophone sometimes in the lessons when I feel it can help the students to understand something better. But it’s mostly with the contemporary repertoire, when there may be some playing techniques, that are some multiphonics that are not always so clear who it should sound? Then, I’m trying to help, and most of the time it works. All the reflexes are still there. I have a clear idea about the sound to should come out, so it works most of the time. But, there’s a shift. There’s a shift that happened in my career as a musician. Your question was advice for a long and healthy career. And I think dystonia is, unfortunately, one thing that until now it’s not so clear. What are the reasons, what are the triggers for it, why does it happen? Otherwise, they could be better prevention happening already in the universities or even before. They say there has to be some genetic disposition and some other triggers, but it’s not so clear. So it’s hard to prevent it if you don’t know why it happens.
Lars Mlekusch: 00:55:17 So I guess things can happen. Others can be prevented. Of course, we know that when we practice, we should take rests, shorter rests, maybe more frequently longer rests. Relax the body and the mind not to spend four or five hours nonstop in the practice room. This can cause some problems later. For myself, I did start doing more sports. I feel better now. I feel more comfortable. It’s something essential for me to that I discovered. Some balance to the work that we mostly do with our mind and to a certain degree also physically. Sport became a vital thing without being obsessed with it. It’s just something I like to do now.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:56:31 How important is improvising to you as a musician?
Lars Mlekusch: 00:56:37 As I said, when I was young, I was also experimenting a little bit with jazz music. So I was improvising in the genre, I think not very well, but I tried it, and I always liked it. I loved this kind of freedom in a way, to give music very personal possibilities to bring in your personality. Whereas when we perform a written piece, in classical repertoire also in contemporary music, let’s say the degree of interpretation is limited. So we try to play the score and parts as precise as possible and to understand what the composer wants to try to help the piece sound the way the composer intended it to be. So I guess there is a limitation for the performer, to bring in his or her idea and approach and language also. And so I think in improvisation, takes a much bigger place and space too. There was a time I improvised quite a lot also with my duo with saxophone and electronics. We also had an improvisation group various instruments, cello, percussion and piano. We met, we had the rehearsals or sessions, and I always enjoyed that very much. I think it’s something significant that should be for every musician an experience to try at least. Sometimes I’m surprised that for many classical musicians it’s something challenging to do. To get to suddenly decide on what to play or much more than playing a composition or written piece. To take responsibility to play this note or that sound or this sound is tough for many people. I find that a pity. I hope also that in education, that not only on conservatory or university level, but also before, that improvisation would be more important then maybe it is now. So for me personally, it’s a very important thing.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:59:58 It is fascinating that in early schooling, the focus is all on creativity. Kids create. And it’s often before they get to music and by the time they get to the music, the creative stuff, they don’t do that anymore. Not that they can’t, but it’s not part of their curriculum. For me a little tragic because I love that creativity that small children have. If that could flow into the beginnings, that would be amazing. But I can’t help think back, maybe we have to go back centuries, but music creation was done through a process of improvisation and then later notated or just played live, especially in piano. And I feel a bit that we’ve lost that. And I like this performer/composer thing, of course. One person can have both insights at the same time, and it starts through a process of improvisation. Like you, I hope that it can be more integrated. I think part of the difficulty is in an academic setting is the question of assessment. Perhaps that’s why it’s left out because it’s too hard to assess, to hard to judge. It needs to be quantified and we can’t. So let’s leave it.
Lars Mlekusch: 01:01:30 It’s easier that way. I agree.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:01:35 Now I’ve got a few rapid fire questions. You can keep your answer to under 25 minutes per question… Is there something that you believe that few people agree with?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:01:56 [Laughter] Can we come back to that question later?
Barry Cockcroft: 01:02:09 If you just had one piece of music that you could play forever, nothing else, what would that be?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:02:17 [Laughter] I don’t like these questions. To choose one piece, that is terrible. You make me nervous, now Barry. Those are the hardest. Okay, go ahead.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:02:30 Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:02:35 [Laughter] Is time up? All of my former teachers, I think they all did something, contributed to new repertoire and new approaches, new insights, new ideas, and then many others. I don’t want to. I don’t know.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:02:59 Who wrote these questions they’re terrible. If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:03:09 Of course. Very important, very, very important. I think the fear of mistakes is also something unhealthy. We talked about a healthy life as a musician. Of course, there’s probably a limit on how many mistakes are kind of okay to still recognise a piece, but this can create anxiety also, etc. But it’s important to make mistakes and to learn from them. And improvisation, of course. It’s also one tool of that because there may be no mistakes. Some things maybe came out, let’s say more successfully than perhaps something else. But, but there’s always something good to find in whatever you did. And I think that’s a definite yes.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:04:04 But before you walk onto the stage, what do you do that ensures that you are performing at your best?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:04:13 Nothing ensures that I’m performing my best. I don’t have rituals. It’s not a secret, and I try as probably everybody else to be as well prepared as possible, to know the part of the score as well as possible, to be as confident as I can about what I do. To try to stay positive, thinking about a positive thing at that moment and not about the fear of making mistakes because I will make them for sure, but I shouldn’t be afraid of it.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:04:58 With hindsight, is there a piece of advice you could give to your younger self starting out on your career that you could send back?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:05:10 Yes, maybe, yes. Enjoy the moment. I think there was probably a period in my life, and still, that happens sometimes, that I thought too much about the future, about the next thing’s happening and coming up and not so much living in the moment and enjoying the moment, whatever it is. Whatever I do whether that is being onstage or being in a classroom or enjoying this talk with you and I am. That’s definitely something. I could have some more enjoyable hours in my life if ‘myself’ would have told me that earlier.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:06:03 I started an experiment in the last couple of years which was very difficult to do. It’s very anti-musician, but It was to have nothing coming up. It’s almost a musician’s fear. I don’t have, and I don’t have an engagement. I’ve got nothing to do. What, what’s my purpose if I have nothing to do? But it was an experience I wanted to feel – what’s it like to have nothing to do? And then you can ask yourself the question, well, what’s my purpose? And I don’t think you can really either ask or answer that question without being in that state. I have done it a number of times now where I have nothing coming up, and it’s an incredibly liberating feeling because then you have to ask yourself about music, do I want to get my instrument out, do I want to? And the answer invariably is absolutely. And you do. You are only playing music then for music sake. Not as a student where you’re trying to get better, not as professional way preparing for your next engagement, but you’re just playing music. I don’t want to stay in that state forever, and I want some something coming up. But I think it’s refreshing as well, and it gives you a chance to cleanse and reset and do all sorts of things. It’s almost like one of those detox states. You get all the pieces out, and you’re just free for, and then you start again.
Lars Mlekusch: 01:07:37 How did you achieve that? How do you do it?
Barry Cockcroft: 01:07:40 Well, it’s really easy. I’m just not very popular.
Lars Mlekusch: 01:07:45 [Laughter] That’s so wrong.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:07:51 What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the saxophone world and what are some of the things that might have surprised you that have stayed the same?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:07:59 One thing is that because of the way people are connected nowadays throughout the world, through different media and social media, youtube and everything like knowing what’s going on. I feel the gap between European saxophone repertoire and American or Australian repertoire is smaller. We know more about what others are doing, and maybe there’s more exchange also of repertoire nowadays. There can still be more done in that direction, but that’s something positive. I also like to see how people are connected and I think this is already much more the case than when I was a student when I went to Chicago to study. I felt like for me this whole American repertoire was something new. Back then like Albright and Maslanka and Holcombe and this was all stuff I didn’t know before. So that’s good, that’s great. I think there’s a more interaction happening.
Lars Mlekusch: 01:09:25 Something that stays the same that is surprising, I don’t know. Maybe there are still surprisingly many saxophone players that don’t have a clear artistic idea about what they want to do in their life or as a musician or as a saxophonist. I feel like they study, most of them are still students. So they studied the repertoire that they’ve been told to study. Some of them are great players, but I feel that often there’s a lack of artistic mission or a clear idea, but what can they do, what they want to do with their skills on the saxophone or generally as a musician. I find it a pity to see sometimes that some of those good and strong young players and maybe some even won some of the big competitions, they, some of them disappear from the screen. I don’t know what they do now. Maybe there’s happy with what they do and good at what they do, but it feels like a lack of or artistic vision.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:10:53 Is there something you’ve been working on lately that you would like to share?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:10:57 Not in public!
Barry Cockcroft: 01:11:01 [Laughter] It’s alright, there is no video here… some new tattoos… Where can people find more about your activities? Not those kinds of activities.
Lars Mlekusch: 01:11:14 I am trying to reduce my social media activity. I’m still on facebook, but I’m less active now than I used to be.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:11:23 Can I ask why?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:11:24 Yeah. Timewise I want to spend less time on that media. I feel like I have plenty of things to do for myself. And again, maybe there’s a time that I want to focus more on myself, what I do, what I feel like I need to do and less about like I’m sharing what I do with others or looking at what they do. Sometimes I do, but that’s the primary motivation. I think when there’s something super important, I post it. Don’t worry. It will be there.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:12:12 It was probably a few years ago, but I live a notification free lifestyle. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I found that if you turn off notifications, and you choose when you look, it changes your day. You’re not interrupted for one. Making a choice is a powerful thing as opposed to having something essentially forced upon you. So I turned off all notifications, and it’s incredibly frustrating for people who want to contact me because I don’t respond. Not because I don’t want to respond because I haven’t read the message and cut down all sorts of things. I would start batch processing things, responding to emails in a session as opposed to instantly. And I know people expect instant responses now, but I think there’s an unhealthy aspect to that, especially when you’re practising. You’ve got to stay in the moment for hours sometimes, with small breaks. The constant interruption, I couldn’t do it. I have tried occasionally at an event like we’re at here at the World Saxophone Congress where I need to be contactable right at this moment, and it’s been really strange having my phone dinging again, and looking down as is everyone else. I don’t like it. It’s useful at the moment, but not to live every day. So hopefully, after the world saxophone congress, if you don’t hear from me for a while…
Barry Cockcroft: 01:13:55 Finally you’ve made an incredible contribution to music. What do you see for yourself over the next 10 or 20 years?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:14:06 This new path with conducting stone, is something I like to get more experience and explore new repertoire. There are some dreams to conduct one of the Mahler symphonies with an excellent orchestra, but there are some things I hope to be able to do in the future. But the most important is to keep like sharing the love I have for music and the passion, whether it’s through teaching or being on stage. That’s something that hopefully will go on. Other than that I’m quite happy.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:14:56 Now I haven’t forgotten. You did say, could I come back to this? So is there something that you believe that few people agree with that?
Lars Mlekusch: 01:15:11 I’ll write to you on facebook when I come up with something, but you may not read it.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:15:17 The question I ask about who has been a big contributor to the saxophone. Your name comes up when I ask people this question. So you’re making a big impact on the people that you meet, and I’d like to thank you for the time to talk with me today, and I wish you the best of your concerts coming up in the next few days.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:15:36 Thank you so much, and you’re a big contributor as well, thank you.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:15:41 Thanks Lars, that’s great.
Lars Mlekusch: 01:15:42 Thank you, a pleasure.