Emma Haughton, Woowind Multi-Instrumentalist

Emma is a multi-instrumentalist freelance woodwind musician, conductor, and teacher based in the North West of England. She completed an Advanced Post Graduate Diploma from the Royal Northern College of Music in Solo Performance. Prior to her studies at RNCM she was awarded a Distinction for her Master’s degree from Liverpool Hope University. Emma has performed as a guest soloist with many prestigious ensembles including the King’s Division Army Band, the Royal Northern College of Music Brand New Day Orchestra, and gave the UK Premiere of Stephen Pratt’s ‘Solo Uno’ in the Cornerstone Arts Festival in 2017. Emma works with a variety of session orchestras, musical theatre orchestras, and as a chamber musician. Emma is currently a proud recipient of the prestigious TECHNE scholarship for her PhD studies in female symphonists of the twentieth century and beyond, studying at Kingston University. She hopes to write a book about this subject matter upon completion of her PhD.

You can follow Emma on Instagram and stay up to date with all her exciting musical work here.

I’ve long been curious about the lives of multi-instrumentalist woodwind players and how on earth they balance all their many instruments within their performing life, and how this might affect their relationship to them. As someone who spends nearly all their time with just the one instrument, it was eye-opening to hear from Emma about how she views herself as a performer, and also the different things she requires from her different instruments in a hugely busy and diverse career. I had so much fun talking to Emma, and would like to offer her a huge thank-you for taking the time to chat all things woodwind with me!

Interview

Holly Redshaw:  I feel like I should start by asking, how many instruments do you play in your performing life as a professional doubler? Or tripler, or quadrupler even!

Emma Haughton:  It depends! I’m very much a flute-clarinet-sax player most of the time, but I can play all of the saxes (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone), both the flute and piccolo, and all of the clarinets (including E-flat and bass clarinet), so I generally sell myself as a professional tripler. There are some insane wind players who can quadruple and do all the double reed stuff too, but I had a point in my career about six years ago where I thought, I simply don’t have the time to learn a double reed instrument as well – I’m just going to stick to these three, plus the auxiliary ones around them, and go from there. 

HR:  So when someone asks you, “What instrument do you play?”, how do you describe yourself as an instrumentalist? Would you say, “I’m a clarinettist, but I also play all these other instruments”; or would you say, “I’m a professional tripler” ?

EH:I think over the last decade, and especially over the last few years, I’ve definitely said, “First study is the clarinet, but I do a lot of musical theatre stuff, which is tripling.”  I very much introduce myself as a professional clarinettist first. 

HR: The term ‘principal instrument’ is also probably quite outdated now, as it’s a bit of a ‘music college’ sort of thing, but would you say clarinet is your principal instrument? Or do you consider any of your other instruments as your ‘principal’, too?

EH:The clarinet is definitely my principal instrument, as that’s the one I’ve spent the most time with. If I’m booked to do chamber stuff it will be on clarinet, and if I’m asked to do any recording work, it will be on clarinet. 

HR: I’m guessing that’s the instrument you started on when you first started studying music as a child, then?

EH: Well, actually I did some violin when I was in year two, but I quit two years later because I was crap!

HR: Does the clarinet you currently own have a history or a biography you can tell me about? Where you got it, what make it is, and what led to you choosing and owning it?

EH: This is a really good question because my first clarinet teacher is actually one of the country’s best clarinet builders and modifiers! He’s got his own system of either making clarinets or custom designing them, and he’s got his own method for fixing clarinets. He used to work in the LeBlanc factory in France, so he saw everything that he believed they were doing wrong and thought, “I’m going to do this better.” He worked on that over about 20 years, basically designing ways of making the clarinet better. 

I used to play on a little Buffet that he fixed up, but it got to a point that we all get to eventually, often at the end of our undergraduate life or when we’ve just graduated, thinking, “Now’s the time, I need a big upgrade.” He had a few (clarinets) in his shop that he was working on and said, “Why don’t you try this one now, and then let me fix a few other bits on it, remake the pads, redo the silver work and reseal it”, all that kind of stuff. He ended up making this absolutely beautiful clarinet that I love playing. The tube itself is from an old LeBlanc clarinet, and I’ve got a custom barrel and a very fancy custom mouthpiece. There was a long period of trying things out, different setups and stuff like that, but now my setup has got to a point where the sound is really great – it’s consistent across the board and it’s just the right level of resistance. I think if there’s no resistance, then you’re just flying around the notes too much, and it becomes too much like hard work. So it doesn’t feel like hard work to me.

HR: How did you come to play the flute and the saxophone after starting on the clarinet?

EH: When I was in school, it was more just out of intrigue. Kids will often by default be like, “I want to try this, and I want to try this, and this other thing!” Someone had set up a little jazz group in school and I thought, “Well, I’ll just try that”. There was also a church group, and they would want to take a few of us down to play some hymns to some of the masses, but obviously all of it was in C, and the clarinet plays in B-flat. I thought, “Well, I don’t want to transpose them. I’m just going to give the flute a little go.” I realised that I could get my way around it, and when I got to uni I also got some sax lessons, and a few flute lessons as well. I then just threw myself in at the deep end and was like, “Right, I’m just going to try some of these in am-dram and musical theatre things,” just to learn my way around them. Then I just played a lot of scales and practised a lot!

HR:  Staying with the other instruments that you own, your ‘secondary instruments’; do they have a history or biography relating to how you got them? Did you own your own flute and saxophone before you went to university, or were they borrowed?

EH: By the time I went to university I was working with the music service, so I used to borrow one of the really good flutes they had. The thing about the saxophone was that there were only very particular things I needed to use a sax for. As long as you’ve got a good enough mouthpiece for the type of thing you need to do, then it doesn’t always matter if the instrument isn’t worth, like, £5000, so I just acquired good mouthpieces for all of them and that really helped. 

I actually recently bought a new flute (a Pearl) back in May. The one I had previously I got secondhand, just because I was like, “Oh, this will do!” But it was a pretty decent secondhand, actually, that I just happened to get for a good price. That was my ‘old reliable’, but it got to May of this year and I thought, “Now’s the time for an upgrade.” I went to ‘???’ over in Leeds and said, “I’m a tripler, and today is flute day!”, and I tried about 20 flutes. The lady in the shop let me try some that were worth about £2000 more than what I ended up paying. I settled on the one I chose because it was perfect for what I needed it for, which is that it is consistent across the tones, has really quick finger work, and is really free and easy to blow; as a tripler, you need to know that you can just pick it up and it’s going to work and sound really good straight away, which is perfect.

HR: I actually have a dark history as a flute player, though I’m no good anymore. I still teach it, but when I work with musicians for whom it’s their first instrument (while I haven’t had a proper lesson since I was 18), I just hear myself in comparison and am mortified!

I think I tried to do a C major scale recently and I got all the way up to like a B and could not remember what the fingering for a top C is. I just stood there and was like, “Well, that’s gone.” I didn’t even bother trying to look it up. I just went, oh, I don’t know it, bye.

EH: The annoying thing is when you get a little Grade One student being like, “What’s the highest note on the flute?” Like, if you’re not in a top C mood, then you’re not gonna know, kid! 

HR:  It’s none of your business, play your scales!

Was the clarinet always going to be your principal instrument? Was there a moment where you had to decide? I had a moment where I’d started on flute and then bassoon became my principal instrument, and that largely happened accidentally and fairly organically. But there was still a point where I had to explicitly think, “I commit to this, bassoon is my main instrument.” Was there a moment like that for you where your instruments maybe had a similar level of commitment and you had to choose one? 

EH: I think because the clarinet had always been my main instrument in school and then was my first study at uni, it was always the main priority in my life. I did do a lot of singing at uni as well – I had loads of singing lessons. There was a point in my second year of university where I really did stop and think, do I want to focus on singing? Or do I want to focus on clarinet and reed playing? And then I thought, let’s just have a think about the career path of singers versus reed players, or clarinets. I realised that I do not want to enter singing as a profession, because it’s not for the faint hearted. I’m pretty strong headed, but I think deciding to take the singing career path is quite scary. I knew that was not something that I wanted to do. 

HR:  When you made that decision to pursue life as a woodwind player, did your relationship to your clarinet and your other instruments change at all?

EH: I think I think it made me focus a bit more, and it definitely made me think about what I wanted to achieve and how I needed to do that. I remember going into my first year of my first master’s at uni and thinking, “I’ve manifested this. So what do I need to do?” I literally had these A3  pieces of manuscript paper I used to always stick on the practice room of all the scales for all of my instruments I needed to learn. It was a moment of,  “I guess if I want to get good, you’ll need to practise your scales, kid!” So it definitely made me focus more, which was incredibly helpful.

HR: Thinking firstly about your clarinet, can you describe three key or memorable moments with your instrument? 

EH: In terms of just good memories that I’ve got with the instrument?

HR: They can be any memories, they don’t even need to be good! Some people have described a memorable performance or the moment they bought it, or I’ve even had someone say the moment they broke their instrument; obviously, that was very memorable!

EH: Yeah, we’ve been there. Oh, my god, I broke so many. I think some of the most memorable things that I’ve done are times in my life where I’ve thought, “I can do this.” Those reaffirming moments, because we’re all our own biggest critics. It wasn’t easy a lot of the time, because I had so many technique changes in quite a small amount of time. I got to uni and my teacher there recommended I play double lip for three, four years, which did help settle some embouchure stuff, but then my next teacher was like, “Hm, not sure.” Then I got to the Northern where they said, “You have to change this again.” So there were a lot of technique changes in a very, very concentrated amount of time, during what are quite formative years in your life. And there wasn’t resistance from me; god, I wrote up every lesson and I tried my damn best, but in hindsight it still takes a long time for the technique to settle. So I think some of the moments in my life that are most memorable are the times that I’ve felt validated. 

I was asked to perform in a contemporary festival a few years ago, which was really cool, and I curated a really cool program. I was really proud of myself  – I based it around a Schoernberg essay and picked out pieces of music from over the last couple of hundred years that link to this essay, and I had some spoken word stuff in the programme, too. I was really proud of that, and really proud of how I played as well, because I knew at that point that actually, performance can have artistic liberty. I played a piece by Elliott Carter when I was at the Northern and they were like, “Oh, no, you have to make sure this is in time, and you must make sure this is just so, blah, blah, blah.” But then I thought, “I’m going to try this bit a little more free.” And a composer came up to me at the end and said, “That was the most musical I’ve ever heard that piece played.” I thought, ah! We can have artistic liberty as performers! 

My first professional musical that I got booked for was a beautiful musical that will always stay with me for the rest of my life. And that part was really hard! But actually, it came together. The musical was called ‘Parade’, and it was a real honour to be a part of because the music is beautiful. It’s a very cleverly constructed musical, and it’s very sad. It’s all based on a true story. It was just beautiful, and a real privilege to be a part of.

There’s so many… but I think in a week’s time, funnily enough, I’ll choose the musical I’m doing at the moment, ‘Cinderella’, because this part is frigging hard! It’s basically been arranged in a way by taking a 50 piece orchestration, reducing it at the computer and not quite thinking about the fact that there are human beings that will need to play it. So in a week’s time, when I have really settled and I’m not nervous about all these millions of notes, I would like to choose the flute pad that I did for ‘Cinderella’. 

HR:  I’m particularly interested to hear your answer to this question as your instrument was custom made for you; can you pinpoint a  moment where you felt fully connected to your instrument for the first time?

EH: It took a while to get used to my clarinet because it was a completely different beast from what I was playing on before. I heard a recording of myself from about a week into having my clarinet and it’s very much a ‘new person, new shoes’ kind of thing. It’s like that feeling of not quite knowing how to walk in them. 

I guess it was more of an organic process, but there was definitely a connection when I got a new barrel, because there’s only been a couple that have ever been made, and the man who made my clarinet just happened to have them in his shop. He said, “I think we should try this. I think this is going to make a huge difference.” And I took it away thinking, “Oh, it’s really expensive, please don’t make a difference!” Then I got home, and it made a difference. I was like, “Oh, bollocks, I’m going to have to buy it now!” But I think it was at that point that I really connected to my clarinet, because finding that barrel just connected everything together. 

There wasn’t necessarily a piece I was learning at the time that helped connect everything. At the same time that this was happening, the post-pandemic world was hard on all of us, and we didn’t really know what the hell was going to happen. But I was learning a piece by Elizabeth Maconchy, who had lessons from Vaughan-Williams, and I did well-up around this time because I found that he wrote this lovely letter to Maconchy that just said, “Just keep going. I know how you’re feeling, just keep going.” And I did, and I think all of those little things around that time coming together was really serendipitous and just really lovely.

HR:  Can you choose three words to describe your clarinet in particular?

EH: Resonant. Free. And mine. Do you know what I mean? It’s mine. I feel quite emotional, really, because I just know it, and I know what’s going to happen when I pick it up, and I trust it.  I think that’s actually really important when it comes to having an instrument, you need to be able to trust it.

HR:  I love that you’ve chosen that word, ‘mine’, because this question is one of the few that I’ve kept from when this was just part of my master’s dissertation. Originally I had to ask the same set of questions for everyone so that you gather data properly, and that was the word that came back the most from interviewees – mine. 

I was really surprised that people were so… possessive is not the right word. But they had such an intimate feeling with their instruments. 

And do you have just one word for each of your other instruments, if you had to sum them up?

EH: Saxophone: fun. And that’s just including all of them, but my favourite saxophone is probably the soprano saxophone. That’s probably because it’s the most like the clarinet, but I think all of them are fun. 

The flute is more systematic and makes more sense [than the clarinet] sometimes. I don’t know if you can find a word within that. It’s quite nice being a flautist sometimes, getting to be a diva and flying up very high and stuff like that!

HR:  That’s really nice. The ‘diva’ thing has come up previously but I’ve not had anyone say ‘systematic’ in regard to the flute to me yet.

EH: Oh, god, it just makes so much more sense than the clarinet. I love the clarinet, but to me the flute is all very linear. Everything makes sense, even the high notes – they have slightly more weird fingerings but they all make sense within the context of where they are. The clarinet doesn’t!

HR:  If you had to describe your clarinet as if it was a person or a character, how would you describe it?

EH: It has gone through quite a few iterations, so because it’s got a couple of barrels, it’s got its own customisations, I would have to just describe it as unique. It’s really unique, it’s an individual. 

HR:  If you had to think of it as having  a defining personality trait or characteristic, how do you think you would describe it, as if it were a human being?

EH: This is quite funny because I think this is probably how some people would describe me, but it very much just ‘goes for it’. And it really goes for it, but can understand what’s needed within the context.

HR: Do you feel like it’s quite similar to you?  

EH: I’d never thought about it like that before. That’s really funny!

HR: So, these qualities that you associate with your instrument;  it being resonant, being free, being really unique – do you find that they become present or aid you during performance?

EH: I think especially with the flute, yes, because I was buying it for a very particular purpose, I was buying it for the purpose of being a tripler. I tried some other flutes that were worth about two grand more than I paid in the end, but I said to the lady in the shop, I don’t actually need a flute of this quality, because this is a flute for like, the principal flautist of the LPO or something, or people who are performing flute concertos all the time. That beast of an instrument is not what I need, and it’s the same situation with how I don’t need a £6000 saxophone because of the nature of the job. Again, that type of sax is for people who are doing sax-only projects, and stuff like that. And quite happily, that’s not me, I like my job as it is.

HR:  I probably should have asked, do any of your instruments have names?

EH:

I think I tried to go through a stage of naming my clarinet when I was in school, but I guess because I play quite a few I never settled on one. I don’t name my car and stuff like that. I know some people quite like naming their cars in particular, but I think it’s just never something I’ve got into.

HR: 

But it seems like you think quite deeply about the qualities and the very specific things you need from your instruments. Is that something you’ve always thought about? Even when you were going through all those changes you were talking about in undergrad and masters; not just assigning qualities, but choosing your instruments because of very specific qualities. 

EH:

Yeah, definitely. I’m always thinking about how I want to make my life easier – not easier in a way that’s like cheating, but playing instruments is hard work, and you need something that you can trust is going to work for you straight away. I think I’ve always thought about, “What is best for me in the specific context I need it for?”

HR: 

Would that be different if you had a different performing career? Just in terms of the sort of repertoire you’re playing much of the time, because you’re so right, as a tripler you have to be able to switch things on very, very quickly and shift between different styles of music, especially if you do a lot of theatre stuff, sometimes within the same production. 

EH: I think for the clarinet it’s a little different to my other instruments, because I still do a lot of chamber stuff; I’m hopefully recording for a CD which is full of extended techniques in January. Because I do a lot of stuff that isn’t just musical theatre with my clarinet, I needed it to do things really well just for me, rather than just one specific context. Some people would pick up my clarinet and probably think there’s too much resistance, or they might not like the weight set in certain ways, but I just know it works for me. And… I’ve forgotten the question. I went off on one! 

HR:  Well, it was quite a vague question! It’s difficult because you do so much within your career, with how your sax and your flute are used largely exclusively for doubling purposes, but equally sometimes you’ll be on a project where you are solely a clarinet player, and in a completely different setting to when you’re doubling! I can’t imagine what that must be like, that’s such a different mindset to get into.

EH: Yeah, it is. I sometimes liken it to speaking a language. I really do feel like it is speaking a language and sometimes at the end of the show I’ll find I can go into flute brain or clarinet brain, especially with the top fingerings. So I know [right now] that when I pick the clarinet back up again in December, it’ll be like, “I’ve moved to flute brain and I need to change to clarinet brain!” I think it’s just like speaking a different language.

HR:  Is your relationship to your instrument (or other secondary instruments) different in the practice room than to how it is in performance? I’m really interested to hear your answer, because frankly I don’t know how people who play so many instruments fit in enough time to practise! 

EH: With certain elements of some of the instruments I simply have to think harder, because it doesn’t come as naturally to me. So some of the time I have to think about the approach to certain things, because they won’t come as easily. But actually, when it comes to performance, it’s the same old thing – as long as you’re chilled out and you trust that your fingers know what to do, then everything will work out. 

There’s definitely certain trill fingerings on the flute that I might be able to do instinctively were they on clarinet, but for the flute I need to write them in my part because I just cannot think quickly enough sometimes. It’s about being aware of which things don’t come as instinctively. And that’s fine, because I picked up a clarinet when I was in year four, and only started taking the flute seriously when I got to uni, so that’s a lot of years there that I had to play catch-up for.

HR:  Thinking about that feeling of instinctive-ness – does playing the clarinet feel fairly similar in practice and in performance, whereas sax and flute are maybe not as instinctive in the practice room, but that natural, instinctive feeling is what you’re aiming towards in performance? 

EH: Definitely, because if you’ve got that level of instinct, then it works. I find the sax a lot easier [than the flute]; I don’t know if that’s just because it’s more similar to the clarinet. But you’re right, instinctiveness is the overall aim, because then everything gets easier and you can just make music!

HR: Sticking with the clarinet, do you primarily see your instrument as an expansion to your musical self, or a challenge?

EH: Sometimes it can be a challenge and you can get frustrated. But then other times, you can say exactly what you want to and it’s magical. So I think it can be both, because I think you can have that level of creative resistance. Of course at other times, it just does exactly what you want and you can express exactly what you want to say – that’s really magical.

HR: Is a challenge ever something that you actually want from your instruments? You’ve said that with your saxophone and your flute, you want something that is essentially going to work, especially if you’re switching between instruments very, very quickly. But with your clarinet, is having something to work around an obstacle ever something you enjoy, or is it only ever frustrating? 

EH: I quite like the detective work. You sort of go, “Right. This isn’t working, what can I do to make it better?” And that’s a slightly deeper thing. When I was younger, I definitely used to get really pissed off and frustrated, but now it’s about accepting that everything is organic, and everything is a process. The second you settle on that realisation, it’s like; Oh, cool. This is a process too, what can I do to make this the way I want? 

One of the other parts of reaching that realisation has been having lots of consultation lessons from different clarinettists over the last two years, especially. How Sergio (Castello-Lopez, Principal Clarinet with the Hallé Orchestra) approaches something is going to be very different to how another freelancer approaches something, for example. I realised that actually, you’re all different, and how you play this piece is different to another person’s method of playing it. So therefore, my way of doing it won’t be wrong either. Going through that process helped me realise that I can work some challenges out for myself, and how I make it work might not be the same as what they do but it’s how I do it, and that’s important.

HR: I wondered how you approach instruments you don’t own, because you mentioned to me that you’re on bass clarinet for ‘Cinderella’. Is that your own bass clarinet? 

EH: No! I had a choice a few years ago of; do I save for a deposit for a house, or do I save for a bass clarinet? And obviously I chose to save for a deposit on a house! 

The bass clarinet I’m using at the minute is from a player who did go the other way. She had a pot of money for it, and it was either going towards bass clarinet or house, and she bought the bass clarinet. For things like that (‘Cinderella’, where I have to play an instrument I don’t own), I’ve got my own (bass clarinet) mouthpiece and I know that the mouthpiece is very good. I don’t own my own baritone saxophone either, again, because they’re really f***ing expensive. I’m just lucky that I’ve got very nice people and friends around me who let me borrow them regularly, which is really sweet. Obviously, if I was asked to go on tour or to play for something that needed a lot of bass clarinet, I would then buy one, but you often get paid lots of money to go on tour, and that’s for a long period of time. But for something shorter like three months, since I’ve got something there that I know I can borrow, then that’s all good. 

I’ve got quite a free blowing mouthpiece; I think because it’s quite free blowing that then allows the instrument to just work and become a lot easier straightaway.

HR: Does borrowing instruments ever make you feel nervous, or give you a feeling that you can’t be as free with them because it’s not yours? Or in that moment when you’re performing with it, do you just say, “No, I have a job I need to do and this musical idea I need to put across,” and so you’re able to just forget that? 

EH: Yeah, I just forget about it. I think to myself, “I’ve got this instrument. Let’s just make it really musical, and have a good time!” 

HR: That’s really lovely. I was thinking the other day about how generally it’s more unusual for wind players to regularly borrow instruments, unless of course you do lots of doubling or tripling; very few people will own seven professional level instruments, because that’s just ridiculous, especially if you’re not playing them all an equal amount. But on the flip side, it’s quite common for string players to not own their instrument – if it’s a high-level professional instrument, they’ll often be loaned a very expensive one from a trust, or someone very rich who owns a Stradivarius, or an incredibly fancy bow for example. And I always just think, what?! Doesn’t that feel dirty? Like, it’s not yours? But that’s so lovely to hear how when you’re performing on it, the music’s the thing. That’s what occupies you while playing it.

EH: Exactly. I think if bass clarinet was my principal instrument, I’d be a little bit sad if I didn’t own it. Then again, violins can be an unreal amount of money. But I think if I didn’t own my own clarinet and I was hiring it, it would feel different, because I got an E flat clarinet through a loan system  a few years ago, and then it was mine for quite a lengthy amount of time. But again that’s not my primary instrument. Generally, with my secondary instruments, I just get on with it.

HR: Do you find that some of your instruments release different emotions or facets of your personality when you’re performing, and others release different ones?

EH: Definitely. Especially when it’s a well written part and they [the composer or arranger] understand the way the instrument fits within the voicing or the harmony. I think what’s nice about being a tripler is that you can explore different elements of your personality; a lot of the time the sax is used for these big razzy numbers and you can just go for it, but then you’ll have to be a lot more delicate and sensitive for the flute score. So it’s nice to delve into those different psychologies. 

HR:  If you had to pinpoint the big things that each of those instruments release in you emotionally, what would they be?

EH: Especially in musical theatre, the flute is often used for either crazy fast, hard, decorative stuff, or it can be very sensitive. The sax is usually used for the enthusiastic, razzy stuff, which feels like one aspect of my personality. And then the clarinet sort of feels like it makes up the rest of it. That’s one of the reasons why I love the clarinet; it’s quite a multifaceted instrument and can say things differently to other instruments. It can be very sweet, but it can also be extremely reflective and nostalgic. So I think the clarinet sits nicely in the middle of things; they’re sensitive and sweet, but they’re confident too. 

HR:  You’ve kind of answered what was actually going to be my final question; what is it that keeps you tied to the clarinet as your principal instrument? Or, what was it that ignited the clarinet as the instrument that really switched you on when you were a kid? Is it the huge range it offers that it’s famous for?

EH: It is definitely the multi-faceted nature of it. Also, when I first picked it up when I was a kid, I found it easier than the violin and I found it easier than the piano. I think I tried a few other instruments and it just made sense to me a little bit more. All of our brains are wired differently and what one person finds really easy, I will find really difficult. There’s been resistance along the way with technique changes and stuff, but it’s always just made sense. I love the variety of colours and the variety of emotions that it can bring across. I always find it really interesting.