Ulla Miilmann (Denmark)
Flutist Ulla Miilmann was born in 1972 in Denmark. She received her Bachelor of Music degree at North Carolina School of the Arts in 1992. During her college years, Ms. Miilmann was already selected as representative of Denmark at the European broadcasting Unions "Concerts for Young Soloist." Ms. Miilmann is a prize Winner in several Competitions, including the prestigious "Flute-Talk" in Chicago, and the Danish All Music Competition, winning the Gold Medal.
Ms. Miilmann is a frequent choice for honors and awards, for her outstanding artistic ability as well as her devotion for the betterment of her community. The honorable "Jacob Gade Award" and the "Newspaper Critics Artist Prize" come to mind. In 1994, at an astonishing age of 22, Ms. Miilmann became the principal Flutist of the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Since then she has appeared as soloist with all the major orchestras in Copenhagen as well as on tour to Taiwan where Danish music was the main theme of the tour. She has worked as a chamber musician in all of Scandinavia with many respected ensembles and musicians; The Danish National Radio Symfoni Orchestra Woodwind Quintet, Pianist Katrine Gislinge, Cembalist Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Violinist Gidon Kremer, among others.
Ulla Miilmann received a Grammy Nomination in February 2007 in the Category "Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra" for the recording of the Ole Schmidt Concerto for flute and orchestra.
Ulla Miilmann (Denmark)
We had the opportunity to ask Ulla a few questions. Take a look at her thoughts on preparation for major performances, her biggest influences on her playing as well as advice for upcoming flutists.
1. Focusing on orchestral music year round, what do you do for inspiration when playing the same repertoire and solo excerpts over and over again?
I have always felt it a privilege to play in a symphony orchestra – there are many reasons why. On a musical level I am exposed to masterpieces of some of the greatest composers in western music. On an instrumental/technical level being around top motivated colleagues, inspires me to practice and perform the very best I am capable of. The constant stream of different conductors all provide me with new knowledge and insights that I can use in my playing and in my improvement of the art of phasing.
Besides the inspiration I have from being at work there is also an innate search for a deeper understanding of music – even though I have played it for years. This element inside me helps me stay curious and experimental. My search for yet deeper understandings of the music thus includes accepting never arriving at “the truth” since that would rob me of all curiosity and cause sudden artistic death. Music is an endless vertical axis stretching simultaneously down and upwards.
2. How has your approach to playing changed over time, whether it be performing or practicing?
Over time my approach to practicing has of course changed since no one stays the same during a life time. That is not to say that there are certain elements I never return to or elements that are not continuous in my practice. For instance, long tones on all notes and ”tongue-less” attacks on all notes is a must in knowing where the flute limits lie and to know where to find the basic healthy attack. I keep returning to exercises my former teacher from NC School of the arts, Philip Dunigan, used to give his students. They were exercises written by the famous singer Mathilde Marchesi. They are based on the singing tradition and help you remember the lyrical quality of flute playing – a quality I treasure very much. Many technical exercises can wear your embouchure out and cause tension in your jaw, neck and throat resulting in a very thin, unnatural sound. In my younger years I mainly concentrated on improving my skills as a flutist whereas now I also concentrate on improving as a musician. I do this by reading a lot of music history, music treaties and books written by musicians, conductors and composers.
In the end all my practice and studying has one final goal and that is the sharing of music with others – the performance. Here I have discovered an imperceptible internal shift of quality. In my youth – and I think I speak for many young a player – it was very natural to go out and prove myself; can I stand the test, am I as good as other players and do I live up to the expected etc. etc. I felt I had a lot to prove and certainly I did in order to get a share of the “flute market” be it as orchestral musician, chamber player or flute teacher. Now I focus my attention on sharing music and offering more generously my personal joy and relationship with the music. In that way I can never play wrong or be wrong – I can only be me – and that I believe is the ultimate freedom one can achieve on stage; the sharing of great music speaking through a vessel of authentic being.
3. What is the most valuable lesson that the flute has taught you?
The most valuable lesson my flute has taught me is the importance of a loving relationship. You have to fall in love with your flute in the first place. In the beginning you only hear and feel all the good things your flute gives you effortlessly. Over a period of time you begin noticing weaknesses and experience difficulties in achieving certain musical/technical goals. This is where patience and love can open up phrasing and sounds you never imagined possible. Instead of working against the flute you work with it. As an example if the lower register is difficult try not to enforce your will but gently over time let your relationship evolve and you will achieve the sound you wanted in the first place. In the meantime try out new dynamics in your phrasing – you may be surprised to find new durable ideas.
4. What musical qualities do you think are most essential to achieving excellence?
The most essential musical qualities to achieving excellence - besides mastering your instrument - are; the art of interpretation, a sense of rhythm and tempo and the art of expression. These are all qualities one can discuss in very lengthy statements but I will try to be very brief.
Interpreting music requires a humble approach to the written music – the score. Many interpretational mistakes can be avoided by staying true to what the composer has actually written – especially for music written from the 20th century and onwards where we are given detailed information on tempo, dynamics etc. Being an interpreter requires a strong selfless ego in so far as it is necessary for a strong personality to interpret a strong composer but the interpreter must never overshadow the composer’s spirit. One must assert one’s own talent while identifying with the composer and his work. It is a musical trinity of the selfless ego, the creation and the creator.
There has always been a kinship between music and dance and the one element that ties them together is rhythm. Rhythm is the earthy part of music which in its essence is very intangible. Musical rhythm has a relationship with the rhythm we find in our heartbeat and respiration and even in the rhythm of the universe with the rotation of the planets creating for example day and night. Rhythm has a physical effect on our bodies creating many feelings from fear to joyful ecstasy. We cannot measure musical rhythm since a purely mathematical division of it only would create a dead result. Musical rhythm is driven from an inner impulse with ever so slight deviations in the divisions in time. This heartbeat and respiration of music we must stay sensitive to in order for music to reach its intense, exalted vitality.
Finding the correct tempo of a piece of music helps finding the right interpretation. That is not to say that a tempo is always the same for every performance. But it is essential to the interpretation of a piece of music that there is a sense of apparent continuity of tempo throughout the piece if not otherwise written. It follows that the concept of “the right tempo” is relative. But watch out for making unconscious accelerando or ritardando where not stated. It will alter the mood of the piece entirely. It would be a violation of the piece itself! Not to take away the freedom of the performer - but letting arbitrariness rule would take away the apparent arbitrariness of the piece itself which stems from the composers hand and would ruin the balance of the piece. More than a quantitative concept tempo is a qualitative concept necessary for the coherency of the correct performance of a piece.
The art of expression is what gives music its soulful dimension. One must stay very alert though, not to let the emotional expression overshadow the musical expression. We must be aware to seek affect and not only effect in music in order to preserve an authentic expression. In a modern world of exaggeration and over exposition of feeling we often forget the silent simplicity that can reach the very depths of the human soul. To play a phrase in this way requires a lot of courage of the performer – he will have to risk the fear of being judged as boring since the world today so often demands constant exciting stimulation. But once this risk is taken the music will reveal its own innate beauty and bring you into another dimension of peace and tranquility. When the performer thereafter changes the scenery to a more human emotional expression the contrast will be the more dramatic and exciting, creating music that encompasses all aspects of life on earth.
5. What are your hobbies and/or interests outside of music?
My hobbies outside music are mostly reading and studying. Recently I just finished a four year long education in astrology, making me a certified astrologer. Right now I am very interested in history studying biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. I am curious as to what motivated such people to act the way they did. I guess I generally seek understanding in order to accept and forgive human nature – and I seek answers everywhere I can; in history, astrology, psychology, philosophy, politics.
6. Who were/are your biggest influences on your flute playing?
As a child, I experienced a tune or sound inside of me that I could not express in words. At times it was an overwhelming sensation, begging to be let free. When I was eight, I heard the flute for the first time and knew immediately that this was the instrument that should portray the sound coming from within me. It was like a pre-destined feeling, almost forced upon me and intimidating, yet I also felt a strong connection knowing that this was the medium through which I needed to communicate.
Classical music attracted me and I knew that a lifetime of learning was awaiting me. Instead of seeking specific flutists for musical guidance, I sought out all instrumentalists and singers to help me communicate the tune I was hearing in my heart. Just hearing the tune inside me was not enough – it needed a language. It needed to learn how to behave and how to phrase a love poem, but also to express the darker sides of human nature.It is necessary to have a vocabulary that is able to express every human sentiment. This technical side of vocabulary and language was, and still is sought in literature, music theory and history, and of course music itself. So a great deal of my flute playing is a reflection of my ability to embrace my inner dynamics and transform these emotions into a universal language. My inspiration is an idea, a vision to be able to connect with mankind in musical moments. A mere vision is not enough, though. Hard work and respect for the different performance practices of all periods of music is required. Only then does the vision have a chance to become real and tangible.
7. How do you prepare in advance, mentally and physically, for solo recitals and/or solo performances with major orchestras?
When I have to perform recitals or solo performances, preparation is the key word. I do not want anything unexpected to happen; therefore I know the score and parts of all the other players involved. I know all too well from experience playing a somewhat unknown piece at a concert with an orchestra and suddenly hearing things I never noticed at the rehearsal. It gives an unpleasant feeling of unease and distraction, taking the attention away from music making. Knowing the other players’ parts intimately also creates a playful communication; hopefully to the delight of the players involved as well as the audience.
Another important part for me in preparation is remembering why I am doing this. All too often worries of not being good enough, people judging harshly and so on, takes control. I realized how this self-condemnation was actually condemning the audience also, reducing them to insensitive hard and calloused people. It is important to remember that the audience is made up of our friends, hoping to meet other friends in us, the performers. To me, this thought creates a space of musical being in which I can feel free.
8. What does a typical day look like for you?
A regular day for me is really like most other people. I am a mother of two children, ages 8 and 11, who I have raised on my own since their birth. They are sent to school in the morning leaving me a couple of hours before I go to work at the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. In these hours I usually practice or catch up on paperwork. At the Radio Orchestra, we work from 10 a.m. to 2.30 p.m., having concerts two to three times a week. When I get off work, I have to go grocery shopping. From there I go home and do house chores. While I cook supper I usually practice at the same time. It’s really quite a circus with me in the kitchen swinging both the flute and the spoon while the children of the neighborhood run around the house like crazy dogs! Then I have to do homework with the kids and be a listening parent. They are put to bed at 8.30 p.m., giving me time to read books of different interests. I am especially interested in original baroque and classical performance practices. My aim is to build a bridge between the “specialist” and the “well-rounded” musician in historical musical performance. My evenings may also include concerts with the orchestra or chamber music recitals.
9. How did you come to choose Miyazawa as your flute of choice?
I discovered my Miyazawa flute in quite an extraordinary way. I was teaching at a flute convention in Denmark when the president of Miyazawa showed up with the Miyazawa distributor from Denmark, Poul Marno Sorensen. They were showing many different wonderful flutes. I asked if they had a heavier flute and the president presented me with a platinum flute. From the first breath of air I knew, “This is THE flute!” Unfortunately, there were pre-existing plans to take this flute to a few other places, so there was a chance that I might not ever see it again.
The president promised me that he would remember my interest, and I anxiously waited for the tour to be completed. When Poul Marno called me saying that the flute was in his office waiting for me, I could not believe my luck!! I knew this was the sound I had waited for my whole life, so I was willing to do whatever it took to buy it. I had to sell my car and other things to be able to purchase this very expensive flute. But I have never regretted any of it. It was my dream come true! I also play on a silver Miyazawa flute with the Brögger System that I bought last year, which is also an excellent instrument. I use it as a supplement because I also love the sound of silver with its brilliant crystal sound.
10. If you had one piece of advice to give an upcoming flutist, what would you tell them?
If I could give an upcoming flutist one piece of advice, it would be to remember not only to become a flutist or an instrumentalist, but most importantly, to become a musician. There has always been a tendency to celebrate the technically accomplished instrumentalist. It is as though technical supremacy is the overall goal for a performance, neglecting to remember that technique must only serve as a tool for true musicianship. My advice is to always stay humble, to always remember to serve the music and not the ego. Only then can we hope that music can reach a divine inspiration for the benefit of the musicians as well as the audience.