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I am inspired by interaction with motivated students

I am inspired by interaction with motivated students

By Ainars Pudans on May 15, 2024

Peter Verhoyen is a Belgian piccolo player, Principal piccolo of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, co-founder of chamber music ensemble Arco Baleno, and professor of piccolo at the Royal Conservatoire Antwerp. Additionally, he teaches piccolo at his private studio in Bruges, and the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz (Austria).
Additionally, he has developed a piccolo Master program at the Royal Conservatoire in Antwerp, the first of its kind in Europe. This unique piccolo training program has a great international reputation with students from various countries, from Belgium to Australia.
As a piccolo specialist, he has given masterclasses and recitals throughout Europe: Paris, London, Milan, Hannover, Brno etc.
Author of “Peter’s Piccolo World” series, piccolo inspiration books for intermediate to advanced players. The second book of the series was presented at the Tampere Flute Festival 2024.

We met Peter during the 5th Tampere Flute Festival in Finland. We wanted to know more about his upbringing, approach to piccolo, its repertoire, and his source of inspiration.

How did you become a flutist?

This was a team effort since my father took me to some concerts, especially wind band concerts in the village. Then I was asked – if you liked this, what instrument would you like to play? At the same time, there was a big hype on TV.  There was a crossover artist, Thijs van Leer, who made some albums with beautiful Bach’s arrangements. He was a big superstar in Holland, often seen on television at that time. So, I got enormously inspired by this man and I said: “I want to play the flute”. Besides, it seemed a pretty cool thing to do, since many girls and boys also were inspired by this artist and decided to study flute around that time. 

Playing the flute seems a logical choice, but why piccolo?

It’s a bit of a wind band thing. I started to play the flute in the band when I was eight and played there until I went to study at the Conservatoire in Brussels. There were a lot of flute players, but piccolo seemed the scariest bit that nobody wanted to do. I tended to like playing piccolo, and I didn’t see a problem at that time. Afterward, people started to say that piccolo is a rather problematic instrument, and only then I started to be more cautious about it.

I remember one interesting episode from the time when I was 20. I was called to play a gig where we had to play some parts from the “Magic Flute”. The flutist was playing all those amazing solos, and somewhere in between I had to play the passages that responded to the singer’s part. And I was really surprised when the conductor after the performance gave a sign for me to stand up. I thought he was kidding since this didn’t seem such a big deal for me at that time.

When I was 18 and I was listening to many fantastic flute players playing all those big orchestra solos like Debussy etc., I never had a feeling that this is what I want to do. But, at the same time, I love the fact that you can play your solos. And, when I heard the piccolo bits, I realized that this kind of nervosity that comes with playing piccolo is what I really like. I think that there is some character talent for piccolo that you need to have: sit there for quite some time without playing and then you have to do something really stressful. And I like that energy.

How well do contemporary composers make use of piccolo and its possibilities?

I have commissioned over 20 works for piccolo. I ask them to write solos and recital pieces with piano. I ordered a piccolo concerto from Levente Gyöngyösi, Erik Desimpelaere, and Robert Groslot. However, I must say that perhaps 1 out of 5 composers seems to have a real appreciation for piccolo as a solo instrument. I understand that a composer’s life is not easy. So, whenever the composer gets a commission, he or she accepts it. But the problem lies there – if you don’t really want to write for some particular instrument, then simply don’t.
There is a cliché approach to piccolo playing – like “Stars & Stripes”, some bird noises – it’s some kind of folkloristic approach. These perhaps are three main things that come to mind when you hear the word piccolo. But for me, it’s much more than this. I think that Maurice Ravel and Dmitry Shostakovich are the composers who understood the piccolo as an instrument, and they wrote really nice things for it.

What about others? Stravinsky – quite nice. But other composers seemed to be a bit frightened by it. I like that some composers like Shostakovich in slow movements approach the piccolo as a singing instrument as opposed to many others that use the piccolo as a rather screaming instrument. We need that kind of character as well but not mostly that.

So, I have this checklist that I go through when I give a commission. Often, I ask the composer not to complicate things. Like long piccolo passages without breaks or passages that are difficult to grasp by the human ear. I often ask not to write too difficult so that the piece could be played not only by me but by middle-level students as well. They (composers) mostly fail at this because they don’t realize how difficult it is to play top notes on piccolo. So, that’s one thing that I ask them. The second thing I usually ask is not to write too much staccato on the notes. Because they imagine that the piccolo would be more pronounced but in reality, it makes the sound uglier. The piccolo player that focuses on staccato – that really doesn’t work.

I encourage them to write full-quality sonatas – not just bird pieces. I have one bird CD which I made 20 years ago. Since then, I ask the composers to write a full sonata, the same way they would write for flute or violin.

Does it help you as a performer to know more about the new piece? Perhaps some context, the story behind the compositions?

Well, in my concept of playing, I actually enjoy the mystery first. I enjoy just reading the score, playing it through, just letting to know what it feels to me and how I am going to play it. That’s the first thing.
And, if the piece is for piano as well, I get together with my pianist Stefan. Once we feel that the composition comes to life, I invite the composer, and, of course, I ask him to tell me the story of the piece and see to which degree I have to adapt to it.
So, I prefer doing it the other way round. And it’s not because of the lack of interest or ideas behind the composition. It’s just because I really appreciate so much the mystery of how a composer tries to put his music into notes, and the way this music can get to the listeners.
For that reason, if the music doesn’t speak for itself, I usually talk about that piece during the concert. Sometimes such an introduction helps the listener to be more alert while listening to it. But very often music speaks for itself.

Which works for piccolo do you think would be worth being known and played more? To be more accessible for anyone on YouTube?

Well, YouTube has become a new normal. I have produced over 30 CDs now, and over the last couple of years, I’ve got the impression that the CD-producing business is history. It’s not working anymore. Even not giving it after the concert as some kind of souvenir. Younger people don’t have a CD player anymore. And it is very sad because recording a CD is a very thorough process of producing quality.

When I made my first CD, we had around 20 rehearsals, and we were in a studio for three days. We listened and selected the best passages to be included in the final version of the track. We had some success with that CD as well, but the biggest success for me was that I was able to reflect on the quality of my playing: really knowing how I sound. These conclusions were very important in my development as a musician.
My very successful student Sarah Miller, and co-writer of the book, is going to release her new CD. I guided her throughout the process, and I am very happy that she still could do it. But I think that most of the students that are going to graduate within 5 years won’t have this kind of experience simply because it will be history. 

What do we have now? Whenever somebody plays somewhere, there’s a camera and a microphone. Then it goes to Facebook to get some likes and hearts. Some people listen to it for two minutes and that’s it. It’s sad if you have a good recording and no one listens to it. I’m on Facebook too and being live feels good for some time. But there’s a danger there – because, if you have a good acoustic, and you take 2 minutes, the best part of the composition, you get an illusion that you play perfectly without real effort or amount of work which is enormous. If you are going to have an audio recording, you can do it again and again, but with the video recording it is a whole different story. It's 4 times more expensive. I don’t know how many young performers will find a budget to go into the recording studio with the camera team to make good quality YouTube videos. 

I was incredibly lucky during Covid since the Flemish government decided to sponsor any project that could be done without an audience. I got a budget for my weekly online streaming concerts. This was a really fun thing to do and many virtually attended and listened to it.
Afterward, I got a budget for producing audio/video content. That’s when I started to make YouTube videos. We made over 50 videos with pieces that would be interesting for the flute and piccolo repertoire. So, there’s a treasure of information right there.
However, if I want to continue this project now, it costs a lot of money to do it really well.
I noticed that Nicola Mazzanti has released A. Harberg’s Sonata this week. This is a very beautiful Sonata, so, he’s working very hard. But the speed at which you can produce good quality content is really slow.
Soon I will publish the new version of Mike Mower’s two sonatas. I recorded audio and video for it already. And, as soon as I have played the Gyöngyösi Piccolo concerto with my orchestra, I’ll release a video of that concerto on my Youtube channel as well. Since some of the compositions for piccolo are not top quality, we have to be a bit more selective of what we publish out there.

How easy or difficult is it to switch from flute to piccolo and back during the performance?

This is a very often asked question. The problem is the quality of piccolo playing on its own. If you have not invested enough time in mastering the piccolo playing, you most likely will panic during that switch from flute to piccolo. And your embouchure will be totally upset when you return to the flute. However, if you would spend 20% of your practice time on piccolo, then the switch will be the least of your concerns.
In my professional life, it doesn’t bother me. Of course, it’s more relaxed if you have a full week when you have to play only piccolo. There are some small but very important things like staying warmed up and tuning, but everything comes down to controlling the instrument you are about to play. That’s why I made two funny books with horse and rabbit drawings. Because in the very end, too much of the piccolo technique is left in the open. When you play the flute, you play a fantastic instrument with very good air support, and it sounds great. But with piccolo, the perfect control of embouchure is the frightful aspect of the performance.

What inspires you?

At this moment – the energy I get back from people. I have been very busy in my life; I even have been a school director for 5 years as well. I play in the orchestra; I teach in various schools. I have seen the musical world from an enormous number of angles. What keeps me alive and happy is interaction with motivated students. That inspires me enormously.  I love seeing initially unfocussed groups and making a collective feeling with them during that encounter. Like we did in the masterclass yesterday. We didn’t know each other but at the end of the session we had a feeling that we were doing something special together – that keeps me inspired.

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