Who dared to transcribe the frantic passages of Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 for the saxophone, and then taught themselves to circular breathe in order to perform said transcription? An award-winning saxophonist with a profound message: how we breathe determines how we live.
Amy Dickson arrived at the performance venue at midday, smiling while carrying her garment bag and saxophone case. On a sunny, crisp winter afternoon in the Adelaide Hills, Take a Breath, her intimate multimedia solo recital, was about to enjoy a sold-out world premiere at the Ukaria Cultural Centre and I had a moment to speak with her about life, love, and music.
Dickson possesses the grace of Megan Gale and a virtuosity on par with Branford Marsalis. Despite her celebrity, she exuded authenticity and humility. We sat on a rustic wooden bench and chatted about her career, breathing, philanthropy, and family while immersed in luscious natural surrounds.
Twenty-four hours prior she liaised with technical personnel and worked systematically through her show’s lighting and audio-visual requirements. The day to premiere her work had arrived and she was both excited and slightly daunted.
Dickson formed a connection to Ukaria and decided to premiere in Adelaide. The venue fitted the show perfectly. To her, performing at Ukaria was “a dream come true” and she commended the team who assisted in the premiere of Take a Breath, describing them as “stunning”.
International Music Career
“I probably could have been any number of other things. I knew in my heart that music was the thing that I was good at” – Dickson explained as she joyfully discussed her show premiering in Australia. Originally from Sydney, now based in the United Kingdom, the award-winning international artist learned the saxophone from the age of six, then won a scholarship to study at The Royal College of Music at 18. She followed her instincts which resulted in a professional music career. “It’s funny, I never really had an ambition. It was the thing that felt right, my gut feeling.”
“Follow your heart. Do what feels right.”
– Amy Dickson
Dickson is a Grammy-nominated, chart-topping recording artist and the first saxophonist to receive the Breakthrough Artist of the Year title at the 2013 Classic Brit Awards. She frequently travels and performs to international audiences.
“I always feel well supported in Adelaide. I feel like I can be at ease when I’m here because it’s home. I’ve played with the ASO a number of times and have many friends in the orchestra. I think Adelaide has always felt like my second home.” She complimented Adelaide’s arts culture and described its audiences as having “a very earnest interest in music.” Dickson has played with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra more than any other orchestra in Australia.
“I was a pianist. [Piano] was my first instrument until I was 19 years old. It terrified me to play in front of people!” – she bashfully confessed her lesser-known musical talent and laughed “[…] whereas playing with the saxophone in my hand is just lovely. I can just be myself and enjoy it. With the piano there are so many options and mistakes sitting right there in front of you. [Saxophone] always felt like the easier instrument”.
American filmmaker David Donnelly created the short films which feature in Take a Breath. Dickson and Donnelly met at a festival in Cincinnati and through their friendship they cultivated a common interest in the study of breathing. They have spent a lot of time discussing the medical aspects of breathing and how it could be represented visually to open up the minds of the audience.
“We’ve decided to collaborate and this is the result.” Dickson chose the music to accompany Donnelly’s films. “There are themes behind each film which are very subtle, which hopefully appeal to people at different levels. If you’re a meditation, yoga, or breathing expert then you’ll probably pick out different things.”
“The [show’s] concept is very subtle,” – Dickson did not want to be overly explicit about life’s deeper questions but rather wanted the audience to be aware of the way they are breathing. “I wonder if that impacts the way they are going to hear the music.”
“I think that when we consider the way we breathe, we inevitably change the way we perceive other things around us,” – Dickson observed. Her fascination with the medical side of breath began when a doctor tested her breathing using a capnometer.
Ironically, the test results revealed that she was not very good at breathing. Her breathing was shallow and she was using the wrong part of her lungs, making her susceptible to tension. Given her profession this was startling.
Contemporary music is Dickson’s speciality and she has collaborated with several accomplished composers, namely Brett Dean, Ross Edwards, and Peter Sculthorpe, developing new repertoire for the saxophone.
“In my experience, there is always a warm reception after a new piece of music.” Dickson thinks that classical music aficionados are generally receptive to new music. “It’s just a matter of getting people into the concert hall by getting rid of the stigma of going to a contemporary music concert. Sitting there through a 45 minute concert surrounded by the same people, trying not to cough or make a noise can be slightly stifling and may alienate some people”.
“There is no reason why contemporary music should be accepted any less than contemporary theatre, art or dance.”
– Amy Dickson
“Anxiety is a huge problem these days” – Dickson reflected on her philanthropic tour of British and Australian schools as part of the Take a Breath project. She taught children a basic breathing technique in the hope that they can use it throughout their lives.
She used the imagery of an elephant playing the saxophone; its long trunk was a metaphor for a long gentle breath, and music was a vehicle for teaching gentle breathing and learning about great composers.
Dickson fondly recalled the efforts of one school who incorporated the concept of using elephant breaths in the curriculum, allowing students to anonymously log when their newly-acquired skills have come in handy.
Whilst being a proud ambassador for the Australian Children’s Music Foundation and The Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, she has also taught herself something valuable.
“After a couple of weeks I could circular breathe. I set aside 30 minutes a day. I just tried different things.” As well as educating children, the auto-didactic musician has discovered how to produce an uninterrupted continuous tone. “To be able to do it seamlessly, so that it was imperceptible while I was playing, probably took about six months.”
“The first step is to take in air without filling up your lungs. You just puff your cheeks up. Once your cheeks are full of air you sniff.” She proceeded to give me a crash course in circular breathing. “Work out how to expel air while you’re sniffing… then blow a raspberry while you’re sniffing.”
I watched in amazement as she demonstrated this to me. Her nonchalant and encouraging manner made it look so easy. Needless to say, I did not acquire this technique after my first go. Nor am I confident that I can master this skill in six months.
“Listening to music is a form of meditation, centering the mind”
– Amy Dickson
“It’s wonderful because my husband is the most supportive person in the universe.” Ever the career woman, she is not phased about balancing marriage, motherhood and being a professional musician.
Dickson is delighted to be accompanied on this trip by her seven-month old daughter Olivia and her composer husband Jamie Barclay, “I know [motherhood] is different for every woman”.
“I went back to touring when [Olivia] was five and a half months old. My first trip was by myself to Taiwan from London, so I jumped into the deep end. I wondered what it would be like and, you know what? It was the best thing I’d ever done” – Dickson recalls with a smile on her face, “[Olivia] wasn’t with me on that particular trip for four days. I did a really quick turnaround. I worried about that a little bit but it was the right thing to do. I’m really glad that I have gone back to performing because it’s part of me.”
Dickson will travel to Sydney following her Adelaide performance to record a new album. Take a Breath will tour the USA and a number of concerts are already planned for 2019.
I thanked her for her time and as she headed off to her sound check, I took in my environment, contemplated our exchange, and inhaled deeply.
Event: Take a Breath
Date: Sunday 3 June, 2018
Venue: Ukaria Cultural Centre
Artist site: http://www.amydickson.com
Such a lovely interview, Jennifer, and a fascinating discussion of the importance of breathing!
Thank you for taking the time to read it and give feedback Carol. I have always appreciated your writing. I hope all is well in your part of the world.