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Interview with Carla Rees by Kelly Mollnow Wilson

KW:  When did you start playing the flute? Baroque flute? Piccolo? Big flutes?

CR: I first heard the flute at a concert played by Atarah Ben Tovim when I was 3 years old. From that moment, I was determined to become a professional flute player. I had to wait until I was 6 to be big enough to start learning – and even then I couldn’t reach the foot joint – but I started playing the recorder straight away, and then the fife. Piccolo came later – I think I was around 11 when I started with that, and then I fell in love with the alto flute a couple of years later at a flute course I went on. I lived in a rural area where there weren’t many flute teachers, so when I was 13 or 14, and had done my Grade 8, I started teaching local kids. I saved the money and managed to buy an alto flute when I was 16. It was a second hand Monnig and the only one available – there was no choice in my area at that time. I was fascinated by it and really wanted to learn how to get the best out of it, and that was the beginning of my specialisation. Bass came later still; during my degree I played alto and piccolo a lot (I even thought at one point I might have a career as an orchestral piccolo player), and the requests to play bass started to come in after that. Contra, of course, was a natural progression!

The baroque flute is a bit of a different story. It – quite literally – happened by accident. In 2011, my house was destroyed in an arson attack during the riots in London. I lost everything, including all of my flutes and two cats. It was an enormously challenging time, but I was lucky and had a huge amount of support from friends and strangers, and it made a huge difference in helping me to carry on. An incredibly generous man (who I’d never met before) called Stephen Massil got in touch via the British Flute Society, and offered to buy me a flute. It could be anything, as long as it was made of wood. I considered the options and decided it was a good opportunity for a new challenge – so I asked for a baroque flute d’amour. Boaz Berney was commissioned to make the flute for me, and I set about learning the fingering system. Then Stephen told me the second part of the gift was commission by Nicola Lefanu – so the first piece I ever performed on baroque flute was a new work which alternated between the Kingma System alto flute and the baroque flute d’amour, with plenty of microtones on each! It was a huge challenge, and it took a couple of years for the instruments to be built (my alto flute had to be replaced too), so it gave me something wonderful to look forward to, and a new direction to explore. Since then I’ve completely fallen in love with the baroque flute and it has given me a new challenge, both developing contemporary music for it, and also exploring baroque performance practice in more detail.

Do you have a favorite flute to play?  (Kind of an illegal question – like asking which one of your children you like best!)

Despite playing so many different flutes, I feel the alto flute is my true voice. I love its expressive capacity and also that it still has a lot of the agility of the smaller flutes. The Kingma System really turns it into a dream flute!

You’ve premiered a lot of new music – how did you get into that?

I have always composed – ever since I was first learning to read music as a 3-year old. I didn’t take it particularly seriously; it was a bit like a puzzle. When I went to music college, a tutor looked at my compositions and arranged for me to have lessons. I was suddenly thrown into a world of atonal music and was utterly fascinated by it (although I didn’t understand it at all at the beginning!). I got to know lots of other composers, and encouraged them to write for alto flute. A lot of them felt the flute had been used a lot already, whereas the alto flute was new territory with a new range of timbres to explore. At that time (mid 1990s) there was quite a small repertoire for alto flute – everything I could get hold of was either too easy or much, much too difficult, technically and musically, so there was quite a big gap to fill.

What is your favorite thing about working with composers on new music?  What’s the most challenging thing?

I love exploring ideas. One of my favourite things is to ask composers to write their ideas, aside from practical considerations, and to work out how the ideas can be realised on the flute. It’s a real privilege to be able to work collaboratively with composers and to develop the repertoire further. I love challenges, and thrive on being able to improve my playing through the challenges composers give me. You learn other lessons along the way too. One thing I learned the hard way was never to programme a piece until it has been written, even if the composer promises it will be with you a month before the performance. One composer was still writing the piece, literally on the back of an envelope, on the afternoon of the first performance. That’s not something I ever want to repeat!

How did rarescale

come to be?  

I formed rarescale in 2003, with some likeminded friends. The aim was to demonstrate the alto flute as a solo and chamber music instrument, so we formed a flexible ensemble which could show the alto flute in a range of different contexts. Since then we’ve premiered around 50 new pieces a year, and in 2007 I set up rarescale Flute Academy, which is a professional training ensemble for university level flute players. They are encouraged to learn low flutes and explore them within an ensemble context. The latest spin-off group is rarescale Kingma ensemble, which is a quintet made up of me and 4 students, all playing Kingma system flutes.

How did you go about learning how to run your own business?  I’m doing the same thing, and it’s a lot of trial and error. At least for me…

I’ve always quite enjoyed systems and planning – my list making has been a bit of a family joke for ever – and I took a business-like approach to my teaching when I first started out. I also started my performing career with a business plan as a way of mitigating some of the risk of being a freelancer, so setting up Tetractys was a relatively gentle leap. However, there’s always a lot to learn, and like all small businesses there are lots of mistakes along the way. I’m still feeling my way!

I’m assuming this search for new music for low flutes led to the creation of Tetractys Publishing

The company started in a very small way in 2005, when some of the works that had been written for me weren’t easily available to other players. Mainstream publishers typically aren’t interested in composers who aren’t household names, and repertoire for low flutes is unlikely to make anyone enormously rich. After the fire in 2011, I decided to relaunch the company in a bigger way, and build up a bigger catalogue. A percentage of the sales income is donated to rarescale (which is a registered charity) towards performances and bursaries its educational projects, and the composers get a bigger share than they would in with many other publishers. I see it as a composers’ cooperative, where I do the work to promote their work. It’s a thank you to the composers who have worked with me, often for free, to help develop an amazing repertoire for low flutes.

Did you set out with your university degree planning to be a performer, teacher, arranger, writer and business owner, or did you think you’d just play your flutes?

I went to music college imagining I might be an international soloist or orchestral principal, but my heart was really in the alto flute so I decided to follow that further. I had no idea where it might lead! I have always taught, so I expected that might factor in somewhere, and I’ve also arranged music since I set up my first flute choir at primary school, but I wasn’t sure where any of that might go.

How do you balance all of these roles? 

I’ve always been a bit hyperactive and terrible at sitting still, so I’m very good at filling spare time – often to the extent that I don’t have any! Balance is challenging. I’m very well organised (an expert list-maker!), but things can easily get derailed when a bit of extra unexpected work comes in. I find it impossible to keep up with email and I’m terrible at taking holidays – but I love all the different aspects of my job and feel very lucky to have so much variety in my life.

Where are you currently teaching? What age of students? All flutes?

I teach flute at Royal Holloway University, and have been there since 2007. I love the course there because the students are able to explore their own interests and take them as far as they want – so that means I am able to work with my students on challenging new repertoire, as well as teaching baroque flute and everything in between. Many of them play piccolo or low flutes, and they’re mostly very open minded.

I also run the distance learning music BA(Hons) programme at the Open College of the Arts. It’s a very special open access programme which enables people to study for a music degree who may not otherwise be able to do so – some of them are mature students who always wanted to study music but didn’t have the chance, others are full time carers or have health issues which mean study at a conventional university isn’t possible. The teaching is on a one to one basis and the students can sometimes be very inspiring.

What do you like best about teaching? What is the most challenging aspect for you?

My goal as a teacher is to help my students become independent, free thinking musicians, who develop their own creative personalities. I love watching them succeed and I also enjoy challenging them along the way. The biggest challenges for me come with the students who lack commitment; I have always been enormously determined so I find it hard to work with people who don’t give it their all, whatever their level. Talent is not enough – hard work is essential, too.

How do you describe alto flute playing vs. C flute playing when you are teaching a brand new alto player who is proficient on C flute?

The main difference for me is air speed – with the alto it’s important to slow the air down, and to allow the body to resonate. Of course, this can work well on the C flute too, but the alto flute really reveals any bad habits someone has! I often use the alto as a teaching tool in this way.

What are top three issues that you encounter when you are working with inexperienced alto flutists?  

The biggest problem is that people play the alto in the same way as the C flute. This includes sound production issues as well as posture. Alto requires changes of hand position, posture and a different approach to the use of the air. Unfortunately I also see some of these issues with some experienced players, including some well-known ones. Things are changing but there used to be a culture of people borrowing alto flutes for concerts rather than having their own, so a lot of players didn’t have the time to discover how to really get the best out of them.

Another example of this is curved heads – a lot of people assume they can’t play on a straight head alto because they are a particular height, but my experience tells me otherwise. Playing low flutes requires an adaptation of the hand positions, and they’re also heavy, so they require a serious commitment to building strength. I did 6 months of weight training before my first alto flute recital! Sure, there are some people for whom a curved head is the only option, but with appropriate posture straight heads are possible for most people. 

How do you help your students learn to switch quickly from one type of flute to another – C flute to bass to alto to piccolo?

It can be really helpful to practice scales or etudes switching between instruments. The key problem is usually the height of the flute on the lip; bigger flutes need to go lower, and conversely the piccolo feels very high on the lip after an alto flute!

Pitch is an issue – especially with curved head joints.  What techniques to you have for learning to play in tune, besides learning alternate fingerings?

I’m not a fan of using alternate fingerings for intonation. For me they can change the tone quality and/or expressive range too much. To play in tune on low flutes, you have to learn to listen carefully, to modify the air stream accordingly, and, most importantly, make sure you are using the instrument in the right set up. Sharpness is usually a sign of incorrect embouchure positioning and/or using the same air speed as the C flute. As with any instrument, if you take time to get to know your own instrument and playing habits, and invest practice time in it, you can gain a control of intonation.

Can you describe the amazing Kingma flutes for people who don’t know what they are?

Kingma system flutes are made using a revolutionary design which really opens up the instrument’s expressive and creative potential. Especially on low flutes, where closed holes are the norm, the opportunity to have extra venting enables many more techniques, alternative fingerings and colours. I use mine for everything – on C flute, alto and bass, including baroque music. The system essentially gives each key (even the ones the fingers don’t go on) an open hole, meaning that you can play quartertones with the same colour and dynamic range across the whole spectrum of the instrument, hence people referring to it as a quartertone flute, but it can do far more beyond that! One of my favourite current explorations is taking techniques from the baroque flute and applying them to the alto flute – including finger vibrato – and seeing what the Kingma system can offer in this regard, both in terms of replicating baroque flute techniques and also going the other way, and applying Kingma system creative thinking to the baroque flute. It feels a bit like coming full circle, with historical and contemporary music influencing each other.

About Carla Rees

Carla Rees is a UK-based low flutes specialist and is the Artistic Director of rarescale,  a flexible-instrumentation contemporary chamber music ensemble which has gained an international reputation for its work promoting and creating new repertoire for alto and bass flute.  She completed her PhD at the Royal College of Music in London where she researched extended technique for Kingma System alto and bass flute. Carla is a performer, an arranger, a composer, an educator, and the Director of Tetractys Publishing, which specializes in new music and arrangements for low flutes. Several hundred new works have been written and performed by Carla and are fantastic additions to the low flute recital repertoire.  In addition, Carla serves as the International Liaison Chair and member of the New Music Advisory and Low Flutes committees for the NFA, has served as the Programme Director for two British Flute Society International Conventions and has become the editor of PAN, the Journal of the British Flute Society. I’ve heard her perform at various NFA Conventions and at the first Low Flutes Festival in Reston, VA in 2018 and was captivated by the sound of her alto flute playing.  I am thrilled that she agreed to take time out of her busy schedule to do this interview, as she has successfully created her own career path in a time when being a great flutist is sometimes just not enough.

To find out more, visit

rarescale Academy

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