Special Spotlight: Aulus Duo
Interview conducted by Jake Adams, 30th April 2021. As this month is Mental Health Awareness Month, we sat down with Aulus Duo to have an important conversation about Project Bottled, a project they are working on to build mental health awareness in children through music, and their experiences with mental health as musicians.
Georgina Dadson is a Cardiff based classical guitarist and teacher. She graduated from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with Mark Ashford and Mark Eden of the Vida Guitar Quartet and Eden-Stell Duo with First Class Honours in 2018. She was awarded a scholarship to study her masters in performance at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2020 with Helen Sanderson. In 2018 Georgina won the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Prize, adjudicated by Craig Ogden and as a result won a place to attend the West Dean International Guitar Festival. She then went on to win the Doris Newton Prize, a competition against all departmental winners adjudicated by David Purser. Georgina has enjoyed performing in a number of solo Masterclasses with guitarists such as Laura Snowden, Xuefei Yang, Michael Partington, Fabio Zanon, Williamson Kanegiser and Zoran Dukić. Georgina is a keen chamber musician. She has most recently formed the Aulus Duo with flautist Ellie Knott. The duo are currently working with the authors of the book ‘Bottled’ (a rhyming picture book to use as a gateway to discussing feelings and expression) to create musical resources for primary school children to aid emotionally honest conversations. She also forms half of The Georgina Duo, a voice and guitar duo with soprano Gina Baker, and is a member of the Alma Guitar Quartet. Ellie is a 24-year old flautist and saxophonist originally from Manchester. In 2018, she graduated from Durham University with a First-Class Honours degree in Music. During this time, she studied with Eilidh Gillespie and taught at the Sage Gateshead as a Flute Tutor on their Step-Up Strings Programme, one of the Young Musicians' Programmes, alongside members of the Royal Northern Sinfonia. After graduating, Ellie worked at Wells Cathedral School as a Graduate Music Assistant and the schools’ Orchestra Manager and was taught by Sarah Newbold. She is currently a postgraduate student studying with Jonathan Burgess and John Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. Her studies at the College are supported by a Universal Music UK Sound Foundation Scholarship and a Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama Scholarship. Alongside performing with chamber groups and larger orchestral ensembles, Ellie’s passion is outreach work. Her ambition is to introduce children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to classical music in primary education settings through the combination of music and movement.
To begin with, tell us a little bit about yourselves. Who are you and what do you do?
G: My name is Georgina Dadson. I am doing my Masters degree at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD), studying classical guitar. I particularly love chamber music and am in a number of ensembles. One of which is with Ellie, Aulus Duo, and I also perform regularly (not in Covid times!) with my voice and guitar duo and am a member of the Alma Guitar Quartet. I also love to teach and do some artist management work for a pianist. E: I’m Ellie Knott and I’m currently ending the first year of my Masters at RWCMD with Georgina. We met last September and formed the Aulus Duo which has been a really good time and I’m really excited. Before I was here, I worked at Wells Cathedral School. I was there for 2 years after doing my undergraduate music degree at Durham University. I like drinking tea, baking and going out walking, which is really great in Cardiff. Musically, I play the flute, piccolo and saxophone. I started playing the flute when I was seven and I’ve wanted to be a musician for a very long time. I’m super grateful for all these opportunities and to even be here talking today is amazing.
A big passion of mine, that’s become our passion as well, is outreach and community-based work. I’ve done a few outreach projects before. When I was at university, my wind quintet, the Divinity Quintet, did a project based on the Carnival of the Animals with primary schools around the North East. When I worked at the Sage, I got to shadow the In Harmony scheme, set up by Julian Lloyd Webber, which is Britain’s version of El Sistema in Venezuela. It’s a really awesome way of not only introducing music but as a community device for social cohesion in areas that are less economically-driven. A big part of what we do is using music to try and make a difference on a community level, which is where Bottled came from.
What made you decide to form this duo and what are your musical interests as an ensemble? G: When we both had moved to a new city and didn’t know anybody, the only way we got to socialise would be in college, in a practice room. I don’t know whether that’s fair to say. Our initial conversation, while we were on a walk, was that we should maybe do some playing together and we quickly realised that we get on very well. We have the same hopes and dreams when it comes to music and what that can do for others. We just sort of clicked on that point didn’t we, Ellie? We’re quite passionate about it.
E: It was a crazy thing we did, moving half-way or part-way across the country during the global pandemic to embark on this next chapter of our lives. We both had been in a similar position, having taken time out before doing our masters and as Georgina said, we both have similar ideals and ways of approaching what we do musically, as well as life in general. We both come from a very similar mental standpoint, musically speaking. We just had a bit of play and that’s how it started. We’re both big lovers of chamber music. I suppose for a guitarist, ensemble playing is one of the most natural ways, but as a flute player particularly, even though we have orchestral experiences available to us, I’ve always loved chamber music. You learn so much that then informs the wider spectrum of what we do as an instrumentalist and musician more broadly. I was looking to create some of these small ensembles and I was really lucky that Georgina is great *laughs* and was really up for it.
G: It’s nice because the guitar can also be a portable accompanying instrument which is quite handy. E: I’m quite used to playing with a piano accompaniment and while the guitar has a similar function, it is really different. With the flute, you sometimes feel your sound can be lost when you’re sitting in the back of an orchestra. Projection, a bigger sound and resonance is what we’re always striving for. On their own, the guitar and flute can be quite serene or quiet really, but together, you get something that’s really quite beautiful. Could you name some musicians that have influenced your perspectives on music and the styles of music that you’re interested in? E: I feel like what I’m going to say will be quite unspecific as I can’t pinpoint exactly. Obviously, there are the great players that I enjoy listening to but in terms of people who have actually influenced me, I think of great teachers I’ve had in school, flute teachers and musicians that I’ve worked with. Different bits from each of them. I’ve played jazz with groups back home, I’ve played in orchestras and worked in these community projects. Even now, the teachers and musicians I work with are the ones that really inspire me day-to-day. It isn’t easy to go into what we do, especially right now. The people that still manage to keep that passion and make a difference whether it is for themselves or others, I think that’s where I get my inspiration from. It’s really easy to say the big names, isn’t it?
G: It’s funny because I was going to say the exact same. For me, the inspiration has come from playing chamber music. Right from the beginning, I did my guitar lessons with another friend, and that’s sort of what motivated me. I did Saturday morning music school which I loved and then I got into National Youth Guitar Ensemble and Guitar Circus which were ensemble-based. Well, Guitar Circus is now the National Youth Guitar Ensemble and it was a once a month thing. I was in a big ensemble and also a quartet. We were being taught by Mark Ashford, who is the Head of Guitar at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, which is where I did my undergraduate. I was having this experience with really great players who I viewed as a lot better than me. I felt like I was learning so much and that for me was the inspiring thing. And then just going to guitar festivals and everyone having so much fun. One specific person is very difficult. I think it’s definitely the experiences playing music with other people that has been my main motivator and inspiration.
I think it’s definitely a question that’s easier for composers to answer cause composers can just go, “Oh yeah this composer.” One more question before we talk about Project Bottled. If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would you go? E: This is going to sound very random but the first thing that came into my head was somewhere like the top of Machu Picchu. A really expansive space where you can be in nature and the world. Just playing my flute over there would be this amazing, ethereal feeling. Kind of a bit wacky and out there but that was the image that I thought would be cool. G: My initial reaction would be Spain, which is a little cheesy, because obviously classical guitar and Spain, but it would be in some Spanish town, with all of the locals, just playing and enjoying a glass of wine. Maybe that one is possible, whereas I think performing on the top of Machu Picchu… I think we might have to try and make that happen. That should be our goal.
Please could you tell us about Project Bottled. How did it come about and what is it that you’re doing within the project? E: “Bottled” is a children’s book written by Tom and Joe Brassington, primary school teachers who aim to provide children with a tool to become more emotionally honest using the imagery of bottles with different feelings, how we can share and positively impact children’s mental health. I was at university with one of the two brothers, Tom’s, sister-in-law. I had seen tweets and posts on social media about the project funding but it was in the periphery and passed me by at the time. One day, we were in a lecture talking about musicians in the pandemic and I just had this lightbulb moment. As I’ve said before, outreach is something I’m very passionate about and want to be a large part of my career. I’ve dabbled with and built projects but without ideas as creatives, what are we? I’ve been waiting about 2 years for this idea. I immediately called my mum to say “It’s happening.”
The idea itself is to take the book, use it as an educational resource, the stimuli for a musical project where we could introduce the principles of the book and combine that with the idea of introducing classical music to people who haven’t experienced it before, particularly children. I believe in the importance of getting music education early enough. I’m really lucky that in Manchester we have hubs and different music centres in each town but having seen In Harmony and being aware of the Kodaly method, I just think there are different ways. We need to reinvent music education or it will just die. It’s underfunded. Not to be too blunt but I think that is what’s going to happen. We can all see it happening. All these things culminated together and this project just came to me. These projects work great in groups or small ensembles so when we started playing together, I said to Georgina, “I’ve got an idea. What do you think?” Things just went from there, we spoke to Tom and Joe and that’s where it started.
How did you go about connecting these ideas to the music then? What’s been your approach?
G: In the book, there are a number of bottles that each have an emotion. We started by planning out what pieces we feel convey those emotions which has become the repertoire we’re working on. Ellie then created some great resource sheets. The initial thinking was playing a piece and asking the children what they think but I’ll let Ellie talk a little more about all of that. We’re also going to connect with a composer at college to hopefully create a “Peter and the Wolf” style piece that we can play as we read out the book to the children.
At the moment, we’ve created 6 different sessions that we can take into schools, that takes us through the book and the different emotions as well as how we can use music to understand these emotions. We understand that a piece we think feels sad might be something different to someone else but it’s more about helping children think through those things and use music to understand some of their own emotions. One of these 6 sessions, if a school were to want just a standalone thing, would be a performance with this yet-to-be-composed piece which we would play and perform during an assembly where the book can be read alongside the music. E: Part of it for us is building and weaving together an emotional and musical literacy in children. I think that’s the most distinct way I can put what we’re trying to do. It’s really “milking” the bottle analogy for all it’s worth, allowing challenge through the analogy and presenting it in a musical fashion to give them different ways to put words to what they feel. It would be brilliant to think someone might go home and say “I heard this piece of music today and that’s how I feel today”. We’re also aware that people come from different backgrounds and different types of music making. Over the past five or so years, I’ve seen the family and community situations that children have. They’re so varied but if we can equip children, not saying we can change the world, but as a starting point to help that change when they become adults. As we know, by that time, so much of who you are can be traced back to childhood. Music for me has always been a safe creative space. If we can give that to little ones, that’s our job done. G: Another one of our goals is to make it fun. Not only are we helping them understand these emotions, it’s also a different way to go through the book. The book is created to teach about mental health in schools but we’re aware that the music curriculum isn’t always at the top of people’s lists. If the classroom teachers don’t feel comfortable doing a music class, we hope we’re able to give this as an all-round sort of thing. They’ll have a musical education, hopefully having some fun too, and realise that music might help them with what they’re going through. That’s something Ellie and I have connected with. Music has always been there for us in a positive way and has certainly helped me with all of my academic stuff as well. When I was at school, I was not at the top of the class academically and the headmistress caught on to the fact that I took to music. She gave me so much confidence and supported me with that. It gave me so much more and I was able to do the academic stuff so much better. It’s just interesting what it did for my own mental health at that age and stage. I was so lucky that my teacher recognised that I wasn’t finding everything easy but there was one thing that was fun and that then helped other things. It’s just understanding the power of all of it really. E: I think it’s nice that it’s become important to us. We really embody the aim of the project ourselves. Even when we chat, the first thing we’ll say is “How are you?” but not in the classic “You alright?” way. Genuinely asking “How are things with you?” and so many times we cry to each other over Zoom. That emotional honesty has now become really important in our lives and I do it even with family and friends much more than I ever did before. We’re really trying to do that ourselves and it’s really important to us.
Being emotionally honest is something very interesting and I’ve obviously seen you on social media promoting it quite a lot, Ellie. Do you feel your musical practice helps you with your emotionality? Do you think music and the way you’re working helps you be emotional honesty and does it benefit your music making? E: I do need to point out that by being emotionally honest, I don’t necessarily mean detailing my entire life on social media. I’m not living on social media but it’s providing people with tools so that they can have a conversation with people around them and be transparent about how they are in that moment so things don’t fester psychologically. I think it’s important to make this distinction and not cross this line we’re treading but yes, I do. I’ve come from university after having some time out and I feel like I’ve worked very hard to be where I am right now. What we do as musicians is so tied up in our own identity, often detrimentally. We go and sit or stand in a room for hours a day on our own and we have to become critical of ourselves in order to improve. Teachers will be, especially at our level, on quite an intense level a lot of the time. Emotional honesty is a really positive thing and having conversations with people around you, acknowledging how you feel is a massive part of that. It’s the first step in helping you become more self aware. Being a flute player is not all I am. It’s part of who I am, a big one at that, but there are many other parts of me. That process of learning to be emotionally honest enabled me to separate people from their art. I think it really helps you as a musician to have conversations like that with people around you because it helps you work better musically. When you practice, it’s about what you’re doing, the art itself, the piece that you’re working on. It’s not “I am absolutely terrible and a failure and I’m never going to amount to anything” that you then just spin and spin and spin, building up this schema in your head, finally coming up against a brick wall. It makes us more emotionally honest in how we perform and interact with other musicians. Georgina and I haven’t had the chance to be in rooms together rehearsing and performing anywhere near as much as we would have liked in the past seven months but we’ve done so much work on emotional honesty and the project. I feel like you can skip so many steps and just jump straight in with someone. That musical rapport that you build gets there a lot faster and works more efficiently. G: I’ve always been someone that has been pretty open, blurting out my emotions. That’s sort of how I work. I used to think that was a fault but in recent years, speaking to more people and with mental health being much more widely talked about, I realised it’s very good to just say how you’re feeling, have a good cry and be able to move on if that’s what you need to do. I used to be able to speak how I felt but I found the performing side of things almost terrifying. I wasn’t nervous about talking about my feelings but performing made me feel very vulnerable. I felt I could control how I’m feeling more than what I portray while playing. When you’re playing together in a duo or ensemble, understanding each other, being empathetic and not blaming each other all the time, I feel it’s so much better to be open, understanding, knowing that people aren’t always going to be okay. Knowing that they’re not always going to get all the notes right. That we have good days and bad days. That connection that you then have with people when you’re performing is going to be so much more. The audience is then going to enjoy it so much more because it’s so much more interesting to watch. I think when playing an instrument, performing or doing anything creative, you’re putting yourself out and there and being quite vulnerable so being able to talk to other people, particularly who are doing the same thing as us, can really help.
Backtracking a bit to what you were talking about earlier about playing to show the different emotions. One thing I liked was that you’re not just talking about building the musicality for kids that want to pick up an instrument but also for those who just want to be listeners. E: That is a massive thing with any kind of education work that I do. Music benefits all in my mind and there may be some that disagree with me. Regardless of whether you want to play an instrument like we did or whether you have access to listen to music at home. There’s a lot to be said about how it can not only impact academically, but it also has a massive impact on you as an individual. I wouldn’t be who I am right now if I hadn’t had music in my life. It’s given me a lot more confidence. I wouldn’t have said boo to a goose when I was a lot younger and now you can’t shut me up! It gives you social skills as well. I spent three nights a week at music centres when I was younger and you built this camaraderie and musical family. I think it helps create some sort of balance in life in children who have music around them. You can take from it exactly what you want or you don’t. Music is a big part of anything visual or auditory because it has such power to sway feelings. During a moving scene in a film, listen to the soundtrack. It’s designed to influence you.
G: With connecting music and the book, if there are children there who have absolutely no interest in playing music, at least it gives them something to grasp or there’s some sort of connection with something else which they might find interesting. In one of our sessions, there will be some sort of music making where we’ll get the students to even just ring a bell or bang a drum. There will be some time where they’ll also be able to do some music making but it’s not just all about them playing an instrument. E: For musicians, we talk a lot about transferable skills. Musicians are very employable because of all these skills we learn along the way. If you can impart any sense of that on children or the population in general, surely that can only be a good thing. There are lots of benefits to music even if you don’t actively pursue it or learn an instrument.
I’d love to hear more about the small bits of music making within some of them. Would they just be told to work something out to express this? How does this work in the project?
E: On the simplest basis of an activity, we’ll get the children in groups and give them each an emotion. With whatever instruments the school has, or what we’ll be able to bring in as well, they can generate a small composition themselves to represent that emotion and perform those to each other, opening up another discussion. I think there are a lot of interesting discussions to be had about how they have internalised and taken the time we’ve spent with them as well as the way we’ve approached it. It’s amazing how information goes into children and what then comes out of them.
You mentioned a while ago about anxiety relating to performance anxiety. As musicians, it’s a huge thing that can be a “make or break” for a lot of people or so it feels. Do you feel a connection between dealing or coping with the performance anxiety and emotional honesty?
E: When I was in my second year of university, I started having really bad performance anxiety. I was in a lunchtime concert performing before my end-of-year recital, playing Faure’s “Fantaisie” which I love and have played many times since. I suddenly felt that “fight or flight” when I was on stage and I wanted to run out, part-way through the piece thinking “I can’t do this. This is scary.” I had a real problem with getting onto a stage after that. I knew to get into college, where we are now, you’d have to audition. You have to stand on your own and play well so that you’ll get into college, be in that project or whatever you’re auditioning for. I realised I was facing this massive stumbling block. At the time, you feel like you’re never going to get past it and that it’s the beginning of the end. It’s obviously not because I’m sitting here now. If I hadn’t felt like I could be emotionally honest with my teacher, family, friends and the flute teachers I spoke to at summer courses about how I was feeling, I don’t think I’d ever have been able to get out of it. I wouldn’t have then been able to go on and do the research that I’ve done myself.
I’ve read a few books like The Chimp Paradox, which is a really interesting one for me. These books work for some people and don’t work for others. You have to cherry-pick on bits of imagery. I really pushed to put myself in those situations. It’s kind of exposure therapy and it’s how I made that better for myself. It’s only been in the past 12-18 months that I’ve really come out of it. It was around then that what I was saying earlier about separating the art from the person came about. So often, if I have a bad practice day, I feel horrendous about myself. I feel like I'm a terrible person. The day is ruined. That all comes from that same place and if I hadn’t been able to be emotionally honest, I don’t think I would’ve gotten through that. I wouldn’t have been able to work through it myself and be where I am now.
G: I had a similar experience in my first ever year-end recital of my degree where I had two terrible memory slips. I remember my mum was in the audience and I really thought “Shall I leave?” but then I thought then I’d fail and I’d have to do this all over again. I managed to
carry on but after that I did some performance coaching and the one thing that really helped me, that links to emotional honesty, was this idea of having a truth book. What do I need to do before each performance to feel like I’ve done everything I can do? The coach said to me, “Did you think that you could do that? Why do you think you had those memory slips?” Now I have a mental list of everything that I want to tick off. Playing to just one friend, then playing to a few more, playing in lots of guitar performance classes and if it’s a bigger recital, doing a little concert in a little district somewhere. Can I close my eyes and play without my guitar? When I can do that, I know I can play it from memory. I now use that way of thinking for everything, even if it’s for an interview. Ticking those things off and knowing you have absolute truth. It’s true you have done those things and you cannot do anything else. Being honest with yourself as to the work you’ve done, completely transforms how I was able to feel pre-performance. I suppose that’s emotional honesty in another way. Being really honest about what you’ve done leading up to a performance.
E: I’ll always practice in the clothes that I’m going to be wearing beforehand and if I can get in the room that I’m going to be playing in, so much the better. It’s little things like that that get you to that point when you realise, I’ve put in all the practice that I can. The ability to accept that there’s always going to be something that’s going to happen. That bar that you never needed to practice that’s not particularly hard cause it was always there and was never a problem, is gonna slip up. Accepting that these things are gonna happen is actually really freeing and liberating in a way.
G: And then those mistakes are more of a positive. You can just think that happened but there’s nothing else I can do and I’m proud of myself. That really helped for the way my brain works and I’m sure other people have different things but being emotionally honest just even with yourself is very helpful.
It’s interesting how you mentioned that it helps you to accept any errors. Saying this from a composer point of view, errors are almost unavoidable but also make live performance what it is. Makes it different from recorded performance.
E: I think that’s a really interesting thing with the pandemic. Obviously, live performance hasn’t been possible for a long time. We’ve all been recording. Even in an era of digitalisation, we all aspire to be perfect, but we are human. I’m not saying that to excuse big mistakes or allow for less preparation time, but that it is okay. Strive for perfection all you like but that’s not really the art form. Music isn’t perfection, being human isn’t perfection so why are we killing ourselves in the pursuit of that.
Besides Project Bottled, what other projects have you been involved in recently?
G: I have been lucky enough to be in a guitar quartet (Alma Guitar Quartet) and we’re performing at Dillington Guitar Festival in August. That’s something I’m working towards and will be fun. Both Ellie and I have been working towards our end-of-year recitals in May and June, doing lots of practice working towards that. I’m also a trustee of the Sophie Silver Lining Fund, a charity that supports actors and singers who are in particular financial need. We have connections with Royal Welsh, Birmingham, London colleges as well as places like RADA and Central. It’s not based on how amazing you are but for people who can’t afford to be doing these things, so that’s really lovely to be a part of. They have a little performance venue called Sophie’s Barn which is quite near me, that raises bits of money when musicians go and perform there. They can also use that space to rehearse. I love being involved in that.
E: In terms of Aulus, other things we’ve been doing are obviously with The Arc Project. Longtime fans. We’ve been working Birgitta Flick on a piece she’s written that we’re going to be recording quite soon. It’s really exciting, beautiful music. Also, we’ve been working on a piece by a certain composer but I can’t remember his name… *laughs* by Jake. It has been a really brilliant and nice change for us from Bartok and more standard classical repertoire, which we’ll be recording and performing as soon as we’re able. I’ve been doing some really interesting and odd projects as well recently. A composer at college called Florencia Alen has written a piece based on microtones which is a new experience for me and one that I was really keen to be involved with. It was really fun and we put down a recording for that just before Easter. The weekend after next, on Sunday, I'm playing in the “Atmospheres” concert at college. I’m playing a piece by one of the postgraduate composers with a flute quintet. I’m really excited to be playing in an actual concert. I’m going to have to dust off my blacks and practice walking in my concert shoes again.
G: Oh yes, I’m in that too. I’d forgotten. That’s something really exciting that we’ve got in a couple of weeks. I’m doing guitar, harp and piano which is quite fun to do. Performing with piano and harp is something I’ve never done before so that will be interesting.
E: ...and by complete fluke, we’re playing on the same day for the same composer in different ensembles. We’re meant to be, aren’t we?
G: Yes. We’ll have to get Jared to write us something.
Last question. It’s the fun one. If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with the money?
E: I’ve got a really boring answer, I’d pay for my course.
G: That would be really nice because that is a stress.
E: Or maybe I’d buy lots of flutes.
G: We could set up a really cool music service in Cardiff that makes music accessible to people. It would have free music lessons. I was part of a project when I was in Birmingham that was funded by Town Hall Symphony Hall. I went on a Wednesday for a few hours and taught a number of students from the ages of 7 to 70 and they didn’t pay a penny for their music lessons. Being able to provide something like that would be amazing. I’d love to be able to do that.
E: If you do it, can I teach there please?
G: Absolutely. I’ll hire you. My goal is that I would like to earn enough to be able to live but then hopefully there will be some capacity in my week to be able to teach people who can’t afford to have lessons, for free. I’d like to have a real range of stuff but we'll see. That’s a dream. It would be nice to feel like one would be able to do that.
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