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  • Writer's pictureAlfie

Interview with Emma Rawicz

“It’s about more than just being good, it’s about having a passion for the music and being excited about what you’re doing- and that doesn’t mean perfection, that means something else.”

In September I met Emma Rawicz midday at The Astronomer pub in Liverpool Street, Central London.

As an independent musician still in higher education at the Royal Academy of Music, Rawicz is used to managing the bulk of her own logistics and oftentimes seems superhumanly busy- the context of our meeting was no exception. At the end of our conversation, Rawicz picked up her horn and left for a class elsewhere in London. She flew out to play a gig in Istanbul with her quartet two days later.

In the following deep-dive interview, the twenty-year-old rising star saxophonist provides unique insight as to the importance of balance in life, the role of social media in music, starting an instrument “late”, and comparing oneself to others. I would like to thank her for the generosity of her answers, which were very honest and expositional. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Was it jazz specifically that brought you to London?

Not exactly. I grew up in Devon playing classical violin, mainly; I didn’t pick up the saxophone until I was maybe fifteen, though I did know that I wanted to pursue music in a more serious way- even if I wasn’t sure of the genre just yet.

So, I applied to junior conservatoires such as Junior Guildhall, Junior Royal Academy of Music, and Junior Royal College of Music. Actually, mostly for classical violin and clarinet- I just knew I wanted to play more music. On the Guildhall application I accidentally put myself down for jazz saxophone which I… couldn’t really play at the time (laughter).

I’d never played jazz before and had only been playing saxophone for about a month, but I thought I might as well have a go at the audition anyway, and for some bizarre reason they decided to let me on the course.

It was something I really wanted to try even if I didn’t feel qualified, if you see what I mean. I’d never learned anything about jazz saxophone before then, but when that opportunity presented itself, I thought the best thing to do would be to just grab that opportunity and see what happened.

I suppose, in a roundabout way, I ended up playing jazz when I got to London- I came up every week for those classes but I didn’t actually plan on moving here for good at the start of the process.

Did you have any interest in jazz prior to going into it academically?

Well… yeah. I’d heard it on film scores, I’d heard maybe one big band performance. I knew I enjoyed the music, I knew I loved it, but I didn’t really have anyone guiding me as to what to check out. Where I grew up in North Devon there really wasn’t any access to live jazz at all, so I had no expectation of doing it before that moment of applying to Junior Guildhall. After that, it all just sort of happened naturally.

Did you pretty much start playing the saxophone by accident as well then?

No, I knew I wanted to play the saxophone. I knew I wanted to play the saxophone for a long time but I didn’t actually get round to it until I was fifteen, which was the exact same time I was auditioning for Junior Guildhall. I think I probably meant to enter it as a second study or something and just messed it up.

So when you did come to London and begin playing seriously, how did you actually break into the live scene?

I don’t know. Between me coming to Junior Guildhall and actually being on the scene in London I went to Cheatham School of Music for just over a year in reality due to covid. I was supposed to do sixth-form there (editor’s note: English intermediary education between high-school and university) and during that time I auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music where I began studying in 2020. Obviously, that was right before lockdown, so there was no scene to speak of in an active sense: there were no gigs to go and see, no jam sessions or anything.

But I guess I just practised a lot, I put myself on social media, I tried to play with as many people as I could, and a few gigs just started coming in. It all happened in a very organic way. I wouldn’t say I did anything in particular to break into it- I just met some nice people and one thing led to another.

Was it daunting then, going along to your first jam session? Or did it just feel comfortably like part of the same organic process?

Oh yeah, I’ve struggled with confidence issues massively- for the whole time I’ve been playing music, and certainly for the whole time I’ve been playing jazz. It’s something that’s improved a lot as I’ve improved as a musician and come to recognise that many of the insecurities we hold are native to everyone.

So for sure, even just playing with friends I’ve found quite nerve-wracking because I’d think, you know, do they think I’m any good? Do they actually want to play with me? These were all things that were occupying my headspace, but it’s definitely something that gets easier with time I think, and had I just been thrown straight into a jam session at Ronnie’s for example, that would have been even more stressful.

But I think for me, the way it worked out was okay. I managed to work on building up a bit more confidence as well as getting more playing experience.

Do you have any route you might offer a young jazz musician looking to break into the scene? Would you advise starting out in a casual setting with friends, or is there nothing necessarily wrong with just throwing yourself into a jam session?

I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to go about it; everyone’s different in the way they respond to pressure.

For some people, a high pressure situation like a public jam session might be what they need to inspire them, but for me personally I think building up from a more casual setting was better- and I had no other option during lockdown.

Though ultimately, the best thing you can do is just play as much as possible- especially with kind people. No-one at age sixteen, seventeen, eighteen... is a fully formed musician.

In fact, I don’t really believe that a fully formed musician exists, but particularly when you’re young and still figuring everything out. You don’t need people vibing you out and making you feel worse about yourself. It’s just a question on having a positive experience playing the music and having an ambition to improve for your own sake- it’s not just about impressing other people.

Do you have anybody that you consider a mentor?

That’s an interesting one, because nobody exactly springs to mind as a “mentor”, but there are some great examples of people who have been really supportive and who have been there to help me figure things out, especially as a bandleader in London and in other countries. Ivo Neame, Ant Law, Asaf Sirkis, and Gareth Lockrane are all musicians I play with that have more experience than me and have been there to offer advice and support.

So mentorship can take any form, really. It can even be a particularly supportive friend who also plays music and understands what it means to you. Feeling like you have a teacher you can go to to ask questions and not feel stupid about it is another really important thing.

How did you meet these people?

Ant and I connected via Instagram. Ivo and Asaf- I just asked them to be in my band. That was pretty much it! I’d seen them both- not together- in other bands and their own when I was first visiting London and was blown away by their playing. They seemed like really lovely people, so when I was looking to start a project for an upcoming London Jazz Festival gig last year I gave them a call. I met Gareth when studying at the Royal Academy of Music and continue to play with him a lot in my band.

Working with more experienced musicians has been really rewarding for me, particularly in gig settings, because you just learn so fast about yourself as a player, about yourself as a person, and particularly about yourself as a bandleader.

Who you are and how you deal with people is really important. You can’t get by on just being a great player; it’s about being easy to work with as well as just being a generally kind person.

On that more logistical, pragmatic note, would you describe yourself as having any particular work ethic? Because your schedule seems really packed, especially seeing as you’re still in education this year.

I’d say I’m a very motivated person, but I think that just comes from caring a great deal about what I do. I love the music I play, I love the people I work with, and it’s a real blessing to be able to do all of it with the people I do it with. Honestly, it’s just that I’m so enthusiastic about what I do that I’m always striving to be better at it.

I guess I could be described as having a pretty strong work ethic, but that can sometimes come with the connotation of self-flagellation, and it’s not so much about that for me.

Obviously practice is important, and discipline is important, but it needs to come from a place of being really excited and motived rather than what can be a sort of… sometimes really negative approach. And a little bit of that is good, but too much of it can detract from the reason you’re playing music in the first place.

Is managing work ever stressful? Dealing with club promoters, for example.

Yeah, sure- I mean, it’s a lot of logistics, a lot of admin. It’s a different skill altogether- completely separate from music to be honest- and that’s one of the reasons it’s so good to just try doing it all while you’re learning while surrounding yourself with people more experienced than you. Organising your time is just so important, and it’s something that you only learn by doing.

Would you ever consider getting an agent?

Oh, of course. There are certainly benefits to be had there. One thing I would say is: people who get an agent as soon as they start gigging may never fully understand how it all works- you know, booking gigs while being a freelance musician- because they don’t need to deal with the nuts and bolts of the process.

And while getting an agent takes a lot of the pressure off, leaving you with a lot more time to do actual music while the admin and negotiations and whatnot are being handled by someone else, in my view it’s really good to understand all of that before someone else takes the reigns.

Social media is also something that you manage yourself, and you’ve been fairly successful in that regard. Some artists bemoan the fact that their agents tell them that this is something they must do in order to publicise their work. Do you ever consider it a necessary evil, or do you find it enjoyable in and of itself?

Well, I never really like anything that takes your time away from the real world, so I’ve become a bit more averse to spending so much time on social media- particularly after lockdown when we all spent hours and hours on our phones.

But I do recognise that it is a useful tool. It’s a great way to let people know what you’re doing, and to connect with people that love what you’re doing. It’s not just about being like “hey, look how busy I am, look how many gigs I have”, it’s about letting people who enjoy your music come to your gigs and know what’s going on, and connecting with them in a way that lets them know you appreciate that they’re into it, you know?

Even small things like replying to a comment that says “I really enjoyed your gig” can be a great way to build a relationship with people.

I think if you can use it in that way- to kind of build something positive, not content for the sake of building followers and seeming busy, but to be like “hey, this is what I’m up to! I’d really like for you to come and see it,” you know, it can be a really positive thing.

It’s the community aspect that’s appealing, then?

Yeah, it can definitely be used in that way. I don’t think everyone does, necessarily, and it can be difficult to figure out exactly how it works for you. You have to be careful that you don’t get too worried about it, because ultimately it isn’t the real world- and if you don’t have a billion followers, well that’s fine. Many of my favourite artists don’t have very many followers on Instagram- or they don’t even have an Instagram account- so it begs the question: does social media really matter at all?

I’m often shocked by how unknown some of my favourite artists are on the internet relative to their real-world popularity. Do you think that there’s a tendency for the industry to put too much importance on the role that social media plays?

Oh, absolutely. And not just the industry, but the musicians themselves. I know so many people who I think would be using their time better if they spent less of it putting Instagram content together and more time practising, and more time getting out there to see gigs.

I’m not saying you should spend all your time practising, because then you’ll never know how to connect with other people or learn what it actually is that you like about music. It’s obviously important, but you need to live your life, see gigs- not just to film the whole thing for your Instagram story but to go and genuinely listen.

And it can be listening to music, or painting, or practising yoga- doing whatever it is that you’re passionate about even outside of music. I think that there is just so much that enriches music that comes from outside of music and the digital world that people have in some ways forgotten about, because they believe that the only way to get gigs is to have fifty-thousand followers on Instagram. That’s simply not the case, because there are people with that many followers who never work! So it's very important to not get sucked into the idea that it’s the be-all and end-all.

In the Jazzwise interview of November last year you spoke about feeling the need to catch up. Has that concern faded at all since then?

I think it’s constantly changing. I think that feeling of “eugh, I wasn’t a child prodigy shredding at seven” is something that has sort of hung around a bit. And it’s probably fair enough, you know- we get so much of this fed to us: the likes of Joey Alexander, for example, who’s like kid Mozart- and so much of what we see online in particular says “you have to be like this or you’re not good.”

And Joey Alexander is brilliant, as are many other players who were great really young- but you have to consider why that is and what led them to those circumstances. Often, it’s luck.

It can be the fact that they’re in an already musical family, or they’re somewhere with access to musical instruments and good teachers from a young age. It is a fact that simply not everyone has access to those things, and that’s just how it is, so you can’t beat yourself up for feeling like you’re not as good as any particular musician: you probably didn’t have the same childhood as them. Maybe your parents couldn’t afford to buy you an instrument when you were three, or they didn’t know it was going to be important to you later on- so these are things that just don’t matter, and the more I’ve played, the more I’ve improved as a musician on my own terms. You know, working on the things that I care about as opposed to just asking myself “can I play faster and higher than this person?”

And the more I’ve done this, the more I’ve been appreciated by other people in the community- my band members, for instance. They’ve told me quite a few times, “we work with you because we like what you do,” or, “we like the music that you write and the way that you play, and if we wanted to play with child prodigy number whatever, we would do that.”

But it’s about something more than that; it’s about more than just being good, it’s about having a passion for the music and being excited about what you’re doing- and that doesn’t mean perfection, that means something else.

It’s interesting that you bring up child prodigies because everyone compares themselves to people they perceive as better, but there’s kind of two sides of the coin there. I take a lot of inspiration from players such as yourself and Hank Mobley, who was sixteen when he picked up the saxophone, and that didn’t really seem to impede him in any way. You listen to early recordings of John Coltrane as well, and he was good, but he wasn’t the John Coltrane that we know.

Well exactly- Benny Golson picked up the saxophone at seventeen. It’s one of these things where we’ve got a slightly warped idea that we need to be like… like the average fairly wealthy kid who’s been given everything they need from a young age. And that’s fine, you know, it’s really cool that there are people out there that are being allowed to get into music early on- but it’s just not a reality for most of the greats. The reality is, like you said, John Coltrane didn’t sound like John Coltrane when he was twenty, and that’s because he hadn’t grown into himself yet.

He hadn’t developed what he was really about, and that applies to everyone, even now. In the age of social media, it feels like we need to have it right now, perfect now, presentable now- we need to be able to sell it right now. And it’s like, well, no! That isn’t how the process works in reality, and just because things are more accurately documented all the time online it doesn’t mean that people have become less human in the way that they play music, and it doesn’t mean that they’ve gotten better able to nail things the first time either.

People might have more access to resources, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not human beings ultimately just trying to get better as what we do.

Did you have any prior musical upbringing? Your website says that you grew up in a kind of classical, kind of folk sort of environment- but what does that actually consist of? Were your family musicians?

No, there aren’t really any musicians in my family. My parents both really appreciate music, and I’d say that both listen to a wide variety of different kinds of music, which was super cool for me. But no, no professional musicians in the family at all.

I played violin in the school string ensemble, which was pretty terrible in the way that most of them are. It was brilliant in that the teachers were wonderful; I was really lucky in that regard, like, it was just a load of kids scraping away at violins, but the teachers were just really excited about the idea of getting kids excited about music. They were really invested in that.

I also played at a local music service which was completely classical, and there wasn’t a huge amount of funding for it because I grew up in a very rural area. So, we’re only really talking like… I played in a concert band.

And that’s all I did. There wasn’t anything else around for me to do, and if there had been- believe me I would have been right there, but it was really just that.

The folk thing is that I just really wanted to play folk music on the violin- it wasn’t trained, there was no real direction to it- but particularly Irish folk music, I really loved playing that sort of thing. It was all very self-led, I didn’t have a folk music teacher or anything like that (laughter) and I probably came into it all in a very roundabout way, but that’s how I ended up spending my time, really.

Did your experience on the violin affect your approach to saxophone in any way?

Oh, I doubt it. I haven’t played the violin for… four years, maybe? I honestly picked up the saxophone and I put the violin down. The saxophone had been the aim for me for a long time. I knew I wanted to play it, but the circumstances weren’t right until I was a bit older.

And while I loved playing the violin- I still have it by the way- I just haven’t played it because it’s not the right… it’s not the right instrument for me at the end of the day. It’s not the one that I really, really love playing- although I love hearing it.

So, it probably hasn’t affected my playing too much. It might have affected my writing a little- some people say that there’s a slightly folky element in some of the music I write, but I don’t know.

Last question. Do you think that getting a formal music education has helped massively? Do you think you could have gone without it?

It’s an interesting one, because I’m lucky in the sense that I worked out how to practise quite young, which is not something that everyone figures out so early, so I was maybe fifteen and I already knew how to practise. As in, I figured out what worked for me- and that’s not to say I’m not learning new things all the time at the Royal Academy, but I would’ve been capable of practising for four years on my own.

I definitely would have gotten better, but it’s not just about that. It's about the people and the teachers you meet, purely sometimes because they’re just great people. It’s not all about, oh, “they taught me this new scale,” or, “they taught me this new polyrhythm.”

Meeting new people gives you an idea of what you might like to aspire to be like when you’re later in your career, it’s just good to have role models. I’m lucky to have met my teachers- even if it was just for a coffee every week and we talked about music, that would have been great for me. I think I would have gotten a lot out of that.

So, I think a really good part of formal education is just that you’re meeting people who really care about sharing what they know. Because there might be some great people at the local jam session, but if they’re on their night off they might not want to talk to you about certain things.

It’s about the kind of situation you find yourself in. You don’t have to take on absolutely everything you’re supposed to learn at music college, but it can be an excellent environment to help you form an idea of who you want to end up being one day.

This interview conducted, edited, and published by Alfie Coates.

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