Sir James Galway: You've got to put in the work to get to the top

Sir James Galway is back in his home town, flexing his renowned flute-playing muscles with the Ulster Orchestra this month. But would his mum consider it a proper job? Joanne Sweeney caught up with the Belfast maestro and his wife, also a world-class flautist

Sir James Galway and his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, are performing at this evening’s BBC Proms in the Park concert at Castlecoole, Enniskillen
Joanne Sweeney

FORMER muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger has an unlikely fan in the shape of renowned international flautist Sir James Galway.

The man who dedicated his life to building the physique of a Greek god and the man who elevated flute playing to what music lovers believe to be a heaven-sent gift, both share the same rigorous dedication to practise to achieve perfection.

The legendary flute player from east Belfast still practices, rehearses and exercises to maintain his performance, while passing on his gained experience and techniques to young flute players all over the world.

He says of the movie action hero: “I’m a big fan of Arnold and when you see Arnold standing there in one of typical stances holding up a gun, in a kind of ‘Look at me’ way, well, you see all the muscles he’s got. He didn’t get these muscles from doing one exercise. He did an exercise for this little muscle, another one for this little muscle and all sorts of things. When you put them all together, that’s Arnold.

“I go over all these little exercises and when they are all put together, it’s James Galway. And if the students don’t want to do those little exercises, they are going to be struggling their whole life.”

So there’s no substitute for hard work, even for a genius like yourself, I ask him?

“Yes, but they don’t always appreciate that. Everybody is looking for an easy way to do it and the bad news there ain’t no easy way. You’re got to practice and it should be well directed and well-focused hard work.”

Sir James and his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, an American who’s one of the world’s leading female flute soloists, are talking to me in their dressing room at the Ulster Hall, Belfast.

They have just finished a practice with the Ulster Orchestra ahead of this evening’s BBC Proms in the Park concert at Castlecoole, Enniskillen.

Coincidentally, it is also the couple’s 33rd wedding anniversary and when the 77-year-old pulled his wife into a quick waltz as the Ulster Orchestra struck up Glenn Millar’s In The Mood, it’s clear that the marriage is a happy one.

Lady Jeanne is the only soloist flute player that Sir James shares a stage with these days and it’s clear that his third wife, 16 years his junior, has immense respect for her husband as a musician.

“I still have complete reverence for my husband, just like I did all those years back when I was a kid,” she says. “Even when we are playing and he stops and suggests that I play something in this way, I can always step back as I admire his wonderful sense of musicality. I always listen and say, yes of course. I’m always learning.”

The couple will holiday for a few days in the west of Ireland before returning to Belfast for the Ulster Orchestra’s gala opening concert of the season, A Carnival of Rhythm! on Friday September 22, which just happens to be Culture Night in the city.

It will the first time that Sir James will perform the Bill Whelan-composed flute concerto suite Linen and Lace in Belfast. It received its world premiere in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, in 2014, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.

Riverdance composer Whelan was approached by Sir James to write the piece in his quest to find “ultimate Irish flute concerto”.

It depicts the links between the north’s industrial capital and Limerick’s lace-making history through music and poetry, starting off with a quotation from Derek Mahon’s poem An Unborn Child.

“It’s one part Belfast and the other part Limerick and Limerick is the lace part, which it's famous for, and Belfast is famous for linen,” says Sir James. "I don’t know whether you know that Belfast was the second biggest target for the bombing during the war as it made the linen for the parachutes.”

Lady Jeanne adds: “I just love it. He has been practising all week. It has such beautiful tunes in it. We are trying to programme it more in America next year, especially in March.”

Sir James’s life today is a long way from the docks area of east Belfast where he was first taught flute by his uncle at the age of nine. His father played flute and it was natural that he should start playing in the local band’s flute and drum corps. His talent quickly shone through and, aged 16, he won a place to study at the Royal College of Music in London – something that caused his parents some consternation at the time.

“My parents were having a fit at the thought of me at 16 going to London but then a teacher, John Francis from the Royal College, came to the rescue and I lived in his house so that kept me off the streets,” Sir James recalls.

He admits that in the early years, his parents often didn't appreciate the heights he to which he was already climbing in his career.

“I got the job as solo flautist in the Berlin Philharmonic [regarded as one of the best orchestras in the world] when I was 30,” he says. “I remember my ma wrote to me and said 'When are you going to stop running around all over the place and come home and get a good job at the BBC?' She didn’t really know what the Berlin Philharmonic really was.”

The couple say that training and mentoring the next generation of solo flute players is all-important to them and everywhere in the world they travel to perform, they provide a free community day for flute players to come and learn from the maestro.

One of these events will be held on Saturday September 23, at Methodist College and will be followed by a free performance at 2.30pm with Sir James and Lady Jeanne playing with all the young players. For more information and to register, contact Galway Flute Academy at

:: Sir James Galway will perform as guest soloist at the September 22 gala opening season concert of the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare. Tickets (£10-£29) and full programme information are available from

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