Flying the coop is healthy | Christine Dimech

As Arts Council Malta sets about upgrading the current Mobility Fund into the ‘Cultural Export Fund’, we speak to saxophonist Christine Dimech, member of the Big Band Brothers who frequently took advantage of this particular fund to further her training and experience. 

Christine Dimech with Antonio Mollica during a concert in May 2014
Christine Dimech with Antonio Mollica during a concert in May 2014

When did you first start taking music seriously, and what options were available for you at the time, in terms of exploring this interest further?

I started music lessons at a local band club (Ghaqda Muzikali Marija Bambina – Banda Vittorja) in Naxxar. It was, and still is, the most common starting point to study a wind instrument in Malta. After a couple of years, my parents suggested that I should start sitting for English board exams and therefore needed a private saxophone tutor. It was a difficult search at the time (way back in the 90s), as there were no qualified saxophonists that would accept a female as a student! However, we did find a dedicated clarinetist, Mro. Noel Beck, who taught me the art of music for the following years.

A similar problem re-emerged a few years later when I was about to enroll at university. I did consider enrolling in the music course but saxophone performance was not on the list. The prospect of going abroad to study was too expensive to consider, keeping in mind that Malta was still out of the EU and funds and sponsorships were very limited, if there were any. So the only option that was available to me at the time was to take up an IT course while continuing my musical studies privately, and enhancing it with hands-on experience through recitals and concerts with orchestras, bands and ensembles.

Could you tell us more about your development as a musician?

As I highlighted before, I started out my musical studies at the local band club and later proceeded to private tuition under which I achieved diplomas from English examination boards. However, the significant influences of my development were the various experiences and opportunities that followed.

Winning the mature category of the Young Musicians Competition led me to undertake a short course at the London College of Music at Thames Valley University in London, where I studied mainly with saxophonist Steve Cottrell. I also had the opportunity to participate in various concerts, television programs, pantomimes and other productions in Malta and abroad playing with various orchestras, bands and ensembles. Besides the Big Band Brothers, I have also had the opportunity to work with Ruben Zahra’s ethnic group Nafra, saxophone quartet Sassofoni amongst other chamber ensembles and various local band clubs.

I have also performed with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the Malta Youth Orchestra on numerous occasions and thus have had the opportunity to play under the prestigious batons of conductors Wayne Marshall, Brian Schembri, Kelly Kuo and Michael Laus amongst others. One occasion that I will cherish forever is when I performed Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia for soprano saxophone and orchestra with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. These opportunities have widened and deepened my perspectives and knowledge of music in general and other skills that are required to be a respectable musician.

Two years ago through a friend and colleague of mine, saxophonist Philip Attard, I was introduced to Paris-based, Italian saxophonist Antonino Mollica. With the help of the Malta Arts Fund I was able to catch up on my saxophone studies again after more than ten years. I attended a saxophone-specializing course with him in Paris as well as a number of masterclasses with various highly acclaimed saxophonists including Fabrizio Mancuso, Mario Ciaccio, and Gilles Tressos amongst others.

I became more aware of the reality which lies outside our small island’s shore – the opportunities and the competition that this sector upholds. I can safely say that lately my musical journey has taken a very exciting and overwhelming twist, filled with travels and collaborations with great artists and new friends to the benefit of my personal development, whilst hoping to promote and provide these opportunities to the upcoming, young musicians. In fact it has become one of my life’s “mission” – that of providing current students the educational opportunities that I missed out when I was young, hoping that Malta will one day be proud of its saxophonists like it is with its tenor Joseph Calleja!

To date, the collaborations have resulted in the organization of various events, including the Malta Saxophone Festival in November 2013 and an educational project targeting local bands in May 2014, both supported by the Malta Arts Fund.

What would you say are some of the benefits of the Malta Arts Fund Mobility Grant? Now that it is being revamped, what changes do you hope to see?

I am an avid supporter of Maltese talent and I do believe that we have a lot of high-level capabilities. However, we live on an island, and this can be a disadvantage in itself. First of all, travelling is more difficult and expensive. People living on the mainland can go from one place to another by simply catching a cost-effective bus. It is definitely not the case in Malta.

Another problem is the lack of different ideas. Most of us are governed by the ideas, mentality, points of view of a few, and they have become the status quo. If one had to look at the repertoire that is being studied by the current students, it is easy to realize that most of them, if not all, study the same pieces of music. Another case in point is contemporary music: why is it still not so popular in Malta as it is in other countries? We need fresh ideas, new music, experimentation, new approaches – otherwise we risk becoming stagnant and boring.

The Malta Arts Fund Mobility Funds helps in overcoming these two problems by aiding artists in their ventures abroad. It is extremely important that artists deepen and widen their views and knowledge as this brings fresh ideas into the whole system. The fund also helps artists to promote their work on foreign grounds, with the possibility of further collaborations, projects and other opportunities.

As a person who has been supported by the Malta Arts Fund I hope that the mobility fund allocation is larger. More and more artists are realizing the benefits of using foreign grounds for further personal development and promotion and therefore one hopes that the fund will cater for this influx. Therefore, I am sure that the overhaul will be an exciting one and one which will widen possibilities.

How do you think Maltese musicians, and perhaps Maltese artists in general, benefit from taking their work abroad?

Taking work abroad is an opportunity to widen the audience. It is not just an exercise to increase popularity, but it is a chance to be open up to different ideas and opinions which can be used to better the work itself.  So the venture becomes a learning opportunity which, if taken up well, can provide other opportunities of collaborations with other artists. It also gives the artists the opportunity to export the Maltese culture and traditions while learning about other cultures.

The Cultural Export Fund forms part of Arts Council Malta’s internationalisation strategy for the culture and creative sectors and comprises three main concepts: Travel, Touring and Translation. Information sessions will be held on April 22 and 23 in Malta and Gozo. For more information visit