In Which Flute Superstars are Human

The director passed me the tuner. I tuned the student next to me, and I handed it to him to tune me. (This is the way the tuning exercise goes in our local flute choir, which is made up of professional performers and educators, adult amateurs, and students.) But instead of tuning me, he turned to tune the student on the other side of him.
“Hey!” I shouted, feigning emotional distress at being “passed over”. “I need to tune TOO, ya know!”
When the director asked this student why he skipped me, he said, “I just assumed she was right!”
Because, you know, I’m a professional. And a teacher. So my pitch is ALWAYS right. I wish more people would remember that . . . It would sure make MY life easier!
I can remember feeling the way that student did – thinking that all my teachers and flute idols knew something magical that I didn’t. I listened to my Galway and Rampal records, and I (mostly) dutifully did what my teachers told me to do. And I remember in grad school, when Paul Yarbrough, violist with the Alexander String Quartet and my chamber coach said, “You students have simply GOT to stop treating us professionals like we’re superheroes. We’re human. We practice. We perform. We make mistakes.”
In the summer of 1995, I had just finished grad school, and I was attending a two week workshop featuring some major names in the flute world. At the end of this workshop, the flutists gave a flute choir concert for the other musicians attending this festival. The final piece on the concert was “The Aviary” from Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals. I, along with a few others, was assigned to play first flute on this, which was simply the difficult solo from the orchestral part, verbatim. At the last second, a very well-known orchestral principal flutist who had been one of the workshop master teachers said, “Hey, I think I’ll sit in on this one. I’ll read with you, Charlene.”
Panic. Oh. My. God. XXXXX XXXXXX is going to read this over my shoulder. While I’m playing it too. He’s probably performed this a thousand times. He will be JUDGING ME. Breathe. Just breathe . . .
And there was nothing I could do except smile and agree to share my stand with him. (He’s a very nice man, after all.) And take a deep breath. And play.
Midway through the piece, XXXXX MADE A MISTAKE. A BIG one.
I was still reeling in shock, (and still plowing through the aviary), when he leaned over to me, and said, loudly enough that I was sure anyone in our meager audience could have heard, “OOPS!”
And later, backstage, “Sorry about that.”
But how cool that this giant in the orchestral flute world could humbly acknowledge that he’d made a mistake, and even apologize to a lowly grad student for it.
I really think it’s important for students to get that – that we’re all human. And for their mentors to model humility.
My moment of humility came less than an hour after that tuning exercise. The conductor asked me what rhythm I had in a particular measure. We were both sure that if he was seeing one thing and I was playing another, then either the score or my part must be wrong. After all, we’re both professionals and can certainly read in 3/8 time.
Or at least he can. I was completely misreading a rhythm. On a piece I knew, and had heard and played before.
I could tell you that the spacing was funny (it was), and that my print was faded (it was), and that the composer could’ve notated this differently and achieved the same thing with more ease and less embarrassment to the performer. But the bottom line is, I made a mistake. A big loud, honkin’ one.
And so I turned to the student and said, “See?! We all make mistakes.”
And he smiled politely and nodded. Because he thinks he gets it. But I can tell he still doesn’t.
In a way, it’s easier for these students to assume that their teachers, mentors, and idols are magical superstars. Because, if we’re NOT, if we’re human, then that means that we must have done a great deal of work to get where we are. And that means they have to as well.
So welcome to the gritty underworld of flute “superstardom”, kiddos. Welcome to countless hours in hot, stinky practice rooms. Welcome to long, exhausting rehearsals, and theory classes, and history. Welcome to ear-training. Welcome to all those things that, if done well, can make you a superstar in someone else’s eyes. A completely fallible, imperfect, humble, inspiring “superstar”.


About fluteromano

An active freelancer, private teacher, and university professor settles down to raise a few kids in a small town. For my professional bio, please see my studio website:

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