I will begin by saying how much I adore James Galway’s playing, and how influential he was to me as a young student. While my Southern Baptist family sang in 4 part harmony at our gatherings and wholeheartedly encouraged my study of the flute, we were not the sort of family with season tickets to the symphony or the opera. While my audio technician father did go through a phase of playing Bach toccatas and fugues in prototype surround sound, my early musical influences were Johnny Cash, a heavy dose of bluegrass, hymns, and whoever was playing on Hee Haw that week. The closest I ever came to taking a piano lesson was when my aunt, who had taught me a few pieces by rote, handed me a piano primer and suggested I work my way through it. I had never even heard of flute lessons.
I played flute in school band though. My 5th grade band director also played the flute in local jazz clubs. (He was a woodwind doubler.) But there was something about his sound I didn’t like. I also didn’t like the sound of the flute on the Sesame Street end credits. (I’d like to add that my tastes have evolved, and I appreciate the 70’s jazz flute sound for what it is.) My band director’s sound, and what I now call the “Sesame Street jazz” sound, was an airy, unfocused sound. My father did listen to the classical station in his car, and I was sure I’d heard a different flute sound somewhere – something that sounded shinier and had a “ring” to it. So I was delighted one day, while shopping with my Dad in Woolworth’s, to come across a record with a picture on the cover of a dark-haired, bearded guy playing a gold, (GOLD!!!) flute. I had some allowance money saved, and I bought the record.
I took it home and bathed in that gorgeous, liquid metal sound. That vibrato that almost sounded alive. That technique that sounded, to my young ears, almost impossible and super-human. I played the record over and over. I took to playing one track, lifting the needle, practicing for a few minutes, and putting the needle back on for the next track. My father once found me in tears because, I, (wail) “don’t sound like HIM!!!” Dad pointed out that this guy was obviously older than a pre-teen girl, and probably had a few years of practice on me, but that if I practiced frequently and worked hard, one day, just maybe, I would sound like James Galway.
At some point during these early years of flute discovery, my Dad brought me a cassette tape that was in a deck brought in to his shop for repairs but was never picked up. It was a Jean-Pierre Rampal cassette. I was astounded to discover that one could NOT sound like James Galway and also sound gorgeous – that dolce sound, that light touch, that al dente articulation! I played that one, comparing it to the James Galway record, until my tape deck ate the tape.
Fast forward a few years to graduate school, during a lesson with Linda Lukas. I don’t even remember what the piece was, but I do recall her saying, “You’re trying to play this too fast. Slow it down and keep it controlled. Nobody plays it that fast. Except James Galway. And you’re not James Galway.” I responded with stony silence. After a moment, she responded, “You do know that, right? You’re not James Galway. Nobody is James Galway except James Galway. And that’s ok. That’s even good. You are you.” I nodded, but I didn’t get it. I may not have even really heard it at the time. I was too busy inside my head, planning all the ways I would be the next James Galway.
I did eventually realize that Linda was right. I was not James Galway. In fact, I soon no longer aspired to be him. I had come to know and hear and love many flutists by that point, and had taken away from all that listening and experimentation a zillion ideas which I incorporated into my own ideal sound, and my own philosophy of interpretation. I felt I had become my own flutist and my own musician – completely aware of who I was, and completely ok with it. No one can be successful at being James Galway except James Galway. And we, the rest of us, can only be successful as our own true selves.
So, I was surprised this week to learn that some small part of me was still trying to be someone I’m not. I’m in the final week of preparation for a master class and recital at a small college. My host is inviting many area middle and high school flutists, so I’m including some pieces in the program that will hopefully be accessible for them to pick up and try on their own. Which means I am revisiting some pieces from my past.
There was one piece on the program that just wasn’t coming together in my practice sessions. I could play it, but it just wasn’t working musically. Finally, in frustration, I stormed into the breakfast nook, where my husband was placidly sipping an espresso and reading an article on his phone, and boomed, “I am just going to CUT that piece from the program! I never liked it in the first place, and frankly, well, I just think it’s bad writing!”
My husband, looked up calmly and said, “Well, cut it then. I thought you were concerned the program was too long anyway.”
I stormed back into my studio/office and stared at the piece. I realized that the handwriting on this piece of music was that of a teenager. I’d been assigned to learn the piece by one of my first teachers, and the only reason I’d gleefully accepted the challenge was that James Galway did it on a record. And I was trying to prove to myself I could play it. And, if I were James Galway, maybe I could make it work somehow, but even then, I’m not at all convinced of this piece’s musical value.
What is interesting is that, upon deciding to remove this piece from the program, everything else fell into place. I was no longer worried I would have to rush my talks to the audience in between pieces, and it actually helped the flow of the program. Further, I was able to relax and approach my preparation from a calm, musically inquisitive perspective, which will of course enhance the performances of those pieces. And, when I saw the first bit of social media advertising about the program, I was able to smile and look forward to meeting and interacting with the faculty and students.
All of this, because I was true to my own musical self. So I took a moment to assess who that is – who I am right now. Because it was easier, I started with what I am not:
I am not James Galway. I am not an international touring flute superstar. I am a musician who values beautiful and effective interpretation above all else. My technical development is a means to that end. I am a wife and mother, and I value that role above all others. (I bet James Galway’s practice was never interrupted because his kid came home from school with head lice.) Because I started my flute life in public school band programs, in addition to private teaching, I go into public schools and into small towns and bring solid playing principles and inspiration to those kids who may never have the opportunity to study with a private teacher. And, having seen the negative effects our current testing-obsessed school culture has had on arts and cultural education, I have become, by accident, but now with intention, an advocate for the arts.
Who are you?