The One Compliment You Shouldn’t Give an Artist

My hubby and I often joke about the plethora of articles and tidbits on social media that swamp us with the feeling we’re doing EVERYTHING wrong. You know, “Slicing Avocados – You’re Doing it Wrong”. And so, after a recent performance, when I shared with him that yet another well-meaning individual had said to me, “You’re so talented!”, we laughed and said that I should write a blog post entitled, “Post-concert Compliments! You’re Doing it Wrong”.

Now, if you HAVE been doing it wrong (post-concert compliments, I mean. I can help you with that avocado thing too, but another time), please don’t fret. We’re not insulted. We know you mean well. And we know it’s your way of saying how much you enjoyed the performance. But the problem with “You’re so talented!” is that it points to a bigger issue with how our society views artistic endeavors and musicians.

“You’re so talented” implies that we exited the womb, perhaps with a Stradivarius in hand, knowing EXACTLY how to play the Prokofiev Sonata. It negates all our educational experiences and efforts, and that in turn affects how school administrators value and give (or do not give) access to arts education. There are far too many people out there who believe that artistic people will do artistic things no matter what their educational and life experiences expose them to.

This is a falsehood.

Just yesterday, I was completing a crossword puzzle, and the clue was, “A 9 letter word for ‘talent'”. The answer was potential.

And as anyone who has studied basic Newtonian physics will tell you, potential energy does nothing, sitting there by itself. An outside force must act upen the object to release that potential.

This outside force, in terms of artistic development, may come in the form of a family member who sings to an infant, music experienced at church or civic events, and (hopefully) eventually, in elementary school music. And hopefully, if a student is inclined to music, they will enjoy their elementary music school curriculum enough to sign up for band, chorus, orchestra, drama, or art class. And it is there, in these classes and the experiences they offer, that those fundamental skills are developed.

I don’t know a single professional musician today who says, “I’ve always done this and I don’t remember when I started.” If you talk to us; if you read the biographies of the famous among us, you will find there is almost always a formative experience. “I joined the town fife group.” “I started playing trumpet in band because we had one in the attic.” “My parents were involved in community theatre and I used to watch rehearsals from backstage where I was supposed to be doing my homework.”

And then there is the grit. The blood, sweat, and tears. I recently had a student decide, after much reflection and conversation, to not major in music. His reason? “I just don’t think I’d enjoy my life spending all those hours in a practice room.”

His reasoning is completely valid. You have to want to do it. And yes, you have to be wired for it. And I mean neurologically wired. What sounded like torture to my student was the dream of a lifetime for me when I was his age. “A college experience where I’ll be expected to practice at least three hours a day?!!! Bring it on!” But being wired for it and doing it are different things. Those were long hours in sometimes dank, smelly, graffitied practice rooms. And the rehearsals. And yes, the coursework – music theory, music literature, ear-training. And many music students must take traditional academic courses on top of this to satisfy state requirements.

And it’s not as though the practicing is done when a musician leaves school. We continue to practice to maintain and further our skills, and of course we have to practice our current repertoire. And then there’s the competitiveness of the field itself, and all the self-marketing most of us must do.

And so, it’s not that you’re speaking an untruth when you tell a musician they are talented. Respectfully, it’s that you’re missing the point entirely. They probably are wired to bring you the concert you just enjoyed. But they also worked very hard to be able to do it.

Instead, tell them about a specific piece you enjoyed, or some particular aspect of their playing or singing or acting or painting or sculpting. Or, if you’re at a loss for words, just say, “I really enjoyed your performance.” Acknowledge the hard work involved in putting a performance together.

But please, whatever you do, don’t say anything that implies the talent fairy simply swooped down and sprinkled talent dust on their head while they were sleeping. That “talented person” was developed, not born.

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The Well-Rounded Quad (On the arts in curriculum)

A few months ago, I was invited to a small, liberal arts university to give a master class and perform a recital. While this university does offer some professional programs, the core of this program is its liberal arts curriculum, located on the beautiful, traditionally designed main campus. As I walked onto campus, I entered the quad, flanked, as one might expect, by buildings housing the school’s programs and some dormitories, and by one building housing the school’s performing arts center.

The music program is housed in the Humanities building, a short walk from the performing arts center, and is a small department. As I approached the building with my friend, a new faculty member at this school who had invited me there, on a misty, damp fall morning, I was struck by the demeanor of the students milling about in front of the entrance.

They were so calm. And happy.

As a graduate of two schools of music (an east coast conservatory for my bachelor’s and a west coast school of music for my master’s), I couldn’t help comparing the differences in the student environment here, in this small school, nestled in a little valley near the Cumberland Gap, and the students at the schools of music and conservatories where I have attended and taught.

Anyone who has attended a conservatory or school of music will tell you that they are . . . . for lack of better words, special places. They are wonderful places, attended mostly by students who simply love what they do so much, so much that passionate becomes an overused, tired expression to describe the love and dedication they have for their craft. These students tend to be highly intelligent, creative, and energetic types. For two years of undergrad school, my dorm room faced a patio outside the cafeteria entrance. I often woke to the sounds of music theatre majors and vocalists bleating out a few warm-ups or excerpts on their way to breakfast. While students at other schools sat and studied, my classmates and I practiced, and practiced, and met in the lounge above the practice rooms for breaks, snacks, pranks, hijinks, competitive banter, and then adjourned and returned downstairs for more practice. While we did attend classes and write papers like other college students, we spent a great deal of time in rehearsal as well. And a good many of our classes were lab-oriented – sight singing and ear training. We didn’t have many opportunities to fall asleep listening to a lecture.

In short, my undergraduate education was one of constant activity, outrageous happiness, and blood, sweat, and tears. And competition. It was a stressful thing. And it was a good thing. For me.

But that sort of experience is reserved for us weirdos who LIKE spending hours and hours alone in practice rooms, and hours and hours with others rehearsing. There is a very small percentage of our population that is cut out for that sort of experience, to do this thing full-time.

This is not to say that a liberal arts experience is not stressful or intense. But it is more balanced.

Back to my tale:  The students at this small school continued to impress me throughout my visit. In our master class, I worked with a flutist who wishes to become a music educator. While her level of playing was perhaps not that of a student at a more performance-oriented school, she was quick to try new ideas, and was able to think about her own playing, and the music she was trying to interpret, in a critical way, and to develop plans to practice her music in ways that would help her achieve her goal. I think she’ll make a fine educator.

And every time I entered a hallway, or a classroom, or the quad at this school, I was again struck by the peaceful, contented nature of these students. This is not to say that they were lackadaisical. Not in the least.

To wit – the performing arts center has one stage, which is shared by the drama and music departments. It seems my recital was scheduled smack dab in the middle of a run of The Three Musketeers. When the dean saw the set-build in progress, she asked the drama professor to ensure the set was designed so there was room on the small stage for a grand piano and a flutist. It didn’t work out that way. But, knowing their set was in the way and a guest artist needed room to rehearse the following afternoon and give a recital the following evening, the drama professor and his students came in late one night and partially struck their set, only to rebuild it for the following weekend’s productions.

They love what they do. Maybe not enough to major in it, but enough to participate. The administrators at this school, and at many liberal arts colleges across the country, realize that music, arts, and drama should be an integral part of EVERY human’s education. For these students, their participation in The Three Musketeers or an instrumental ensemble is a vital part of their humanity, of their day-to-day existence. They understand that participating in an artistic project, as opposed to passively listening on their way to class or while studying, is a healthy and balancing part of their human existence.

And they come to concerts. On the night of my recital, it was foggy, misty, wet, and generally unpleasant outside, and yet the hall was full of students, faculty, and community members. Afterward, several audience members approached me to congratulate me, ask me what they should do about their grandchild who wants to study violin, and to thank me for giving the recital.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all week!” This was a student who told me she had played flute in middle and high school, and that she’d been putting in many, many hours in a lab that semester, and she was simply delighted to have a flute event to look forward to and attend.

I went home with a new appreciation of the value of arts education as part of a complete, well-rounded liberal arts curriculum, with classes in English, writing, history, foreign languages, science, philosophy, mathematics, art, physical education, drama, and music for everyone. With that in mind, I continually encourage my public school administrators to design and tweak curricula with this principle in mind, making these subjects accessible to all students. And I encourage you to do the same.

 

 

 

 

I’m Not James Galway, and Neither are You

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?

Pilates and Meeting the Principal and No Child Left Behind

Ever have one of those days planned that when you look at your calendar the night before, you ask yourself what kind of crazy, workaholic lunatic scheduled this mess? And then you remember you don’t have a personal assistant and this is all your fault? And you realize that you can’t reschedule any of it, and that makes you want to run upstairs to your bedroom, crawl under the covers, and never, EVER come out again? Yeah, that was my day yesterday.

Except I have kids, and I’m simply not allowed to hide under the covers all day. I suppose this is a good thing. It makes me face these kinds of days. I now face them with a bit more fluidity than before – reminding myself that I am imperfect, and that if the day does not go according to plan that absolutely none of it is a life-or-death matter. And yesterday presented many special challenges, and that is why I am glad I am bad at mountain climbers.

By “mountain climbers”, I mean the exercise. I have no issues interacting with folks who climb mountains. I don’t understand them, but we get along. I am just terribly, horribly inept at even the most basic mountain climber exercise. And these days, all the trainers and group instructors seem to want to “kick them up a notch”, as though mountain climbing needed kicking up, and as though I don’t already kick myself in at least one eyeball every time I do them. (I am a notoriously clumsy exerciser. When I began working with my personal trainer, she insisted this was simply my perception and not true, and that with some time and work, I would be as well-balanced as anyone. I’m not sure if she meant my mental stability too, but I sometimes wonder. In any case, I have completely proved her wrong on this point, and she seems to have accepted it, as she hovers over me anytime I do ANYTHING that could end in disaster. (I once nearly steam-rolled myself with a foam roller at home, because I forgot I was wearing an apron and the apron became entangled in the roller somehow and I was sort of stuck, lying there with the cats stepping all over me, for at least a few minutes . . . (Yes, I wear aprons at home all the time. When you work from home, you will understand.) I have forgotten how many parentheses I need to end this so . . . )))))))))))) Hopefully, this will satisfy the grammar police.

And so everybody has to do mountain climbers (again, the EXERCISE) in some special way these days, with those horrible, gliding discs that make people like me wonder who on earth needs help being MORE clumsy, while planking on stability balls or small, sturdy animals, or, as was the case in my Pilates Reformer class yesterday, WHILE SUSPENDED FROM STRAPS AND PLANKING.

My Pilates instructor is a very nice person who has occasional flashes of sadism, during which she incorporates TRX training into our classes. As if all the springs, straps, and moving parts on a reformer machine aren’t enough to make me suffer. Anyway, after a certain amount of confusion and a near-death experience, I managed to manipulate my feet into the straps that were hanging from the “tower”, and lower the front of my body into a plank position. I was rather proud of this, and was ready to wipe my hands together in a “Yep, I conquered THAT! Time to go home and eat chocolate!” gesture, when my instructor politely informed us that we would be doing mountain climbers in this position.

And so she cued us, “One piece of steel from head to heal! (But now with mountain climbers!)” I sort of writhed around a little bit in my straps while the other women in the class performed beautiful, perfectly-executed TRX-suspended, pointy-toed Pilates plank-mountain climbers. “Wow! My instructor gasped! You all could be in a video!!” I made some remark to the effect that I was sure she was right about the other three, but that she should probably put a big black rectangle over me and my reformer for the duration of this hypothetical video. To which she responded, with a smile (as she always does), “Isn’t it nice that we all have things we excel at and things that challenge us?”

Huh. I suppose it is. To wit, just prior to this embarrassment in human aviation, we had been performing TRX bicep and tricep curls, which involve using your body as a weight for resistance and actually pulling your body up and down as you curl, with your hands through loops attached to straps, which are attached to the tower. I am a viking at this. This is partly because I work out with a trainer who also incorporates TRX into our workouts, but also because, I think, I just have strong arm muscles. I was always the kid who opened the soda bottle caps when you couldn’t. Yep. I’m that kid. I can’t mountain climb, but when you can’t get that cap off your RC Cola, give me a holler and I’ll take care of it. So, I was kind of reveling in that moment, when I had to take every option my instructor offered to make this move harder for me, because I initially found it quite easy. Stepping in further and further, and balancing on my heels only, and actually seeing the muscles in what a yoga instructor once dubbed my “little chaturanga arms” contract and release, right on cue.

My Pilates instructor is right. We all have things that we excel at, and things that challenge us. I suppose these things are a product of genetics, upbringing, and environment. So I let go of my mountain climber psychological issues, and instead of telling you how terrible I am at it, from now on I’ll tell you what I tell my students to say about particular areas of technique that plague them, “I’m working on that.”

And so I moved on through my day. Through the Costco, waiting patiently even though I was in a hurry when an elderly couple blocked the aisle, because they probably aren’t quite as aware of their surroundings as before and those are also things that make them different but not worse. Through the Costco gas station where the pump didn’t read my card, and the attendant didn’t come when I honked my horn like the sign says you should when you need help, and so I had to run all the way back to the attendant’s booth (which is very far away at our Costco) to get help.

And I called my favorite sushi place from my car and told them I was having a busy day and running late, and they rush-prepped a dragon roll for me. (Gotta love a small town.)

And I came home and put away the Costco that needed putting, and scarfed down the dragon roll. (Ok, I didn’t scarf it. Dragon rolls require at least momentary savoring.) And then I did a quick, slightly cheater version of “getting dressed for work” (read, “no time to shower” and “thank you, inventor of dry shampoo”), and headed to my kids’ school to teach a flute workshop and to (insert ominous public domain music here) A MEETING WITH THE PRINCIPAL.

And in this meeting the principal and I discussed the broad spectrum of families at our school – in terms of economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds, and how to meet all those needs and still keep music, art, and P.E. part of the equation. (Mostly, this was me arguing that music, art, and PE shouldn’t be considered optional in the first place, and him mostly agreeing, and bemoaning the pressure from the state to emphasize reading, writing, and mathematics. And me saying it seemed they were willing to sacrifice most anything to meet these pressures and pointing out that many of the kids at our school aren’t going to pop over to the local arts academy and sign up for private instruction should he close the doors on these programs completely, and me saying at one point, “YOU ARE their arts academy.” And him agreeing and telling me about his vision for fixing this issue, which is actually quite promising if he can get it to work, and then ending with us quoting Monty Python at each other and him telling me I should either come to work with him or be a stand-up comedian. (NO.)

And then I raced home to meet my daughter’s bus, and she told me it was Chipotle fundraiser night, and usually I say I already have dinner planned, but since today was so tightly scheduled I actually jumped up and down, slightly yelling, “Yes!!! It’s Chipotle night!” And so we picked up Chipotle and tried to pick up my son from band practice (he usually walks) on the way home, but he didn’t answer his phone and he STILL hasn’t set up his voice mail like I asked him to, so I say to that, “Happy trails, kiddo”.

And then I was still too late getting home to actually eat dinner and I had to go to a meeting at church which was necessary but boring and also very cold. And then I came home to grab a bite to eat, and my daughter, who never has questions or issues with homework, had questions and issues with homework, and of course they were word problems, and my son who is brilliant at math was at karate, so I had to eat Chipotle AND simultaneously help my daughter figure out what Stewart’s monthly payments would be if he paid $400 up front on his bank loan and then paid off the rest over three years. And I want to know where Stewart is banking because they seemed to have forgotten to charge him interest. Go Stewart! (Note to mathematics question creators: my daughter’s first question was, “What’s a loan?” Thanks so much.)

And then I had to run out AGAIN and coach a (blessedly) short rehearsal. And come home. And clean and do laundry. And collapse.

And do all this with a smile.

And it helps to know that we all have strengths. Thank goodness there are people who do mountain climbers and other things better than me. Thank heavens for people who work in customer service and run small, local businesses well and make a mean sushi roll. Thank goodness for the person who organized the boring but necessary meeting I had to go to at church – and who probably puts up with quite a bit of parental griping and moaning and complaining about how she does it. I’m glad someone excels at putting that sort of thing together. And how lovely that some people are born administrators, comedians, or musicians.

And how I would love it if our legislators understood this in regard to education. And allowed schools to once again have the flexibility to give ALL children what they need. Namaste.

Practicing (Gratitude)

“So, is that all it is? Just practicing and taking auditions?”

I was standing in the hallway at the National Flute Association Convention, talking to one of our outstanding Youth Flute Day participants – a high school flutist with an excellent ear, a good piccolo tone, and a fine personality and drive to match – and her mother. The daughter and I bonded when I had to fill in at the last moment for the missing piccolo player in the advanced group’s flute choir session.

Is that all it is?

And so I answered her.

“No. That’s not all it is. You also, quite simply, have to be a good human being. Someone who is easy to get along with. You have to use good manners when you’re working with other musicians, and even when you think no one is watching. Because a lot of the time, especially when you’re the new flutist in town, you will get work simply because a personnel or orchestra manager needs a flutist, and the other musicians like working with you.”

As one of my teachers said, “Anybody can get hired once. Getting hired again is the success.”

I remember when a large ensemble in which I played principal added a summer concert to the schedule, one that wasn’t covered by our regular contract. I had already accepted other work for that date, and so management had to find a sub for me for that concert. The sub they found was a pretty big name, and I worried my colleagues might not be so happy to see me back after playing with this person.

It turned out they were. When I sat down for my first rehearsal after the concert with the sub, there was this quiet applause from the woodwind section. Apparently, the sub had been quite difficult to work with – unwilling to compromise, unpleasant, and unwilling to put the demands of her own ego secondary to the needs of the ensemble. I looked around, confused, and the principal oboist, a veteran player who mentored me daily in this ensemble, put a hand on my shoulder and explained, “We’re so glad you’re back.”

We’re so glad you’re back.

Isn’t that what we all want to hear after a short leave of absence?

So strive to be that person – the person who shows up to rehearsals, prepared and on time, and in a pleasant mood. When it is time to shine, SHINE! But when it is time to back off and let your colleagues shine, get out of their way and play the best supporting role you can. Be willing to work with others. Carpool with your fellow musicians. Ask your colleagues (on breaks, not in rehearsals) about their lives and their projects. Take constructive criticism gracefully, and learn from it, especially if you are one of the younger members of the ensemble. Learn how to compromise, and accept that other people’s ideas have merit, even if you’ve never considered them before.

And say “please” and “thank you“.

The National Flute Convention is a great place to hear wonderful concerts, attend master classes, and visit vendors. But for me, this year, saying “thank you” was my theme and my mission. I thanked James Galway for making all those records, so that as a young flutist with no private instructor, I had an idea of what a flute was supposed to sound like. I thanked Jim Walker for telling me, as a young freelancer, that I should be taking auditions. I was taking auditions, but hearing that Jim Walker thought I should be gave me a confidence I hadn’t previously had in preliminary rounds. I thanked another flutist for being a role model to one of my students when she needed some positivity. I thanked the authors of several method books for writing those books, because they are so valuable to my students and me.

These people were genuinely delighted to be thanked. These are hard-working people, and I’d like to think it made a difference in their day to hear their work was appreciated. Jim Walker said it made his day, and then asked me what I’d been doing in the intervening years. He then said, “I hope you will pay that comment forward someday.” I told him I do that every day.

So, as I told the young piccoloist in the corridor: Yes, practice your flute. But also practice all those good manners I know your mother is teaching you. Because while your beautiful sound will open many doors for you, your personality and they way you conduct yourself will keep them open. And the act of expressing your gratitude to those who have helped you along your way will energize YOU to move forward and help others. And that’s what it’s all about.

You Could Do More

Last week, I wrote about how excited I was to return to a regular practice routine.

I’m still excited, but man, I forgot how PHYSICAL practice is.

In the past decade, I have been lucky if I logged any practice at all on a given day. And if that practice time was extensive enough to include Moyse’s De La Sonorite, I considered myself immeasurably blessed.

So that didn’t happen often in the last decade, the Sonorite thing. It’s been a rare thing – that moment where I knew, or was reasonably sure, that no one would need anything from me, and that I could engage in this exercise, which, (as it was taught to me, first as a teen, by Christine Ertell (Richmond (VA) Symphony), and later by my mentor, Frances Averitt, at Shenandoah Conservatory, who studied this exercise with Moyse himself), is an exercise that requires the utmost concentration and energy. The first time we worked on it together, Frances said, when I finished playing the first exercise at a tempo slow enough to satisfy, “Are you tired? Good. You should feel tired when you finish playing this exercise.”

Frances taught that Sonorite was not intended as a warm-up, although many flutists do use it that way, and it does work well for that purpose. During warm-ups, we simply made note of what was going on with our tone that day. We didn’t return to a note or passage to correct. We just continued playing the warm-up and letting our tone find itself as we played, using our minds and ears.

Sonority was a different story. Frances had her students play it without vibrato, as Moyse instructed (although what he meant by “without vibrato” remains unclear), and often referred to putting the tone under the microscope in this exercise. We could repeat a two note segment multiple times until we were happy, could stay on one note and examine it, looking in a mirror, listening, adjusting, repeating, and then we could reverse the exercise, playing a short segment or the entire exercise backwards. This was in-depth tone work. And that’s how I use this exercise.

And, oh boy, I’d forgotten the energy that took. Paula Robison is right. We are athletes of the flute. And I think, during my time mothering small children, that while I may not have physically practiced as much as I would have liked, I’ve certainly raised my standards regarding tone. And also musicality.

I’ll wager than non-musician mothers do not find themselves rocking their children to sleep while simultaneously analyzing the Prokofiev Sonata. But I did. I did tons of this in-head analysis. I’d be humming to my child and suddenly, “Hush You Bye” would morph into the J.S. Bach’s B Minor Sonate, and I’d find myself analyzing phrases and chords. Sometimes I’d be replaying a piece in my head and deconstructing it, and also thinking, “If I ever perform this again, I won’t breathe THERE. I’ll breathe HERE.”

The end result of all this late-night in-head analysis is this: I find myself with some very exacting musical expectations, minus the polished skills required to meet those expectations. I have become my worst nightmare of a teacher.

Except that maybe, this is the best teacher I can be to myself. To have these expectations, and to remain patient as I redevelop (and further) my technique so that I can execute these phrases, these movements, these pieces to the exacting standards of my demanding inner teacher.

I remember the first time I played dynamics to suit Chris Ertell. I was a somewhat defiant high schooler who thought I knew most of what there is to know about playing the flute. One afternoon, Chris had brought me upstairs from her basement studio to her living room, so we could listen to a record of the piece we were working on. I don’t remember what the piece was, but I would remember this lesson for the rest of my life.

After listening to the piece, Chris said, “Do you see? Do you hear the amount of expression he uses? Do you hear the dynamic range?” I said that I did, but I really didn’t get it.

So Chris had me play an excerpt from the piece for her. When I finished, she said, “No, I don’t hear any dynamics. Do it again.” And so I played it again, and again, and again, and each time, Chris said she didn’t hear any dynamics. It was becoming quite clear that I wasn’t leaving until she believed I’d played some dynamics.

I looked out the window to the street.

“Your next student is here.”

“And they can wait.”

By this point, I was seething. Why was Chris telling me I wasn’t playing dynamics when I SO clearly was? Barely able to contain my anger and frustration, I played the excerpt again. I decided I was going to play it the way a circus clown would – I exaggerated the dynamics and phrasing, to the point I felt they sounded ridiculous. I played to the very fringes of my abilities, and when I was finished, my heart was racing and I was breathing fast, and I thought, “That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.”

And Chris said, “That was better. I heard some dynamics that time. You could do more.”

You could do more. And that became my mantra, as I rocked my children to sleep at night, analyzing this flute piece and that, and orchestral pieces and chamber music and anything else that came into my mind. You could do more.

And so, I’ll keep practicing, a bit more each time. And I’ll keep doing the unglamorous work of rebuilding and refining my technique. And I’ll unleash the clown when it’s time, and do more.

13 years later . . . Back in Black?

I gave up regularly practicing and performing when my oldest son was born. This was not intentional. It was definitely not part of the plan. I was one of those naive parents-to-be who thought my new child’s world was going to revolve around ME, not the other way around. When I became pregnant with my son, I was newly uprooted from the west coast, back to my native Virginia. As a trailing spouse, I had settled, with my husband, in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

It was incredibly easy to gain new students in my new county of residence. The school band programs in that area were (and are) strong – legendarily strong, in fact. The students are very competitive, and everyone either takes private lessons or is on a waiting list to do so. I contacted a few band directors and music store owners, and soon found myself with a full roster of students.

I decided that when my son was born, I would continue playing and teaching. I scheduled lessons around my husband’s rehearsal schedule, and that part worked out quite well. My husband, visiting relatives, and parents of students were more than happy to keep an eye on my infant son while I taught.

It was the practicing part that didn’t work out so well. For years, my daily routine had been something like the following:

  • Teach college courses in the morning
  • Practice in late morning/early afternoon
  • Teach private students
  • Dinner
  • Rehearsal or teach more private students

Looking at that schedule now, I find it laughable that I thought I’d be able to continue with anything resembling that life without a rather hefty staff and child care.

My son, who has grown into a wonderful young man who is quite easy to get along with, (for a teenage boy), was something of a nightmare infant. He was, and is, very sensitive to sound and other things (light, taste, scratchy tags on shirts). He was colicky for several weeks after he was born, and my husband and I had no family in our area to help. We were one worn out couple for those first few months.

One day, after my son had finally settled into something resembling a schedule, and my husband was at work, I decided to return to practicing. I settled my son into his little vibrating seat with the duck mobile on it, and placed it at the far end of the room, pulled out my flute, and played ONE, SINGLE, mezzo-forte, B natural long tone.

I have been told I have a huge sound. I have been told my sound fills the room. I have been told my playing touched an audience member’s soul. All of these were intended as compliments.

My son did not like my B natural. AT ALL. It touched his soul alright. He immediately SCREAMED one of those ear-drum rattling screams that makes you wonder if you’ll survive parenting. Wondering if it was due to the sound or to the visual of mom playing the flute, I calmed him down, set him in the NEXT room, ran back into my studio, and again, I played one note. He wailed as though he were being tortured. Sigh . . . . I considered taking up the recorder.

It quickly became apparent to me that I was raising a sensitive child who would not tolerate my practicing the flute during his waking hours. My practice time was diminished to during his nap times and after he went down for the night. As any parent will tell you, nap times are also used for:

  • parental napping
  • cleaning your house, which will look like a grenade went off in it
  • doing laundry
  • more parental napping
  • staring at walls

For some reason, my students’ playing never bothered him. I suspect this is either because most of their sounds weren’t fully developed, or because we were behind closed doors and he was being entertained and indulged by happy relatives, student parents, and my husband.

In any case, I began practicing and playing less and less. We moved again. We had another child. My daughter was not bothered by the sounds of the flute, and we were now in a two-story house, and I could practice downstairs, or in the basement, while my son napped upstairs. But by then, I was going crazy with the TWO kids and their competing needs, as all parents of multiple young children do. One professional flutist said to me, “You will simply tread water during these years. You will practice in bits and pieces, when you can, and when you need to. You will not make progress. You will simply maintain your skills.”

That was such a helpful thing to hear. I’d also heard, from a well-known teacher of flute, “Meh! Just let him cry!” (Not going to happen with this kiddo.) And I’d also heard another flutist say she just stayed up late to practice. (I don’t do well on less than 6 hours of sleep.) I hope that flutist (the first one, not the latter two) knows what a gift she gave me in that statement. She let me know it was ok that I wasn’t getting hours of practice, and in fact, on many days I wasn’t getting any. And she gave me hope that a time would come when I would practice and perform regularly again. Because it was getting depressing not to play, and to think that I would never play regularly again. Most musicians will tell you that our practice time and our performances are integral to our souls. In fact, every now and then, when my kids were little, I would start to feel a bit “off”, and it would take me sometimes 24-48 hours to realize that I’d forgotten to practice. I always felt better after I did.

And so now I find myself at a place where practicing and performing regularly can re-enter my life, gradually, “organically”, if you will. My youngest is starting middle school. And while my children still need me (oh yes, teens need us more than ever), they need me in different ways. And I find myself with more time to practice. I’ll continue to teach passionately. Teaching not only sustained me during these years, but became my primary focus and mission. But in order to be a better teacher, my soul needs to be complete, and it won’t be complete if I don’t play some flute. My husband is preparing to retire from his position in a performing organization – and will no longer commute or travel as much, leaving me free to do some traveling and performing of my own.

It’s terrifying and exciting to wonder where this journey will take me. And I’m so grateful to the music industry itself for being such a creative and flexible bunch of folks. Musicians can work part-time, full-time, over-time, whatever they choose.

So, if you’re a musician going through these early childhood years, the Years of Little Fluting, I promise you, this too shall pass, and you too will soon be “Back in (Concert) Black”.

Now, to go practice some long tones . . . sans background screaming.