Forbidden Flutes

forbidden flutes

The Flute Doctors Blog

Demystifying classical music for nervous discovers and the culturally curious -one remedy at a time

May 2010:
Life Beyond Facebook

I’ve endured years of razzing from friends who resent my insistence on living cell phone-free. And as far as registering for facebook, I only caved last month because too many friends would no longer send vacation or baby photos by email. But, suffice it to say, I am a proud member of Luddites with Blogs. Don’t get me wrong. My insatiable curiosity has been well satisfied by the at-your-fingertips answers that the internet provides for so many of my burning questions. And I find several social media tools incredibly useful in my quest to attract new listeners to classical music. Plus, I am a voracious emailer. But I think that cell phones and facebook prove to be nagging distractions that don’t allow people to be fully engaged in the present moment. I also favor communication styles that allow for greater intimacy and more respect for language (Never short for words, I can’t even express what I had for breakfast in less than 140 characters. I also have an aversion to acronyms, incomplete sentences, and faces made with parentheses marks: I hope you are laughing out loud at this – Insert smirking facial expression here.) And last month, I was thrilled to learn that I was not alone. Has anyone ever asked you that question: If you could have drinks with anyone, who would it be? My answer has ranged from Nelson Mandela and Sting, to the Dalai Lama. But not far down the list was Malcolm Gladwell. And luckily, I just had the good fortune to ask this brilliant social commentator a few things over beers.

He was in town to give the keynote speech at Vancouver’s F5 Social Media Conference. But to many participants’ chagrin, he did not tout the praises of Twitter and the likes. Instead, he called Facebook a million miles wide and an inch deep, noting it’s ability to make only shallow connections. He claimed that a revolution could never be built on the internet, citing how essential personal alliances are for creating real social change. In general, he could not say enough about the importance of face-to-face interactions. Like me, he does much of his writing in cafes to gain inspiration from his mere proximity or chance meetings with other creatives. And the good news is, he believes that there is still a very valuable and central role that live performance and the arts can play in society.

Once, on a rock climbing road trip, a German doctor asked me why I play music. I gave him the usual pat answer that it is my passion, but that far from satisfied him. With much deeper probing, I finally got to the root of the question and determined that I play music because I love doing something that moves people and awakens their senses. Music has an incredibly powerful ability to do this and I have had many experiences that affirm this.

I have discovered that it is when one is most authentically themselves that they are best able to touch people. For my first CD, I commissioned my violinist/composer friend Cameron Wilson to write the Celtic Partita for me. I love ethnic music, simple melodies, dance rhythms, and a good technical challenge, so this piece turned out to be a perfect reflection of my musicianship. Consequently, audiences always react more emotionally to this piece than any other I perform. After a recital in Arizona, one generous listener wrote you stirred something deep within me - that mysterious, intangible life force of music within my soul. A performer could not ask for anything more than this. And it is doubtful that a digital recording would get the same rise out of a listener.

However, this idyllic portrayal of music-making does not tell the whole story. For me it has come with a price. Repeated hours of playing in an asymmetric position have given me reason to make more than one health practitioner rich. One time, seeking pain relief from a chiropractor, I demonstrated my playing position for him with Gabriel Faure’s Morceau de Concours. Upon leaving his office, the receptionist said that it raised the hair on her arms, and proceeded to regale me with stories about why the flute was her favorite instrument. Apparently, ever since she heard a flutist playing gentle folk tunes on the deck of a Victoria ferry ride, she had wanted to play my instrument.

Another woman honestly revealed her history with the flute when I played Shirish Korde’s Indian-inspired Anusvara in a yoga class. Having vastly improved her lot, she was now training to become a yoga instructor. But only a few years earlier, she had been homeless and sold her most prized possession, her flute, for needed cash. She had excelled as a high school flutist and thanked me for my performance which reminded her that she should start playing again.

Most recently, my ensemble Forbidden Flutes was sharing some WF Bach Duets with residents at Vancouver’s Cottage Hospice when a woman began to cry, telling us that what most frightened her about dying was the fact that she would never again hear music.

I never know when my music will reach someone. When I consciously try to elicit a profound response to my playing, it always fails. It is only in those raw, unassuming moments, when I let go of expectations, that I most connect with my listeners, and usually in the most surprising places. It is just these kinds of face-to-face experiences that cement my resolve to continue finding a place for classical music in modern society. I am convinced that it’s rich history, time-tested longevity, and emotional depth has the capacity to stir something within the least likely people. And with more than 400 years of music to choose from, I am certain that classical music offers something for everyone.

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March 2010:
Classical Music Doesn’t Have to be the Kid No One Plays With at Recess

My life long affair with classical music did not exactly start with love at first sight. It was a passion that grew on me. Since fourth grade, I practiced Bach Sonatas and Mozart Concertos, hours a day, purely because I loved the sound of the flute, I got a kick out of performing, it was fun to be good at something, and I happened to find a great teacher from the Symphony, through my Dad’s colleague. Until high school, my weekends were still spent like other New England kids in the 70’s, at basketball practices or Star Wars movies, playing Atari, and sometimes taking road trips to ski, where I would listen to Eagles and Billy Joel 8-tracks endlessly. Then, at age 13, I joined the Boston Youth Orchestra and everything changed. I gradually began quitting sports teams and skipping school trips to spend my Saturdays and Sundays hashing through the challenges and wonders of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the only teenagers I knew who “got” me. We were rebels, and nerds, and bohemians, all united by our zeal for making music. We loved knowing that this turn-of-the-century Russian masterpiece, which we all found extremely cool, had the audience throwing tomatoes at the stage in it’s 1913 Paris premiere, because it made us feel radical. But ironically, once I got my driver’s license, on the two-hour commute to rehearsals, I’d still whisk past any classical station on the dial, in favor of alt rockers like Violent Femmes or the Cure.

My birth was the product of a typically, All-American union between a popular football and cheerleading captain. But, born defiant, my non-conformist sensibilities resisted doing anything just to fit with the “in” crowd. However, I was hardly immune to usual adolescent struggles and desires, so I felt caught between two worlds. Part of me cherished my “differences”, but another part wanted varsity letters and prom dates like anyone else. After all, does anyone like to be the kid that no one plays with at recess? I think it goes without saying that waxing poetic about Brahms exquisite sense of voicing doesn’t get a high school girl many party invites. So, for a while, I hid my “classical” life from my school friends. Returning from a European tour, a highlight of which was playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in Vienna’s great hall, the Musikverein, I only boasted to my peers about the first tastes of strong Belgian beer that I tried in Brussels. For years, I led a somewhat double life, at once trying to maintain a semblance of mainstream normalcy, all the while falling deeper in love with the complexities and subtleties of classical music and the life that came with that. It was not until grad school that my strong to desire for these two worlds to intersect was born. I was offered a teaching assistantship to study at Stony Brook, with the great Julliard flute professor, Sam Baron (no relation), on one condition – that I teach music appreciation to the big-haired, gold-chained undergrads of Long Island. I stayed up late nights wracking my brain, thinking of ways I could get the guy with the green Mohawk jazzed about Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I found a recording of an Emerson, Lake, & Palmer rock arrangement of this colorful piece and assigned my students a term paper to compare it to the orchestral and piano versions. The results were astonishing and encouraging. They loved the images that the more nuanced, and textured symphonic version created. They wanted to hear more music like it. I spoon fed them Prokofiev by introducing his Lietenant Kije’s Suite, using Sting’s The Russians Love Their Children Too, since this song was based on the Suite’s main theme. Teaching a similar class, years later, when covering Russian romanticism and the rise of the virtuoso, I played students the movie Shine, which stars Geoffrey Rush as a savant who strives to perform Rachmaninoff’s daunting Piano concerto No. 3. Over time, I have learned that if you bring a horse to water you CAN make him drink. While people in my profession have often chronically held the perception that our art form is dying, I have become increasingly committed to the notion that classical music is not inherently less appealing to modern audiences but rather it simply suffers from being highly under-exposed.

In Europe, the birth place of so many classical composers, I’ve experienced their centuries-long tradition inspiring 200 strangers to stop and listen to my woodwind quintet, busking on the streets of Heidelberg, as we performed pieces by the obscure French composer, Anton Reicha. Yet once, when we performed the same program on a well-publicized church series in upstate New York, only 5 people showed up. That’s no wonder, since Buffalo’s history is far more steeped in football and chicken wings than in flute music. Fortunately though, a third experience with this same ensemble provided the deal breaker that led me into a lifelong career of championing new audiences for classical music. My Eastman School of Music chamber group often performed in grammar schools, to cultivate awareness and appreciation for this music during children’s formative years. I, myself, chose to play the flute as a consequence of a generous and enthusiastic guest that came to my school to perform. When we programmed school shows, we were careful to pick catchy, tuneful music with driving beats to get kids’ attention. But that did not preclude programming “real music”. Even Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, a rousing, twentieth century Hungarian work, fit that description. After that concert, my mission to spread the classical music gospel was fueled ever more when we received a crayon drawing from a five-year-old claiming that “Ligeti was cooler than Michael Jackson” (I think her teacher helped her with the spelling). Even now, teens are blogging about “that cool song they wrote for the movie Twilight” not having a clue that it’s actually Debussy’s Clair de Lune. And after hearing hundreds of cell phone rings using Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, I finally asked one dude in a Harley jacket, on the subway, why he chose that particular piece for his Blackberry and he said, “I flip repo homes for a living, so I’m getting tips phoned in constantly. Most ringtones really irritate me, but since I have to answer every call, I picked this one cuz’ it actually calms my nerves.” I’m convinced. Our potential fans are everywhere. When people don’t hold any preconceived ideas about a piece belonging to a particular classification or demographic group, I’ve found that they are able to get excited about just about anything, from Baroque concerto grosso, to impressionistic piano works, to dissonant, contemporary chamber music.

Obviously, marketing is a key component to attracting new audiences to our work. My ad executive friend always says that one should ask “What does success look like?” when seeking to sell something. For classical music, success may not mean filling rock coliseums with tens of thousands of fans at every concert. But for me, it would be seeing a hip hop teen next to a professional hockey player, along side a middle-aged Chinese immigrant and a senior citizen, all with their eyes closed, lost in the brilliant and moving harmonies of a Shostakovich String Trio. For twenty years, I have developed a variety of creative approaches to broadening the audience for classical music, inevitably with varying success. But it is moments like this experience, which I had in 2005, that keep me going. My husband is an avid mountain biker. He had a racer friend who played drums in a punk band, lived in a trailer park, and never went to college. He was an insatiably curious guy but he’d never been to a classical concert. As my friend, he once came to a performance that I produced for an Arizona music festival. I was worried that our instrumental arrangements of some romantic opera arias might bore him. I could not have been more wrong. He was in tears after the last clarinet note rang through the hall in Puccini’s Nessun Dorma. Six months later, I was playing A Night at the Opera program with our local orchestra. I didn’t think to invite this friend and never expected he could afford the $40 ticket. But when I walked through the lobby after the show, there he was, in his finest threads, with a date on his arm. So, I think the days of complaining about our dwindling audiences are over. It’s time for classical musicians to make our own jungle gyms so we can attract all kinds of people to play with us. Build it and they will come. Theodore Roosevelt

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