This article was published in the January 2018 SEMFA newsletter.
Performing a concerto with an orchestra is a very unique process. While we all possess individualized pre-performance regimens, performing a concerto with orchestra requires not just a collaboration between yourself and your pianist, but a collaboration with yourself, an entire orchestra and a conductor. I have been interested in learning more about the concerto preparation processes of artists who have spent much of their lives performing them. I wanted to reach out to an incredible artist who has performed as a concerto soloist with many orchestras around the world. I recently had the opportunity to interview Amy Porter, Professor of Flute at the University of Michigan, regarding her preparation process for performing concerti. I wanted to know about the things she does in preparation of her concerto performances, and any advice she may have to flutists who are just beginning their journey of performing with orchestras. Below you will find excerpts from our recent Skype interview.
Amy Porter will be performing Trail of Tears by Michael Daugherty on Saturday, February 17th with the Flint Symphony Orchestra at 7:30pm at The Whiting. Tickets are available for purchase here.
FL: "What has been your favorite concerto performance to date, and why?"
AP: "I'll never forget it, actually. Oh, it makes me cry! I had a broken hand."
FL: "And you still played?"
AP: "Yes. Here's the backstory. It was 2012. You can't blame your dog when they pull you on the leash and you're not ready to react. I had turned around to say something to my niece who was walking with me, and I said the word 'okay', and that created a pull on my dog who had seen a squirrel and 'okay' means she can run. So the dog chased the squirrel with me holding the leash and pulled my finger out. I fell. The first time she pulled, the doctor said 'don't hurt yourself again!', so of course, I was running with her and we got close to home, I started to sprint. She took off towards the house and pulled me a little too hard and I rolled and fell on the same hand. The lesson I learned is that on the dog walk, you have to pay attention to your dog completely. Now, I walk two 88 pound dogs and I'm not fearful of hurting my hands because I'm better about my grip and this has been a big lesson. So, I now walk the dog's walk and not Amy's run. So- I fell two weeks before a major flute festival in Taiwan, where I was to play the Liebermann Concerto with orchestra. I called my doctor and I got right in. Three surgeons came into the room and looked at my hand and decided it wasn't necessary to operate, it was just a metacarpal bone break on the side of the left hand which would heal. So the remaining doctor asked me what was next in my career on the flute. I answered, 'I have to get on an airplane to Taipei and play with an orchestra in two weeks. And I will do it.' Then he asked me a very interesting question. He didn't forecast my doom and gloom and he didn't tell me what was going to happen, he just asked me this question. 'Well, how many notes do you have to play?' Well, that's a great question, because the first nine pages is the first movement. This piece has a lot of notes! He said 'can you play fewer notes?', and then he said 'can you take a week off?' and I said 'Sure! I could get back to it after a week, I'm pretty stable on the flute', so I showed him what I did physically with the flute and he said I would have to wear a brace for 2 weeks and go into physical therapy, but I could definitely go to Taiwan. Then I had to call my manager and try to change the repertoire, and she had a wonderful outlook as well. This was during Hurricane Sandy! She was there in New York City, trapped in her apartment. I called and she said immediately upon answering, 'I'm fine!', and I said 'I'm so happy you're safe! So now I have a story for you. I fell and broke my hand and I have to go to Taiwan. I'd like to not play this concerto specifically' and she said 'well what do you want to play?', and I said 'the Trail of Tears by Michael Daugherty, because I could there are fewer notes and I could double tongue a lot of those notes and I have it ready to go'. She had to sell the repertoire change and she did it successfully.
There's a video of that actual performance on YouTube. "The Trail of Tears" with the Evergreen Philharmonic - two weeks after I broke my hand - and it was the best performance of my life so far, that I can remember vividly. When I woke up the next day, I wrote an email to six of the closest people in my life and thanked them for believing that I could do this. It doesn't just take one person to be a touring artist, It takes a staff of people because you have to keep on top of your game, playing in front of 1100 people. That might be a small audience to some but to me it's pretty big! I think my game has to be at its best, so the people behind me supporting me, my team, are my family and dear friends and doctors and managers - and so it really helped me get through the worry. I wrote them a thank you note at the end of that performance. And I am thrilled that it's on YouTube."
FL: "That's such an amazing story! My next question is: What are some tips you have for flutists who experience stage fright before major performances, and what helps calm your nerves before performing concerti?"
AP: "You must use the air stream to slow down your heart rate. It is a physical phenomenon. When the psoas muscle starts to tighten, we stop breathing. Fight or flight - so we fight. But we need to detach from the mind. So - a runner or a person who exercises will tell you that you can control your mind and heart rate when you run and while you exercise. Its pacing. You want to slow down your heart rate. When I am doing my makeup before I even leave to go to the hall, I feel a feeling I call a 'flutter-by', which is the nervous butterfly that flutters by , and I say to my mind, 'there's the flutter-by!' So, I breathe in and then I breathe out the syllable 'fff' or 'shhh'. That is a known way to slow down the heart rate. Why? Because, with the resistance, your exhalation is twice as long, if not four times as long, as your inhalation. The heart muscle will slow down, and the psoas muscle will release and you will feel like yourself again. So it is all about the breath. Using the breath for stage fright can be calming when the mind is letting you down. Now, practicing to perform is also important. You have to create a 'Circle of Excellence', and composer Michael Colgrass talks about that. It's also an ancient American Indian belief where a circle of light comes and shines down upon you in that circle. And in this circle is your life, your best performance you ever had, your favorite nature spot, your favorite childhood memory, your belief system in yourself, your confidence, and that circle has so much power inside, that you can't step into it with negativity. Lucky for me, Michael Colgrass taught me about the Circle of Excellence in my home. He stayed here seven times in our home while he was in residence at Michigan because I am the closest faculty member to the School of Music and I have a guest room and I'm a Colgrass fan. He unfolded a piece of yarn into a big circle in my parlor and it was green (because my eyes are green.) He said, 'step outside the circle and look inside the circle'. 'Put all of those things of your life inside the circle.' He said that I could practice inside the circle, but the moment I started doubting myself or talking to myself negatively I had to step out of the circle. The circle was super spiritual and personal, like an eggshell (Don Green calls it an eggshell, or some people talk about putting yourself within this bubble and not letting other people in). This circle, he says, starts to increase as you practice using it as your circle of excellence. So then the circle becomes as wide as my room, as wide as my practice parlor. And then my Circle of Excellence encompasses the house. And then guess what? The Circle of Excellence can encompass the city and the stage and the arena and the world! So your Circle of Excellence can go with you wherever you go... but not if you practice to perform within that place of fear."
FL: "That's wonderful advice, I've never thought about that!"
AP: " My Lessons with Kumi is the name of the book. It has changed a lot of people to be able to perform. The sports psychologist Don Greene teaches at Juilliard and he talks a lot about being the driver in your performance, and not the passenger. So if you are going to have a lot of fear and fall victim to the fear, you'll fail. Fear is actually a much more comfortable feeling to have if you're used to it. It's taking that chance and getting up and talking, playing or conducting in front of people that's scary but where the growth happens. Here's the thing about me, I am much more powerful with the flute in my hands. It took me awhile in my 30s and 40s to develop myself as a person without the flute in my hands. A lot of people are stronger with the flute in their hands, some people are stronger without the flute in their hands. I think the Circle of Excellence is a great teacher to achieve sustained excellence.
FL: "Thank you so much, that is a perfect answer! I have two more questions. The next question is: What are the most important aspects to focus on in situations where you have very limited rehearsal time with an orchestra before your performance?"
AP: "Know their part as well as your own part. In the first rehearsal I face the orchestra to let them see me play. The front of me is very different than the back of me, so sometimes the orchestra can miss all of the wonderful aspects of my personal journey with the music. So if they can see me, I teach it to them through my musicality and my relationship with my partner, the conductor. I place trust in the conductor to get us through that rehearsal process. One of the tools of etiquette that I would promote is not speaking directly to the orchestra, keep your mouth shut! Any question you have, for example if you think that the violas should be louder or you need to hear the beat of the timpani, then at a respectful moment, pause and ask the conductor 'if I could hear the timpani more, that would be lovely', 'the ensemble with the trumpet could be better', and that would then be negotiated through the conductor. Too many times I have seen a flute player start talking to the orchestra about what they want, and it makes the conductor powerless. It's the conductor who is running the show, not the soloist. So, given that the conductor has an accompanying role, he or she is my collaborator. I would whole-heartedly say - stay out of it if you have less time, and make sure that you are well-rehearsed with the conductor and you know the part of the orchestra better than your own.
FL: "My last question is: When faced with performing multiple concerti in a short amount of time, what is the most efficient way of practicing each to keep them fresh? How early do you begin to prepare each concerto on average before you perform it?"
AP: "3-4 months. One important thing to me is making sure that if I'm getting manuscripts from a composer and I have to print it out in single sheets, that I tape them together in a single form of music. The page turns and getting the relationship with the score is important. I'm not playing from a tablet yet, I might some day, but for now I love the music and I love it being in a score form. I have the "Silver Linings" Concerto by Frank Ticheli on my stand right now. Trail of Tears is in my head and I will start running that soon - but right now it's Ticheli, Ticheli, Ticheli."
Interview by: Francesca Leo
This article was published in the December 2017 SEMFA Newsletter.
As I approach my graduation date this coming spring at Bowling Green State University, I have found myself searching for unique musical opportunities that push boundaries of many classical traditions of flute playing. Having been surrounded by so much contemporary music during my time at BGSU, I developed a great appreciation for this genre and a great passion for performing it. This exposure to many different types of contemporary instrumental performances that utilize unique instrumentations, extended techniques, and cross genres with various different art forms has taught me that truly anything is possible within the music industry. I am interested in learning more about the journeys of professional flutists who have built careers outside of the orchestral industry, and I have taken a particular interest to the field of interdisciplinary performance.
This past summer, I served an internship with the National Flute Association at their annual convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Some of the perks of my internship included being able to watch dress rehearsals of the gala concerts, featuring performances by some of my idols. I first encountered Zara Lawler as I was monitoring the door for her dress rehearsal before the Sunday afternoon Gala Concert, the closing concert of the 2017 NFA Convention. She was running through her choreographed performance of Berio's Sequenza, which included acrobatic movements throughout a rolling metal frame, traveling across the stage while playing her flute.
I was completely in awe of how powerful and unique this performance was, and it was something I did not even realize was a possibility for flutists. Since the convention, I have thought about that performance frequently and wanted to find out more about Ms. Lawler's career and how she got her start in the field of interdisciplinary performance. Zara Lawler was gracious to answer a few interview questions from myself for this article, and her answers greatly impacted me in a very positive way as a performer. I will definitely be trying out her suggestions to incorporate movement in my playing in my next practice session! If you are interested in learning more about Zara Lawler and her upcoming performances, please visit her website at zaralawler.com.
1. What first inspired you to begin incorporating choreography and acting into your flute playing, and what are some of your favorite interdisciplinary performances you have given so far?
ZL: I have always loved spectacle. In music school, I LOVED when we would do operas and ballets, because it was so great to feel like we were part of something bigger. I never had the idea that I would actually move while playing until I asked my cousin, who was studying dance, if she would like to do a project with me sometime. She said yes, but she would expect me to move too. At first I balked! "What? Dance and play at the same time?" Then the next day in my practice room, I danced a bit while doing my scales and I was immediately hooked, and convinced it was a viable way to perform. Ironically, the collaboration with my cousin never happened, but that was the seed of the idea!
It's hard to nail down a few favorite performances. Directing the US premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino's Il Cerchio Tagliato Dei Suoni at the Guggenheim, was pretty amazing! It was so fun because it involved the whole NYC flute community--kids as young as six, college students, top freelancers, and a few stars like Carol Wincenc, not to mention our stellar soloists Claire Chase, Eric Lamb, Jayn Rosenfeld and Kelli Kathman...and it was a group effort of all involved to realize the composer's vision in a way that worked in the beautiful rotunda of the Guggenheim.
I also am really in love with TimeFrame, the choreography for Berio's Sequenza created in collaboration with Neil Parsons, my long-time choreographer/collaborator. It is SO fun and challenging, and compelling for the audience. And I get to stand on my head while playing the flute!
2. Did you always have a vision of incorporating interdisciplinary performance into your musical career, or has it been a passion that you have developed over time?
ZL: It's funny, my first performance on the flute was in fifth grade, for an event at my elementary school that was about the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge (over the Hudson River), and the various buildings that were torn down or moved to make that happen. I played London Bridge Is Falling Down while people paraded by with hand painted representations of Victorian houses...so my interest in multidisciplinary community-based performances comes from the very first days of my flute playing!!!
That said, it has developed over time...and it took me a long time to really get deeply into it. Even though I did little projects here and there over a number of years after I graduated from Juilliard, it wasn't until I joined Tales & Scales, a group that specialized in combining music performance with dance and theater for young audiences, that I realized this was my real calling, my life's work. It was also in Tales & Scales where I met Neil who has choreographed so many pieces for me, and Paul Fadoul, my percussion partner.
3. How did the incorporation of movement and choreography benefit your flute playing and what are some exercises that interested flutists could try at home as beginners to introduce acting and movement into their own performances?
ZL: Playing while moving requires that your airstream be very strong...I feel like it is a great demonstration of the primacy of the airstream. It has also made me be very creative about where and when I breathe--I often have to take two or three times as many breaths as I would if I were just standing and playing. Another great benefit is that I don't worry much about tiny things, like my fingers. I find that many of the technical hang-ups and difficulties that I have when I am playing without moving evaporate when I start thinking about my big muscles (ie my legs, back, etc) instead of my small ones (ie my fingers and lips!)!
To get started, try dancing around while you play your scales. I like to just do something repetitive, like a grapevine step, or a fake Charleston, while I do my chromatic scales. Then, when I'm doing Taffanel Gaubert No. 4, I alternate standing still for one key (and its minor) and then standing in a yoga pose for the next key. It's kind of fun, and a little challenging, but not super hard. If you know some standing yoga poses (tree, warrior, goddess...), try it. If you don't know yoga poses, you can just make some up by putting your body into an interesting shape and staying there while you play your scales.
Then, think about a project you'd like to try...if you have an idea you have for a piece or performance, go for it! Make the moves up yourself, for find your friendly neighborhood choreographer and enlist him or her! Don't let lack of experience stop you...just give it a try. It doesn't have to be super fancy to be a good place to start. It also doesn't have to be long, or be the whole show. It's lovely to include an interdisciplinary piece on a more "standard" recital.
4. What is some advice you have for flutists looking to pursue a career in interdisciplinary performance, or a similar concept involving unique performance art?
ZL: How to cover that topic in a few sentences?! I think that interdisciplinary performance is definitely becoming a thing, though I think it still needs an official name. "Interdisciplinary performance" seems too broad, and too academic...but I don't have a better suggestion at the moment.
Nonetheless, I think it's important to work to realize one's artistic vision. It's always a good idea to enlist an outside eye--a theater director, a choreographer, another artist. You can't see what you are doing, and you can't really know if your vision is coming to life unless someone reflects back to you what they are experiencing.
I also thing funding is hugely important. Learn to raise money, either by grants or just asking your network to support the art. Pay your collaborators. Pay yourself. The challenge with such a new approach to work is that you can't just get a gig doing it...so you need to raise funds to make it sustainable.
And know that doing work that includes other disciplines takes WAY MORE TIME than doing a regular concert. Memorization takes time, creating movement or theater takes time, setting up in the performance space takes time, etc. But it's worth it!!
By: Francesca Leo
This article was published in the November 2017 issue of the Southeast Michigan Flute Association newsletter.
Suffering a bad case of the mid-semester blues? You're not alone. November usually means "crunch-time". Students are preparing for annual concerto competitions, final projects, exams and juries, and recording prescreenings and submitting applications when applicable. It can take some serious time management skills and an incredible level of focus and motivation to push through and keep your passion alive. Through a series of trial and error from years past, I have found some tips and tricks to keep myself from burning out during the heat of the fall semester.
1) Take time (or make time) for yourself!
While we are maintaining extremely busy and demanding schedules, it is very important to build in some self-care during this time of the year for both your physical and emotional well-being. Self care can be anything from making time for a few good workout sessions or yoga classes each week, sitting down and enjoying your meals without being preoccupied by a million different tasks, watching one episode of your favorite TV show or reading a chapter of a good book before you go to sleep, meeting with a friend for coffee once a week, or going for a walk in nature. Studies have even shown that watching a short, funny YouTube video during a ten minute practice break can help clear your mind and make you more focused when you begin to practice again. Allowing yourself time to breath and unwind, even if it is just for a short amount of time, can help you be more focused and productive when you come back to working and practicing later in the day.
2) Sight-read duets with friends!
Making music with your friends is a foolproof way of lifting your spirits while also spending time with people you enjoy being around. During a practice break, find a friend and sight-read some easy duets for fun! It will help improve your sight-reading skills and give your mind a crucial break from practicing your Mendelssohn Scherzo excerpt a thousand different ways. It will allow you to focus on the art of music making and maybe even give you some inspiration to apply to your practicing later on!
3) Find a mentor, talk to them!
Find somebody you admire and trust. This could be a private teacher, an ensemble coach, an advisor, even an older friend who has been through what you are going through now before. Start a dialogue with them, ask them for advice and ask them about their musical path as well. Tell them about the struggles you are going through, and ask them if they have ever experienced anything like that before. This person should not become your therapist, but asking them genuine questions about how they got to where they are now and what obstacles they may have had to overcome in their careers can be very beneficial and can help you get to know them better. It is helpful to know people who have gone through it all before and who want to watch you succeed. In turn, you will likely become someone else's mentor later down the road :)
While it is easy to become burnt out and lose motivation, try as best as you can to remind yourself daily why you are pursuing music and why you cannot live without it. Be grateful of this pressure you are under, because "pressure is a privilege"! Always try to be optimistic and have faith in yourself that you can do whatever you set your mind to in this world - your potential is limitless!
By: Francesca Leo
This article was published in the Southeast Michigan Flute Association Newsletter on October 20th, 2017. This article discusses Entrepreneurship in the Music Industry and features an interview with Andrea Fisher, founder of Fluter Scooter.
Throughout my studies in the Bowling Green State University Entrepreneurship program, I have noticed so many parallels between musicians and entrepreneurs. I believe that all musicians must possess entrepreneurial skills in order to be successful in their careers, whether they are consciously using them or not. Professional musicians are expected to be proficient in a variety of different music-related fields. They can teach, perform, hold administrative positions in music organizations and ensembles, serve as board members of musical committees, judge competitions, do research within the music industry, create their own businesses, work in the instrument manufacturing industry, and so much more as a part of their careers. These multi-faceted careers that professional musicians pursue on a daily basis turns them into well-rounded and highly employable people who essentially work as their own bosses. While musicians are likely to be employed by a professional symphony orchestra, a music company, a school, or another professional ensemble at some point in their career, they are also expected to be promoting themselves and their music independently.
Something I have been very interested in lately is learning about people who have created a brand for themselves within the music industry. I have learned in my entrepreneurship classes that it is very important to differentiate yourself and create your own personal brand that represents what you do and what you are passionate about. A brand doesn't necessarily have to be a business you create. Developing a brand can be as simple as creating a personal website demonstrating your philosophies on music and on teaching, and then promoting yourself through this website and on any supplemental social media accounts you may create. Since there are many musicians in this world, it is important to figure out what makes you stand out as an artist and to embrace that element.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Andrea Fisher - the woman behind the incredibly successful Fluter Scooter brand - to speak on her development as an entrepreneur within the flute community and to give advice to budding entrepreneurs looking to get started in the music industry:
1) How did you get started with the creation of Fluter Scooter, and what inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
A: I always wanted a cute and stylish flute bag for myself, since I was a bit embarrassed carrying the standard black case cover into sessions and gigs, and on the streets of NYC. I wanted something more like a designer handbag, so I wouldn't look as nerdy. After graduating from Juilliard and living in New York, it was difficult to make a living only on the occasional music gigs. Entrepreneurship and starting a business had never crossed my mind while I was a student, and at that time, schools weren't offering programs as many do now. I had a fashion designer friend make a sample flute bag just for me (metallic silver), and when I wore it to the New York Flute Fair, some high school students stopped me and asked where they could buy one like mine. After lots of market research, and trial and error, the business was launched in early 2011. At the time, I really didn't know where this would end up, and if it would even catch on, as marketing back in 2011 was a lot different than it is now. It was probably in 2014, where I really saw that the business could be viable (as social media was getting much bigger at that time, it definitely helped with getting more sales and dealers!)
2) Were there any hardships you had to face during the creation of your brand and business? If so, what were they and how did you work to overcome them?
A: Of course! If anyone says they don't have any hardships starting a business, then they are lying. The first 100 bags I ever ordered (that was my factory minimum order requirement) were way too small to fit the flute case. And it took over 6 months of waiting just to get the order. Imagine waiting that long and realizing that you can't sell any of them, and having to go back to the drawing board! After that, I found a much better factory, and they have been my factory ever since. One year, when I was still doing my own website, I made some huge errors inputing products around Black Friday (the busiest sales weekend), and sent out a newsletter, not realizing I had mistakenly erased all the products, and no one could purchase anything. After that, I realized I needed to hire a real web designer. In the beginning, with any business, you want to do everything yourself, to save on costs, but sometimes there are things that are much better handled by a professional.
3) How do you balance a multi-faceted career as a professional flutist and as the founder of Fluter Scooter?
A: This is something that is different every day. It really depends what I'm working on. For example, I just did another flute and organ performance, which took a TON of practicing...getting the flute to balance with only the left hand, and then the coordination of the keyboard and pedals along with the flute. I put it together in just a little over 2 weeks, but those 2 weeks were mostly dedicated to that performance. However, I timed it that way because generally October is a slower month for business. I often do festivals where I both perform and exhibit, which is sometimes difficult because I always want to be at the booth since I'm the only one who really knows the brand and can explain and answer questions from customers. Right now, I'm starting to ramp up for the holiday season and for my first Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, where I have a booth and will be focusing on my Campus Collection and networking with band directors and the band community, which is different than my usual network of flutists, flute clubs, and flute festivals. I'm always expanding the brand, and now I'm doing manufacturing for flute companies as well (you may have seen the new Powell leather case covers and tote bags at NFA). 2018 will be busy for both performing and the business, as I'm making my Korean debut at the Gonjiam Music Festival, and then concerts and masterclasses in China. I will be a Guest Artist at the Texas Flute Society Festival and Iowa Flute Intensive, and various universities. And then there's The Flute View magazine, and all of the work that entails, but we can save that for another interview!
4) What advice would you give to musicians looking to create their own brands and become entrepreneurs within the flute community?
A: First, you have to have a clear idea of your vision and what steps you need to get there. Know your audience. Don't ever doubt yourself, and understand that starting a business takes time. Network with everyone as much as possible (not just flutists and other musicians...you never know what connections others may have). Don't expect to make money right away, but expect to work harder than you ever had at anything. What people might not realize about having your own business versus working for someone else is that with your own business, it is 24/7. It doesn't stop. I answer questions from customers and dealers at all hours, as good customer service is essential. I work on weekends, on holidays, etc...but I really love what I do, so it never feels like "work." The flute community is a niche market, but one that is open to new ideas and supporting their community, so I am hopeful more flutists will get on the entrepreneurial track. And, if you're a student, definitely take advantage of Entrepreneurship classes if they are offered at your school. And if you have any specific questions, I am available for coachings through Skype!
By: Francesca Leo
This article was published in the September 2017 issue of the Southeast Michigan Flute Association Newsletter.
Taking auditions and competitions is a very large part of building a career as a professional musician. Many musicians spend months and months preparing for success at these events, and sometimes come out of them with less than desirable results. Every year during my heavy audition and competition season, I always try to remind myself about the importance of staying positive, humble and determined to achieve my own personal goals throughout the year. I strive to work on eliminating as many negative thoughts in my practice room as possible.
I recently just finished reading Sharon Sparrow's book titled "Six Weeks to Finals" where she speaks about the importance of mental training during audition and competition preparation. This passage in the book spoke volumes to me, because mental training is the exact element that I believe has been missing in my own audition preparation. I have experimented with positive meditation before each practice session, I practice yoga regularly, but I have never truly crossed the boundary of incorporating this specific type of mental training into my regular practice routine. After reading Professor Sparrow's book, I now know the importance of placing myself in a good mental state before I begin practicing. I try to remind myself to stay positive during each practice session in hopes of generating the same mindset when the time of the audition arrives.
I have been experimenting with a variety of ways to stay focused in the practice room without getting frustrated, and I have come up with a few exercises that work well for myself. Since every musician is different, the things that makes you happy in the practice room may differ greatly from what makes another person happy. I have been starting my practice sessions with some improvisation, playing melodies that please me aurally and focusing on my sound development. This has turned into a form of meditation, and has helped me reach a positive and open mindset before I begin my daily warm-ups. I have also begun to set goals for myself in each practice session that I know are attainable, so that I do not have to worry about falling short and "failing" in my personal progress. For example, I will choose a difficult section of a piece I am working on, and I will set a goal to play it perfectly at a very slow tempo by the end of my session. The next day, I will speed up the tempo marking about ten clicks. This slow practice time also helps me to learn the music more carefully, so that when I finally take this section up to the written tempo, the dynamic contrasts and musical markings will be very apparent. Slow practice is a wonderful way to save time and build confidence in your practicing, because you are practicing success rather than failure.
Another method of bringing positivity back into your practice room is a concept that the BGSU Flute Studio uses very regularly. Practicing your repertoire with the same energy and character that you hope to perform with is not only essential, but it makes practicing much more fun! To try this, take a section of your concerto or solo piece and assign a character, mood, color, or storyline to it. Create this character based on how this section makes you feel when you listen to it. Does it remind you of anything? If so, proceed with your normal practice regimens, but keep this character in mind the entire time. Apply it stylistically as well. Focus on building this character into your note endings, the way you shape each phrase, and any articulation and dynamic markings as well. Visualize all of these different elements of the music as existing within this character, and every musical element will become a different part of the storyline that you create for this section. While this may not work for everybody, an important thing to take away from this concept is that it is essential to practice in the same way you would like to perform. You cannot expect to get onstage and perform with vivacious stage presence without first incorporating that same energy into your practicing.
I have struggled with building self-confidence in my playing, and as I begin to open up to my colleagues, friends and family about my feelings, I realize that I am not alone in my fears and worries of failing. While I realize that motivation to win is a vital component towards our success as musicians, it can also become a great hindrance. The culture of our society is sometimes guilty of training us to instinctively cut down our competitors in order to raise ourselves up. Professor Sparrow states in her book the importance of focusing on your own individual preparation and your own audition on audition day, and not worrying about "who" or "how many" you are competing against. The music industry thrives on connections. Treating colleagues kindly and respectfully, while working as hard as you possibly can and pushing yourself to be the best musician you can possibly be, will help you become a colleague that other fellow musicians will always love to play with. We cannot effectively create music without harmony between the musicians creating it.
By: Francesca Leo
This past August, I have begun writing a monthly column for the Southeast Michigan Flute Association Newsletter. Below is the article I wrote that was published in the August 2017 issue.
If there is one major piece of advice I took away from studying flute in Paris for two weeks this past summer, it is to never let go of the individuality in your playing. There is something to be said about a performer that can go onstage and tell a story through their music each time they perform. Once we reach a certain point in our musical careers, everybody becomes able to compete on a similar level with each other's technical and musical abilities. There is a saying that once you have performed a specific task for 10,000, you have mastered it. If you really break that statement down, that means that anybody that has practiced their instrument 3 hours a day for approximately 9 years can be considered a master. Needless to say, this field can get extremely competitive.
So, what do you do when you reach a point where everybody is technically a "master" of their instrument? For one, competitions get a lot harder to judge. Auditions get harder to judge. And judging all of the above often becomes subjective to the personal preference of the committee. How do we differentiate ourselves as players at that point?
I've listened to multiple success stories of musicians I look up to about their careers and the steps they've taken to make a name for themselves in this industry. When practicing your butt off every day becomes a given, what is the extra step that we as professionals-in-training need to take to become noticed professionally? One thing that really spoke to me during one of our career lectures at the Da Capo Alliance Paris Flute Class this past summer was that you need to actually live in order to be able to let yourself shine through in your playing. You need to allow yourself to experience real life emotions and you need to allow time to find yourself. I think that too often, we as musicians lock ourselves in practice rooms for too long without venturing out into the world and experiencing things because we have this crippling self-doubt that tells us "if we are not practicing, we are failing". To be able to effectively perform a piece that conveys many deep emotions, we must have felt these emotions personally. I'm not advising you to go out and get your heart broken in the name of music, but experiencing deep emotions through developing personal connections with others (especially in your adolescence and developmental stages) is crucial to us as performers. We cannot become anti-social beings when music itself is a social and communal art form.
Personally, I am most moved by a performer when they look like they are completely invested in the music. Whenever I watch somebody perform that conveys the emotions they want to portray both musically and physically, I can feel myself experiencing the same emotions they are from an audience's perspective. If the music is crying, I feel sad. If the music is laughing, I smile. Many people attend live performances solely for those reasons - to feel something.
This portrayal of emotion through musical performance is partially selfish for us as well. For me, music is very much an emotional outlet. If I am having a bad day, music is the first thing I turn to. If I am having a good day, music is also the first thing I turn to. I often feel that playing my flute helps me convey emotions that I cannot physically speak. It sounds very cliché, but it is very true. If we examine the relationship between the performer and the audience, both sides are there to bond not only over a common interest, but a common emotional and aural experience as well.
So how do we differentiate ourselves in an audition if everybody is playing the same piece and the 100 people competing can all play the Ibert Concerto flawlessly? I think that you should strive to invest yourself so emotionally in your performance that you let everybody listening know what you have to say. Not only should you aim to perform with confidence and perfection (I am still absolutely a work in progress with all of this), but you should strive to tell everybody in the audience who you are as a person through every performance you give. I truly believe that this is a HUGE factor of succeeding, no matter what your profession is. You want to win a competition? Play like a winner starting from the moment you walk onstage. One of my favorite examples of this concept is about Carol Wincenc, who essentially "wins" every performance and competition before she even plays her flute based on her confident walk onstage and stage presence. Not only is she an incredible player, but she has incredible confidence and wraps the audience around her finger from the moment she steps onstage. That is something I really admire about her.
Once you have taken all of the necessary steps towards striving for musical perfection in your studies, I believe that success will come if you truly believe in yourself and your abilities. Strive to prepare for each competition or audition as much as you can beforehand, and walk onstage like a winner.
Questions? Comments? I'd love to hear from you.
Throughout my few years of concentrated music study, I have found myself thrown into many events where I have had the opportunity to meet many amazing, talented and established musicians, producers, arts managers, etc. Even when I walk down the hallways of the College of Musical Arts at Bowling Green State University, passing any faculty member is like walking through Hollywood and passing celebrities. Sometimes, we music students take for granted the amount of talent, wisdom and experience the musicians we study under truly have. I have attended many events with professional musicians both locally and internationally, and I think it is very important for me to note what I have learned throughout that process.
First off, when attending an event that you know many professional and renowned musicians and artists will be at, make SURE to dress appropriately and professionally! What you wear to these types of events is truly everyone's first impression of you, and you want to represent yourself in the best way possible. If you are attending a formal dinner, it would be appropriate to dress as you would going to a job interview. If you are attending a more informal party, still be sure to dress as if you were interviewing professionally (because, in a way, you are!). It would not be appropriate to show up in a suit and tie or a formal evening gown to every professional event you attend, however, it is important to look professional and presentable at all times. Wear something you feel confident and comfortable in, because if you feel at all uncomfortable, it will come across to the people you meet. I have a few different outfits that I wear to most of the events that I attend, and they are outfits that I have worn many times and I know that I feel completely comfortable in them. Dress professionally, and people will treat you as such.
Second, when you address people, be sure to never assume anything. For example, if you are meeting the principal flutist of the *insert city here* Symphony Orchestra, have never seen them before, and ask them something like "where do you study in school?" that is something that some people could take offensively. Introduce yourself, smile, explain where you study or where you are locally performing, and often people will reciprocate with themselves. I have been in a few situations where I made the mistake of assuming that I knew things about a person and turned out to be completely wrong - embarrassing. Luckily, they were nice about it, but I have learned never to assume I know everything about a person and instead let them tell me themselves. When you meet professional musicians, it is so important to treat them with the utmost respect, because they have worked so hard to get to where they are in their careers today. Ask them about their professional journey, what led them to do the things they have done, what they liked about each job or institution they've studied at, and other things about their careers or their playing. Try not to talk too much about yourself unless asked, and be sure you are genuinely interested in them and what they are saying. These people you meet are mentors that you can look up to and gather career advice from, so be attentive and soak up as much information as possible!
Lastly, be yourself and be confident. Never put yourself or your playing down, and never say anything negative about others. Potential employers, teachers or mentors are much more likely to want to work with you if you are positive, encouraging and hardworking. Do not try and be someone you are not, and get rid of all negativity in your dialect. I have seen many people not get hired for a job because they would talk negatively about others in front of potential employers or people associated, and it is just not a nice thing to do in general. Remind yourself that you are here for a reason - because you deserve to be - and conquer the room through your radiant smile, kind heart and genuine interest in others. Developing good people skills is absolutely essential to becoming a professional musician, and though talent plays a big role in our career development, you must also be able to relate to and befriend your colleagues, teachers and students. Musicians cannot often stand alone, and building a strong sense of community within your professional network is absolutely crucial for success.
Think back to the fearlessness and confidence of your younger self, before self-doubt prevented you from continuing to venture onto try new and potentially risky things. If you were anything like me, being told that you couldn't do something made me want to do it that much more. Unfortunately, the society we live in often creates an environment of hostility towards the ambition of young, budding artists. If you are seen as a talented individual, you will more than likely have a handful of people that will always try to cut you down or hold you back simply because they feel threatened by you. We get sucked into this never-ending spiral of worrying too much what others think of us and we are not focused enough on what we truly want and why we are pursuing this career for OURSELVES. This pressure can come from all different directions; your peers, your colleagues, and even sometimes your role models. In a competitive field, too many people like to see others fail so that they can rise above. This environment creates a hesitation of young musicians to truly put themselves out there and research or audition for other opportunities outside of their own school. I've found that a lot of students tend to wait for opportunities to be handed to them than they seek opportunities to go after themselves. I think this mentality can be very dangerous for one's career and does not give the student the skill set they will need to find a job in the music field after graduation. I also think that if you spend your entire undergraduate career in a practice room (not advising against practicing a lot in any means - practicing is super important!), you will not likely build as many connections with other musicians who may end up being able to help you get a job in music in the future. I have heard of so many stories of really talented musicians getting jobs right out of graduation because they met the right people while they were in school, and those people recognized their talent and helped them find employment. The field of music is as social as it is individual; we practice and perform for ourselves, essentially, but we could not survive without the power of collaboration. I believe that, as an undergraduate student, you should be taking every possible performance opportunity and gig that you can just to build connections and gain experience performing in many different settings. You should research all of the solo competitions around you and enter as many as you can, and you should research any masterclasses or performances by both solo and orchestral musicians in the area and make it a point to attend the ones that interest you.
I have found so far that success in music does not solely rely on talent, but it also relies on your collaborative skills on both a personal and musical level. I have made so many important connections within the flute community by simply interacting with people at various flute events and asking them about themselves and where they're at in their career. I cannot tell you how much people truly appreciate you being genuinely interested in themselves and their work, and I think that too often we are too consumed with our own careers that we neglect those of the talented and amazing people around us. Another key to musical success: surrounding yourself with people who are more talented, more driven, and more ambitious than you are. This may sound like a competitive environment you are creating, but it is competitive in a good way. As a musician, you are constantly improving and constantly learning new things about music and about playing your instrument. If you surround yourself with people who aren't motivated to succeed or practice, you are essentially putting a limit on your personal growth. For me, positive motivation can be extremely uplifting and makes me want to improve for myself, not for anybody else. Everyone is different in that sense, but I think that if you live your life never wanting to be around people that are better than you because you get too competitive over it, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. The point that we as musicians can separate competition from a mutual love of playing is the point that we can allow ourselves to be happy and successful.
If you are unsure of where to start by networking and making connections with other musicians, create a website, facebook page, instagram account, etc. that you can allow yourself to begin putting your work out there through social media. I've found that social media is the medium that gains the most positive response from our generation from a career standpoint, and I have also received many private flute students and gig opportunities through my usage of it as well. Make sure you have recordings of yourself online, and don't let one or two mistakes in the recordings push you away from posting them. Another flaw I truly believe we have in our society is believing that we can be perfect. Nobody is perfect, and setting that high of standards for yourself when deciding what to post online prevents a lot of people from posting anything at all. Of course, if you crash and burn in a recording (I'm speaking from personal experience here), do not post that online. However, if you crack one note in a run but it is otherwise all correct, don't let that one crack stop you from sharing your art with others. Sometimes the beauty lies in the minor imperfections, and I promise you that your audience will likely not even notice a minor mistake and instead how good you sound. On my instagram account, I post "practice videos" of pieces I'm working on and photographs/short recording clips of performances and competitions I'm doing. On my facebook page, I post some of my own theories I am developing about flute playing and about being a musician in general. It is sort of like an "express" version of my blog post page on my website. Social media networking is a great, free way to begin building connections with other musicians and begin finding performance opportunities and private students. Post often, and make sure to always respond to your followers questions!
Attend as many networking events as you possibly can, and be social! Follow up with the musicians you meet via social media or email and get their contact information. Be friendly, and have lots of positive energy when speaking to potential employers, colleagues, etc. Never badmouth other musicians OR yourself when speaking to people, for that could easily burn bridges between you and the musician you are talking to. If you ever are in need of a musician for a gig or performance, contact these people you have met and offer them the position. Networking in a professional setting goes both ways; you cannot expect to be given everything if you never give yourself. Lastly, never stop wanting to improve yourself. Whether you're practicing, researching performance opportunities, or wanting to become a better person, remind yourself that no one is going to hold your hand through your career and offer things to you on a silver platter. Become self-motivated and driven, and market yourself in a positive manner. It is never too early to begin your career, and it is never too late either. No matter where you are in life, start wanting things for yourself and stop waiting for things to be handed to you. If you want to play in a symphony orchestra, start from the bottom and don't stop until you reach the top. If you want to work in a music store, keep applying until you get hired. If you want to become a good musician, don't stop practicing. Ever. :) Your career is in your own hands, and your future is limitless.
Questions? Comments? Please let me know, I'd love to hear what you have to say!
"Listening to recordings of myself makes me want to lock myself in a practice room for a thousand years"
"Every time I think I sound good, I'll just listen to a recording of myself and will feel bad about myself again"
"Recording myself makes practicing so depressing!"
Do any of these common phrases sound familiar? If they do, you are the furthest thing from alone. I have these thoughts often when I practice, and I hear a LOT of other musicians constantly saying similar things. Somehow, in our culture, we have engrained a very negative attitude towards recording yourself playing. I believe it stems from submitting recorded auditions to various competitions and summer festivals. These recordings must be inherently perfect, especially since you technically have an unlimited amount of tries in the given time frame to record your best take. I am not at all speaking poorly on our high standards musically when entering prestigious solo competitions and summer festival audition processes; I am glad we have such high expectations because it sets a precedence of talent level for the generations to follow and allows us to maintain an extremely high level of respect for music which is very important. However, when we remove the art of recording ourselves from a competitive standpoint and begin to incorporate it into our daily practice, these extremely high standards and pressure of being perfect in every recording follow us into the practice room. Recording yourself for a competition and recording yourself as a practice tool are two extremely different things. When you are recording yourself competitively, you are striving for as close to perfection as you can achieve. When you are recording yourself practicing, you are recording to listen to things you can improve on that lie deeper than technical perfection. You are looking for instabilities in your tone throughout the course of a phrase, out-of-tune intervals, inconsistent vibrato speed in your long tone practice (unless intentional), etc. You are listening not to tear yourself down and consume yourself with everything you are doing wrong, rather, you are listening to hear things you would not simply by playing your instrument in a practice room. There is a threshold to which we as musicians can help ourselves improve without ever taking a step back to truly listen to what we sound like without worrying about actually playing our instruments in the process. We can only allow ourselves to hear so much while we are actually playing, and we too often rely on the advice of others to dictate what we should be practicing to improve our sounds, techniques, etc.
I have noticed that many people will outright refuse to record themselves because they fear their egos are already fragile enough, and if they hear themselves play they will become more discouraged. If we can consciously separate our "recording modes" between competitive recording and practice recording, we may stand to have a healthier outlook on hearing ourselves play on a more regular basis. No more recording anxiety! If you are truly very fearful of hearing yourself play, first have a friend listen to it and write 3-5 things that they loved about it. Read those before listening yourself, and try to keep the positive in mind. Listening to yourself can absolutely be counted in your practice time as well. After you feel that you have practiced a passage to the extent of which you can without actually hearing yourself play it, do a run through of this passage and record it. Take a break. Sit down with your headphones in and a notepad and your music in hand, and pretend to be your own professor. Write down what you think you should do differently, what you liked and didn't like about it, but ultimately be sure to keep it positive and encouraging. A positive mentality in the practice room is absolutely essential, because whatever you practice WILL translate to how you perform onstage. My beloved professor, Dr. Conor Nelson, emphasizes this often. He refers to it as "positive practice", and I think it is a strategy all musicians should adopt.
Questions? Comments? I would love to hear from you.