My most recent travel was to New York City to perform for the prestigious New York Flute Club at their annual Flute Fair. The Flute Fair was held at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, just behind Lincoln Center. My masterclass was at 10am, and I thoroughly enjoy giving these, as I love to teach. As I see it, my job is to build people up, and help them find their best selves while playing the flute so they have something to “give back” to their audience. It is showing them how to be free of any barriers to the music, whether technical, musical, or visual, so the audience can truly receive what the performer has brought them. The most common barrier I witness with students is merely a lack of belief in themselves—what they can really do. This reticence and holding back is never based on facts concerning their actual abilities, only a feeling they have—a fear— and so it is my job to help dispel these feelings that keep them from shining. I have people work on projecting themselves in strength, not weakness, since every single person has strength that is uniquely their own, and I for one would like to experience the good they have to offer. After all, we are all there because we love music, and we love the flute! This “love” is our greatest strength, for starters.
Another job I have as “teacher” is to deepen one’s perceptions in hearing themselves. It is learning to listen on a microscopic level so we can fix whatever needs fixing because we ourselves hear it, not because someone else tells us. It is learning to be your own teacher, essentially. This reminds me what I learned from my mother about house cleaning: my mother was brought up in how to clean like an expert, so of course my three sisters and I couldn’t get away from that same teaching! But what a gift this became toward our abilities to “perceive”. We were taught to look deeper than mere visible surfaces, and truly learn to see the “lint”. Believe me, we each tried our own versions of pretending to have cleaned something, but my mother always knew if this was the case. We never understood how she could know, since it looked just fine to us! It was learning to clean what would be invisible to untrained eyes. So it is with flute: being honest with yourself when listening to your playing to find those “hidden” hindrances to playing your absolute best, working it out (fixing it), and then believing in yourself to deliver those honed goods. How is your tone on that note? How is this phrase? Are you making it musical? Can the audience hear you at the back of a 1000+ seat hall? I have always said this about flute practice: it is a confrontation of the human heart with what for these purposes we can call the Great Artistic God. It is attuning oneself to a larger “input” by simply agreeing to open your ears and mind while working, as if someone was there guiding you.
After everyone was done playing for me in the class, I shared some thoughts about watching the women skaters in this year’s Olympics, since I think the analogy is exactly pertinent to ourselves as flutists. I think it is best represented in Sasha Cohen, in whom I experienced a totality of Artistry to the highest, poetic degree, embodying all the elements of beauty that is what the art of skating is all about. Pure grace and noble beauty in the way she skates. She has worked all her life on perfecting her art—to again and again practice making the technical aspects so filled with artistic elegance and precision that you forget anything about technique, but instead have an experience watching her. There she was, skating in her final event that would determine her medal. But then what? She fell. Jumps that she has worked on a million times (like all our repetition in practice), and at the moment of delivery, the landing was off. But here is the decisive point for me: as a “receiver of her art”, she was by far the most complete embodiment of skating-as-Art. I got goosebumps watching her. It did not dampen my experience of her artistry that she fell. Further, she did not let the fall color her mood for the remainder of the performance! Like integrity-in-action, she kept skating like a gliding angel, a true example of “living in the Now”, unconcerned that her fall just forfeited the Gold Medal opportunity. It wasn’t about the “end prize”, it was about the journey, and how far she could rise above her self to create art and beauty at every moment possible. All of the women skaters were the highest- trained individuals, but for me, only Sasha had the golden, artistic package.
So too is our goal with music. The end goal is not about technical perfection, but Artistry. But let me be very clear here: we absolutely work for technical perfection at all times, honing our craft, but at the time of performance it is really no longer up to us—anything can happen. It is no longer ours, but now it is “given”. Our immediate goal is to simply pour ourselves into the delivery of the music from our deepest self, and whatever happens along the way we must anchor ourselves in the present moment as if there is no other. I believe that the real Art lies in the essence of what you are giving your audience–the soul of what you are delivering. A complete embodiment of beauty and grace in the music, so the music is truly experienced—not as intellectual head-journey, but a soul journey through the music as it unfolds. Are we delivering music?
When we have done all our work and it is time to perform, making it a moving experience will encompass everything we work on separately—from stance, to tone, to technique, to precision, to musicality—all summed up as the Art of flute playing. Better yet, the Art of Performance. Art is full of mystery, and in my opinion, it ought to be uplifting to experience our Art—at least this is what I strive for, and what drives me. The greatest magic about playing music is that it first lifts me up, then it is given “back” to the listener in that happy spirit, and I can only hope for the same joy for them.
March 26, 2006