Friday, November 21, 2008

the flute and I

It was the summer of 1961, I had been married for a year and was on full-scholarship playing bass trombone at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, CA when I fell in love with the sound of the flute. My reputation as a young trombonist was good enough so that Davis Shuman-- the classical trombone virtuoso and inventor of the slide at an angle, so that the right arm movement was more natural (one of those brilliant ideas that have everything going for it except success)-- asked me to audition for the resident summer orchestra. When he heard me play he offered my a free-ride for the summer on the condition I learn to play bass trombone. I accepted and my wife Joyce and I were off by bus for all parts West. Taking a bus cross-country is quite an experience, sweaty, dirty, very smelly and we had a fight every day for the four days it took at precisely 3PM, as the boredom and fatigue stressed our, even then, rocky marriage.

Santa Barbara was lovely, we rented a one-room studio off campus (since there were no 'couples accommodations' at the music academy. And I began a summer of practicing, playing and lusting after every good looking female musician in the orchestra. One of major objects of my lust was a bassoon player, who as the saying went, 'would never drown.' I had a thing for bassoon players. My sister June, who I adored, was one. And I sat right behind a gorgeous bassoon player in the All City High School Orchestra. Bassoon players keep their bassoons upright by sitting on a long strap that goes from a clip on the bottom of the bassoon. I spent my time in the All City High School Orchestra envying the strap.

Anyway the bassoon player was married to a flute player, Stanley Weinstein, who was a hairier version of me, big and beefy. The first time I heard Stanley play up close I fell in love. Stanley had a classic Julius Baker flute sound, the sound that came to dominate orchestral flute playing, as Julius Baker, principle flutist with the New York Philharmonic for decades, and his students defined the hard-centered, glistening flute sound that is still the standard for orchestral flutists world-wide. When I heard Stanley I understood why people played flute. Oh, to be able to make such a beautiful sound, not to mention double the violins on the greatest melodies ever written by the world's greatest composers.

The trouble was that when I began to play the flute about 12 years later I had made a promise. I promised myself that instead of being critical I would search for the beauty in my flute playing. At that point I interpreted that as being accepting of whatever sound came out of the flute. Recall, I was self-taught, didn't even know the right fingerings, and was only interested in improvising. My ritual was to take the flute out. Make a sound, and no matter what came out, follow a musical thread, playing completely freely and spinning streams of sound, melodies that grow organically under my hands. No long tones, no scales, no exercises, just musical freedom. Ask any flute teacher, it was a recipe for tone-disaster. Plus the only embouchure that I knew was a trombone embouchure, so I played with loose lips and a slight frown. Ask any flute teacher, it was a recipe for tone-disaster. But I wasn't worried about tone, I was worried about spinning out melodies, about exploiting my natural fluency and the flute's endless technical potential. Ask any flute teacher, a recipe for tone disaster.

I was teaching at Mannes College of Music (western civilization) at 8AM. A student of mine told me that if I turned the head all of the way out, I could play faster. I could always play fast. After pushing a trombone slide around, fast was where I was going. I saw the great jazz reed player, Eddie Daniels, walking down the subway stairs. Eddie and I had come up together in Brooklyn and we hadn't seen each other in years. After 'hello's' etc. told him that I was playing flute and asked him to give me a lesson. I had an old Armstrong student model, all black from playing it outdoors. As soon as I put the flute together, Eddie reached out and took it from me and centered the head joint. He said, 'that's were most people put it.' He played a chord on the piano and I played as fast as I could. He stopped. I said, 'don't I have a lot of technique?' He said, 'that's not technique, that's nervousness. He suggested I study with Harvey Estrin, a taskmaster, and a master of all of the woodwinds. The 'go to' guy for sax players who wanted to develop flute chops. Harvey gave me the basics, a warm-up, long tone octaves and three octave scales. I studied with him for about a year until the fateful day when he questioned the 'aesthetics' of my first recorded efforts (the story is in 'back to the beginning').

I didn't study again for years, just tried to play Harvey's routine every day and, by that time, playing hours of Jamey Aebersold records every day, playing free in the park and working trio gigs with young jazz musicians. I was playing an open-hole b-foot Armstrong by this time and another old friend Bobby Porcelli told me about a Miyazawa flute for about $1,500. I ended up taking lessons with the guy who sold it to me and I used to tell folks that 'he sold me a lousy flute and ruined my chops.' And so of course he remains nameless. He was used to flute players with tight smiles and told his students to relax their embouchures. Since I was his student he told me the same. It was a disaster. I couldn't play low notes for years. I was just blowing with no control from my upper-lip and a flabby platform from my lower lip. But the high register worked and I still could play fast. My tone was going nowhere. David Valentin, the great salsa flutist heard my first record and said 'I can help you out.' He showed me that I had muscles in my mouth and how to use them. The sound got better, but without even a glimmer of the characteristic classical sound that David, like Hubert Laws, had made 'the gold standard' of jazz flute playing.

When I received tenure my wife and I moved out to Glen Ridge, 4 miles from the University. Peggy Schecter was the flute teacher. I asked her for lessons. I played a single note for months. She called it 'brain exercises.' I was learning to feel how a sound is produced and concentrate and making it better. She showed me how to use my upper lip to control the air. I never did get the sound she was looking for. She claimed I was the only student she ever had who couldn't get the Julius Baker shine in their sound. You know, the sound that I talked about at the beginning of blog, the sound that made me want to play flute! She had me get rid of my Miyazawa and buy the first decent flute I over owned a Sankyo Silversonic for about $3,000. I was no Stanley Weinstein, but my sound was centered and fat, and it had expressive qualities, or so reviewers began to notice.

Around the time Peggy and I gave up on each other, I was at the New York Flute Club annual flute fair and I was looking at a pile of flute books. I saw De La Sonoritie (the picture at the top of the blog). I looked inside at the price; it was a fortune. And there was nothing in it. I had seen books like that, generally printed in three languages, with repetitious exercises, laboriously reprinted in 12 keys, something that a jazz musician would explain to another musician in 25 words or less. But I knew these were magic books, books that although seemingly sparse in quantity, were miraculous in quality. I bought it. I spend hours every day playing about 8 pages of that book. Long tones, low crescendos and increasing intervals. Every flute player plays the Moyse, it is the secret to getting a flute sound; that's what the title means, 'About Sound.' A routine like that, once discovered, is a priceless gift, sort of like the lotus-position. It is a doing that supports all other doings.

I had gone to Robert Dick, the master of extended flute techniques, in hopes that he could help me understand my idiosyncratic sound. He gave me some tips, but the person who helped my sound the most was Laura George. She told me to play the Moyse with a tuner in front of me. Laura lives in Montclair and she had been calling me to volunteer at the New York Flute Club fair. I was stationed outside the door of the exhibit room. I always liked the alto flute and had gone through an old Armstrong with problems and was playing another, an Altus, that was a better flute, but still hard to play in tune. And there I was with my credit cards in a room full of flutes. The first year I bought a Sankyo alto flute, which I love and the third year I bought a great Yamaha bass flute. But it was the second year that I bought my sweetheart, a Powell, Arumite (a tube of gold, wrapped around a tube of silver) one hell of a jazz flute. $25,000 worth flutes in 3 years. My poor second wife Lesley would be having kittens. And I was on my way to being able to play the flute at last

A charanga flute player hipped me to harmonics, and a young girl once gave me a tonguing exercise in the first octave. That was always the hardest thing for me to do and every beginning flute player starts by learning how to do it. But since I was never a beginning flute player, I have to practice tonguing in the first octave every day, since I didn't grow my muscles. Flute players often start at 8 years old, so the muscles grow in response to practicing. Not when you start at 34 they don't. And, of course, as a jazz musician I always play scales, one and two octaves with various articulations, as well as arpeggios, in all keys. For a finale, Harvey Estrin's three octave scales in all keys (you can play any scale beginning on one of two notes, so I play from top to bottom). That's my life, three hours a day, every day. I guess I'll never get married again.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I am taking my life into my hands and submitting CD's to the National Flute Association competitions for this year. They do the jazz just like classical compositions. They ask for a specific repertoire, in the case of jazz, rhythm changes a ballad and a bossa nova. I'm going to confront the flute establishment.

If you only know me through recordings, you might be surprised by how rarely I get to perform. As saxophonist, Dave Leibman (also an old friend) just said to me in a recent email when I complained about how hard it is to perform, 'it is harder than ever.' And without performances there are no performance videos, and without performance videos there is no presence on youtube, increasingly a must for musicians. The only performance videos I had were a poorly recorded 3 minute of a local gig in New Jersey and a video of a concert I played with guitarist Paul Meyers in 1999. I put them up on youtube but they don't represent my playing. Making the competition CD gave me a unique opportunity. I didn't want to spend a fortune on the CD for the competition, or submit a poorly recorded one. So I split the difference and recorded just a duo in my engineer Phil's recording studio. Paul has been working gigs with me (Trio Jazz Brasil is the name we use) and he is a very responsive accompanist. I found a student through the universities media department and had him video the recording session. So far he has finished video editing two of them (he used 2 cameras). They are now up on youtube. Click on the names of the tunes and check out the videos. Body and Soul and No More Blues (Chega de Saudade) . Let's see if the flute players will accept me and then the real test. If I succeed in the CD round of the competition, I get to perform live in front of classical flutists at the annual convention of the National Flute Association in New York in 2009. Wish me luck!


Unknown said...

This blog is amazing, I must to say that I love the flute, i think this instrument is very notable, i usually feel very relaxed when i listen a flute. Is absolutely wonderful. Actually I want to learn about how to play this instrument.
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Unknown said...

This blog is absolutely outstanding. I Think the sound of the flute is so relaxing that I prefer to listen with growing frequency. Becouse I heard that this sound has a restorate power. Actually when by boyfriend had problem in his sexual performance he decided to buy viagra, i remerber that he listened flute music all the night to stay relaxed and from there everything changed.