Preparing "Chatter" by Nicole Chamberlain - Spitting Encouraged

About a year and a half ago, Kelly and I were searching for duos to perform that were interesting and innovative. On Youtube, I came across a recording of graduate students from the Hartt School of Music performing Chatter. I thought that it was really challenging and that it would be appealing to audiences. The only problem –my flute training did not include a focus on extended technique. This has been on my flute ‘to-do” list for a long time and was eager for the opportunity to explore extended technique through Chatter

Nicole Chamberlain is an Atlanta based flutist and composer who wrote Chatter in 2011. Chamberlain explains the work as a conversation between two good friends. They begin to chit-chat, often finishing each others sentences and then settle down to discuss, more seriously, one of their problems. Chamberlain artfully uses beat-boxing techniques to mimic the pace and staccato nature of chatting and transitions to a more lyrical treatment for the more serious discussion.

I had always known that extended technique can expand the tonal possibilities of the flute and add limitless color to the flute’s range of timbres. I knew about the groundbreaking work of Robert Dick in revolutionizing the flute sound. I just didn’t think that I could ever do it well, so I shied away from studying it deeper, despite my desire to explore it further.

To prepare for Chatter, I visited Nicole Chamberlain’s website where she posted a tutorial on how to create the sounds that were required for her piece. This is also where she shared the program notes for the piece. This was an amazing resource and so helpful to learning the piece. In general, Chamberlain’s site is really great. She writes about each of her compositions and often has audio examples as well. In addition, her music can be purchased directly from the website.

I also listened to a lot of music by Greg Pattillo, the beat-boxing flutist. Pattillo was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music and studied with Joshua Smith, but quickly branched out into making beat-boxing a regular part of flute playing. While Greg Pattillo is not the only flutist who beat-boxes, he is credited with bringing the technique to the flute community. In fact, his work, Three Beats for Beatbox Flute, was commissioned by the NFA (National Flute Association) for 2011 Convention High School Flutist Competition. Here Pattillo is performing the first movement

In his solo interpretation of Peter and the Wolf, Pattillo uses many techniques that helped me to understand how Chatter worked. In addition, he and his colleagues in Project Trio (flute, cello, bass) have reimagined and updated the story of Peter and the Wolf. This was also a great resource for study. 

Once I carefully listened to the recordings, I had to face the fact that I actually had to try to make these sounds. Family members looked at me quizzically as they walked by my practice room. My young flute students, although curious, did not know what to make of it. My two cats pricked their ears with alert caution whenever I worked on Chatter. Despite these mild recriminations, I soldiered on. Here is what I took away from the experience:

  1. You will spit - a lot - and that’s OK.
  2. You will contort your face and feel silly while you are doing it.  I spent a lot of time looking at the shape of my mouth in the mirror as I experimented to find the best sound. Usually, the more exaggerated the syllable, the better the sound effect.
  3. Transitioning between beat-boxing and traditional tone was the most difficult. Once I got the hang of producing the sound I wanted, the real challenge began. I spent a lot of time on the sections of the piece that alternated between beat-boxing and traditional tone. It took a while to coordinate my tongue and embouchure to transition quickly to and from the beat-boxing. 
  4. Sometimes you need an extra pair of ears to evaluate the sound. Kelly, who has way more experience than I do in this area, was very helpful and provided honest feedback on my progress. She made some great suggestions to tweak some of the sounds I was trying to create. 
  5. Your idea of what good tone is will evolve and change. When I started learning this piece, I had to drop all of my expectations regarding what good tone sounded like. Furthermore, my definition of good tone was trapped in the 19th – 20th centuries and needed to be re-framed to accommodate all of the possibilities that extended technique and beat-boxing afforded me. 
  6. Once you open yourself to the possibilities, you will never look back. There is just nothing like the excitement you feel when something this challenging comes together. What’s next - Glissando Headjoint anyone? Something like Robert Dick and Greg Pattillo improvising 


I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

I will never forget as long as I live what Jackie Morse Kessler said to me on the eve of my wedding in 2002. Then, she was a burgeoning young writer of dark fantasy and the paranormal, was married and had two young boys. She was also our grooms-woman, as one of Matt’s dear friends from high school. Jackie is now a fantasy young adult author. Over drinks after the rehearsal dinner, she explained how she woke up at an ungodly hour to write for a few hours (if my memory serves, it was 4AM) before her husband and two boys awoke.  She’d get the boys ready and see them off before she went to work at a consulting firm. I have this idyllic image of her lovingly making a hot breakfast for her family, kissing her husband as he left for work, and walking the boys to the bus stop, every day. I remember how impressed and amazed I was that she could do it all. I had to ask, “Jackie, when do you sleep?”  Without missing a beat she replied, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”.

Just recently I heard a story on NPR about Katherine Heiny, author of “Single, Carefree, Mellow”.  She recounted a story about having her first child and struggling between wanting to spend all of her time with her baby and wanting to write. Heiny recounts a time when her mom said,  “You know, I raised you telling you you could have it all. And now I can see that's not true. And I feel bad for having told you that.”

Wow, hearing that on the radio and then seeing it in print as I read the transcript later, really made me think. What does it really mean to “do it all”?  Is Heiny’s mother right?  What have I been doing all these years?  

I remember early on in my career, before the birth of my now eight-year-old daughter, asking more experienced musicians who had families how they balanced work and family. One colleague, Julie Sarver who plays piccolo with the Canton Symphony recommended continuing to practice piccolo at all hours while the baby was young so that she learned to sleep through it. Thanks Julie!  It totally worked. Maia sleeps through anything now and I can cram in practice at 11 PM if I need to. 

And that’s just it. Sometimes I do have to cram practice in at the 11th hour of a very long day at work, helping with homework, shuttling Maia off to piano lessons or other activities, making dinner, grading papers, and maybe squeezing in a grown-up conversation with my husband. 

I can’t help but to examine how my choice to have a family has impacted my career as a musician and educator. I have less time to sleep, to practice, to research new techniques or ideas for lessons. It takes me much longer to explore performing opportunities and to follow through with publicizing what I do. There is less income to spare for professional development (baby needs new shoes) and travel.  And there is less time to attend the many excellent and inspiring performances that are within walking/driving distance from my home. (Cleveland Orchestra, Akron Symphony, Canton Symphony, Wooster Chamber Music Series, Akron University, Oberlin Conservatory … and on and on). 

Having a family requires you to work around the rhythms and schedule of your children. Rehearsals with my co-flutist Kelly Mollnow Wilson in the Aella Flute Duo are scheduled for after our girls leave for school and before we need to pick them up. When our kids are sick or when there are relentless snow days, as there were this winter, rehearsals are postponed and rescheduled.  

Most recently, I realized that not only is my daughter getting older and more involved in activities, my mom and my in-laws are also getting older and will likely someday in the not too distant future need more help. 

Being a working musician also poses significant challenges for my family life. 

When I teach in the evenings, I do not eat dinner with them. Orchestra rehearsals and performances as well as student recitals are often in the evenings and on the weekends. My house is often a mess, my weekends are often not free and as someone who is only working ¾-time, we are not in a position to jet off to a ski weekend in Aspen. So glad that I do not ski!  And please don’t even ask me when was the last time I went out with my husband.

The reality that this will likely not change any time soon sometimes smacks me in the face.  There are certainly days when I feel that I am doing a terrible job at everything.  But I have to remind myself that I get to make beautiful music that inspires me with colleagues who I respect and admire with Aella Flute Duo, Modern Muse,  and the Ashland Symphony .  And while I may not get to attend Cleveland Orchestra concerts whenever I want and missed seeing Ian Clarke perform at Oberlin, I do get to hear my own budding musician at her piano recitals, am able to help her with the Brownie Bake-Off, and view her works of art at the annual fine arts festival.  

I don’t know if it is possible to “do it all”.  I just know that I am doing what I love the best way I know how and though not perfect, this works my family.  


Flute "Gear" Includes the Ear

Northeast Ohio is enjoying one of the coldest months of February on record. So far, the average temperature for Feb 2015 is 6.3 degrees, which is well below the average of 20.2 degrees. My kids have had 3 snow days due to wind chill and 2 days of two-hour delays out of 17 school days in February to date. What does this have to do with flute playing? It’s all about location! My usual practice location is my basement, where I keep all my flute “gear.” However, when it’s this cold outside, the basement is really, really cold. My surgically-repaired left hand is very sensitive to temperature and just doesn’t want to work well in cold environments. Since I can’t play my flute wearing my Gore-Tex ski mittens, I move all the “gear” upstairs to my auxiliary practice area, other wise known as the living room, which features a gas fireplace! Other important living room design features include a hard wood type floor, plastered ceiling, minimal curtains and not much soft furniture. This auxiliary practice area, while being warmer, is definitely a very live, very loud practice space, strangely reminiscent of an undergraduate practice room, only bigger. This location demands the use of hearing protection, especially when practicing loud, high passages. Working on some new repertoire with lots of loud, busy, high stuff for upcoming programs as part of the Aella Flute Duo and also as a soloist results in an almost instant headache without the use of ear plugs. The finger and articulation exercises from Paul Edmund-Davies’ book, The 28 Day Warm Up Book for all flautists....eventually, work up to the extreme high range and can also make my ears ring in this fireside practice space. So, I wear my ear plugs. 

Noise induced hearing loss is no joke! All musicians must take responsibility for the health and safety of their ears. If you can’t hear, your career is over. I learned a lot of great things as a college student, but nobody ever told me to get hearing protection. How much damage did we do to ourselves with all of those hours in little practice rooms without anything for our ears? I took a percussion workshop for band directors at the University of Akron a few years ago taught by percussion professor, Dr. Larry Snider, and was pleased to learn that he insists that all incoming freshman percussion majors get their hearing assessed on campus at the audiology clinic, buy custom-made ear plugs for musicians and use them on a regular basis. I spent 10 years as part of a high school marching band staff and only wore ear plugs during inside rehearsals for 7 of those years. At that time, I was wearing extra ear plugs that my husband uses when he has to work onsite as a engineer in steel mills. 

There are many different types of ear plugs available for musicians and just about as many opinions about which is the best. I have two different kinds that I use. I have two pairs of Etymotic Plugs that I’ve had ever since I attended a session by Dr. Stephen Mitchell called Ears to You: Hearing and Noise at the 2011 NFA convention in Charlotte. I keep one pair in my flute gig bag and one pair in my purse, which have proven useful in many different environments that parents find themselves in. I also use these for lawn mowing, when I have to do it, and most recently used them while operating a hideously loud vacuum cleaner that was about to fail. These are cheap (less than $20) and I suggest buying a slew of them and handing them out like party favors. Give a pair to your spouse, give some to your kids, give some to your students. Well, maybe not, we already give so much to our students. Instead, give them the website address so they can buy their own and learn to be responsible for their own ears.  

I also have a pair of rifle range headphones that I use for extended practice of high stuff and for piccolo practice. These came from the gun section of the local sports store. I haven’t used these for several years since I’m not able to really play my piccolo at all or practice any flute for a long period at this point due to the limitations of my left hand. I'm not whining - because I can play now and I couldn’t before my hand was rebuilt! I just can’t play for as often or as crazily as I want. Click here to read all about that if you’re interested.

Many of my flutist friends have been to see an audiologist and use the more expensive, custom-fit ear plugs designed for musicians. At this point, I don’t have a regular orchestral position or band directing gig, so I haven’t felt the need to make this financial investment. However, I think it’s time. Here’s where I’m going to start Dr. Heather Malyuk, from Sensaphonics, did a presentation for the Ohio Music Teachers Association in October 2014 which got a great review from a trusted colleague who did attend. Dr. Malyuk is based in Chicago, but there is a list of Sensaphonics Gold Circle Audiologists who have additional training and have been working extensively with musicians and sound engineers. Find an audiologist, get your hearing assessed, get some type of hearing protection, and then use it! We work so hard to train our ears to do what we need them to do as musicians. Let’s give them a little bit of extra love and care in return, as they are part of our “gear” that cannot be replaced. Stay warm!