About Jeanne A Conversation with Jeanne Baxtresser

Describe your musical upbringing and how you came to play the flute.

I come from a musical family. My mother was a concert pianist, and while the children—there were six of us—were babies, she placed the playpen right next to her as she practiced. She’d be practicing many, many hours a day, and as soon as we’d start to fuss she’d rock the playpen a bit and then go back to it! We were completely happy. My mother and father loved string and piano chamber music. We had many evenings in our home where the playing would go on until the wee small hours. Music was in my bones and my body and brain before I can remember having a conscious thought, but I was slow to find the flute. I started with the piano, which was a disaster. I was very impatient. I heard my mother’s magnificent playing for all those years—Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Scarlatti, etc. My beginning attempts simply weren’t satisfying to me. I was too anxious to get on to something that sounded more like what she was doing! Then I started on the violin, but that turned out not to be a good choice because my fingers were not suited to it. Same with the cello, and it was by pure chance that I happened to see, at public high school program, a woodwind quintet with a woman playing the flute. The woodwinds were a whole new world to me. I saw this woman with this gorgeous flute, and the sound just grabbed my heart. “That’s for me,” I thought, “I like the way it looks, I like the way it sounds,” and when I got my little rented flute I realized that I liked the way it felt. I liked the song in me that I could express through my breath. So with the flute I just fell in love. I started when I was nine, and by the time I was fourteen I knew I wanted to play the flute professionally. I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy, then to the Juilliard School where I studied with Julius Baker who was my ideal of a flute player. Those were great years.

How did you win your first position in an orchestra?

In my last year at Julliard I thought, “It’s time I took an audition.” I’d been working on orchestral repertoire all along. I didn’t mention to Julius Baker that I was going to do it. I made a reservation and went up to Montreal which had a first flute opening and took that audition. I was totally free, totally relaxed; I had no expectation of getting the job, it was the furthest thing from my mind—this was part of my education, I thought. I got the job. That’s when the hard work began—where I really started to educate myself. Those were tremendous learning years for me. The orchestra became my teacher, my own ear became my guide.

Where did your career take you after Montreal?

After nine years in Montreal I auditioned for the Toronto Symphony; Andrew Davis was Music Director there at the time. That was a difficult audition for me because by then I had a reputation; I was older and hadn’t taken an audition in nine years. After all, it was only my second orchestral audition. Of my three auditions, Toronto was the most difficult. The New York Philharmonic was much easier because by then I had learned how to prepare mentally and physically for the whole experience.

When you got the job in the Philharmonic, was it a great thrill to be back in New York?

Yes, I was coming home. When I was a student in New York there was only one woman in the Philharmonic so I didn’t even dream of the possibility of playing in that orchestra. I must admit, when I first got into the Philharmonic I was so overwhelmed, I could hardly play! It was an extraordinary feeling to be playing in this great orchestra, the orchestra where I had sat in the hall as a student and heard my teacher play. Even coming into the Philharmonic in my thirties, I was still learning how to handle things. I had to realize I defined that position now. Somehow I felt, sitting in the chair where my teacher sat, in the great New York Philharmonic, that maybe I wasn’t good enough—I had to be so much more. Of course you can’t be more than you are. As soon as I could settle back into feeling, “This is it, it’s me, if they don’t like it I imagine they’ll let me know,” then I was fine.

Have you always made time for teaching?

Yes, teaching is my passion. I am currently Professor of Flute at Carnegie Mellon University. I think when I was younger, performing was what meant the most to me. As you get older there’s this great desire to give, and to leave part of what you’ve learned behind. I try to bring all my students together because I love to have warm feelings between colleagues so that they can help each other. We are all tremendously important resources for each other. I learned a great deal from my teacher, he was fantastic; but I also learned from my colleagues—they taught me so much, too. When there is an open exchange, you feel close to each other in a healthy flute class.

How have you incorporated your orchestral experience into your teaching?

My mission throughout my career has been to help students realize that it is not only an obligation, but a joy, to learn each piece of out music in its entirety. For example, you must listen to a complete recording of Scheherazade, and not just to the flute part. Listen to the piece, read about the piece, then move on to the point where you are concentrating more on the flute part, how the flute part relates to the overall context, and then practice the more difficult solos. This is a process that should take a great deal of time and care and love. It takes many years and can’t be crammed. An equal component of this process is developing yourself as a soloist. The various parts of your musical self will add up to be the person who is performing in recitals, masterclasses, competitions, playing Prokofiev, Khatchaturian, Ibert, all the pieces, because that’s what makes you a total performer. In order to sit in an orchestra you have to be a soloist wind player. If you can stand up and play the Nielsen concerto you can play Daphnis et Chloé in an orchestra, but you’ll need to have both of those parts of your musical identity very well developed.

What advice do you give to your students about auditions?

I believe an audition can be a glorious experience. The orchestral audition is a unique experience in a musician’s life because there is no other time when you come on stage alone and play this fabulous music without anybody getting in your way. There are no concerns of balance or group intonation. There is no conductor; it’s your interpretation of the Debussy, it’s your interpretation of Brahms fourth or Beethoven third—what great freedom! We should never forget to let inspiration be our guide, or performances will become mere athletic events. I think that to bring into an audition the intention of achieving a perfect performance crushes the creative side of what you’re trying to do. What you must do is to captivate the jury by letting them hear something that goes beyond technical accuracy, something that reaches high levels of inspiration. I would want a jury to hear not the player but the music. The music is so great, and if you play a great audition the committee will, I think, be mostly just taken away with the beauty of the music. They realize, “My gosh! This person brought me into Brahms, or Debussy, I want to sit by this person.” If you’re ready and you have some experience and great preparation behind you, you can just soar, play the music and have a great time, and maybe even get the job!

What new projects are you working on?

You can see what I’m current working on my Current Projects page.