The Jeanne Baxtresser Approach
By Victoria Jicha
Flute Talk—May/June 2002
When an established, well-respected principal performer of a major symphony orchestra retires from a way of life that she has occupied for the past 35 years, the musical world responds with interest and curiosity. Jeanne Baxtresser became principal flute of the Montreal Symphony at the age of 21 and later held the same position with the Toronto Symphony. In 1984 she joined the New York Philharmonic as principal flutist. In 1998 she retired from the Philharmonic and began a new phase in her professional life. She will join the New England Conservatory flute faculty in the fall of 2002 and continues teaching at Carnegie Mellon University with zest, creativity, and enthusiasm.
When asked about teaching as a profession, Baxtresser replies “Beginning flute teachers create the artists of tomorrow, and they do a remarkable job. I began lessons with Mary Roberts Wilson when I was about 10 or 11 years old. She was an incredible teacher who used a loving and firm hand. She made it clear that flute study was serious business and she had expectations for me to fulfill. For the first time in my life I was treated as an adult, and I wanted to please her with well-prepared lessons. She had strong concepts about tone exercises and intonation and introduced these in the first lesson. For example, sharp C#s were unacceptable; my old etude books are so full of little downward arrows above these pitches that it might seem that a crazy person practiced them. She was tremendously enthusiastic, gave encouragement to students, and stressed the importance of learning new ideas and sounds by listening to other flutists. Whenever famous flutists toured through the Minneapolis area, she urged us to go hear them. Through recordings she introduced me to Julius Baker, which was an important element in my development.”
After performing Mozart’s Concerto in D Major with the Minneapolis Symphony at age 14, Baxtresser studied with Baker at Juilliard. “When students are in front of a master teacher and renowned performer, they feel a certain amount of awe. They hang on every word and watch for every change of expression. I was certainly like that with Julius Baker. Most of his students developed their playing by watching and listening him play during lessons. I watched carefully to find any performance techniques that might be visible, and today I see students watching me the same way when I play during lessons. Motivated students watch, analyze, and attempt to discern ways to produce a good tone. Julius is a dedicated musician who never takes his flute playing for granted, and that sets a great example for his students. He always practiced diligently, and was prepared, but he was completely intolerant of bad rhythm or intonation. he never tried to control our practice habits but held students responsible for progress. His students realized that if they didn’t work, they were communicating a lack of professional motivation. I am so grateful for his wonderful guidance.”
When asked about students who don’t practice enough, Baxtresser explains, “Most private students sacrifice both time and money to study, and they generally work hard. Colleges select students carefully and look for highly motivated young people. If students stop working, there is usually a reasonable explanation. Students sometimes show a fear or desperation about the future, and that anxiety may temporarily inhibit progress. Personal problems sometimes interfere with flute lessons. I try to encourage them as they learn to cope with life’s problems. I rarely see lazy students because those who study with me really want to learn to play the flute.”
When asked to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses she had as a teenager, Baxtresser replies, “High school students naturally concentrate on their strengths. In high school I was confident about my playing and was unaware of any major flute problems. In college I became a better listener and soon realized that to have any hope for a career as a professional flutist, I had work to do. My technique was good enough, but it was not impressive. Instead of going to masterclasses and workshops, I devoted two summers to intensive practicing. The college years are the perfect time for this type of work, and for the only time in my life I practiced 4 to 5 hours a day. I developed a practice chart for Exercise de Journaliers by Taffanel and Gaubert that assigned articulations to scales, arpeggios, and scales in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, and 6ths. I played through the entire chart every day, but did not look for daily progress: doing the work was the goal. By the end of the summer I had improved greatly. I doubt if I would have had a successful career without this concentrated effort those summers.” Of her tone production and vibrato during her student years, she says, “The flute tone did not express the emotions I felt, and for the first time I questioned what I really sounded like. The solution to the problem was finding how to vary my vibrato to reflect the changing emotions of the music.”
Baxtresser taught at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music for 17 years and is presently professor of flute at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. “I am a great believer in change and moving on to new challenges; it is good for the soul and keeps us alive. I enjoy Carnegie Mellon because it is a big university; on any given day Nobel prize winners may walk across the campus, and leading scientists give lectures. I am delighted that next year I will also teach at the New England Conservatory in Boston, the flute capitol of the world. I give a masterclass in Germany every year, and as a result many European students come to study with me in the U.S. They know that they will be in the U.S. for a limited time, so they try to make the most of every moment. They have good work habits, are organized, and generally curious about new music and Baroque performance practice. They are interested in how performance practice on a traverso translates to the modern flute. European students are just as eager to try new techniques and approaches to the instrument and are particularly interested in studying orchestral excerpts.”
Most young flutists, regardless of geographical origin, should work harder on keeping a steady pulse and on beat subdivisions. “Inner rhythms and a fine sense of pulse are hard to develop, but they are absolutely essential for orchestral auditions. This was one of the hardest areas for me to practice before auditions. Most young musicians have difficulty holding a long note while maintaining an inner rhythm; they should always feel or count the subdivisions within a long note. I use the trick of imagining someone conducting while I hold long notes. I will ask my husband or another musician to conduct while I play a passage. When they step away, I try to imagine that they are still there conducting the pulse. This exercise creates a kind of visual rhythmic memory of the subdivisions. I want students to be serious about correcting this problem and often explain, ‘If a conductor were conducting you right now, Daphnis would be perfect, but the reality is that you must stand alone on a stage and play the solo without a conductor or a metronome.’ When flutists take the problem seriously and work to correct it, they are far more likely to play an audition where the conductor comments on their impeccable rhythm.”
Of playing in a professional orchestra, Baxtresser says, “The orchestra is a village of people who are engaged in the same activity every day and sometimes four or five nights a week. On many occasions they will all play the same climax of a phrase at exactly the precise moment, and I don’t know of anything in the human experience that is quite like this. There is a remarkable relationship between musicians who come from diverse homes, families, and backgrounds in to a magical, explosive, and magnetic arrangement of human psyches. The relationships that develop within an orchestra can be very gratifying. Sometimes orchestral musicians become too involved in how they sound or may worry about how the conductor or their colleagues treat them. When players focus on what is good only for themselves and how they feel, their experience is one-dimensional, because they lose the connection with other musicians. Those who try to see problems from the other’s viewpoint will reap tremendous riches from the orchestral experience.”
During 35 years in an orchestra, Baxtresser developed close friendships with Renee Siebert, second flutist in the New York Philharmonic, and with David Cramer, associate principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra and second flutist in Montreal when she played there. These former colleagues contributed to her new orchestral excerpt book that is devoted to great flute duos in the orchestral repertoire and which is expected to be published this summer. Baxtresser enjoyed “going back in time and fondly remembering performances we shared together and the joy of playing with another flutist sitting beside me. We included Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, The Moldau by Smetana, wonderful arias from the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach, and selections by Mendelssohn and Shostakovich – all great moments for two flutes.
“Flutists learn from teachers, but they also learn from colleagues and fellow flute players. That is why attending concerts and listening to recordings are so important. I encourage students to take every opportunity to grab a fellow flutist, pull them into a practice room, and say, ‘Play this duet with me.’ We learn so much from our peers, especially those flutists who have strengths that are our weaknesses. If a student has a wonderful technique, grab them and play Kuhlau duets together. If they make you feel deficient, then practice harder and grab them again three weeks later and play the duet again. This is how we improve. Don’t run away from a superior player but go after them and learn from them. When I was a student at Julliard, we had a remarkable class of flutists and learned from each other. The goal for the book is to show how educational it is to play this great music with another flutist.”
Besides the traditional orchestral literature, Baxtresser has recorded many standard solo pieces and played hundreds of recitals. However, she did not perform contemporary music or extended techniques frequently. “I was always intrigued by the genre, and as a young flutist I played a lot of contemporary music. Extended techniques were very liberating, and I learned lessons about sound from extended techniques that helped me as a classical flutist.” With regard to her students’ study of contemporary music, she explains, ‘It occured to me in recent years that no teacher knows everything. I try to offer students a complete flute experience, but there are areas in which I am not an expert. Other flutists spend a lifetime perfecting extended techniques and learning contemporary repertoire. Students should be able to take advantage of their knowledge. My wonderful colleague at Carnegie Mellon, Alberto Almarza, is particularly well-versed in contemporary repertoire and techniques. We collaborate with each other in an effort to give every student a thorough education, and I look forward to doing the same at the New England Conservatory. Teachers should not allow a cult-like atmosphere to prevail in their studios because with a closed-door policy, students may become fearful and start to see other teachers on the sly, what I call ghost-teaching.”
When asked for advice on taking college and orchestral auditions, Baxtresser explains that good preparation is the key. “The experience is enjoyable if you prepare properly, but it takes hard work and careful thought. The preparation for an orchestral audition is almost a science: the timing of when to learn the pieces, when to play mock-auditions, when to rest, when to peak, when to forge ahead. These aspects should be carefully planned. Flutists should study excerpts at a young age because as they grow older the excerpts will improve with maturity. Daphnis should be studied early as an etude, not two months before an audition.
“When I learned the major orchestral solos 40 years ago, The Modern Flutist was the only available standard excerpt book. I learned many of the solos by listening to and playing along with recordings. I often joke that by the time I arrived at Juilliard I had played first flute with the Berlin, New York, and Cleveland orchestras. The real benefit in learning the excerpts that way was that I learned the orchestral parts as well as the flute part. Students should study the orchestral flute solos from the piano part that comes with some excerpt books to learn the other parts. It is also important to work from a piano score when practicing the standard solo repertoire, but flutists too often do not even look at the piano part. They remain ignorant of the complete composition but expect the accompanist to correct their inaccuracies. When professional musicians collaborate they learn all of the parts of a composition. I encourage students to arrange duets form a piano score and sometimes to listen only to the piano part in flute and piano recordings.”
At times Baxtresser even wished she were playing the second flute part to understand the orchestra from a different perspective. “A great second flutist can change the sound of the entire wind section. Sometimes the second flute part has the solo line and at others it accompanies the first flute or another instrument. It takes a real artist to switch between these, and I hope the duo book is a tribute to those who perform the unheralded, but invaluable, second flute job.”
Several years after completing her orchestral excerpt book, Baxtresser recorded and released a C.D. of the excerpts as part of a series of recordings by principal players of major U.S. orchestras. She recalls the process of making that C.D. as “the hardest audition I ever took because it was as if I were auditioning for the entire international flute community. When the tape started to roll, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I am supposed to record these solos after my own performance suggestions have already been published.’ It was a daunting project.”
That Baxtresser will openly admit to such insecurities is as refreshing as her comments that “Great artists experience down days just like students; the question is not if off-days occur, but how to cope with them when they do occur. I worked with the top soloists in the music world and the virtuosi of the symphonic world. We all strived for that elusive ideal – perfection. In my years with the orchestra I always tried to serve my colleagues and the conductors to the best of my ability. Any musician knows, however, that all performances are different. One of the most important lessons to learn about being a musician is that there are no guarantees. You must prepare to the best of your ability, and then embrace the adventure and the humanity of being a performer.