“I starve without people telling me, ‘Do more of this. Do more of that.’ I think there comes a time in your career when you have to put your defenses down, put your pride away, and be willing to accept the fact that there’s always something you can learn or improve.”
Meeting the Crossroads
By Polly Hansen
Flute Talk—February 1985
All of us at some point in our lives come to a crossroads where a life-changing decision has to be made. Jeanne Baxtresser, the new principal flutist of the New York Philharmonic, a position that carries as much responsibility as it does prestige, met her crossroads this last fall and made a decision she is both pleased with and proud of. The decision was not an easy one. Her last position as principal with the Toronto Symphony was, in her words, idyllic; but the chance to be principal flutist with the oldest and one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world and in the music capital of the world was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“I hadn’t been aware of the rich historical heritage of the New York Philharmonic,” says Baxtresser, of her new musical home. “When the orchestra was formed in 1842, Beethoven and Schubert were modern composers, and Wagner and Schumann were considered avant-garde. The orchestra has been conducted by such legendary names as Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Bartok, Ravel, Leonard Bernstein, and of course the present music director, Zubin Mehta.”
Although Baxtresser has been living in Canada for the past 15 years, she is no stranger to New York City. As a matter of fact, she got her first orchestra job with the Montreal Symphony a month before graduating from Julliard where she studied with Julius Baker, former principal flutist with the New York Philharmonic. “The city where you received your classical training will always be exceptional for you,” says Baxtresser, warmly. “The streets, the buildings, and especially the orchestra are so familiar, like home. I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
There’s a tremendous responsibility that goes with being a principal player in the orchestra of America’s largest city. “We play four concerts a week of the same repertoire,” says Baxtresser. “That’s not including the dress rehearsals which are open to the public; so really it’s more like five concerts a week. The house is always full. In total we play annually to live audiences of over one million people. We also are seen by over 15 million people on live and taped television.”
The Importance of Being Flexible
Although her schedule doesn’t now permit it, Baxtresser has fond memories of studio work she did in Montreal and Toronto. “Studio work is just the opposite from orchestral playing,” says Baxtresser. “In the concert hall you’re concerned with getting your sound to the back of a huge, huge room. In the studio you have to play into a microphone that is maybe two or three inches away. you have to cut down and control volume and also vibrato. Vibrato is a wonderful device for projecting in the orchestra; but it becomes too apparent in the studio, so you have to use a lighter vibrato. Tonguing also has to be gentler. In the orchestra, however, aggressive tonguing can be very effective in a flute solo. In the orchestra you have to exaggerate everything and play with a large sound. That’s why orchestral playing is such great training for being a soloist.”
“All my students must own a tape recorder before they can study with me.”
In the last year before Baxtresser took the job with the New York Philharmonic she was doing many solo concerts, and found that it enhanced her orchestral playing immensely. “When you’re sitting in the orchestra counting for 45 measures, and you have to come in with a difficult, long extended solo, having played the Prokofiev Sonata just two nights before makes it a lot easier to face those bars as they come up. It’s a question of attitude. When I’m playing as a soloist I find that five minutes into a concert I’m at a cruising level where I can forget the anxiety of performing. It is this wonderful feeling of confidence I’ve brought back to the orchestra. The more positive experiences you have like this, the more it bolsters your confidence and frees you to play the way you are fully able to.”
As far as soloing with the New York Philharmonic, Baxtresser’s first solo appearance with the orchestra is scheduled for early April 1985, in which she will perform C.P.E. Bach’s Concerto in D Minor.
One of the things Baxtresser remembers from her childhood is sitting in a playpen beside the piano. “My mother was a concert pianist – a winner of the Naumberg and many other awards. She had a fine career and spent a great deal of time practicing,” says Baxtresser. “My father was also a pianist, so we were immersed in music all of the time.
“All of us had piano lessons, but the piano didn’t take with me at all. I tried playing violin and cello, but nothing happened. When a woodwind quintet played a Young Audience concert at my grade school in Minneapolis, I fell in love with the flute. Parents should realize that even though the child has musical talent, it is important to find the instrument for which he has a physical affinity. Sometimes, as with me, it takes several tries.”
Baxtresser started lessons with a woman, Mary Roberts Wilson, who she says was one of her most important teachers. “I was extremely fortunate to have a teacher who gave me all the correct basics of the flute right away. She’s still active in Buffalo, Minnesota, and I owe a lot to her.”
Putting Your Pride Away
There are many people in her life whom Baxtresser is grateful to and who influence her playing every day. “Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve had since I left Juilliard have been in working with other musicians. When I work with them, I coach them; but I also like to be coached. I love to hear their ideas. I starve without people telling me, ‘Do more of this. Do more of that.’ I think there comes a time in your career when you have to put your defenses down, put your pride away, and be willing to accept the fact that there’s always something you can learn or improve.
“I remember coming home from Juilliard feeling very good about having been there. my mother would listen to my playing and point out things that were obvious even to me. Still I resented her comments because I thought, ‘I should be above and beyond this by now.’ Later I learned that we must always be concerned with improvement. So when I play concerts I talk to my colleagues and ask, ‘Well, what do you think?’ You cannot – you must not isolate yourself.”
Teacher’s Moral Obligation
Baxtresser’s lessons with Baker included intense concentration on good rhythm and intonation. “I feel very fortunate to have studied with a supreme master of the instrument. He never let us get away with anything,” she says. “I think as a teacher you have a moral obligation to concentrate on these areas of rhythm and intonation because if anybody has a prayer of achieving a position in an orchestra, rhythm is the first thing the committee will listen for. Sound, of course, is objective. People have their own tastes and there’s not much you can do about that. Rhythm and intonation are most important – and technique.”
Practicing With a Tape Recorder
To improve these areas of playing Baxtresser suggests practicing with a tape recorder. “All students must own a tape recorder before they can study with me,” she says. “I think it is extremely important to be able to hear yourself as others hear you in these areas of rhythm and pitch. Now with sound you have to trust your own ear, because even the best equipment can’t reproduce your sound exactly as it is played. Many people have an emotional reaction to what they hear and get all ties up in knots. They say, ‘Oh, it sounds so bad I can’t bear it!’ They put the tape recorder away and don’t listen again until they absolutely have to. The thing to do is get the emotions out of your playing at this point, so you’re dealing only with black and white issues.
“For example, when you’re working on the opening of the Prokofiev Sonata, you play about six lines, and then listen back to the tape recorder for intonation and rhythm – where you tend to drag, rush, and so on. Don’t just let the sound wash over you or you’re apt to get an impression that is counterproductive. Remember you’re not going to get a beautiful sound, but rather one that sounds more like a beginner made the recording. Mark your part and then tape the six lines again making the corrections accordingly. (This, by the way, is an excellent way to work on orchestral excerpts.)
“At this point you should not be playing with a metronome because you can become dependent on it. Your work with the metronome will have been done previously. One thing you can do is tape your performance without the metronome, then when you listen back to the first six lines turn the metronome on and check your rhythm that way. Your second performance should be about 80% better.
“The third time you play should be like a performance. You should gear yourself up with the feeling that this is the real thing. If there are still corrections to be made after the third time, then you should move onto something else and come back to those six lines the next day.”
Another teaching concern of Baxtresser’s is how to take pressure and tension out of practice time. “Everybody is so busy,” she says. “Being able to accomplish the simplest things takes so much time. That in itself creates a certain amount of pressure and tension when practicing so that your time is spent unproductively. What I have my students do is say honestly how much time they are going to practice every day. I don’t care if it’s four hours or one hour. With that time we break it down into segments. The first one includes specific exercises for tone, technique, vibrato, and tonguing. Etudes involve another segment of time. The third segment is solo literature, and then last of all the orchestral excerpts.
“That’s four specific areas they must touch upon every day. I have them work out a schedule so they time each segment. When the buzzer goes off they move on to the next segment, even if they’re not finished. This way you know you don’t have any time to waste. It also takes away the idea that you must perfect something every day. You can’t. It’s a long process. It just creates a lot of tension and pressure when you’re worrying. ‘I’ve got to get through this exercise. I’ve got to finish it.’ You don’t have to finish it. You go as far as you can in 15 minutes (for example an etude in 12 different keys), and then you record in your notebook what key you finished in and pick it up there the next day. (The students have to write in a notebook every day because it gets pretty complicated by the time they’ve worked out their specific schedule. The schedule changes every couple of months with new exercises and etudes so they’re not doing the same ones year after year.) By the end of the day you have touched on everything you wanted to do and you have a feeling of accomplishment.”
Teaching in Pairs
Baxtresser has a method of teaching students two at a time so that the student who listens can write down notes for the one who is playing. “I find the students themselves are able to give terrific lessons. Often I’ll ask, ‘Well, what did you think?’ Some of them come up with remarkably astute observations. If students are forced to think more analytically, they’ll be able to practice more effectively on their own.”
The Power of Imagination
Although Baxtresser feels it’s important to take tension out of practice, she also believes that at certain points you’re going to create a little bit of tension on purpose. “You recreate, in effect, the kinds of feelings you have on stage. A good way to do this is through imagination. Being able to visualize and feel the performance before you get there is very important.
“For example, I had one particular experience when I was principal with the Toronto Symphony. We were touring the Unites States and did a performance of a contemporary work. In one part the orchestra stops for a flute solo that’s about four minutes in length. In major orchestras conductors often don’t rehearse the big solos. Our conductor didn’t even give me a chance to play through the thing once. I wanted to know what it would feel like going from the previous movement to the solo. So I went home and imagined every detail of what it would be like. I’d finish the movement, turn the page, bring the flute up to my lips, look at the conductor for an indication, which he’d probably wave his hand or something, and I’d play through the solo in my mind finishing the last note, which is a long diminuendo, put the flute down, turn the page, and look at the conductor for the next cue. I did this a number of times. At the first performance, which was in a huge hall, it was so easy. I felt I had done it many times. It was just amazing. This technique is very powerful, very effective. Incidentally, this process of mental performance is widely used by athletes.
“Many people simply refuse to think of an upcoming performance saying, ‘It makes me too nervous.’ However, once you deal with the difficulties of performing it doesn’t have to be a do-or-die situation where you’re hoping good old Lady Luck will come along and rescue you.”
The Joy of Music
“It’s important to realize that music is one of the glorious, wonderful things we have in life,” she continues. “It is not necessary for flute students to feel they must achieve a goal of being in an orchestra or becoming a soloist. The joys of having the ability to play an instrument will last a lifetime. If you’ve decided at some point that you’re not going to play in an orchestra or become a professional musician, you can still play the instrument to the best of your ability. That skill and talent will enhance your life forever.”