We had the opportunity to ask Christian a few questions. Take a look at his thoughts on performing jazz vs. classical, learning improvisation as well as advice for upcoming flutists.
1. Why did you choose to play the flute?
The story goes that one day around age 3 I heard Jean-Pierre Rampal on one of my parents’ records and was so taken by the sound that ever after I insisted on playing the flute.
2. What has your experience been as a jazz musician living in New York City?
It’s been amazing! The depth of musical talent, backgrounds and aspirations in New York is simply incredible. Unlike in my native Germany / Austria where music is categorized into “serious” versus “entertainment” (with only European classical music making the “serious” grade…), there is a growing recognition here that musicians shouldn’t limit themselves to a particular genre but instead search for inspiration and learning opportunities wherever they can find them. For me personally there is nothing more fulfilling than to work with great musicians regardless of genre and then go back to the drawing board to analyze all the things I just learned and can improve. I feel in New York the opportunities for this are endless.
3. You’ve been involved in two recording projects in the last few years. How was the making of ‘Fields of Pannonia’, your most recent release, different from ‘Uneasy Dreams’?
Both were great experiences. Walking into a beautiful sound studio with inspiring musicians and with nothing to do but to play my music: What could possibly be better than that?! Under the right circumstances, a studio can be a very spiritual place, a sanctuary of sorts. The recording of “Uneasy Dreams” had some behind-the-scene personal drama and took an unexpected turn halfway through. As a result, the music definitely has an edge and the overall storyline is both imperfect and really cool at the same time.
The making of “Fields of Pannonia” was more harmonious and the album reflects more clearly the storyline I had imagined for it. It is a celebration of my roots – the rich cultural crossroads of Central-Eastern Europe – through a combination of overt references, a pastoral color palette and a commitment to cross musical and genre boundaries. The quartet on “Fields of Pannonia” with Gregg Kallor on piano, Johannes Weidenmueller on bass and Jeff Hirshfield on drums means a lot to me: All three of them are amazing musicians, consummate professionals and supportive friends with a great sense of humor. When we play together it feels like family, and I think this vibe really comes through in the music!
4. How did your practice routine change when your focus changed from classical to jazz?
It changed radically! In hindsight, my classical practice routine was pretty dualistic in nature. On the one hand, there was “practice”: working through endless lists of etudes of frequently dubious musical value in order to improve technique. On the other hand, there was “playing”: performing the great classical works in a state of deference and admiration but without true understanding.
This division between practice and play no longer exists for me. It’s all music! At any moment something beautiful can happen! In the middle of a scale exercise I might hear something and go off on a detour. And why wouldn’t I?! If I limit myself to finishing the exercise as quickly as possible, all I’ll accomplish is getting through an exercise. But if I follow the detour sign, I might end up with a wonderful improvisation or even the basis for a new composition!
Usually I start by warming up my sound with something loosely based on Marcel Moyse’s De la Sonorité. One day this little exercise might take 20 minutes. But on another day it can last 3 hours! It could turn into a physical therapy session: a way to breathe deeply, feel my muscles support the intervals and let go of strain in my body. Or it could become a meditation: a way to calm my mind after an unsettling experience. Halfway through, it could suddenly start representing scenes outside my window: an old man walking down the street, a police car waiting for a traffic offender or snowflakes swirling around the trees… The possibilities are endless!
Of course there are many technical aspects of how I changed my practice routine. I am spending a lot of time trying to understand the basics of music better: rhythm, harmony, form, keys, meters and modes… But beyond these technical considerations, the most profound change is that now, as soon as I start playing, it’s all about music!
5. What does a typical practice routine/session look like for you now?
My practice routine generally involves the following aspects:
Here are some thoughts on each:
Meditation: Taking time to develop the right state of mind and body allows every aspect of the ensuing practice routine to be healthy both mentally and physically and to have the potential to turn into wonderful music. I am a student of Buddhism and find many of the teachings and concepts very valuable in the context of music.
Sound: My objective is to develop a sound that does justice to the instrument and is at the same time very individual.
Rhythm & time: Typically neglected in classical studies, good rhythm & time make any performance – regardless of genre – deeper and more meaningful. I recommend the Indian “konokol” system as a basis from which to develop things because it is easy to understand and very powerful.
Technical & harmonic agility: I always develop my own exercises in order to maximize insight, flexibility and creativity. I do not believe in playing etudes written by others because it limits learning. Creating one’s own exercises takes more time but ultimately pays off in spades!
Improvisation practice: This can take many different shapes, depending on one’s level and experience as well as particular objectives. Some examples: motivic development over chord changes; singing & playing to sharpen melodicism; playing phrases across phrase- and bar-lines… It’s like learning a language – you can always get better!
Play & performance: To me this means putting it all together, not thinking about all the practice stuff and instead focusing on listening to the music and responding to fellow musicians… Even when I don’t have a rehearsal or gig and am just practicing alone, I always reserve an hour at the end of each practice routine for “play time”, to free up and let go.
6. What is your concept of the ‘ideal sound?’ Do you think it is different when playing jazz vs. classical?
The ideal sound is one that is truly personal while at the same time doing justice to the instrument. Let me explain what I mean by that. In my experience, the goal in classical flute study typically is to attain the one “right” sound. This sound is based on, and justified through, studies developed by great experts (e.g., Marcel Moyse) as well as the classical repertoire and how it has sounded over the centuries. Little or no time is spent on taking into account the personal characteristics or ideas of a particular player. Jazz certainly requires a more personal approach. All great jazz players have had a very personal sound. Take Miles Davis or John Coltrane – their sound was instantly recognizable not only as great but also as their own! Jazz as a music form is arguably much more about personal expression than classical music and a personal sound goes hand in hand with that.
At the same time, the sound should always do justice to the possibilities of the instrument. Why does the flute not have a great reputation as a jazz instrument? Sound issues! In the early jazz days, the flute wasn’t seriously studied. Rather, it served as a secondary instrument for sax players to “double” on for effect. As a result, the typical sound offered little projection, was rarely full or warm and often had pitch problems. Ironically and unfortunately, some people still think that this largely unattractive sound is the right sound for playing jazz flute…
In the end I would argue that all flute players, regardless of genre, should aim for a sound that is both personal and does justice to the instrument. If you look at truly great flute players across genres, you will realize that all of them excelled at both of these sound criteria! Take for example Hubert Laws, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Robert Dick: each of their sounds is both instantly recognizable and fully realized!
Personally, I therefore stopped trying to adjust my sound for genres a while ago. Instead I try to work a lot on the basics of sound – to make the sound more my own and hopefully also better. When I switch from jazz to classical vice versa, my sound more or less remains the same.
7. As a jazz musician, do you still perform classical music occasionally?
Absolutely! I regularly play classical music and still perform it occasionally. Above all, it is a wonderful source of inspiration. A year ago I found myself playing Bach’s Partita in a minor a lot and a few weeks later I wrote a jazz arrangement of one of the movements. I also love Debussy’s Syrinx, so much in fact that I learned the opening melody in all 12 keys and use versions of it over dominant substitutes in my jazz solos. Recently I really got into Le Merle Noir by Messiaen. What an unbelievable piece of music!
8. How would you recommend someone wanting to learn how to improvise when all that is offered in their school is classical music programs?
What’s most important is real desire and commitment. Of course a good teacher or music school focusing on improvisation can be very helpful in terms of guidance and concepts. But in the end this is about developing your own music and finding your own voice! Nobody can do that for you.
Another very important point is to keep working on the basics: flute playing technique, harmony, rhythm… Whenever I find myself needing to think about harmonic progressions or scales while improvising or unable to get my fingers around a particular line I’d like to play, I know that my music won’t be as good as it could be. The goal should be for all technical aspects to be on auto-pilot so that our undivided attention is on telling the story.
Some classical players find it difficult to start improvising at the most basic level. The mere thought of playing a few notes that aren’t already written out for them is frightening. If you fall into this camp, don’t despair! It’s a natural by-product of having been taught to read other people’s music all your life and it says nothing about your potential to improvise or compose great music. To get over the initial resistance, you might find the following useful:
• Sing a phrase or melody, whatever comes into your head. Then play this phrase or melody on the flute by ear. This exercise will free up your creativity while at the same time teaching you to translate what you are hearing onto the flute. It’s important not to question or judge the quality of what you are singing while you are at it. Instead, I would recommend recording yourself and analyzing the musical content of the phrases later on.
• Find time to compose! To me, composition is just improvisation slowed down. When you compose, you remove the pressure to do things fast and to immediately translate your ideas onto the flute. You can take lots of time to write out a beautiful melody or a great chord structure. Once you like it, figure out why you like it and how you can add it to your improv vocabulary in the future.
• Listen very actively to lots of music that includes improvisation. Transcribing solos you like can be a good idea to figure out what makes them great.
9. We are always evolving as people and musicians. With this in mind, what is your musical vision moving forward?
Becoming a better musician, creating something unique and moving that stretches across musical and cultural boundaries, and giving my listeners and fellow musicians moments of happiness and inspiration.
10. What musician(s) has had the largest influence on your playing?
Hubert Laws in terms of jazz flute playing. Wayne Shorter and my teacher Laszlo Gardony in terms of jazz improvisation and composition generally. Beyond that: John Coltrane, Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók…
11. Do you have any new projects in the works?
We just performed a whole lot of new music of mine at a concert in September and more is in the works! I have also been playing a lot of Bach lately, even more than usual… Stay tuned and visit www.artmannjazz.com!
12. In your opinion, what is the state of the music industry in the area of contemporary music/jazz? What might be the pros and cons of being a flute player in this particular field?
I would be lying if I said the state of the music industry was healthy. The demand for serious engagement with music is very low in western society today. Most people use music as a background device to set a mood or help them get through their workout routine. Taking an hour to just listen to and study a great piece of music has become pretty rare.
At the same time, the supply of music has been increasing exponentially. There are more conservatory-trained musicians today than ever before, the internet is absolutely flooding listeners with music and copyright law is not keeping up with the myriad of ways in which online users can steal intellectual property.
The rest is Economics 101… If we want to make things better, we have to find a way to increase the demand for good music. Let’s get people excited about contemporary jazz, about classical and ethnic music, about music in general! It starts with our children, with the role that music plays in education. But it also has to do with us musicians finding new avenues to reach and convince our audience.
As for the flute, it still plays a pretty marginal role in mainstream jazz. However, there is a great opportunity in that: If one is serious about the music and the instrument, it’s definitely possible to develop a unique voice and push the boundaries of what is expected or possible.
When I first got interested in jazz, I briefly considered picking up the sax and playing the flute as a second, “double” instrument like many other jazz musicians – or even quitting the flute altogether and focusing on the piano. In hindsight, I’m so glad I stuck with the flute as my primary instrument! It’s the instrument I chose as a young child, it’s a part of me and I find it incredibly rewarding to explore its possibilities as an instrument of creative expression.
13. How did you come to choose Miyazawa as your flute of choice?
A teacher at the Aspen Music Festival recommended Miyazawas to me in 1991 and I have played my GS model ever since. The flute is incredibly well built, has great projection and offers a wonderful canvas for me to explore my sound. On my last recording Uneasy Dreams I also play the Miyazawa PCM Alto Flute with a gold riser (check the sound sample “Dark Slate Blue” on my Miyazawa artist page). A really beautiful instrument!
14. If you had one piece of advice to give an upcoming flutist, what would you tell them?
For me, playing the flute has become therapeutic. Maybe that’s a helpful way of thinking about practicing?