January's Featured Artist 2017Our Featured Artist for the month is Sonja Giles, who has appeared as a recitalist, chamber musician and educator at a variety of venues across the United States, Austria, Belgium and Russia. She has been a soloist with the Kaliningrad Symphony Orchestra (Russia), Iowa State University Wind Ensemble, Ottumwa Symphony Orchestra, Iowa State University Orchestra and numerous bands throughout Iowa. Sonja is a member of the Cedar Rapids Opera Company and performs regularly with the Des Moines Symphony and Orchestra Iowa. She is a founding member of the ensemble Atlas Trio with oboist, Elizabeth Young and pianist, Ruth Lin.
In addition to her performing career, Dr. Giles is equally zealous about her role as an educator, currently the Assistant Professor of Flute at Iowa State University. In 2008, Sonja was honored as the recipient of the 2008 University Award for Early Excellence in Teaching, as well as the Cassling Early Excellence in Teaching Award. Giles credits her teaching to her wonderful teachers Sheryl Cohen, Tadeu Coelho, Immanuel Davis, Julia Bogorad-Kogan and Keith Underwood.
We had the opportunity to ask Sonja a few questions. Check out her thoughts on essential qualities for musical excellence, her unique teaching style, as well as advice for upcoming flutists.
1. What does a typical practice session look like for you?
It really depends on what is on my calendar at the time. I have a busy and varied performance schedule; off-Broadway shows, symphony sets, working through repertoire with my students, and contemporary chamber music and solo performances. Because of this, I have learned to practice efficiently. I infuse my daily routine of Moyse’s De la Sonorite and Tone Development and Taffanel/Gaubert’s 17 Big Daily’s with singing-and-playing, ‘winding’, buzzing, Keith Underwood’s chopstick and finger breaths. I like to mix things up and keep my tone, expression and technique practice varied and flexible.
2. What is the most important thing to emphasize not only in your teaching but in your own playing?
“To be a musician and not merely a technician”-- My main objective is to figure out what the music is trying to say and say it! Because of this, I focus on finding ways to have technique serve the musical intention. I also truly love finding new ways or methods of practicing and learning new music, so I guess you could say that an obsession of mine is finding ways to make technique effortless, so expression can be the main focus.
3. Who is your biggest influence as an artist?
My teachers ~Sheryl Cohen, Tadeu Coelho, Keith Underwood, Julia Bogorad-Kogan and Immanuel Davis~ are at the top of the list because I “hear” their advice and artistry everyday in my teaching. However, I am often listening to other musicians (not just flutists) for pleasure and inspiration… which changes on a daily basis.
4. What's the most important thing to teach an upcoming flutist/student?
The ability to teach themselves… I am a firm believer in the idea that you:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day;
teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
When I was younger in my teaching, I believed this concept applied only to flute playing. Now, I believe this concept also applies to the student’s ability to self-motivate, persevere, handle success and rejection, --- to succeed in life!
5. How would you advise flutists to begin practicing for an orchestral audition and/or competition? What advice can you give to those preparing as far as nerves/performance anxiety are concerned?
It’s important to prepare musically, but also physically, mentally and emotionally.
Maintaining a healthy personal balance musically, physically, mentally, and emotionally helps keep the pains of performance anxiety at bay AND gives the greatest possibility of PEAK PERFORMANCE. I will share some of my thoughts on preparation for these different areas—however, don’t forget to enjoy the music!
Begin preparing as early as possible. Record yourself so you get an honest assessment of where you are throughout the process.
Work out your body, mind and spirit. Get to the gym, run or walk outside, buy a yoga DVD and get to breathing and stretching. This is a huge part of your musical self and directly impacts your breathing, your body, your body usage, your fluting, and your mind! Great exercises for flutists include (but are not limited to): core strength, cardio, balance/centering, and stretching.
Work on your mind and your thinking.
Our minds are constantly thinking something. If that something is positive, wonderful. If that something is self-defeating thoughts, then this is probably the most important area to work on. Seemingly simple, decide that you can give a good audition. Start believing that you are preparing for a good audition, that you can (and will) play your best -- that you will feel good… that you are excited for the opportunity… that you are lucky to have the opportunity and that the opening is there! The goal is to make positive thinking your norm. If you don’t control your thoughts, they can easily control you. So, assess yourself and if you need to help your thoughts- get going!!! YOU CAN DO IT!
Another way to alter your thinking is to do so by creating positive experiences and memories.
Performance anxiety is a fear of something in the future… something that hasn’t occurred yet; however, the fear can seem so real… Why is that? Is it based on something from our past? If it is based on something that we’ve already experienced (i.e. heart palpitations, sweaty palms, shaking legs/knees, tightening of chest, inability to breathe, etc), we fear it will happen again.
Most likely, in a past experience, our nerves affected us negatively and our playing suffered. Our fear becomes REAL because we automatically assume it will happen again. As a result, we need to replace the old experiences riddled with performance anxiety, with NEW experiences.
Let’s take a rapid heartbeat for example. Do you fear your heart will beat rapidly? If so, run up and down the stairs to get your heart rate going; come straight to your flute and begin playing. No matter what: continue playing.
Long phrases are hard with a thudding heart? Good. Keep playing!
Your tone is coming and going because of it? Fine. Keep playing!
Do this daily for a few weeks. By pushing through and continuing to play, you are creating memories of playing through a thudding heart. The more experiences you have of doing this, the more you begin to realize that you’re able to continue playing… the more your realize and TRULY BELIEVE this, the more it won’t freak you out and start a negative domino-effect on your body during a performance.
Some nervous reactions are difficult to simulate or recreate without the pressure of a live performance or audition (i.e. sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaking knees, etc.) and can only happen in ‘real time’. If this is your type of nervous reaction, try to assemble panels of listeners that will make your nervous. Decide that no matter what, you will continue playing. The same method of building new memories works with this method. Also, some students have feared what the audition room will sound like. This too can be emulated beforehand. Get a friend or two; play through your audition in a new space. I often have my students play in every room in the building. No cheating either… don’t go check out the space ahead of time. Just go into the room with your ‘judges’ and play the music through without stopping. Hearing great acoustic space is a wonderful experience. Hearing that you are in a crappy space can be nerve wracking, but you must fill the space and make it work.
6. What is the hardest part about being a musician? What is the best part?
Hmm… let’s start with the best part of being a musician… I honestly feel so blessed to make music and teach for a living. I’m doing more orchestral playing recently, and when I am with the symphony, that is the best part of being a musician. However, when I am with my students, then teaching is the best part of being a musician … I guess I equally love all aspects of being a musician (practicing, teaching, orchestral playing, chamber music, etc.).
The hardest part (for me) of being a musician is tied between handling feelings of self-doubt and trying not to be a perfectionist… I’m pretty sure that when I master the perfectionist part, I will eliminate the self-doubt part. And while I know that this struggle I have is part of my ‘mental’ preparation and practice, I find that when I have devoted time to my physical and emotional health, my outlook (aka- inner critic) is much more level-headed and realistic.
7. Do you have any interests and/or hobbies outside of music?
Yes! Besides watching my favorite basketball, football and soccer stars (my boys!), I love being outdoors and traveling!
8. What does a typical day look like for you?
Teaching - teaching – and more--- TEACHING! Actually, I try to begin everyday with my warm-up. I do this for two reasons: no college student desires a lesson at 8am (which is actually my “prime time”), and warming up at the beginning of the day prepares me to demonstrate without tension, a primary focus in my teaching and performance.
But to answer your question more literally, my day is filled with: teaching flute lessons, coaching chamber groups, answering emails, brainstorming with colleagues, attending meetings, conducting flute ensemble, recruiting fabulous flutists to ISU, commissioning exciting new works, researching and working on Volume II of The Melody Book, advising Esprit de Corps (the music learning community) and leading aural theory.
9. How do you recommend preparing for college auditions? Also, can you give some insight as to what you expect to hear at undergraduate auditions?
Get to know the teacher at the schools you are considering. You will be spending several years of your life with this person! Find out what their studio and program requires, because every school is different. I evaluate prospective students on a case-by-case basis. Preferred characteristics include a strong flute foundation, a positive attitude, a teachable aptitude, a diligent work ethic, and an insatiable desire to improve.
10. What are the advantages/disadvantages of being a college flute professor compared to a full-time orchestral player?
It’s really a matter of what you enjoy. I truly love teaching, helping others figure it out musically and have that ‘ah-ha’ moment! I relish the opportunities to help others find personal joy in music. I also enjoy playing the flute and find great satisfaction in doing so. I constantly adjust that balance accordingly, considering my teaching, my performing, and (most importantly) my family life.
After advancing through the tenure process, I now have stable employment, health benefits, creative direction of my own flute studio, and other perks (ability to schedule recitals, selection of repertoire, frequency of performances, etc.) I also have the joy of paperwork upon paperwork, committees upon committees. My job is constantly changing, because my work is continuously changing. My work is based on new students every year. Additionally, my students are typically in a fluctuating period of their lives. Every day is a new adventure as a college flute professor.
11. Why did you choose to play the flute?
I think I chose the flute because I guess liked it? It’s tough for me to remember that far back! My parents were constantly playing music in the house while I was growing up; the Beatles, Peter Paul & Mary, and lots of classical music. I must have heard the flute and recognized that it was the king of all instruments! We had heard that the beginning band director wouldn’t allow you to play flute if you were going to have braces, which were in my future. My folks bought a flute for me. When I went in to the placement test, I told them that we already owned a flute… and the rest is history!
12. If you could identify the moment in your life when you knew that you wanted to be a professional musician, what would that moment be?
During my junior year at the University of Alabama, I split a recital with an oboist named Barrett Seals. In my preparation, I practiced much more diligently than previously (perhaps it could be said that my practice was less than stellar prior to this recital). I learned a lot about myself from the entire process.
I am often reminded of my fabulous teacher Dr. Sheryl Cohen. She not only waited until I was ready to commit to flute, but also urged me to try out my other passions and interests. You have to “want it” in order to carve out a career in music. She shared with me her philosophy that, it is not so much a question of finding what to do with your life as it is finding what you have to do with it. It was during my preparation for my junior recital that I knew I wanted to be a ‘Dr. Cohen’ for my own students. Some of my primary goals as a flute instructor are to provide an unshakable foundation of flute technique and repertoire while, ultimately and patiently, allowing students to discover and then become themselves. Does it take a lot of patience? Sure. But is it worth it? Absolutely!
13. What is the most valuable lesson that the flute has taught you?
Eek! If I had to select the most valuable lesson that the flute has taught me, it would be centered on tackling challenges and the realization that hard work pays off. However, selecting only ONE lesson is impossible for me. Hence, this open thank you letter to the flute…
Dear flute (and sometimes piccolo),
You have taught me to be humble. You have taught me about hard work, dedication, and perseverance. You have taught me about loss. You have required that I listen, follow, and lead. You have urged me to appreciate the things that come naturally, and to work hard at those things that don’t. You have taught me discipline. You have brought me incomparable joy, and have been right with me through some of the best moments in my life. You have provided opportunities for me to travel the world and brought amazing people into my inner circle!
I can’t imagine my life without you… thank you for a wonderful life, where my ‘work’ never feels like work!
14. What qualities do you think are most essential to musical excellence?
There are two necessary ingredients for musical excellence: technical mastery and expressive artistry. To quote Marcel Moyse: Have something to say – Say it well! I think he’s instructing us to master the fundamentals (excellent rhythm, impeccable intonation, and suppleness of tone) and charging us to SAY SOMETHING! How do you use your vibrato, spin your sound – what are you trying to say?
15. Your current project is publishing an accompaniment book for Marcel Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation. Can you talk about how this project began and developed?
As a doctoral student of Julia Bogoard-Kogan (a prize student of Moyse), I found that I didn’t know a majority of the arias included in Tone Development Through Interpretation. Julia would recreate the mood and atmosphere in which Moyse used with her when teaching her. Tone Development Through Interpretation is a collection of his most cherished melodies. He knew them intimately!
I went about creating a supplemental guide to educate the typical flutist that isn’t familiar with the arias contained in Tone Development Through Interpretation. I didn’t know which would be more beneficial: the harmony underlining the melody or an understanding of the text. So, I decided to include both! Now that I’ve done the work, I think both are equally important. My forthcoming book will contain scene synopsis of each opera, texts & translations of each aria, and ‘easy to play’ harmonic reductions.
Since this is my summer project, I keep fighting the desire to procrastinate. Many times I’ve wondered if anyone (besides myself) would be interested in this research. However, recently I’ve been rehearsing with the Des Moines Metro Opera and Cedar Rapids Opera Company every night, and can now understand why Moyse was so moved to emulate great singers. I find myself running home and playing an aria from that night’s performance!
16. You were recently awarded the prestigious University Award for Early Excellence in Teaching in 2008. What are the qualities one must have in order to be nominated for this award? Also – What might be unique about your teaching style/approach that gave you that extra edge in winning the award?
Well, first – I feel extremely lucky to have gotten this award! To obtain this award, you must be nominated by students and peers (both inside and outside of the university), as well as have a record of excellence in teaching. I believe that my outstanding students are the ‘record’ of my excellence in teaching!
As far as what might be unique in my educational approach, perhaps it is my teaching philosophy. I try my hardest to ‘reach’ each student. If a student isn’t doing their personal best, I scrutinize my instruction first. I try to ascertain why it isn’t working – and what I can do differently.
I also try my hardest to light a fire in my students. If I can ignite a desire to learn in them, my work is a piece of cake!!! I am teaching future teachers, who will in turn teach the next generation. For the arts to continue, we must foster a respect and delight in the arts!
17. How did you choose Miyazawa as your flute of choice?
This was really a no-brainer. I tried to make the decision harder than it was. I played a Miyazawa and fell in love with it, but thought that such an important decision couldn’t be that easy. I proceeded to try every other flute on the market, and kept coming back to Miyazawa. I find that my Miyazawa allows me to say what I want to say, musically speaking. It has made playing so easy and enjoyable – I just love it!
18. If you had one piece of advice to give for an upcoming flutist, what would you tell them?
TAKE TIME TO THINK:
Make wise, thoughtful choices.
Do what is right for YOU.
Listen to your heart.