We had the opportunity to ask Ellen a few questions. Click on the link to hear her experience as a Fulbright scholar in Germany, studying with Walfrid Kujala for her Doctoral degree as well as advice for flutists entering the orchestral career path.
1. In the past, you have published a new edition for your flute & harp duo, Lyrebird. What was this process like?
I began collaborating with harpist Lillian Lau in 2006 during my doctoral studies at Northwestern, and soon after that we officially formed our duo, Lyrebird Ensemble. I was frustrated with the seemingly limited selection of original music for the duo and began in-depth research into the repertoire, leading to my dissertation, The Flute and Harp Duo in the 18th and 19th Centuries. I was amazed by the huge number of works available, and we spent quite a bit of time reading through much of this music in search for “hidden gems.” We found one of those in Marie Félice Clémence de Grandval’s Valse Mélancolique, a piece that is gorgeously written for both instruments and dedicated to French masters, flutist Paul Taffanel and harpist Adolphe Hasselmans, who premiered the piece in Paris in 1891. The piece was published in the early twentieth century but is since out of print, and that edition, which is only available in a few libraries, contains many significant errors in both parts. Part of our mission as the Lyrebird Ensemble is to promote and expand original flute and harp repertoire so that other duos do not have to rely so heavily on transcriptions in their programming, so we thought it was a great idea to publish this new edition! Lillian did all of the typesetting, and I designed the cover, wrote the program notes, took care of the actual printing, and of course helped with the editing. In terms of editing, we, of course, corrected errors from the previous edition and also made decisions regarding articulation, dynamics, and other musical instructions within the piece which were inconsistent. We had the edition completed and unveiled by the Chicago Flute Club Flute Festival on November 9, 2013, where we also performed the piece. A recording of the Valse Mélancolique is also available on our CD, Taking Flight: Music for Flute and Harp.
2. What does a typical day look like for you?
I can honestly say that there is no such thing as a typical day! My schedule varies, day to day, week to week, and is busier during certain times of the year than others. During the fall, for example, I spend at least one full day per week teaching my students at two universities, and one or two full evenings teaching privately. I usually rehearse one day a week for several hours with my harpist. During weeks when I have orchestral engagements, I have to schedule in travel time (since I usually play out of state), rehearsals and concerts, which sometimes involves creative rescheduling of other commitments. Once a month I attend board meetings for the Chicago Flute Club and the National Flute Association, since I am on the Executive Board of each organization, and of course I put in many volunteer hours working behind the scenes for these organizations throughout the month. In addition to all of my professional activities, I try to keep significant time free to spend with my very young daughter. I am careful about what commitments I make and how much time they will take from my family at this time. But wait – am I forgetting something? Oh yes, practice time and planning time! That is the most difficult to fit in when balancing family, professional and volunteer commitments, and life in general. I prefer to practice in the morning, which I sometimes have the luxury to do, but normally my personal and practice time begins after my daughter goes to bed.
3. What is your typical practice routine like?
The length of my practice sessions is usually limited, so I need to be very efficient and choose the exercises that will benefit me the most. Some of my favorites are flexibility exercises using harmonics, the Moyse 24 Little Melodic Studies, Taffanel and Gaubert #1 and #4 with varying articulations, Reichert, and Kujala’s Vade Mecum. I also enjoy rotating through other exercises and scale patterns to provide variety and avoid switching to auto-pilot. I usually spend the bulk of my practice session on these types of exercises before delving into my current and upcoming repertoire, because I feel that these fundamentals are so crucial to being able to tackle any repertoire. When I get the luxury of extra time, I also enjoy working through etudes and playing through familiar (and not-so-familiar) pieces from my collection.
4. What is the most valuable lesson that the flute has taught you?
Playing the flute has taught me so many lessons – not only musical lessons, but life lessons. If I have to pick just one “most valuable” lesson, it would be to project, perform, and escape my comfort zone (OK, that is three, but they are all related)! I am, by nature, a quiet, observant, analytical person. Although these qualities have helped me greatly by contributing to my focus and success as a flute player, they are not, in my opinion, the ideal qualities for someone carving a path in the professional music world. I have always been comfortable and confident performing as a flutist – I really love to perform! When I am without the flute, I continually draw upon the qualities that contribute to my dynamic performing ability as a flutist and use them to perform comfortably in other areas of my life.
5. What qualities do you think are most essential to musical excellence?
There are qualities such as hard work and perseverance that are essential to achieving success as a musician, but I think that music excellence requires a unique set of qualities: communication of well-organized, well thought-out musical ideas; expressiveness to play between and beyond the notes; and the ability to listen so carefully to yourself and those around you, and of course, to react to and learn from what you hear!
6. Lyrebird Ensemble, the flute and harp duo you founded with Lillian Lau, completed a recording session for your CD release. What was this process like? What might we find on the CD?
One of our main objectives for the Lyrebird Ensemble is to perform works specifically written for the combination of flute and harp (as opposed to transcriptions), and we are particularly interested in performing pieces that are not among the most commonly performed works for the a flute and harp duo. We play a wide range of repertoire from the very late eighteenth century through present day. Our new CD, Taking Flight, features works from 1892-2002, including some very charming, little-known works from the beginning of this time span by Clemence de Grandval, Herman Bemberg and Zdenek Folprecht, as well as some more contemporary works that are quickly gaining popularity by Charles Rochester Young and Garreth Farr.
We recorded the CD in a studio at Chicago’s classical music radio station, WFMT, over the course of two evenings. After our first few takes we were able to listen and have the recording engineer make adjustments to microphone placement so that we were satisfied with the balance and the sounds of both instruments. We generally played one to two complete takes of an entire piece or movement, regardless of any mishaps which might have occurred, and then we had a chance to put down clean takes of any excerpts of the piece that we or the producer thought we might need in editing. We are currently in the editing process, which, though tedious, is really eye-opening in learning what can truly be done in terms of editing and mastering commercial CDs.
7. As a recipient of a Fulbright Grant, you spent a year studying with Jean-Claude Gérard at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Stuttgart, Germany. What was your experience like?
I was very lucky to be placed in Jean-Claude Gérard’s studio in Stuttgart for my Fulbright year. This studio was my first choice (I believe I had to give three choices for potential study), only due to a recommendation I received from a Polish flutist while I was attending a language course in Bayreuth the previous summer. I had no idea what to expect in terms of a studio or teaching style, nor did I even know when lessons started until my second day in Stuttgart, when I made my first trip to the Hochschule, located the flute studio, and happened to run into Gérard in the hallway. I introduced myself, asked him when lessons began, and he said I could play that afternoon! Yikes – my flute was a half-hour away and I’d been attending a language course for four weeks and was a bit out of shape. When I returned to the studio that afternoon I discovered that lessons were Paris Conservatory-style – lessons were open to the entire studio. We signed up to play on either a morning or afternoon session during one of the two lesson days that week, and you played until he was ready to go on to the next student. Some lessons were shorter than others! Though stressful at first, this format really ensured I made significant progress between each lesson and gave me great motivation to fix any weaknesses that were addressed in front of the class. We worked on tone with his long tone study, and technique (as well as tone) with Taffanel and Gaubert, as well as the Moyse Daily Exercises. Through my studies with Gérard, I really developed the awareness to listen critically and hear all the nuances of my playing, rather than more passively hearing the music that I was playing. The highlight of the year for me, besides having the opportunity to travel and experience many different areas in Europe, was being part of a studio with such amazing flutists. Many were preparing for (and successful in) the various rounds of international competitions, and the opportunity to observe all students’ lessons was so valuable.
8. You completed your Doctor of Music Degree at Northwestern University. What are some of your fondest moments studying with Walfrid Kujala?
I studied with Walfrid Kujala as both a doctoral student and an undergraduate at Northwestern. As a freshman I recall working diligently on Kujala’s technique book, Vade Mecum, employing all his fingering suggestions that I continue to use today, and learning to meet his high expectations for superior rhythmic integrity. As a doctoral student I was focused on repertoire, working on a new solo piece almost every week. In my experience, Mr. Kujala has such a gentle demeanor that his students tend to work hard not only for their own personal advancement, but also because we would never want to disappoint our teacher by not being prepared for a lesson or performance. Northwestern’s flute studio is a very supportive environment, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to return as a graduate student.
I am also grateful that all of my lessons with Mr. Kujala, both undergraduate and doctoral, are preserved on cassette tapes and CDs that I have labeled. When I need to have one of Kujala’s invaluable lessons on certain orchestral excerpts, all I need to do is turn to this wonderful collection and listen to his expertise.
9. As a seasoned orchestral musician, having performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, what advice do you have for flutists who are interested in following this path?
It is important to take several auditions to get used to the experience, and to play for colleagues and teachers to try to replicate any pressure you may feel during an audition. Of course, it goes without saying that you need to go into each audition with all excerpts completely prepared. When actually playing with an orchestra, especially within the section, use your ears and be flexible. Be agreeable and open to suggestions. The second flute needs to defer to the principal in matters of dynamics, pitch, articulation, tone color and vibrato; it is extremely important to match and blend into the section.
10. Who or what has been your greatest influence?
I can’t single out just one influence. I have benefitted from the wonderful influence of all of my teachers and the world class musicians with whom I have been fortunate to work.
11. What do you think is the most important thing for you to emphasize in your teaching and in your own playing?
I believe that superior control and mastery of the instrument is necessary for the performer to be able give the most free, convincing, musical performance. I spend a lot of time in my teaching and my own practicing on fundamentals and building solid technique. With these in place, the performer is able to turn the focus to musical expression.
12. What is the hardest part about being a musician? What is the best part?
The hardest part is definitely having to juggle so many jobs, students, practicing and other opportunities all at the same time. It is so hard to fit everything in, and my schedule is always changing. The best part is loving all the different types of work that I do and having opportunities to perform and share great music with colleagues and audiences.
13. We are always evolving as people and as musicians. With this in mind, what is your musical vision moving forward?
As a performer I have always enjoyed discovering great music that is not yet well known, and surprising audiences with something for which they have no expectation but end up truly enjoying. I would like to continue this practice and also expand my chamber music offerings.
As a teacher, I am benefitting from being a “Suzuki Mom.” I am constantly being introduced to new teaching techniques that continue to transform my teaching of students of all levels.
14. What are your interests/hobbies outside of music and/or the flute?
I enjoy scrapbooking, gardening (when the rabbits don’t ruin everything, which is rare), spending time with my family, and playing with my daughters!
15. How did you come to choose Miyazawa as your flute of choice?
I had been searching for a new flute for several years and was originally attracted to Miyazawa because of the quality and the ability to buy the exact flute I was trying out. I already owned a high-quality flute, but I was not getting the sound I wanted; since this purchase was such a big investment, I did not want to risk placing an order for a flute and then being stuck with something that was not just what I wanted. During this search process I kept returning to Miyazawa, but it took a while for me to decide exactly what I wanted and to find the flute with the correct configuration for me. I was very excited when the “right flute” arrived from Japan for me to try, which is the flute that I ended up buying. I’ve really enjoyed exploring all the possibilities that my new flute provides, and I’ve had a great experience working with the extremely helpful Miyazawa staff in Coralville!
16. If you had one piece of advice to give for an upcoming flutist, what would you tell them?
If you are just getting started, take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Always be prepared, and, of course, practice!