We had the opportunity to ask Hannah a few questions. Check out her thoughts on qualities that are essential for musical excellence, preparation for auditions as well as advice for upcoming flutists.
1. What qualities do you think are most essential to musical excellence?
Musical excellence, in my opinion, requires both artistry and grit.
Artistry is comprised of excellence in interpretation/creative approach, a beautiful tone, and solid technical skills. Clarity of artistic intention and interpretation is at the core of our musical artistry. It is a product of our research of the piece and the composer, our reaction to and drawing from the sounds of other performances we have heard (flute performances as well as those of other ensembles/instruments), and our own stories. We harness these musicological, auditory, and personal elements by developing an excellent tone that has a great deal of flexibility and range of colors and a solid technique capable of a graceful rendering of a composition’s trickiest passages.
A lot is being said about grit in professional and academic circles these days, and I think it is an apt term to describe the challenge of acquiring the skills necessary to achieve a high level in performance as well as to overcome non-musical obstacles that affect musical practice and performance. It is easy to settle for less than what one is capable of doing when the going gets tough; it takes a lot of courage to push through those difficult moments toward excellence!
2. What do you think is the most important thing for you to emphasize in your teaching and in your own playing?
A lot of making music is knowing typical melodic and harmonic turns and being able to play these with a fluid, beautiful sound, so in my teaching and performance, I emphasize developing a beautiful tone and a natural sense of phrasing.
Tone has to have primacy of place in the study and performance of the flute. A flutist can have all the technical application in the world but if he or she lacks a pleasing, colorful sound, no one will enjoy listening to his or her music. This is not to say that technical studies are not important. However, in my own practice and in my teaching, I stress that technical studies are just fast tone studies and that I and my students have not mastered a technical exercise until we can play it with beautiful tone.
From solid tone, I transition to developing good phrasing. I relate melodic fragments to spoken words and sentences (I LOVE you, El-e-phant, etc.), and I have students listen to the chord structure or counter melody underneath their melody, demonstrating the way those chords or counter melodies affect the notes we emphasize or vowel shapes we use. Short, focused etudes are a great way to do this sort of phrasing practice. I particularly like having my students work through the Moyse 24 Petite Etudes Melodiques, as these etudes cover a lot of ground quickly.
3. What does a typical daily practice session look like for you?
I have a two-year-old daughter home with me during the day, and I teach and have gigs or rehearsals most evenings, so “typical” is not the first word that comes to mind when I think about my practice routine! “Well planned” is a much more important phrase that I attach to my practice time.
When I was doing my master’s degree in London with Clare Southworth, she stressed quality and focus over quantity of practice and taught me how to approach a problem passage from many angles. I previously had been the dutiful student who started working on a passage slowly and then notched up my metronome little by little, working for 10 perfect repetitions of a section before allowing myself to speed up the tempo. This method was not a practical way to learn the 40-odd orchestral excerpts, a complete concerto, an inch-thick packet of scales and sequences, and the two full-length recitals I needed to perform to pass my final exams at the Royal Academy, however, and it most certainly would not work now when I often get single days of short practice sessions to learn major symphonies or newly commissioned pieces for upcoming concerts.
No matter my work load, I do make sure my first 15-minute practice session is dedicated to tone and technique studies. Each month I pick a sequence pattern to master (right now I am working on Reichert #3). “Mastery” to me means performing the sequence in all of the keys at a particular tempo and with beautiful tone and phrasing. I try to pick a sequence that supports my repertoire goals, and I vary the articulation to both support any articulation challenges in my repertoire and create an additional mental challenge. If I have extra time, I also sightread an etude or two that I plan to have my students work on in the coming weeks.
In my other practice sessions, I do very focused work. Before I begin, I carefully map out what I need to practice in a particular piece and list those sections so that I can keep track of my progress. Instead of working on large passages, I identify individual measures and even groups of two or three notes that need to be improved, and I aim to play as many correct, “first-time” repetitions of those measures as possible. I accomplish the “first-time” effect by alternating my selected passages and note groups with each other in a sort of A, B, A, C, B, C, A etc. pattern with each letter representing a single repetition of a problem spot. This type of work can be very tedious, so I do try to end practice sessions by playing the segments I have been working on in context, doing what I need to do to be sure that the repetition in context is also a correct, “first-time” repetition; sometimes this means adjusting the tempo down for that particular measure or group of notes and then returning to the original tempo to finish the phrase.
I also do a lot of listening to my orchestra repertoire when I am away from my flute. I have an hour-long commute each way between home and Topeka Symphony rehearsals, and I use that drive to listen to the works we are performing and to learn better how my colleagues’ parts fit in with my own before I arrive at rehearsals.
If I don’t have an evening rehearsal or performance, I take a longer practice session at night and use that time to address long-range goals (major orchestral excerpts I want to master, concerto/solo/orchestral repertoire that I know I’ll be playing in the next year, improving my range of dynamics/tone color, etc.), working on them with the same practice techniques that I use during my shorter repertoire sessions. I also use the time to map out future practice sessions and to make phrasing, breathing, and color decision about pieces, being sure to mark those decisions into the music so that I don’t forget them.
4. What is the most valuable lesson the flute (or music) has taught you?
The most valuable lesson I learned as a flutist was how to find and appreciate my unique artistic voice. Throughout my studies and career, I have frequently been told that my innate musicality is one of my strengths as a player. However, when I formally began my studies at the Royal Academy with quite possibly the worst audition I have ever played, the experience shook my confidence significantly.
This lack of confidence in my artistic worth contributed to an unsatisfactory first flute lesson with Clare Southworth the following week where I played all of the right notes but none of the music. Because of that, Clare got the impression that I was an intelligent, diligent player, but an academic rather than an artist. It took me five lessons or so to break out of the funk I had been in, and Clare’s reaction was something to the effect of, “Why don’t you play that way all the time?” after which she realized that I was a capable musician with a mental block, not an academic who needed to be taught to phrase and emote!
After that lesson, I started letting making music drive my practice instead of a fear of what would happen to my grade and my career if I didn’t play every note perfectly. In the process, I discovered that I have a voice that only I can use, I have ideas to share and emotions to express that only I can express, and, in my career, I can reach audiences that would not otherwise be reached. My abilities as a flutist are a gift, and it is my vocation to share that gift with the world. To not do so out of fear of failure or judgement would be much worse than having many terrible auditions and poor recitals. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by loving, practicing, and sharing music for the rest of my life, and this knowledge has given me so much joy in spite of frustrating, short practice sessions, and the uphill battle to find enough paid work to make a respectable living.
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?
The first step in my own preparation process is to make a plan. I would advise other flutists to play through as much of the repertoire as they can and figure out which pieces and which passages in those pieces need the most attention. Then map out practice goals that can be accomplished between the time one gets the materials and the day of the audition.
As with my regular practice sessions, my audition/competition practice sessions are comprised of targeted practice and lots of “first-time” correct repetitions. I also listen to my favorite recordings of the pieces, especially when taking an orchestral audition, to have the piece deeper “in my bones” as well as to remind myself that it is music that I am playing and not just exceptionally challenging exercises that must be played with perfect rhythm, tempo, articulation, notes, phrasing, etc.
In addition to learning the music to the best of one’s abilities, being mentally prepared for the audition is one of the best bits of advice I can give to combat nerves/performance anxiety. I use a number of techniques from a book titled, “The Performer Prepares” by Robert Caldwell in my own mental preparation for a major performance. As soon as possible before the event, I start scheduling practice sessions for the time of my audition/competition. If I am preparing for a blind orchestral audition, I practice playing in front of a wall or curtain. I rehearse how I will walk on stage, how I will get my music and instrument(s) situated in the room, what I will play as a warm up on the day, etc., leaving as little as possible to chance.
Competition is such a tricky thing in the music business. We recently hired a new piccolo player for the Topeka Symphony, and of the candidates who auditioned, there were at least five who would have done a great job in the section (this was for a regional, per service orchestra!). With this in mind, flutists should treat auditions and competitions as an opportunity to make music and not the be-all-end-all of their careers. There are a lot of ways to have a fulfilling, successful career in music! If a player stays grounded in the mindset that a particular audition or competition is simply another opportunity to share beautiful music with an audience, he or she will have a successful performance no matter who gets the job or wins the prize. With each performance, we can learn a little more about ourselves and we can strive to more fully make our unique contribution to the musical world.
6. What musician has had the largest influence on your playing?
In my life and musical career I have been blessed with many wonderful classroom teachers, large ensemble conductors, and flute teachers. I have also learned a great deal by listening to recordings of outstanding professional musicians (flutists and non-flutists alike). However, the musician who has had the largest influence on my playing by far has been my dad, Tom Porter who is a composer and college choir director.
When I was two, my dad, who holds a master’s degree in horn performance from DePaul, brought me to his woodwind quintet rehearsal. During that rehearsal I watched the woman who became my first flute teacher, Linda Schmidt, play and told my dad after the rehearsal that I wanted to play flute. My love for the instrument grew in the years that followed, and, at age seven, my parents bought me my first flute so that I could begin lessons. Linda taught me the mechanics of flute playing and set good repertoire goals for me while my dad taught me between lessons how to play with expression and how to practice. He provided me early on with motivation—a new flute CD for every 30 days of practice (something which only lasted a few months)—to develop regular practice habits, and he supervised my practice sessions to help reinforce Linda’s suggestions whenever I needed to correct my technique or posture.
Throughout my junior high and high school careers, he taught me to enjoy the process of competitive performance, treating every audition as an opportunity to give the gift of music. My dad was there to encourage me and help me process and learn from the experience when I called him sobbing after having lost several chairs in a re-audition at summer camp, and he worked with me nightly for months as I learned how to sightread. He was my pianist on countless recitals, audition recordings, and live competitions, and I still look forward to going home and playing the Mozart D Major concerto with him.
As an undergraduate and graduate student, I regularly called my dad to ask his advice on music theory projects, kept him up-to-date on what the ensembles were performing, and asked him to listen to my practice and performance recordings as I prepared for my lessons with Dr. Mary Posses (University of Missouri-Kansas City) and Clare Southworth.
Since graduating, I have learned from my dad how important community outreach and networking are to a successful music career. I have watched him transform a college music department, learn social media skills in order to better promote his university and community choir concerts, and identify and meet deep musical and emotional needs in our extended family and community. In my own work, I hope to follow his example.
I feel immeasurable gratitude for his love, guidance, and support throughout my life, and I look forward to continuing to learn from his wisdom and experience throughout my professional career.
7. We are always evolving as people and as musicians. With this in mind, what is your musical vision moving forward?
I am a planner and an ideas person. I usually have the next four major projects I’ll be working on mapped out, and I set up “plan time” for myself in my work day to make sure I’m taking the right steps to realize those projects. As I am working on project plans, I like to keep in mind my reasons for taking on the project (why me?) and the gift I want my audience to receive at the project’s completion.
Two projects I am particularly excited about are the next Occena-Chen Duo recording project, an album titled Reflection, Remembrance, and Resilience, scheduled for a spring/summer 2017 release, and an all-commissioned recital scheduled for early 2018. I am also making plans to write a Kodaly-inspired flute method book with a colleague from the Royal Academy.
I will be starting my DMA at Stony Brook University with Carol Wincenc in August, in addition to continuing my orchestral and solo career, and I am excited to access university resources again to further my projects and career goals, to learn from another master teacher whose work I have admired for years, and to gain the credential I need to pursue university work as another aspect of my portfolio career.
I hope through my continued efforts in and outside of school to perform orchestral and solo repertoire at a high level, to regularly collaborate with my colleagues on chamber music projects, to become a master teacher, and to be an advocate for music in my personal and professional life.
8. What are your other passions outside of music?
I am married to a wonderful vocal music educator, and we have a beautiful, bright, mischievous two-year-old, so spending time with my family is one of my favorite things to do. I love being a mom, and seeing my daughter discover the world is one of my greatest joys.
A strong faith and involvement in my church community is also an important part of my extra-musical life. In addition to weekly and sometimes daily Mass attendance, I am involved in a women’s faith formation group and keep an 11 pm holy hour at the church each Friday evening. I also make time for exercise; distance running is my exercise of choice, and I also do various cross-training exercises. I find that I have better stamina for flute playing when I am keeping up with my fitness routines.
For pure leisure, I enjoy crocheting. It has provided a nice, non-musical creative outlet for me, especially when I am in the midst of a challenging concert cycle. A couple of my favorite projects lately have been a Winnie the Pooh doll for my daughter’s Christmas present, and a Very Hungry Caterpillar blanket for my niece.
9. How did you come to choose Miyazawa as your flute of choice?
When I was sixteen, I had the opportunity to attend the Interlochen Arts Camp for their six-week summer session. Prior to the camp’s start, I had started talking with my parents and private teacher about getting a new flute, and my teacher at Interlochen agreed. My cabin counselor was also a flutist and was looking to sell her entry-level professional instrument in order to buy a better professional model, so I left camp with that flute “on trial.” My flute teacher ordered a few other flute models for me to try as well, and I am very glad she did!
As soon as I discovered the range of colors I could produce on the Miyazawa PA-402 Linda had got in on trial, I knew that this instrument was the right one for me. In the decade since buying my Miyazawa, I have been so pleased with the suppleness of tone and the freedom this flute has allowed me in developing and refining my sound.
I recently upgraded the headjoint that came standard with my flute to an MX-1 headjoint with a gold riser, and I couldn’t be happier. The MX-1 has made it easier for me to experiment with tone colors and to push my dynamic range to its extremes, and I have been pleasantly surprised to do less work to achieve a clear, crisp articulation.
10. If you have one piece of advice for an up-and-coming flutist, what would you tell them?
Take time on a regular basis to revisit why you became a flutist. Every time I introduce myself as a professional flutist, the person I am talking to replies, “Oh! I/My [fill-in-the-blank] played the flute in high school!” We’re part of a big club, which means there are a lot of people to support us, cheer us on, and gripe with us about composers who haven’t yet figured out that the piccolo does not have a low C, but also a lot of competition for only a few “big” jobs.
When you remember why you wanted to play the flute in the first place, you take the first step in discovering your unique artistic voice. There are so many wonderful paths to take while making music a part of our lives and livelihoods, and we need not be afraid to explore different paths as we move through our careers. Once you find your voice, you’ll discover the grit and the inspiration to continue your work in music no matter where your paths lead you.