Close this search box.

A Conversation with John McMurtery

Patricia George | April 2013

    In John McMurtery’s varied career, he has performed across the United States with several orchestras and chamber ensembles. He is currently professor of flute at Western Illinois University and section flutist with the New York City Opera Orchestra. He has regularly performed with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and New Jersey Symphony and served as acting piccoloist with the Oregon Symphony. He shares his views on music education, teaching flute, and contemporary music.

How did you begin your musical studies?
    I started playing the flute at the age of 11. After hearing a flute up close for the first time, I begged my parents for months to buy me one. Finally I got one and spent a whole week just trying to get a sound. Once I did, I was hooked and went to the library to check out every classical record I could get my hands on, from Bach to Steve Reich. Music became my life. I started composing little pieces to play in church. In the beginning I wanted to be a composer, so I immersed myself in music theory and history. Orchestral music particularly thrilled me. I listened to recordings and radio broadcasts every day, often after bedtime when my parents thought I was sleeping. One day I showed up to band class and played a solo for my band director, who said, “Nice vibrato.” I had no idea what vibrato was. I was just trying to imitate what I heard on the recordings.

Did you enter a lot of competitions?
    When I was a young student, I did, but later I focused more on concert performances and chamber music. The value of entering competitions is not necessarily the result, but the effort one exerts to learn the repertoire. The process of learning is the most important thing, and the opportunity to perform under pressure makes us stronger players.
You attended a small state school, a large state university, and a conservatory. Which gave you the best experiences?
    I am fortunate in that I got my degrees from three completely different types of schools. I attended Central Washington University, Rutgers University, and The Juilliard School for my undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees. There were positive aspects of all of them. Not every environment will be a good fit for all students, but with the right attitude students can learn at almost any type of school. The first goal should be to get the best education you can for the money. State schools are often cheaper than private schools, especially with in-state tuition. Because the cost of college is so high, students do not have the luxury anymore of taking a few years to choose a major. Taking on significant student debt is becoming more and more dangerous these days as the job market tightens and there is no guarantee of employment after graduation.

What motivated you to stay in school and attend Juilliard for your doctoral degree?
    I decided to pursue my DMA because I love the academic life and knew I wanted to be considered for a university teaching position sometime in the future. Some people go for advanced degrees because they don’t have a job or know what else to do. This is a mistake, mainly because of the cost of education. I had clear reasons to be there and was fortunate in that I got to study with Jeanne Baxtresser, Robert Langevin, and Julius Baker within the span of two years. Each of them had something very special to offer continue to influence my teaching and playing.
    While at Juilliard I shared an apartment with my friend David Buck, who is now the principal flutist of the Detroit Symphony. David always impressed me with his work ethic and dedication to his goals. He never allowed his musical attention to wander. He didn’t take much outside work, or teach a lot of students. Instead, he devoted himself almost entirely to orchestral excerpts and taking auditions. My path was different. While I was working on my doctoral degree I was commuting 20 hours a week to three teaching jobs (4 days a week), playing gigs on nights and weekends, and had a few odd jobs on the side to pay the bills. The word no was not a part of my vocabulary at that stage of my life. I took on every project I could, just for the love of it. Over the years I have had to learn to moderate my schedule a bit.

What were lessons with Julius Baker like?
    I had the very good fortune to be Baker’s last Juilliard student. Lessons were Monday mornings at 8 am, when the studios were cold and the pianos were sharp. I remember having to push my headjoint all the way in, just to play up to pitch. Sometimes I would take the train from Grand Central Station to Mr. Baker’s home in Brewster. His wife Ruth would pick me up, drive me to their house, and prepare lunch while we worked. Though he rarely demonstrated passages in lessons by then, he still practiced every day. He was always exacting and encouraging. After the lesson was over, we would eat together, and then I’d help him hook up his reel-to-reel tape player so we could listen to old New York Philharmonic concert broadcasts. I felt very privileged to sit there as he told stories about the musicians and the music we were listening to. It was a valuable part of my education.

What was your doctoral document topic?
    The title is Serial Music and The Lonely Flute: A Survey of Selected Works by Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, and James Romig. I examined five solo flute works I had been performing for several years, which shared certain stylistic tendencies. My interest in these composers began while I was at Rutgers. James (Jake) Romig, who was finishing his Ph.D. there, approached me one day to perform one of his chamber works. While we worked together we became good friends, and I became the flutist in his new music ensemble, The Society for Chromatic Art. We performed much of the major 20th-century solo literature as well as many wonderful new works in our concerts in New York City.
    By the time I arrived at Juilliard, I had been immersed in the world of contemporary music for quite some time. It seemed natural to write about the pieces I had already been performing so often. Because all three composers were alive at that time (Milton Babbitt has since passed away), I was able to ask them questions about their music. Many people think music written in a twelve-tone or serial idiom is unappealing to performers and audiences. They hear things once and don’t immediately understand it, so they assume it is not for them which is a shame. Any worthwhile music rewards repeated hearings. I wanted to better understand the musical language and structure of these challenging works to improve my performance of them. My hope is that more people would come to love this music. Now that I have lived with these works for many years, they are just as familiar to me as the Mozart concerti.
    One interesting event that resulted from the project is that I now teach at Western Illinois University with Jake Romig, one of the composers I focused on in my document. His wife Ashlee Mack is a terrific pianist, and we perform together as often as we can. It is much easier now that we live in the same town and have the luxury of as much rehearsal time as we want. In the past we had to put together complex music very quickly because of our demanding travel schedules.
    My interest in contemporary music also led to a performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s Carceri d’Invenzione for the Lincoln Center Festival in 2005. Carceri is probably the most difficult work I have ever performed, and it took me six months to learn. Now that one of my performances of this piece is on my website, I receive scores from composers all over the world, asking if I would perform their difficult flute works. It’s a nice problem to have, and has led to some wonderful friendships.

How did you begin your professional life after Juilliard?
    For a while I applied for college teaching jobs, took auditions, taught, and freelanced. A one-year teaching position suddenly opened at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and I was appointed. That year I took an audition for the New York City Opera and won, so I moved back to New York the following summer. When I joined the NYCO, we had a 29-week annual contract, leaving time to freelance during the off-season. Because I had recently won a job, contractors knew who I was and started calling me. This was fortunate, because City Opera was dark for a whole season during renovation on the theater at Lincoln Center.
    In 2009, during the dark year, the Metropolitan Opera called me to play principal flute for a couple rehearsals of Adriana Lecouvreur. I thought it would just be some temporary relief work, but on opening night, the flutist who was supposed to play it called in sick. That afternoon I had two rehearsals with the New Jersey Symphony, and called the Met personnel manager back during the break to say I could play the concert. I thought I would have enough time to get back to New York from New Jersey. The train was 45 minutes late, and I almost missed my first performance with the Met Orchestra. Being a freelancer means lots of tight schedules, literally running from one gig to the next. There is a photo of me playing a matinee at the Met with a long tie and a tux jacket because I didn’t have time to change into a proper suit jacket from a gig earlier in the day.
    I have been so fortunate to work with wonderful colleagues at City Opera: Bart Feller (principal flutist and my former teacher) and Janet Arms. In 2011, it became clear that the company would be taking a 90 percent reduction in salary, as well as moving out of Lincoln Center. This was a huge blow that effectively meant the end of the company as we knew it. I worried about being able to make it again as a freelance flutist. Fortunately, the Oregon Symphony called that fall and invited me to join the orchestra as acting piccolo on a one-year contract. The job search continued while I was in Portland, with the result that I was hired as professor at Western Illinois University.

What advice would you have for young flutists looking to major in music?
    As a professor, I look for students who are motivated, have natural musical intelligence, and who are above all open to being taught. If a student comes to me for a pre-audition lesson, I supply a few items to focus on, and then at the audition I listen for evidence of progress toward those goals. A natural energy and enthusiasm is crucial. Music is not just a job, nor a profession, but a lifestyle. Musicians don’t work from 9 to 5 and then just turn it off when they go home. I am always thinking about what I should do to prepare for my next gig, which means eating well, getting enough exercise, and of course staying in shape on the flute. When I teach, I am always thinking of ways to help my students improve.
    A positive attitude and an ability to collaborate effectively with others are essential to success in today’s music world. Remember to be kind to your colleagues – the people you work with in school will often be your colleagues for life. Also, it is important not to compare yourself to your peers too much. Everyone progresses at different rates. Think of peers as collaborators instead of competitors and learn from them as much as you can. Find qualities in their playing you appreciate, while still appreciating your own gifts. Be a good student, but don’t assume that just doing your schoolwork and practicing for lessons is enough. You should go hear great players as often as you can, and learn from them. Live a musical life.
    Choosing the right major is very important. Even for students who pursue performance careers, I recommend a second degree in music education or music business. Many young players dream of playing in an orchestra for a living, but the reality is that most orchestras fight for their very existence every two or three years when contracts are renegotiated. If you are fortunate enough to win an orchestral audition, there is no guarantee you will still have a job in five years. One of the reasons I am happy teaching at WIU is that I have students of various majors, including music education, music therapy, and music business in addition to performance.
    Maintaining a healthy sense of perspective is also critical. It is important to remember that you are still the same person whether you win or lose the audition or competition. People may treat you differently when you win, but you should always keep working. There have been times when I felt I haven’t played my best at an audition and still advanced to later rounds. Other times, I felt like I really represented myself well and did not make it out of the first round. I started to think I was the worst judge of my own performance. At such times, it is helpful to make a recording and analyze the playing to maintain objectivity. 

What is your favorite practice routine?
    I start by slowly improvising in a certain key and really listening to the quality of my tone and pitch. Then I move to a remote key and do the same thing. If everything is in place, I move on to articulation studies and scales. If not, I pick a Moyse exercise from De la Sonorité followed by some work on harmonics. Then I work on vibrato, slow scales, and then Taffanel-Gaubert Ex. 4. I’m a big fan of Michel Debost’s Scale Game (Flute Talk, September 1988). After scales, I use trill studies to activate the fingers and then launch into work on etudes and repertoire.
    When I became a professional musician, I found that I did not have as much time to practice as I did when I was in school, so my practice routine has evolved. I may only do a few minutes of each type of exercise before I learn the many notes in front of me. I have learned to be really efficient about my work, so I get maximum benefit in the shortest amount of time. In a recent week, I performed eleven different works of solo and chamber music spread out over three programs. I remind students that this is normal, and that the time will come when they won’t have all semester to work on one piece. Learning music quickly requires one to be in good shape, so that most of the time can be spent on learning the music, rather than solving technical problems.
    At its best, practicing can become a form of meditation, where we open our awareness of what we are hearing. I often emerge from the practice room feeling energized and balanced, and this makes me more effective in all areas of my life. When it starts to feel like a chore, it is a sure sign that I need to change things up, to challenge myself in different ways. Hearing a recording of a great singer, violinist, or pianist can inspire me to think differently about a difficult passage and to find more musical solutions to technical problems.

What is your approach to pedagogy?
    Music majors enter college from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have had significant performance experience already, while others may have only played in their high school band with no private lessons. These students often need a lot of remedial work to get them up to the undergraduate playing standard. It is rewarding to work with these students because they can make dramatic improvement relatively quickly.
    My ultimate goal is to make students independent, to get to the point where they don’t need me anymore. They should learn to teach themselves, to ask themselves the right kinds of questions, to examine their playing carefully, and to think creatively about the music. Sometimes students have a difficult time seeing how theory or history classes are relevant. I help them bridge that gap through questions at lessons. For example, in a passage with a lot of accidentals, I may ask, “What key are you playing in here?” Or, “This arpeggio is a type of seventh chord you are familiar with. Which one is it?” Musicians should draw on all the facets of knowledge, both fact-based and creative. All musical activities connect to each other, which is why my standards for music education and music therapy majors are in no way lower than for performance majors.
    Students should understand not only what to practice, but also exactly how to practice it. When my students play etudes for me, they know it is not just about proper execution. They learn to find the melody within all those fast notes. I make them play the skeleton notes, always with their best sound and phrasing, and then add the small notes while keeping the skeleton intact.
    Knowing the structure of a work is a first step toward really learning it. One way for performers to approach a composer’s mind is to write their own pieces. The results may not be on par with Bach’s sonatas, but learning how to organize musical materials will enables students to recognize and appreciate how great composers have solved similar problems. Not to mention how satisfying it is to create an original piece of music.
    Sightreading is a skill that all musicians should learn well. I encourage students to play duets with each other and with friends who play other instruments. Working musicians are often called upon to substitute at the last minute, and their reading skills had better be up to par.

What are some common problems you find in students?
    The placement of the flute is of critical importance. Most students place the flute too high on the chin, causing too much air to escape above the flute. When I show them how to blow a more focused stream of air at the lower edge of the wall, the sound quality improves dramatically.
    Harmonics are useful to facilitate certain difficult intervals and to clear up a fuzzy tone. When a student has trouble making a leap to a high note, he can practice it with a variety of harmonic fingerings in order to get the lips and the air set for the jump. Usually the problem is with the preparation of the leap, not the leap itself. I often use the analogy of a figure skater preparing to make a jump. If the preparation is correct, the leap will be flawless.
    Students often need some exercises for vibrato. I try to demystify vibrato and break it down into its core elements. I find John Wion’s vibrato page, where he has sound clips of professional flutists’ vibratos slowed down, to be very helpful. When I studied with Jeanne Baxtresser, she encouraged me to be truly aware of what I was doing with vibrato, which until then was something that just came rather naturally for me. Of course, playing in a professional orchestra as a section player means you spend a lot of time thinking about proper and creative use vibrato and how to blend not only with flute colleagues, but with the other instruments.
    I push students to expand the dynamic and expressive range of the flute. A conductor I had in school used to berate us for playing everything “mezzoforte comfortabile,” as he put it. It takes great effort to always expand the extreme louds and softs, but it will make you a much more interesting player. I remember Jeanne Baxtresser saying in one of my lessons, “Always work to elevate what you do beyond the merely ordinary.” Those are wise words for both playing the flute and living a good life.           

Other Endeavors
    McMurtery also performs as a chamber musician with UpTown Flutes (below) and Luna Nova, and has recorded for Naxos. He has appeared as a soloist with the New York Symphonic Ensemble, the Artemis Chamber Ensemble, and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra. Of his debut performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s Carceri d’Invenzione IIb at the 2005 Lincoln Center Festival, The New York Times wrote: “a tour de force for flute bristling with invention was played brilliantly by John McMurtery…[exploring] the extreme high and low registers of the instrument, zapping back and forth at hyperspeed.”

    Previous teaching positions include The University of Nevada–Las Vegas, Westminster Conservatory Young Artist Program, and the Lucy Moses School in New York City. He is a past president of the New York Flute Club.