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Sound is the Heart of Every Lesson A Conversation With Jonathan Keeble

Elisa Moles | April 2018

    Jonathan Keeble is Professor of Flute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a regular performer, adjudicator, and presenter at festivals throughout the world. A passionate advocate for his students, he is the second faculty person in the history of the University of Illinois School of Music to receive the prestigious Campus Award for Undergraduate Instruction.  
    Keeble’s students uniformly attest to his caring  approach – whether through listening to a student’s hard day, checking in on a student with a medical issue, or home-cooking an intricate meal for a “simple” flute party. He is insightful, playful, and curious – qualities that emanate from his flute playing with his vibrant use of colorful expression. 

How did your childhood, growing up in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, shape your path as a musician? 
    When I was seven, my parents purchased 300 acres of canyon land in Eastern Washington. We set about hewing and milling by hand the trees necessary to build what eventually became a 4,500 square foot log home. We spent our first summer living in tents as my parents completed the kitchen and one bedroom, eventually moving into those two rooms just as the weather turned cold.
    These stories always start with “it was one of the coldest winters on record.” This one really was. I have vivid memories of my brothers and me huddling around an antique Franklin wood stove that was our only source of heat. We were fascinated by the physics of the stove’s metal turning red, then blue from our attempts to stoke the fire to hotter temperatures and keep the rooms habitable. I think my brothers and I still have scorch marks on our backsides from sitting too close to the stove as we huddled around it during cold nights.
    That first winter was spent with only a piece of plastic for windows on the two rooms we inhabited, and my father, a novelist, and my mother, a violist, spent a lot of time figuring out how to continue building what felt more like a philosophy of living than a house. The house took many years to complete, and, to be honest, still has some things being completed.
    The early years, which constituted most of my childhood prior to leaving for college, were particularly hard. Winter nights would get so cold that my brother’s goldfish once froze in its water, mouth agape. My father got frostbite on most of his fingers and toes after working for hours to thaw burst water pipes. Forest fires were a constant threat as well, and I can think of at least two summers we deployed with neighbors, digging fire breaks as flames and smoke threatened our homes and livestock. And then there was the firewood. There was so much of it to cut, split, and stack to survive the next winter in a home that for many years had no other heat source.

Childhood home in Washington

    In spite of the hardships of that winter, and the many subsequent years, my parents provided an incredibly vibrant and meaningful upbringing for my brothers and me. Anyone who has farmed or ranched in the high desert has stories of birth, death, acute cold, and drought. There was no way to avoid it. In spite of this, our home always felt like a bit of a sanctuary for writers and visual artists throughout the Pacific Northwest. Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, Carolyn Kizer, and Barry Lopez, to name a few, visited, many of them repeatedly. There were frequent, heady discussions around the fire, discussing art, religion, and politics. There was also the incredible food, usually cooked by my mother, completing the arc. Over time I became more and more aware of the way these experiences shaped my attitudes toward music, its nuance, color, and quite honestly how to love within the world. Artists congregated at my parents’ home for a variety of reasons, but among them was that this was an intellectual, artistic sanctuary surrounded intimately, and at times hostilely, by the natural world. 

How has living in so many places across the United States influenced your playing? 
    I am a bit sensitive to drawing artistic parallels between nature’s beauty and music. Too often, these parallels feel a bit false to me. Each person’s interactions with nature, artistry, and the world are unique. I tend to think not of how the regions I have lived inform my playing, but rather how the people and stories that go with those areas affect me. It is possible that being the son of a writer makes me operate more in stories than in geography. Of course, geography often makes the story, or at least deeply informs whatever narrative emerges. 
    Beyond broad geographical narratives influencing flute playing, on a more modest scale, it is difficult to undervalue the pleasure that being outside brings. In particular, I run outside almost every day. I think it is my way of coping with no longer living in the Pacific Northwest. I am fortunate to have my backyard open into a 350-acre park in central Illinois. Going on a run and seeing the wonders of seasonal color change, viewing up close a monarch butterfly migration, or a rare spotting of a blue bunting, remain such a meaningful reminder of the cyclical aspects of art, nature, and life. I think this is where the transference from geography to musical color and phrasing occur, for me. 

With that kind of upbringing, what compelled you to pick up a flute? 
    My mother knew all of the best teachers in town and gave me a choice between flute, percussion, and trumpet. Seeing that the prettiest girl in the school played flute, it became clear my path to her heart would be through music. She quit the instrument two years later. 
    I have to admit, I used my first flute for many things, including as baseball bat, ping pong paddle, and a blow-gun for spit wads. The spit wad blow-gun flute is particularly useful, I might add, against second flutists. It is also exceptional in its ability to reach the nether regions of the orchestra.

Do you feel any meaning in or attachment to the actual metal instrument? 
    I suppose you are referring to the fact that I frequently take baseball bat swings in studio class and enjoy drawing the flute as though it is an arrow from a quiver. Honestly, most of the time I still feel like a kid who likes to pretend he is more than just a flutist. I can’t help myself when it comes to, umm, creating multi-dimensional uses for the flute.
    As far as some kind of mystical relationship between the metal and human spirit, that is a bit more tenuous. Having said that, my first flute teacher willed her instrument to me when she passed away some 25 years ago. I feel an incredible spiritual attachment to that flute, and only stopped using it as my primary instrument a few years ago. I am never letting it go. Instruments are irreplaceable, especially when you are playing one whose voice made such a difference for you through a beloved teacher. 

Who was that first flute teacher?
    I have been so fortunate to have unbelievably wonderful teachers throughout my life – Bonnie Boyd during my graduate work at Eastman, Wally Kujala during my undergraduate years at Northwestern, and Frances Risdon, from age 10 through high school graduation.
    Frances was the principal flute in the Spokane Symphony for many years prior to her death in 1991 and was known to many throughout the Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho musical community as Saint Frances. To me, she was a second mother. Throughout my high school years, I remember two- and sometimes three-hour lessons punctuated by lunch and lots of conversation about the flute, flutists, and life. 
    At the time, I was distantly aware of how unusual it was to have such long lessons, but it was only in later years as I began my own teaching that I came to appreciate the full magnitude of her work. What I remember most vividly is the huge, dark and beautiful sound she played with, and that she was always yelling at me for ill-preparation, flat tapers, fluffy articulations, and imprecise rhythm.

When did you know you wanted to pursue music professionally? 
    This is something that developed in stages. I first knew I wanted to major in music during my junior year of high school. I was sitting in the All-Northwest Orchestra (a 200-member orchestra culled from the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and Montana), and we were playing Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. That is obviously spectacular repertoire, but it was also the sheer volume and richness of sound created by the huge string section that provided such an extraordinary experience. To this day, I am not sure I have ever been so moved while performing. I went to Northwestern intent upon pursuing a double degree in American Literature and spent about three years of my undergraduate study taking both music and literature classes. From that point, the decision to go into music became somewhat inertia-driven, I am a little embarrassed to say. Throughout my undergraduate years, I had a fair amount of success with various music-related festivals and auditions, and the decision to go into music grew out of that, at least in part. 
    It was my time at Eastman, though, that really brought my career’s future into focus. I realized that to be happy in music, I had to perform chamber music, solo repertoire, and orchestral music. It had to be all three, or it would not be enough. In spite of that recognition, something still felt like it was missing. It was at this time I became aware of this little seed that was only sprouting but which eventually became an overwhelming life’s calling – and that was the need to make a difference in the world as a teacher of the arts working with people. I can only hope I have. What I do know is that it has been an incredible amount of fun. I spend a lot of time laughing in lessons. I am so grateful for the opportunity to do what I do and for the students who have come into my life. 

Playing with Aletheia Duo partner Ann Yeung in China.

What was it like studying with Wally Kujala and then, subsequently, with Bonita Boyd? 
    Bonnie Boyd and Wally Kujala have dramatically different teaching styles. In spite of this, both are graduates of the Eastman School of Music, and both were students of Joseph Mariano. It is a testament to their teaching that they call Mariano a primary influence but emerged with their own distinct styles. I also recall both of them saying, individually to me, that they thought their styles worked well together for students. Indeed, there were many people during my nine years of college at Northwestern and Eastman that graduated from one program and entered the other and seemed to flourish with the combination of Bonnie’s and Wally’s talents. 
    Wally is so structured in his pedagogy, writing notes from our lessons on cards in incredibly small, but impeccably neat handwriting. I always wondered what was on those cards, but the writing was so blasted small I never got a look. He told me last summer that he still has all of the cards. Given how many terrific students he has had over the years, I would bet there is some pretty interesting reading in there. 
    Among the amazing things about Wally is that if you surveyed a random group of his students and asked what he emphasized in lessons, everyone would respond differently. He is truly a teacher who has certain guiding musical principles but always taught the individual. Our lessons were all business. If I was ever a little less prepared for a lesson, I would carefully cull a set of topics to discuss as part of a larger effort to stall the lesson a bit. Wally always sniffed this out instantly, and we would be playing within ten minutes. 
    We played a lot of orchestral excerpts at Northwestern, which explains, in part, Wally’s incredible success at placing students in orchestras. His years in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made him an invaluable resource, simply for the orchestral practices behind the notes on the page. When that knowledge was combined with his extraordinary attention to rhythm, pitch, and fundamentals of style, his students really sounded great on flute and piccolo excerpts. 
    Bonnie was also remarkable for teaching us as individuals, never, insofar as I could tell, adhering to a system outside of a set of chords that she loved us to work from (and they were hard), regular practice of etudes, and preparation of solos and excerpts. Bonnie was the perfect teacher for me at that time. Wally had given me fantastic preparation on how to play excerpts as well as the principles of excellent flute playing. Bonnie unlocked the next door and showed me what was possible artistically. It was that critical step she provided that guides me to this day. Flute players have to constantly question our approach to a score, what it says, and what we want to say with it. 
    Bonnie also has an incredible ability to deal with playing problems in a musical way. She is incapable of tying a student up in knots, so holistic is her instruction. It is also significant to me that over the years I have had several of her students audition for me at Illinois, and I am just so impressed by their level of artistry. As a quick side note, I should also mention that I long considered Bonnie something of a parental figure and thought that we had a special relationship. It was over the course of many years, post-Eastman, that I came to realize she has this kind of relationship with virtually all of her students. Truly, she is a gift. 
    I worry that discussing the merits of one teacher somehow undervalues an element of what the other does. Nothing could be further from the truth. I count both as the best teachers a person could ask for and am so grateful to call both friends; and, whether they know it, they are still my mentors. Even to this day, I wake every morning driven by the knowledge that I must tackle that day’s teaching with commitment and passion. I cannot fail my own students. To do so would be to violate a sacred commitment introduced by these two spectacular pedagogues. 

University of Illinois Flute Studio, 2016

What do you consider to be your most pivotal moments in your flute education?
    The birth, individually, of my two sons. I was a very reluctant parent, and had to be persuaded to become a father by my spouse, Sue. It turns out Sue was right. Children are something else. I do not think a concert has passed since my first son was born, that at some point I have not been aware of the connection between parenthood, my love for my children, and what I am trying to communicate onstage. I have to admit this conversation is a little hard for me, as I am on the verge of losing my youngest son to college.  

Do you bring this same full-life approach to your own students? 
    I focus on the whole person. To do that, teaching becomes a question of understanding layers. Teachers have to keep track of many things simultaneously including the learning style of an individual student, what the score is telling us, and what a student’s posture says both in terms of problematic tensions as well as life struggles. Then there are what I like to refer to as the absolutes in music – rhythm, correct notes, clean runs, and intonation. If those are not attended to, ultimately the student’s professional success runs the risk of being frustrated. Finally, as anyone who works with me knows, I focus on sound. This is the audible manifestation of who we are as artists. It is the reason music exists, communicating the ineffable, and through means we will likely never know, transforming the spirit. 
    If a person’s sound is incomplete, all other elements of music making suffer. My father once told me he viewed a great lecture as having a central theme, and all of the other ideas swirl around that theme. I suppose a lesson with me is kind of like that. At the heart of every lesson, whether explicitly stated or not, lies the question of sound and its role in the music. All of the other elements swirl around that core. Sometimes we take significant excursions into rhythm, change an element of posture, and so on, but sound is always at the center.
    Having said all this, I do not teach because I love just the flute, or music. I teach because I value the possibilities music instruction has in significantly shaping a person’s life, irrespective of the career eventually pursued. I treasure teaching, and I absolutely love working with my fabulous students.

You love to talk about color while teaching, yet you are partially colorblind. 
    I did not know I was partially colorblind until I asked my infant son to “roll the black ball” across the floor to me. He responded, “Dad, it’s blue.” Of course, I thought he was being insolent. Or worse yet, perhaps he was colorblind! Although we frequently talk about color in music, this is a far more complex topic than primary colors, or even some of the non-primaries that I have trouble distinguishing between. 
    The term color in flute playing is a convenient, helpful catch-all word that is just a step toward artistic phrasing. Color in music is linked to personal experience informed by, among other things, painting, food, nature, literature, and on and on. 
    On a purely physical level, it was not until I switched to my current flute that I began to realize some of what was additionally possible with color. This flute is so gratifying for its pitch and color flexibility. Consequently, nuance and color have become a part of my vocabulary in such a way that ten years or so ago I would have never thought possible. 
    Every player has to find his or her own path on this, but the relationship between body, instrument and score are critical to this process of discovery. Beyond that, for me and my students, it is about complex vowel shapes in the mouth, and where and how we direct our air that allows us to explore metaphor, artistic narrative, and what the score says in pursuit of more colorful, meaningful artistry.

What is your favorite flute performance you have ever given?
    Perfection is an illusion, never realized but still sought. For me, performing is about enjoying the moment for what it is and constantly striving to improve. Though it may sound a little apocalyptic and tortured, I don’t have a favorite performance. I am always looking forward. It is what drives me.

What projects are you working on? 

    The Aletheia Duo is in the middle of a second recording of music for flute and harp by composers of the Americas. I am also starting to get things together for a recording of concertos by North American composers. These are both big projects, and I keep getting slowed down by day-to-day teaching, performing, and parenting. 

What is the best advice you can give to aspiring musicians and artists?
    Being an aspiring artist requires tremendous patience, singularity of focus, and the ability to step away from one’s work to see the world. My harpist colleague Ann Yeung likes to tell her students “Learn well, land well, live well.” I have always thought that seemed like pretty good advice, but I would also add “love well” to that. Practice hard, live fully, love honestly, and remain positive and professional in all facets of your career.   

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Keeble is a past president of the National Flute Association, the flutist of the Prairie Winds and the Aletheia Duo, and principal flute of the Sinfonia da Camera. During the summer, he teaches at Aria International, Madeline Island Chamber Music, the Unbridled Flutist, and the University of Illinois Pre-College Flute Seminar. He attended Northwestern University as an undergraduate where he studied with Walfrid Kujala and subsequently received his Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts from the Eastman School of Music with Bonita Boyd. His solo and chamber recordings are available on Albany Records.

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Favorite Warm-Up

    Harmonics overblown at the octave plus a 5th, and double octave are my favorite way to make sure my sound is resonating clearly and also has vertical color and projection. Begin with a low B, and overblow it to a top of the staff F#. Make sure the harmonic F# has depth of harmonic color, and does not have an overtone hiss to it. Once you achieve a rich, round sound, switch from the harmonic F# fingering to the real fingering. Move on to a low C, overblown to a top of the staff G, and repeat this. 
    Continue going up chromatically until you reach the first B above the staff, and switch your harmonic fingering to the double octave. In other words, finger a low B, and overblow it two octaves to the B above the staff. Continue going up chromatically with double octave harmonics until you reach, roughly, high F or F# (going beyond that range will only create tension and diminish some of what you’ve achieved with this exercise). 
    This exercise is also really useful for ensuring your vibrato fully resonates inside your sound’s core. To work on this, perform the warm-up discussed above, but now introduce vibrato. Your vibrato should oscillate down, into the sound’s lower harmonic (e.g. if you are fingering a low B, overblown to an F#, you should hear the low B as part of the bottom of the vibrato’s oscillation). The upper part of the vibrato’s oscillation should push ever so slightly against the top of the sound’s core, creating a round, harmonically rich core that has well-integrated spin.

Advice for College Auditions
1. Make a wonderful first impression. Research suggests that people make assessments within the first 45 seconds and then spend the rest of the audition backing up that judgment.

2. Have ready answers to the most likely topics or questions an auditioner might ask. More significant questions can be, “Why are you interested in this school?” “What makes you want to be a performer?” A question I dislike, but my students frequently report hearing is, “What other programs are you applying to,” and “Are we your top choice?”

3. Have questions to ask as well. Assess the program you are applying for just as you are being assessed – does the auditioner show evidence of real care for the program and the students? Will the teacher be there for a while? Is the program stable? How many lessons do you get per semester, and are they with the principal teacher?

4. When you have returned home, email and ask for the email addresses of a few enrolled students to get a sense of the climate of the studio and program. In that email, be sure to thank the auditioner for his or her time.

5. Don’t overly emphasize finances in the audition itself – focus on people (faculty and students) and music. That can be handled later.

6. If the auditioner contacts you, be sure to respond in a timely and professional manner. To that end, be sure to check your email daily before, during, and after the audition season.

7. Research the audition setting before going. Will you be playing for more than one person? Will it be in a recital space, classroom, or an office? Who will you be playing for? All of these questions will help you mentally prepare for the audition.

8. If a prescreening recording is required, plan every element of the recording process well in advance. This includes reserving a room with a good recording acoustic; making sure the piano is tuned within a day of the recording; and having a good and reliable recording device. Be sure to perform your repertoire before recording it.