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A Conversation with Mary Kay Fink

Cynthia Ellis | December 2014

    Mary Kay Fink became the piccoloist of The Cleveland Orchestra in 1990. Previously she was a member of the New Jersey Symphony, Madison Symphony and New York Philharmonic and has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Seito-Kinen Festival Orchestra of Japan. In addition to soloing with The Cleveland Orchestra, Fink has performed as soloist with the Bismarck Symphony, Concert Artists of Baltimore, Madison Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony (as youth soloist), New Jersey Symphony, the New Mexico Symphony and the Ohio Chamber Orchestra.
    In 1986 she won the National Flute Association Young Artist Competition. She continues to be a frequent piccolo soloist at the NFA Conventions, performing Gabriela Lena Frank’s composition, Will-O-The-Wisp: A Tone Poem this past summer in Chicago.

What led to the commissioning of Will-O-The Wisp?
    About 10 years ago the Cleveland Orchestra agreed to commission a piccolo concerto for me. I was really excited, not only because it was such a great honor, but because I believe the piccolo needs more great solo repertoire. We began the composer search and first considered Kaija Saariaho, who wrote several orchestral works for the Cleveland Orchestra that included some wonderful writing for piccolo. She turned the project down because she was too busy. Several other great composers turned us down, and I suspect some did so because they did not want to write for the piccolo. We eventually ran out of ideas. I was searching for a composer whose musicianship appealed to me, not just composers the orchestra was interested in promoting. I was almost ready to give up on this dream when I attended a recital of a former student, Katie DeJongh. She was presenting a program of all 20th century music including a piece by Gabriela Frank that knocked my socks off. She had been quietly building her artistic success during our search process and was now considered a new major talent on the scene. Gabriela was initially not sure about writing for the piccolo, but she enjoys the challenge of writing for instruments that need more repertoire and decided to accept the commission. We corresponded before she wrote the piece. I wanted her to write something really different and to avoid all the usual stereotypes: no bird calls, no excessive use of trills, no marches, also no unison passages with the Eb clarinet. There was not much more communication until the piece was finished. Once I received a copy of the piece and worked on it for a while, I suggested a few small changes and we worked back and forth a bit. When she came to Cleveland for the premiere we both felt like we had known each other forever. I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to play the piece again so soon at the NFA convention, and happier still that Gabriela could be there to hear it. It looks like I may be performing it again with other orchestras. It took a long time but things could not have worked out better.

What led you to study the piano and then the flute?

    I began piano lessons at age five and the flute when I was ten in the public school system. Our general music class instructor used to play recordings of the various band and orchestra instruments. I was especially enchanted by the alto flute and asked to play that but was told I had to begin on the C flute. I still love the alto flute and find it ironic that my specialty ended up going in the opposite direction of the flute family’s pitch spectrum. Our band director was a woodwind player and competent with the flute. One of my friends excelled on the clarinet, so he had us play duets together in addition to giving us both individual instruction. I started private lessons in high school with Robert Mueller, who also owned a small music store and woodwind repair shop. Lessons with him were not very intellectual but they were joyful. He nurtured my self-confidence and a simple love of playing, and he never let on that playing the flute well could be difficult. All of my siblings took piano lessons and some played other instruments as well, but I was the only one who stuck with it. There were no professional musicians in my family, and my parents were not sure that pursuing a career in music would be a wise choice.

Who did you study with in college?
    Some might disdainfully call me a teacher hopper, but I feel so fortunate to have had such a variety of mentors and a wealth of inspiration. As a teacher now, I often quote them or share a story from a specific lesson from my past. After high school, I attended UW-Madison for two years and studied with Robert Cole. I remember that we spent time working on legato, articulation, scales and all the nuts and bolts in greater detail than I had before. There were some things he tried to teach me that I was not receptive to at the time and have made much more sense to me in later years. I wanted to attend a music conservatory so I transferred to Oberlin where I studied with Robert Willoughby. He was perhaps the biggest influence on me. He opened up my sound and had me use vibrato more intelligently. He also made me really think about the music. We had to be familiar with the piano parts and understand context and harmonic structure. He had a no-nonsense way of asking questions in lessons that made me realize just how clueless I was about so many things. This taught me how to teach myself, which is perhaps his greatest gift to all of his students.
    After Oberlin I attended Juilliard to earn a master’s degree and studied with Julius Baker. He was very encouraging but also pushed me quite hard. I found my low register simply by watching and listening to him play. I greatly admired Baker, but his teaching style combined with the competitive atmosphere at Juilliard left me feeling burned out by the end of the school year. I made the switch to study with Paula Robison. My time with her was just the inspiration I needed to regain my love for playing. Her musical creativity and passion are infectious. She has such a generosity of spirit and joy in her music-making. I wanted to study with her longer but her schedule was too demanding for me to continue after graduation.
    Robert Dick is another mentor. I first heard of Dick while a student at UW when Robert Cole played a recording for us and assigned us each a page of Afterlight to learn. I later heard him perform live in Cleveland while I was a student at Oberlin, and I was hooked. I worked with Dick when I could, learning his music and performing his pieces on my recitals. I have since had the honor of performing with him and premiering works he has written for me. This has opened up a whole different world for me.
    I did not consider graduation as the end of my learning, and continued to learn from many more teachers including Keith Underwood, Tim Day, Michael Lynn, and Sandra Miller among many others. I never had a piccolo mentor, however, and actually came to the piccolo quite late because I avoided it as much as possible when I was in school. When I decided to take a piccolo audition, I had a great foundation upon which to draw and mostly figured it out on my own. I first became interested in the possibilities of the piccolo when the Philadelphia Orchestra played Daphnis et Chloé at Carnegie Hall. Kazuo Tokito played that solo in the opening so beautifully. Much later I had one piccolo lesson with him and spent much of it on that solo. I did not yet have command of the piccolo, so it was frustrating. However, I still think of what I learned in that lesson when I play that solo.

Did you enter competitions?

    I entered all the solo and ensemble contests in as many categories as I could, even playing a saxophone solo one year. I performed the Griffes Poem with my youth orchestra and the second movement of the Nielsen Concerto with the Milwaukee Symphony after competing in the concerto competitions for each. I also competed in college and performed the Frank Martin Ballade at Oberlin and the Nielsen Concerto at Juilliard. I always saw competitions as a way to motivate myself and to open the door to more opportunities. I did not always do well. Sometimes bombing was very painful, but I did well in competitions also. These experiences enriched my life and helped me get to where I am today. I encourage my students to compete and I am surprised to find that many of them are so resistant. The most important competition of my career was the NFA Young Artist Competition, which I won in 1986. This was a pivotal time in my life as I had recently won my first orchestral audition with the New Jersey Symphony. At that time, the NFA sponsored a debut at Carnegie (Weill) Recital Hall for the winners, which was an amazing experience.

What have you gained from your orchestral experiences?
    My first full-time orchestral position was second flute/piccolo in the New Jersey Symphony. It was a two-person section and Sandy Church (now in the NY Philharmonic) was the principal. We hired subs to fill out the section as dictated by the repertoire, and I played the more important parts. My job also included playing principal when Sandy took time off. I loved the variety and learned a great deal playing with Sandy. Since I had not played much piccolo before, there was a fair amount of learning on the job. This orchestra traveled around a lot by bus to play at different venues in the state.
    I also played with the NY Phil both as a sub and a sabbatical replacement for Mindy Kaufman. That was an exciting time for me; sometimes almost too exciting. The first time I ever played Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 was with Leonard Bernstein on the podium, which was pressure packed because the concerts were all being recorded for a commercial CD. I was young and still fairly inexperienced. I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to play with that orchestra and its wonderful flute section.
    After these two orchestras, I joined The Cleveland Orchestra where I have played for 25 years. In the very beginning, my colleagues were Jeffrey Khaner, John Rautenberg, and Martha Aarons. Before long, Khaner left for Philadelphia and Joshua Smith joined us as principal. One of my favorite memories of playing with this section is our performance of Aspirant Variations, a concerto, written by my husband Nicholas Underhill which featured the four of us as soloists. When Rautenberg and Aarons retired, we were joined by Marisela Sager and Saeran St. Christopher.

Who are your favorite composers and what do you listen to on your days off?
    My favorites are Shostakovich and Ravel because I love their music, and they wrote great piccolo parts. I also enjoy Mahler, particularly the slow movement from Mahler Symphony No. 5 even though I don’t play a single note. Just sitting there being surrounded by its beauty is always a highlight for me.
    In my spare time, I listen to alternative folk/rock, but I also enjoy Motown and the blues. If I were on a desert island and could only bring along the works of two composers, I would choose J.S. Bach and Joni Mitchell. Bach’s music has a perfection and beauty like that found in nature, and I believe Joni Mitchell to be one of the greatest songwriters ever. Her albums Blue and Court and Spark will always be classics.

What is it like to travel so much with the orchestra?

    We usually go to Europe each year, Miami about three times a year, and New York City once a year. We have also travelled to Asia several times. We just concluded a tour of London, Lucerne, Berlin, Linz, Vienna, Paris and Amsterdam. The orchestra provides travel trunks for our concert clothes and instruments. On this European tour we had three flutes, three piccolos, an alto flute and a bass flute. I usually bring one piccolo in my carry on and let the management handle the rest of my instruments. On this trip because of new government restrictions on ivory and other materials found in bows and instruments, we had to have professional descriptions prepared for each instrument, listing all the materials used and the date they were made. Management had professional photos taken of all the instruments to be transported by trunk. More string players than ever opted to put their instruments in the travel trunks to avoid TSA problems. Many left their best instruments at home and brought their spares on this tour, which was unfortunate since we were making recordings.

What flutes and piccolos do own?
    I have quite a collection of piccolos, and some even call me a piccolo hoarder. I have five old Powell piccolos ranging in serial numbers from 824 to 1410. I also purchased a beautiful old Haynes piccolo that previously belonged to Jack Wellbaum. I had a Keefe headjoint made for my old ring-keyed Bonneville piccolo when I was learning Robert Dick Fire’s Bird, a solo piece I commissioned that makes use of open holes. I have two old silver Powell flutes and use a gold E.V. Powell headjoint that I bought at a pawn shop. I love the sound of the older instruments, and I especially prefer the timbre of the older piccolos. I also have an old Haynes alto flute, two Baroque flutes, a recorder, an old wooden flute, and a purple metal piccolo I purchased on eBay for $40 because I wanted to see if it really worked – it didn’t. I also have panpipes and various ethnic flutes and whistles which come in handy when we perform the music from Lord of the Rings.

What is your teaching philosophy?
    I love the balance of teaching and performing. Teaching helps my playing, and performing enhances my teaching. I began teaching younger kids when I was in seventh grade, volunteering in the summer school music program. When I was in high school, the girl next door took regular lessons with me, and I taught during my college days and as a freelancer in New York. My first professional teaching position was as a flute professor at UW-Madison in 1987. I held that post for one year before I went back to orchestral playing.
    I currently teach undergraduate and graduate students at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Other than trying to make sure my students are well-prepared for their juries and performances, I do not follow a strict regimen or lesson plan. I do try to play duets with my freshmen at every lesson. This provides an opportunity to work on rhythm, phrasing, and basics, but it also opens the door to musicianship, ensemble playing, intonation, and blend. Some students learn very well by hearing and observing their teachers.
    As far as repertoire goes, I like to follow the interests of the students whenever possible. If they are excited about a piece of music, they will work harder. I see my role as helping them acquire the necessary tools to become accomplished musicians and excellent flutists, not as someone who must make sure they are familiar with all the Anderson etudes, etc.
    I generally do not know how a lesson will unfold until I hear a student perform the prepared material. People learn differently and need different things. For the perfectionists, who are tied in knots and may lack expression, my goal is to draw them out. Another student who is musical might lack attention to detail, so I become a taskmaster. As a teacher I can at times feel like an acting coach, a motivational speaker, or a mechanic looking under the hood trying to fix a problem. If one approach does not work, I try something else. By the end of four years, my role should change to be more supportive than formative.
    One new trend I see is that more and more students shop around to find the right college flute teacher. They are wise to do so since the right chemistry in this relationship is important.

What are the challenges of managing a career and a family?
    I have been married for 26 years and have one daughter who is 15. My husband is a pianist, composer, and teacher, so he also has odd hours. For the most part this has worked out very well for raising our daughter. Several years ago I served on the orchestra negotiating committee and worked very hard to make some changes in our contract to make it easier for mothers. Now women in our orchestra have the option of staying home from the frequent tours until their children are past age one. Balancing career and family is a challenge for every working mother. To make things easier, I quit my teaching job at Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory when Jane was born. Having odd orchestra musician hours has had its advantages and disadvantages. I was usually available to pick her up from school, but due to working in the evenings, I had to miss many school events. Now that she is older and in school all day I am happy that Josh Smith asked me to join him on the faculty at CIM. I missed teaching and am happy to be back in that environment.
    I believe that I was fortunate to be well settled as a performer before I had a child. When I first joined the orchestra, I was often nervous and obsessed with my preparation. Having a child gave me a whole new perspective on life. When I was pregnant, we were performing a Shostakovich symphony. I remember thinking how much more important it was for my daughter to be born healthy than it was for the next solo to be perfect. Like magic, I stopped getting nervous nearly as often. We all play better when we are not nervous. Even though I had less practice time, I performed better because I was a parent.

What advice do you have for students?
    My advice varies a lot, but I do find myself giving one talk frequently, which is whether or not to pursue a musical career. Some students go through a period of doubting their abilities or motivation and second guess their choice. I let them know that music is a very competitive field and many students who study music will not get a job playing in an orchestra. I ask if they have other interests or passions they could see themselves pursing instead and remind them that music can still be a big part of their life. If it seems like they absolutely cannot imagine doing anything else as a profession, I encourage them to follow their dream. They may deeply regret never giving it a try, and this can be a pain worse than failure. Then I tell them to work their tails off.


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    Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Fink attended University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied with Robert Cole from 1979-81. In 1983 she graduated from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music with a Bachelor of Music degree where she studied with Robert Willoughby. She earned a Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School of Music, studying with both Julius Baker and Paula Robison. She has also studied with avant-garde flutist/composer Robert Dick, with whom she recorded a duo titled Recombinant Landscapes for the disc Venturi Shadows (O.O. Discs, 1989).
    Fink has taught flute and piccolo at the Cleveland Institute of Music since 2006. She has also served on the faculties of Baldwin-Wallace College Conservatory of Music, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. She teaches flute and piccolo masterclasses at colleges and universities throughout the United States.