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Achieving Balance: A Conversation with Elizabeth Buck

Flute Talk Editors | February 2014


    I have always been interested in the Eastern and Western philosophies of the meaning of life. How do we balance between work and play? Between day and night? Between good and bad? The yin and yang of life is the duality of opposing forces. As a flutist, I have wondered how to achieve balance between the musical and technical, between practicing and performing, between working and having fun. Since graduate school, my mantra has been work hard and play hard.
    At first I took it literally – work hard and play the flute hard. So I practiced every Friday and Saturday evening as if I were already a member of an orchestra. I wanted a symphony job and realized that as long as I was not yet playing in a symphony, I should be practicing as if I were. There is a sense of becoming the person you want to be by acting on it step by step. So I took out the Beethoven Symphonies (or Brahms, or whatever standard repertoire I wanted) and sat down like a principal flutist and read through the parts. I played along with recordings with the volume pumped up and just played and played. Much later, I realized that playing hard is for fun – and I changed my mantra to playing hard means really taking time to relax and have fun.
    I have always been a driven person and my motivation for music and flute came from early fears that I would never be good enough. My elementary school band director was one of the first people to sit me down and say there are always going to be too many flutes, so why not take up another instrument like the oboe. In fact, there was no precedent for an incoming sixth grader to make it into advanced band, which was why they were enticing me with the oboe. Free lessons for six weeks – we’ll give you reeds – here’s an oboe. I took it home and honked on it and thought that I would rather not play an instrument than have to play oboe.
    Flute has always been my love. Before I knew what the flute was, I heard its sound and was mesmerized. Without knowing a thing about the instrument I was able to produce a sound immediately. Years of piano lessons made reading music easy, and I immersed myself in everything I could read. I never practiced for lessons. I was able to do whatever was asked immediately, so I did not understand why people needed to practice. It was not until college that I learned how to practice and why it was so important.

How did your musical journey take you to  Juilliard?
    My older brother went into music first and had a copy of the Juilliard brochure among the many pamphlets and catalogs that colleges send out to prospective students. Picking up the brochure, my hands were trembling. It took me a bit of time to realize that one applies to Juilliard just like any other college or university. My mother insisted that I use music as a backup choice, as I had already enrolled at UC-Berkeley during my senior year of high school and was enrolled as a pre-freshman. She was thrilled that I was applying to Northwestern and Stanford – solid schools that would give me a great academic environment while maintaining my love for music.
    I decided to apply for Juilliard and will never forget the frigid blast of March air that greeted me upon landing at Newark International Airport. As a Californian, I had never seen snow. It was daunting to walk into the audition room. Julius Baker, Samuel Baron, and Paula Robison were on the faculty then. I played Ibert Concerto and remember feeling dazzled by being no less than six feet away from the best flutists in the world. My twin sister also applied for Juilliard, and she got a letter almost immediately regretting that she had been denied acceptance. It broke our hearts, and I wondered if my letter had gotten lost in the mail. Weeks went by and I had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, I might get in.
    About six weeks later, a thin envelope arrived from the Juilliard School and back in those days, a slim letter meant denial. Slowly, dejectedly, I opened the letter and read: Congratulations, you have been accepted for entrance to The Juilliard School. What a moment. Stunned, I thought, they must have made a mistake. How could I have been good enough?
    All lives have a path, and this was an unmistakable road sign that I should pursue music. I moved to NYC and then was absolutely miserable the first two years. My sister ended up at Oberlin, where she lived in a dorm and had a cafeteria. By contrast this was the era before dorms at Juilliard, and I took a room at the local YMCA, with no refrigerator, no microwave and only a hotplate. Money was so tight that I documented down to the last penny everything I spent and earned. Phone calls were so expensive that I wrote my mother a postcard every day. How I longed to be in a regular university environment.

What were your studies like at Juilliard.
    This period of my life produced lots of questioning and inquiry about going into music. Was I doing the right thing? Was I on track for success? What is success? Did I want to stay at Juilliard? I put on the notorious freshman fifteen because there was no one to stop me from eating a pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream for dinner. I walked everywhere, blocks and blocks at a time, because the subway was dangerous and too expensive. All the other flute students were incredible – Renee Krimsier, Susan Hoeppner, Marina Piccinini, Les Roettges, Amy Porter, to name just a few. Thomas Robertello, one other flutist and I were the lowly freshmen class.
    I chose to study with Sam Baron because he was an artist and such an amazing musician. Every lesson was an explanation on how to do something – how to pick out the chordal and harmonic structure of a work, how to teach, how to explain things. I remember being impatient for wanting to play and perform, not discuss scales and theoretical analysis and pedagogical information. He always wanted us to bring a music manuscript notebook to our lessons, as he often wrote out examples and exercises. To this day I still have every page and every notebook. There is so much information that Baron gave me, even though I sometimes did not process it at the time. It is something that happens generally for all young adults: the information is there, but until we are ready, we will not understand and learn. When we are ready to learn, we are our own teachers. So much of my present teaching is based on the fundamentals of what Baron taught. He taught that “full sound is produced when the embouchure hugs the airstream.” Tone colors are not the same as dynamics, and projection is not about loudness.
How do you apply the teachings of Baron?
    In my own teaching, air and breathing are the two fundamentals that I stress for full sound. Baron used to say that it is the air behind the air that makes a good tone. In other words, you use air to breathe, and then the support of the intercostal muscles with the diaphragm, shapes the air, creating an airstream that is blown, or breathed, across the back wall of the embouchure plate. It sounds daunting and yet easy. And then when we breathe and blow into the flute, there are variables like how fast or slow the airstream, what is the correct angle and depth, how is the embouchure shaped, what is the shape of the oral cavity, how open is the throat. Baron used to remark “it’s only a metal tube. The work of finding a full sound is individual in nature as only you know your own shape, space and set-up.” Teachers should be able to direct and focus the information so that students can find their own ideal sound.
    Now that I have been teaching for over ten years at ASU, I give my students this simple definition of a cracked/chipped/marred note: the note will crack because the air in use does not match the set-up. Another easy definition, right? So many flutists decrease the air in use because usually it is the increase in air that results in a note that breaks or cracks. Instead, they should think about changing the set-up. Use the increase in air flow (whether volume or speed) and instead adjust the embouchure or set-up. This is why flutists should learn control and flexibility and why balance is so important. Greater air demands greater space. I try to teach the balanced nuances between air, breathing and control. The ABCs as it were. Air is controlled by breathing; breathing controls the use of air; control of set-up creates the correct embouchure to hug the air in use. When these three elements balance, the result is a resonant, rich, and centered sound.

What were your experiences studying with Carol Wincenc?
    After working with Baron, I switched to Carol Wincenc for my master’s degree. I met her at the Sarasota Music Festival 25 years ago. She had just joined the faculty at Juilliard, and I decided that I wanted to finish my graduate studies with her. Studying with a woman flutist was so foreign to me, and I thought that the perspective of a female performer would be invaluable towards my development. Baron, Wincenc, and I met for lunch to discuss this change. Baron was incredibly gracious about allowing me to switch to Wincenc, and I became her first student at Juilliard.
     Wincenc opened the world to me. My first assignment was the Moyse 24 Little Melodies. We studied these one by one, in great depth, and this completely changed the way I play the flute. She later started teaching at Rice University in Houston and eventually lured me there to earn a DMA. Even though I had been invited to the first Boston Symphony principal flute audition, been a finalist for the New Jersey Symphony and the San Antonio Symphony, going back to school gave me more time to practice and hone my audition skills.
    Houston was a world of its own as was Rice University. During my first semester there I developed mono. Then I asked for a six-week leave to tour with the Manhattan Wind Quintet. The Dean looked at me incredulously and asked why I was pursuing a DMA if I had professional engagements to keep. The concept of balance became important even at that stage of my career. I had to figure out how to balance going back to school, taking care of my health, going on tour and making up classes and lessons.

How did you come to the Phoenix Symphony?
    I auditioned for the Phoenix Symphony after taking a string of auditions back-to-back. All I remember was thinking about canceling the Phoenix audition because I was out of money, stressed with school and travel, and disappointed that I was not winning any jobs. I got on the flight, and it was
an incredibly beautiful landing in Phoenix.
    There were mountains surrounding the city and it looked a lot like California. I loved Phoenix and felt at home immediately. The first round was rather short, and I remember thinking, it could go either way. I had played well, but the decision was out of my hands.
    I was surprised when I advanced to the next round. Every round got better and better until there were five of us waiting for the final results. When the personnel manager asked to speak with me outside in the hall, Brian Gordon, the Phoenix Symphony piccolo player who was also taking the audition announced, “There goes our new principal!” I didn’t know what he was talking about until music director James Sedaris and the entire committee surrounded me and congratulated me on winning the audition.
    I felt like I had won the lottery, and then I asked when the job started. The answer was next week. I still wanted to finish my DMA coursework as I was enrolled in my last semester. Jim Sedaris said something then that I will never forget, “You can start whenever you want. We will hold the position of principal flute for you. You just let us know when you’re available.”
     In short, I was able to finish my DMA coursework and then start with the Phoenix Symphony at the end of the semester. Working in a symphony orchestra as principal flute was literally my dream come true. I had no intention of finishing the DMA, except that Leone Buyse eventually replaced Carol Wincenc at Rice. Buyse had been my San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra flute coach when I was a teenager. We discussed my status as a not quite ABD (all but dissertation), and she encouraged me to finish the degree. I would be the rare orchestral flutist with a DMA. Perhaps it is not so rare today, as many flutists with a DMA are playing in orchestras. She was instrumental in helping me pass my qualifying exams, the foreign language exam, and the final writing of my dissertation. I finished the dissertation just weeks before applying for the ASU job and almost twelve years after starting the degree.

Why did you make the career switch from playing in the Phoenix Symphony to teaching at Arizona State University?
    Getting the ASU job was another road sign for staying active with the flute. I had grown a little disillusioned after winning my dream job at 28, which was old in undergraduate time, but quite young on the spectrum of life. I was not sure I wanted to sit in a symphony orchestra for the rest of my life. I tell students, the orchestral repertory has not changed significantly in the last 250 years. Beethoven’s nine symphonies are still in the same keys as they were when they were composed. Did I have it in me to maintain the day-in and day-out of playing in a symphony orchestra? I’m prone to ask questions, lots of questions. My students sometimes feel intimidated and perplexed – am I asking because I want them to answer? Are my questions rhetorical? I know that one of the most effective ways of learning is to ask questions. If you don’t know the answer, then that’s how you find out how to learn.
    After much soul-searching, I decided that I liked the idea of helping people, but playing symphonic concerts in large halls was not the most direct way to know whether I was being effective at meeting people and helping them. Just as I came up with a five-year plan for eventually switching my career to nursing, the ASU job opened up.

How many students do you teach?
    I have anywhere from 13-18 students at ASU, depending on the year and enrollment. ASU offers degrees in music therapy, music education and music performance, from bachelor’s degrees up to doctorates. In any one year, I strive to keep the ratio of undergrads to grads at 3:2. My philosophy of teaching is that we all learn from one another, whether one is a freshman, doctoral student, or even non-major. The flute studio at ASU is supportive, encouraging and inasmuch as possible, non-competitive. We all have things to learn and improve upon, so I teach from the standpoint that we are all in this together: no one person is above anyone else.

What kinds of ensembles do your students play in?
    All students at ASU have equal opportunity to play in orchestra, wind orchestra, band and wind ensemble. Placement auditions occur once a year in August and are open to anybody on campus. Because there can be fewer ensemble opportunities for flutists, I started a flute choir called the ASU Community Flute Ensemble. When I first started teaching, I vowed never to have a flute choir. After teaching for several years and traveling to South Korea where flute choirs are incredibly popular, I realized that music-making is a community endeavor and there are so many flutists who want to play with others, so I asked one of my TAs to design a flute ensemble program. We are still a fledgling ensemble on campus, but it is open to all.

What do you look for when a student auditions for you?
    When students audition for ASU and play for me, I am looking for qualities that make both the musician and the person. At the undergrad level, I look for poise and potential – people who respond with openness and curiosity. The qualities that make a musician are subjective of course, but some signs of great musicianship and personality emerge right away. These qualities include focus in regard to performance and sound; control in regard to technique and breathing and authenticity in presentation. For graduate students, I look for maturity to see the bigger picture. Do they know why they are interested in ASU or why they want to pursue a master’s degree. They should have specific goals of what they want to accomplish in the next two years. The two year MM is such a short time of study that I like to work with students who are motivated and goal-oriented from the start. At the DMA level, I will only take students who I believe to have the potential to finish the degree and be hired at the college level. As such, I only take one or two doctoral students at a time because the job market is saturated with those who carry advanced degrees.

What is your basic core curriculum with regards to etudes?
    Etudes are the bridge between technical exercises and musical pieces, although I would argue that etudes are music. From Andersen etudes to Hughes, Boehm, Karg-Elert, Damase, Jeanjean, Bozza and beyond, I firmly believe in using etudes for initial sight-reading and weekly development for musical training. Learning notes and rhythms are the basics for musical understanding, but playing the notes and rhythms musically are entry-level to the professional field. Every note one plays ought to be musical and lyrical. Yet students play scales like they are some sort of rote punishment for repeating patterns. They address etudes like history books filled with facts – pages and pages of notes that are boring and uninteresting. I continually remind students that I expect them to bring in one etude per week. At one point, a record was set – 13 etudes were played in one lesson. Then students began arguing whether 5 Jeanjean etudes were the equivalent of 13 Andersen etudes, but which opus of Andersen, since op. 15 is decidedly more challenging than op. 33 and then what about op. 60? To this day no one has surpassed 13 etudes.
    I hope students realize that there is nothing at all boring about etudes. They are musical snapshots. You do not get a panorama or landscape with etudes. It is just a snapshot for working out technical details in a musical way. Etudes help to cover style and musical expression, often well in advance of seeing such styles and expression in the standard repertoire. Additionally, etudes are like labs of learning – places to test musical and technical ideas.
    Getting the right notes and playing in time can be so difficult to begin with that this is sometimes all students think about. I try to inspire students to play musically from one note to another, connecting notes with their air so that even scales are music. If everything we play is musical to begin with, there is not a separate process for artistry and musicality.

Do you have any hobbies that relate to your playing and teaching?
    I love cooking and hiking. Cooking is such a creative outlet that I find it easy to make analogies between it and music. Music on the page is like a recipe. The ingredients are listed, the necessary items are named, the process  is detailed, and then the recipe is hopefully brought to life. Music on the page is exactly a recipe. The notes are listed, the necessary markings are named, and then the process of making is up to the musician to bring forth to life. To follow a recipe literally and by the book can be correct and taste good, but sometimes a cook can add a splash of something or inadvertently make up substitutions and then the results are unforgettable – either for good or bad! This is what making music is all about: to be creative and to make something unforgettable. Literally following the notes and rhythm on the page may produce competency, but it is the added splashes that bring forth interest and artistry.
    Music brings people together just as food brings people together. I learn a lot about my students when we have potluck suppers, and each student brings a special dish. Some students do not know how to cook, so on occasion, I have taught students how to make dishes like fried rice. I explain the importance of eating well and taking good care of one’s body. I stress the importance of drinking water and getting plenty of rest and relaxation balanced with exercise and time outdoors. Playing the flute is but one aspect of our lives. In teaching, I want my students to be the best flutists and musicians that they can be. I want them to know why they play the flute, how to play the flute and when to play the flute. Who inspires them? What do they want to accomplish? Where can they get the education and experience and training necessary to realize their goals?
    I know I do not have all the answers, but I try to find the right questions to ask. This is what I hope my students will remember: how to ask the relevant questions that help them to become the best that they can be, no matter what they do. I want my students to have an openness and curiosity towards learning for the rest of their lives.      

Elizabeth Buck is associate professor at Arizona State University. From 1994-2003, she was principal flute with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. Previous orchestral and teaching engagements include principal flute with the Brevard Music Center, Arizona MusicFest, Arizona Opera, and Nova Philharmonia Portuguesa, visiting associate professor at Indiana University, and flutist with the Manhattan Wind Quintet and the Grand Teton Music Festival As a soloist she has performed throughout North America, Europe and South Korea. She is also on the faculty of the InterHarmony International Music Festival in Italy.   

6 Rules for Appropriate Breaths

    •    At the beginning of the piece, always!

    •    During rests

    •    Between a long note and short note: (this includes ties and dotted notes, for example)

    •    In-between wide intervals: (unless it’s expressive to sing and connect the lower note to a higher interval)

    •    Where the contour changes (from interval leaps to step-wise patterns, for example)

    •    Where phrases begin (when with an upbeat, the breath should correspond with the beginning before the upbeat)