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An Interview with Isabelle Chapuis

An Interview with Isabelle Chapuis | January 2012


   Isabelle Chapuis represents the French school of flute playing and teaching in the United States. Her early studies in Paris in the 1960s coincided with a golden age of the French flute. She was fortunate to study with many of the great flutists in Paris at a time when an historic change occurred in the French style of flute-playing. When she moved to the United States, she brought the ideas and styles of these master flutists with her.

   In her long teaching career that began when she was 16 years old at l’Hôtel de Ville in Beaune, Chapuis has taught many flutists who have gone on to win major positions and competitions. The latest is 15-year-old Annie Wu who won first prize last August in the NFA High School Soloist Competition. She also won the prize for Best Performance of a Newly Commissioned Work (Three Beats for Beatbox Flute by Greg Pattillo).

How did you prepare Annie Wu for the NFA Competition in Charlotte?  
   When I first heard Annie play two years ago, I thought, “Here is a talent that is one in a million.” Technique has never posed problems for her, so we worked in depth on sound, vibrato, expression and style. We always work on Robert Stallman’s Flute Workout, Taffanel-Gaubert’s 17 Daily Exercises, Altès’ Études, 66 Pieces for Flute by J.S. Bach/Robert Stallman, and, of course, Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation. I also gave her my copy of Audition Success by Don Greene. 
   Annie takes to major works like a duck to water. It is amazing in one so young that I can discuss all sorts of musical questions in very difficult pieces, and she understands right away. For the competition, we prepared the Dutilleux Sonatine, one of the most technically demanding pieces in the repertoire, and the Telemann Fantasy in D minor. With the Telemann, we worked on a pure sound, Baroque style (especially a clearly articulated staccato), and improvised ornaments. 
   Because this was a competition, we also worked on stage presence, visual contact with the audience, self-control of nerves, finding the right tempo under stress, and other matters related to performance in public. We studied the highly original Three Beats for Beatbox Flute by Greg Pattillo together. Pattillo has notated every sound, dynamic and note in the piece with the precision of a Boulez. So, for me, it was a question of solfège, of playing exactly what the composer wrote down. Annie made it swing. This piece took a lot of reading, rather than playing. We did the mouth and throat sounds alone and then the notes, alone. The singing was tricky, finding the right pitches while playing. Finally, we put all the skills together.

Crunelle’s Paris Conservatory class in 1969 with Chapuis in white, behind Crunelle.

How did your teachers influence your success as a flutist and teacher?

   I began studying flute when I was 13 years old. Among my parents’ friends in Burgundy was the Debost family. Michel suggested that I take up the flute with a teacher in Dijon, Maryse Gauci, a delightful and enthusiastic woman (she was the wife of French composer Pierre Ancelin.) Maryse taught me the basics. I progressed quickly and a year later, Maryse passed me on to a renowned flutist in Paris, her former teacher, Gaston Crunelle.
   In 1962 my mother, who was a pianist and composer (she had studied composition with Varese in New York), took me by train from Dijon to Paris for my first flute lesson with Crunelle. She continued to make the train trip, three hours each way, every week for many years. Crunelle, who was 64 years old at the time, had been professor of flute at the Paris Conservatory since 1941. During the same period, he was also principal flute of the Opéra comique in Paris. Most professional flutists in France had at one time passed through his teaching studio. His former pupils included Maxence Larrieu, Michel Debost, Jean-Pierre Rampal, and Jean-Louis Beaumadier. 
   Crunelle welcomed us into his beautiful apartment on Rue de Passy. He was charming and very Parisian in manner, not at all unlike the actors Maurice Chevalier and Jean Gabin. When not playing the flute, Crunelle could always be seen puffing away on his beloved Gauloises. He was elegantly dressed (especially his spiffy, shiny shoes) and quite distinguished looking, with white, flowing hair. I knew from my friends always to address him as maître. He was full of joie de vivre, telling one amusing anecdote after another. However, he continued to chain-smoke those foul-smelling French cigarettes. I can never forget breathing in the smell of Gauloises as I played my audition.

What did you play in your lessons with Crunelle?
   Every lesson with Crunelle began with octaves and sons filés (long tones.) I never escaped the 17 Daily Exercises of Taffanel-Gaubert. Oh, that Exercise No. 4 – I had to play it from memory countless times with every articulation imaginable. Following that, I usually played a concert étude. As a technician, Crunelle was incomparable. Scales, études, detaché, virtuoso acrobatics, facilité and velocité were his forte. He was an exacting but amiable taskmaster with his students. He would never listen to excuses. You had to be prepared. Like all French music teachers, he stressed sightreading skills. No matter how difficult the piece, I could never stop. Wrong notes were okay; stopping or repeating a bar was not. He showed me how to pivot my foot inconspicuously while playing, like a conductor’s hand. Even when I made a rhythmic error, my foot kept track independently of the right place in the bar. He also showed me how to keep time with the big toe inside the shoe. Those lessons have stood me in good stead. Today, I have no anxiety sightreading anything put before me in an orchestra. In chamber music where there is no conductor, these tricks are especially valuable.

What repertoire did you work on with him?
   I covered mostly 19th and early 20th century flute solos with piano, rather than the Great Works. My scores are still heavily marked with his red and blue pencils. These include pieces like the Gaubert Fantaisie, Casella Sicilienne et Burlesque, Huë Fantaisie, Sancan Sonatine, Chaminade Concertino, Enescu Cantabile e Presto, Tomasi Concerto, Busser Prelude et Scherzo, Fauré Fantaisie and the Sicilienne, Jolivet Chant de Linos, Messaien Le merle noir, Dutilleux Sonatine, Rivier Concerto, etc. There was no Bach, no Mozart (not even the concertos, which came later with Rampal.) Surprisingly, given Crunelle’s long tenure in the Orchestre de l’Opéra comique, there were no orchestral excerpts.

How would you describe his playing?
   In addition to a virtuoso technique, Crunelle had a good sound, but it was not the grand, sensuous sound later made famous by some of his former students. He played with a fast vibrato and considerable intensity that was characteristic of flutists of his generation. His vibrato was not as pronounced as what is heard in some recordings by Marcel Moyse. Sonority was not a primary concern in my lessons with Crunelle (although perfect intonation undoubtedly was.) In terms of style, Crunelle was a key transitional figure in French flute playing, a bridge from the brilliant technique and bright silvery sound that was prominent in Paris before the war, toward a new, rich, colorful tone and light détaché that evolved in Paris during the 1950s.
   By the 1960s, during the period in which I studied in Paris, this rich, colorful flute sound and light détaché had established itself as a new French school of flute playing, thanks to the artistry and teaching of a new generation of flutists. Flute students from all of France and from other countries flocked to Paris (and to the summer music academy in Nice) to absorb this new sensuous sound from a handful of masters and learn the secrets of its production.
   This change in style of flute playing was not a question of good versus bad. It was more a question of the tastes of the times. To judge now from old recordings made before the War (and even some years after) many French flutists employed a fast, tight vibrato and produced a bright, silvery sound. Some notable examples were Marcel Moyse, René le Roy, Adolphe Hennebains and Fernand Caratgé. A prominent example of this style in the U.S. was John Wummer in the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein. In varying degrees, these flutists employed a fast vibrato that consisted mainly of variations of volume rather than pitch. Sometimes, it sounded quite expressive. In lesser hands, it often resembled the bleating of a goat.

What else did he teach you?
   During lessons, Crunelle sang as much as he played his flute. Like all French music teachers, he sang in solfège. He used the Fixed Do solfège system and not the Moveable Do system that kindergarten teachers in the U. S. employ to teach nursery tunes to beginners. To this day, I solfège virtually everything I play. I learned Luciano Berio’s Sequenza in solfège before I first played it. I am a firm believer in the value of solfège. The system forces you to sight-sing exactly what is notated. No faking is possible. One must not say a solfège syllable while singing a different pitch. Solfège, in combination with musical dictation, trains one’s ear. It also aids musical memory. For reasons that I have never fully understood, I can still solfège from memory many pieces that I played when I was a student. There is yet another benefit to flutists from solfège: virtuosity of the tongue. In French conservatories, solfège is like a competitive sport. I can solfège Bach’s Badinerie at tempo; but I am not in the same category as virtuoso solfegers. 

When did you study with Michel Debost?
   I was 16 when I began lessons with Michel Debost. Up until then I had received lots of compliments for my playing, so I thought I knew it all. Walking into Debost’s studio for a lesson (in secret, I might add, since I could not tell Crunelle I was studying flute with anyone else), I hoped to impress Michel with a technically showy piece. He was not at all impressed. “You have talent and facilité,” he told me, “but you have the wrong conception of sound, especially vibrato. We must go back to the beginning: long tones, breath control, vibrato, and abdominal support. You have to learn what a flute should sound like. You have to learn how to sing through the flute.”
   Debost opened my eyes and ears to an aspect of music I had never taken seriously before: la sonorité. It was only after years of working with him that I understood: tone color is the path to playing expressively.
   In the 1950s and 60s, Debost was one of the key founders in Paris of a new French School of the Flute. Looking back on that time in Paris, I can see that it was an Age d’Or de la Flûte (Golden Age). Many of the greatest French flutists were active in the city, playing everywhere. When I began my studies with Debost, he was principal flute of the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, the most important orchestra in France. He was then 31. This was just prior to his selection by conductor Charles Munch to become principal flute of the newly formed Orchestre de Paris. Debost was already famous in Paris and had won five international flute competitions, including Geneva and Moscow.
   Debost is not only a great flutist; he is also an intellectual. He has the ability to analyze and explain what many other flutists can only feel and play. In the 1960s in Paris, Debost, together with Jean-Pierre Rampal, Maxence Larrieu, Alain Marion, Roger Bourdin, Christian Lardé and others, were focused on expanding the sonority of the flute, adding more colors to its tonal palette, particularly in the performance of French Romantic, Impressionistic and early Modern works. Debost had the ability to describe in words the kind of open sound and varied tonal palette that they were all searching for. Moreover, he was able to explain the techniques he used to open the sound, control the slower vibrato, and create different colors and attacks in the flute’s three octaves. 
   I recall Debost asking my father, a dermatologist, many questions about human anatomy, particularly about the lungs, abdominal muscles, and the throat. He wanted to know everything about the breathing process and control over the diaphragm. He explained to me how he wanted to use the column of air to produce an open sound. It was through his teaching and guidance that I began to discover for myself the poetic and technical means to produce an open sound. I became fascinated with the flute’s tonal colors. 
   I also saw a humble side of Michel. He was already established as one of the foremost flutists in France; but even so, he still continued to study with Marcel Moyse. Debost took me with him to Moyse’s home in Saint Amour to observe his lessons. He said “one must always be open to new ideas.” He did not flinch at criticism from someone whom he respected. Moyse could be very prickly and unpredictable. He had a reputation as difficile. 

How old was Moyse when you met him?
   When I first visited Saint Amour, Moyse was 78. He lived in the same old, picturesque, modest house in France, near the Swiss border, in which he was born in 1889. Hundreds of pipes of every description were hung on a wall in his home. Moyse was a chain pipe-smoker, despite the fact he suffered from lung disease. Debost introduced me to Moyse, who immediately had a twinkle in his eye. He asked me if I wanted to take lessons with him, and I jumped at the chance.

   I played for Moyse in a small dark bedroom. He smoked his pipe all the time, and the air was suffocating. He had some kind things to say about my playing. Then suddenly he began to sing passages from the pieces I had just played. When Moyse used words to express his thoughts, he would often use poetic metaphors. As he spoke, he would drift into an inspired trance – but mostly he sang. He emphasized phrasings that he wanted me to play. His face became illuminated, his voice quivered with emotion. “Il faut chanter, il faut chanter,” he would plead. When I managed to play a phrase the way he had indicated, a huge smile would spread across his face, and his eyes would light up. “Ah, ma petite Isabelle!” he said. He was even happier than I was. I continued working with Moyse on an irregular basis for several years, first at Saint Amour, and later at his masterclasses in Boswil, Switzerland. (In photo: from right to left Moyse, Debost, Chapuis, Mme. Moyse, and an unidentified flutist at Moyse’s home in Saint-Armour, France, 1966.)

How did you enter the Paris Conservatory?
   There was a competitive audition for the few spots in the flute class that opened that year. I won a spot but almost did not make it into the conservatory. By sheer forgetfulness, I had neglected to turn in the inscription form. When I came across the paper among my flute pieces, the deadline had already passed. I was crushed, and Crunelle was livid. He made an appointment to see the Directeur du Conservatoire, Raymond Gallois-Montbrun and pleaded that the deadline be waived in my case. 
   In the 1960s, there was only one flute class for French students at the Paris Conservatory (there was another flute class for foreign students), and there was only one professor of flute at the Paris Conservatory: Maître  Crunelle. My class was limited to 17 students. During my first year, I lived in a small apartment in the notorious Place Pigalle. It was a short walk to the Conservatoire on Rue de Madrid. 
   The historic Conservatoire no longer exists. In 1990 the socialist government moved the institution to a garish ultra-modern complex on the outskirts of Paris. It is now situated far from the center of Paris, in an immense, barren, cement-covered area, incongruously named Cité de la Musique. When I was a student, one of the greatest attractions of the Paris Conservatory was its relative proximity to all the concert halls, the Opéra, the music stores, the instrument makers and luthiers, the offices of music publishers and the impresarios. 

What was it like to study flute at the Paris Conservatory in the 1960s?
   The study of an instrument at the Paris Conservatory was very different from the study of an instrument at an American conservatory or university music department. At the Paris Conservatory I never had a private flute lesson. The French system is one of masterclasses. You are part of a class that stays together until you leave. Every piece you prepare is performed in front of your colleagues and teacher. Everyone hears (and benefits from) the comments directed at you by the teacher. There is no privacy in a masterclass. Your talent, skills, preparation, weaknesses, and deficiencies are an open book. You are trained to perform, to express openly and freely to others what you can do musically and in sum, to be a soloist.
   Every aspect of study at the Paris Conservatory was based on competition. We did not have exams. We had concours. You had to compete to get in. You had to compete to stay in. You competed with the others in your class to establish your reputation. You had to compete to graduate, and you had to compete to win a Premier Prix; a prize that had concrete significance for the musical public in France. There was enormous peer pressure to push yourself to the maximum of your abilities. You always had to be prepared, because you knew all the others in the class were exceptionally gifted and were always prepared. The teachers were keenly aware of the intense competition and endeavored to make it healthy and constructive, rather than cutthroat. They fostered a spirit of camaraderie in each class.
   In my first year we had flute repertoire class with Crunelle three times a week, each class lasting four hours. I also had chamber music class twice a week under the direction of oboist Pierre Pierlot and clarinetist Jacques Lancelot. Both of these teachers were among the finest woodwind players in France. There was a very difficult class in solfège, harmony and musical dictation, a class for which the Paris Conservatory is world-renown. In addition, I had rehearsals and concerts with the Orchestre symphonique du Conservatoire under conductor Manuel Rosenthal (a French George Szell who could pick out a wrong grace note in a presto.) We were expected to attend master classes of other instruments whenever we could squeeze them in our schedules.
   At the end of my first year, Crunelle announced his retirement. It was not entirely unexpected. Among the flute students, there was enormous excitement and speculation about who would be appointed to succeed him. We discussed every flutist in Paris at great length, and even some from outside France. One name we did not consider seriously was Jean-Pierre Rampal. At the end of the 1960s, Rampal was at the height of his career. He was a super flutist jumping from one music capital to another all year round. In between engagements with the world’s great orchestras, and chamber music concerts with other famous musicians, somehow he managed to squeeze in the recording of innumerable LPs. He was a veritable whirlwind. No one thought he would settle down, out of the public limelight, for a time-consuming teaching position. When the Paris newspapers announced his appointment, it was like a bolt of lightning at the Conservatoire. For me it was a turning point in my life.

What was Rampal like as a flute professor?
   At that first class, we were all on edge, of course. We had no idea what to expect of him as a teacher. He arrived elegantly dressed in a Christian Dior suit, wearing Habit Rouge cologne by Guerlain. However, he was anything but formal. He began by recounting amusing anecdotes about flutists and composers from the past. He knew our names, and kissed on the cheeks everyone in the class. He wanted to know something about each of us. For the first few classes, he just let us play. He made some complimentary comments and encouraging observations. Gradually, he would take out his flute to demonstrate a helpful suggestion, but there was no hint of criticism or showing off. He put us all at ease. From the beginning, he treated us not as students but as friends. Rampal had an enormous repertoire, of course. Crunelle had always limited us to the morceaux du conservatoire, technically demanding but musically lightweight pieces for flute and piano, mostly from the late 19th Century to the early 20th Century. 
   Rampal assigned us huge works of great musical substance: the sonatas and partita of Bach, the concertos of Mozart, Syrinx, Schubert’s Variations and the Arpeggione, Franck’s Sonata, Reinecke’s Undine as well as modern works like the concertos of Ibert and Jolivet, and the sonata by Prokofiev. He opened up a new world for us.
   As we started to dig into this new repertoire, Rampal began to take each piece apart in detail. At first, what struck us most was the effortless, inspired and absolutely impeccable manner in which he would demonstrate any passage from any piece, usually from memory. These demonstrations were so musically memorable that it was hard to concentrate on what he actually said. However, years later, when I began to perform these same works, his words would come back to me as I practiced.
   One amusing thing Rampal often did: he would bring his mail with him and open envelopes just before class began. “Hmmm,” he would say, “I wonder what concerto the French Radio has sent me to play this afternoon. Let’s hear what it sounds like.” Then he would give the piano part to the class pianist, and sightread the entire concerto without a stop. It was always perfect. At the end of the class, he would jump into a taxi, head off to the ORTF, and record the concerto with l’Orchestre national. Sometimes he would even improvise a cadenza in class.
   As a teacher Rampal’s approach was to inspire his students with his examples, and then encourage them to surpass what they had thought was the limit of their abilities. No one was happier than Rampal when a student did something remarkable with a passage or a piece. He would not hide his enthusiasm, and it was contagious. All of his comments were expressions of encouragement. He made constructive suggestions to try something a bit differently. It was not in his makeup to tear anyone apart. Like Debost, Rampal often focused on tone color and sonorité. He was particularly interested in finding varied and rich colors for the French repertoire.
   In this regard, his demonstrations of the Ibert Concerto were unforgettable, especially the second movement. Fortunately, his performance of this second movement, dating from the early 60s, has been preserved on video, and can now be seen on YouTube. In my opinion, it is one of the best examples of L’École française de la flûte.
   Rampal often came to the U.S. for concerts and masterclasses. In the 1980s and 90s, he would usually appear in California every year or so. I was able to keep in touch with him up until the end. He remains an inspiration to me.

What did you do after you won the Premier Prix de flute and the Premier Prix de musique de chambre?
   I began substituting in Paris orchestras, for example with the Orchestre Pasdeloup under conductor Paul Capolongo. In 1972 I came to the U.S. with my husband Mark Starr and settled in Milwaukee. Mark held a position at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and I began playing concertos with local orchestras. I also played recitals at the Milwaukee War memorial, The Dame Myra Hess Concert Series in Chicago (which was broadcast live on WFMT) and at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Two years later we moved to California.

How did your career begin in California?
   Soon after we bought a house in Los Altos, I was asked to play for a masterclass held at San José State University. The class was taught by Andras Adorjan. I played the Schubert Introduction, Thema and Variations. When I finished, Adjoran asked me where I came from. When I said I had studied in Paris with Rampal, he became very enthusiastic and complimentary.
   When I left the stage, Charlene Archibeque, the Director of Choral Activities at SJSU came over and said, “You have to teach flute here.” She took me by the hand to the office of the Director and said: “Here is the flute teacher we have been looking for.” In less than 15 minutes, I had a job as lecturer in flute, a position I held for 33 years. When I started teaching, my English was comme ci comme ça. And I didn’t drive yet. I was forced to jump in with both feet.

Has your teaching style changed in the U.S.?
   I have grown as a teacher through my experience. I’ve been inspired by great flutist/teachers – such as Robert Stallman. I still teach the same things I learned in master classes at the Paris Conservatory and in private lessons with Crunelle, Debost, Moyse and Marion. (For example: la sonorité, the French staccato, études, répertoire.) I teach the Altès Complete Method, the 17 Big Daily Exercises of Taffanel & Gaubert, the Flute Workout and J.S. Bach 66 Pieces adapted for Flute, both by Robert Stallman, and of course the Marcel Moyse Tone Development Through Interpretation. For études I use ones by Altès, Soussmann, Andersen, and Jeanjean. For orchestral excerpts I use books by Baxtresser, Wummer and Torchio.
   One big difference between giving private studio lessons at an American university compared to the Paris Conservatory is that during lessons, students bring me all their personal problems, their struggles to define their identities, their psychological hangups, and their love lives. My husband has said that they ought to pay me double, once as a flute teacher and again as a psychological counselor. That kind of personal involvement of a teacher with her students’ problems would probably not occur at a European conservatory. Although these problems take up a great deal of time, I do not regret offering a shoulder to cry on. The students have taught me so much.
   As a flute teacher, it means so much to have students like Annie Wu who are happy and enthusiastic, always hungry to learn more, fearless, and love playing the flute more than anything else. Rampal once said: “Great students make a great teacher.”

• • • 

   Born in Dijon, Chapuis studied with Jean-Pierre Rampal, Michel Debost, Alain Marion, Gaston Crunelle, Roger Bourdin and Marcel Moyse. In 1970 she won the Premier Prix de flûte at the Paris Conservatory. The following year, she won the Paris Conservatory’s Premier Prix de musique de chambre. As a student at the Conservatory, she played principal flute of the Orchestre symphonique du Conservatoire de Paris under conductor Manuel Rosenthal. She was invited by French composer Olivier Messaien to perform his Oiseaux Exotiques with pianist Yvonne Loriod (Messaien’s wife) on French National Television. She also performed Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatine for flute and piano for the composer. 
   In Europe she performed as a soloist with the Czech Chamber Orchestra in Prague, l’Orchestre de chambre de Radio France in Paris, the Philharmonique de Dijon, the Orchestre de chambre Jean-Francois Paillard in Valence, le Festival Estival de Paris, l’Orchestre de chambre Bernard Thomas in Paris, le Festival de Blois, and the Orchestre symphonique de la Jeunesse Musicale de Belgique in Brussels. She has performed recitals on the Dame Myra Hess Concert Series in Chicago, the Palace of Fine Arts at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Cleveland Art Museum, the Milwaukee War Memorial, and the Palais des Ducs in Dijon.
   Subsequently, Chapuis relocated to northern California, where she has taught flute and chamber music, and performed widely. From 1975-2008, Isabelle taught undergraduate and graduate flute students at San Jose State University, School of Music and Dance. She retired from the university in 2008. Since 1982, she has served as principal flute of Opera San José and appeared as soloist with many U.S. symphony orchestras.