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Performer and Teacher: An Interview with Aldo Baerten

Editor | November 2014

    Aldo Baerten is principal flute of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic and professor of flute at the Royal Conservatory Antwerpen and at the Hogeschool der Kunsten-Utrecht Conservatory. Previously he played principal flute in the Nieuw Belgisch Kamerorkest and the MDR Sinfonie Orchester Leipzig.
    Baerten studied at the Royal Conservatory Brussels, the Musikhoch-schule Basel, and the R. Strauss Conservatory Munich. His principal teachers were Peter-Lukas Graf and Philippe Boucly. He has recorded extensively with repertoire
ranging from solo flute and chamber music to large orchestral works.  

When did you begin your music studies?
    After one year of solfeggio, I began flute lessons at the age of nine. My first teacher was Linda Panis. Later we became colleagues and friends while teaching together at a local music school. Although my parents played piano, both were history teachers. As a young boy I attended children’s concerts presented by the National Orchestra of Belgium. I don’t remember why I chose the flute, but I suppose I was attracted to the shiny beautiful instrument in the middle of the orchestra. I also liked the cello. In my early studies I never practiced. As a young student I was influenced by Sir James Galway, Berdien Stenberg, and Thijs van Leer and later on by Peter-Lukas Graf, Philippe Boucly, and Jeanne Baxtresser.
    During high school (Brussels European School) I had an English music teacher who got me interested in music as a career. My main interest became music as I played in a band and orchestra, participated in the yearly musical, and sang in the choir.   
    While studying at the Brussels Conservatory, besides the flute, I enjoyed courses in playing chamber music and orchestra, music history, and piano as a second instrument. Unfortunately when you are young, you love to practice a lot and pay less attention to other courses. Now, I would love to learn more about history and harmony.

What were your first professional experiences?
    I graduated from the Brussels Conservatory when I was 19. I have always lived in Brussels, south of city center near the forest. I am still living in my family house where I was born. Luckily I could and still do commute to all my jobs. First I taught in a local music school, played in a small chamber orchestra, and played lots of chamber music. Eventually I auditioned for the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. The audition was quite normal with three rounds; the first two were behind a screen. At the time I hated the audition process, but in the end I was happy to win. Since we have two principal flutists, my schedule varies from one week to the next. This allows me to perform chamber concerts and fulfill my teaching duties.

How does a flutist’s role change in different settings?
    In an orchestra, a flutist must blend and adapt. In a chamber ensemble, the flutist still blends and adapts, but less so. In the soloist’s role, you are the boss. In orchestra I am a chameleon, choosing tone colors to enhance the total performance. I am a team player who is trying to make everybody feel happy about playing together. At times, for a very short while, I may have a solo and can be more individualist in my choices.

What is your advice for audition preparation?
    Auditions are a very special way to select musicians. It may not be the best way but it is what it is. Preparation is about the basics: sound, intonation, flexibility, accuracy, good stable technique, and rhythm. Depending on the position (principal or not), more or less individual playing.

What is your teaching philosophy?
    My younger students range in age from 9 to 18 years old. I also teach some adults and professional students at the conservatories. Students are not very different from 25 years ago when I was one. However, access to the internet and mobile phones seems to take even more attention away from practice time than television and playing outside did in my childhood. For curriculum I teach all the Gariboldi books, etudes (Köhler, Drouet, and De Michelis), repertoire pieces, and orchestral excerpts. I focus on the basics of flute playing: sound, technique, phrasing, breathing, and healthy playing.
    In teaching tone color, I start with the four basic tone colors: full without vibrato, full with vibrato, hollow without vibrato, and hollow with vibrato. Then the rest is up to the player’s imagination. There are an unlimited number of possibilities taking into consideration who the composer is, what style he is writing in, and the orchestration of the work or passage.
    To develop seamless slurs, I have my students practice slurring (without vibrato) on small intervals, then larger intervals to develop control of the airstream and the body. The embouchure should not be down, but in a natural position with the upper face smiling.
    I teach all the possible attacks I can imagine from Tu, Du, Gu, Pu, Bu to nothing at all (breath attack). Try Ti, Ti, Tu, Tu, and you will feel where the tongue should be placed. Since you can’t see this, you have to feel this placement.
    Vibrato should be well-placed and diversified. Once you can control it, then forget about it and express music. The vibrato will follow quite naturally.
    Breathing should be natural and not exaggerated. Jean-Pierre Rampal suggested, “Nothing more than when you speak.” To develop projection, I tell students to aim the sound far away from them. Never play for yourself, but play for others. In a concert hall direct the sound to the last row.
    Each flutist should look for individual solutions to aligning the flute, stance and balancing the flute in the hands. Search for solutions by reading Quantz and books of our time. Every person is different. Be flexible to find the right things for each individual, as we are all built in a different way. Go for playing comfort, never pain, and search for the best possible position so you can make music without thinking. There are three things to do to develop technique: practice, practice, and practice. 
    My advice for students is to be passionate, work hard, live, and love. Music is great but not the only thing in your life.

What are you listening for when auditioning a prospective student?
    Talent. Musical Talent. It is the only thing I cannot teach the student.

Throughout your career you have specialized in playing and recording chamber music. What is your philosophy for programming chamber concerts?
    I usually go with the flow and play what is asked. Sometimes though I develop my own ideas based on what instrumentation we have or what
compositions might be interesting to play.
    I enjoy combining great music of known composers with great music of lesser known composers. I play all styles. For 15 years I played in a harp quintet, but now I tend to play in all kinds of groups and ensembles. Right now I am preparing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. (This piece involves a lot of piccolo playing, which I actually enjoy even though I have never had a piccolo lesson in my life.)
    Chamber music is about sharing – sharing among the musicians and then sharing between the musicians and an audience. It is an intimate art form that is emotional and performed in a smaller venue. It can be a remarkable experience for all.

How do you find balance in life?
    A musician’s life is very unbalanced. My teacher in Munich, Philippe Boucly, used to say, “Eat well, sleep well and do sports.” It was a good advice, and I admire him for running and biking and staying fit. My teacher Peter-Lukas Graf in Basel said, “A little of everything and a little of meditation.” 
    I love to read all kinds of things from newspapers to books about music and literature. I just finished reading a book about Beethoven written by my first chief conductor and musicologist Jan Caeyers. I am old fashioned as I always read in hardcover.
    I hardly listen to music outside the repertoire I play and that of my students. My ears are usually very happy to have some time off especially after playing every day in the orchestra and teaching about 25 hours a week. I love jazz, musical, pop music etc., but I do not listen very often as I love silence. 
What are your future plans?
    First I want to stay healthy. Then I want to continue to play, teach, learn and share. I plan on making a new CD and performing in a new tour of Norway. I have a love and passion for life and for music. I enjoy what I do and especially sharing it with special people.