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An Interview with Philip Dikeman, Enjoying the Best of Two Worlds

Patricia George | November 2016

    After playing assistant principal flute for 17 years and acting principal flute for two years with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Philip Dikeman became associate professor of flute at the Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University. This year in addition to teaching at Vanderbilt, he has accepted a one-year position as acting principal flute with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. 
What was it like to make the transition to academia after playing in the Detroit Symphony for almost 20 years?
    The last few years I was playing in the DSO, I started to feel that I wanted to make a change in my professional life.  At that point I had played in an orchestra almost 25 years (5 years in the Hong Kong Philharmonic, then 19 in Detroit).  When the DSO went on strike in 2010, it was an eye-opening experience for me and made me reassess my life in many ways.  Part of that included looking at other possible professional opportunities.  The strike lasted six months, and about halfway through, I saw a posting about the position at Vanderbilt.  I decided to apply and made the final cut for an interview on campus.  Honestly, I had never taken a standard type job interview (other than summer jobs in high school and college) as all my interviews had been auditions up until that point.  Preparing for that interview was quite a different experience for me, and I asked for help from a number of friends who are in the academic world.  I even had one give me mock interviews over the phone, which was very helpful.  At first I felt my interviewing skills were terrible because I would sometimes stumble over my answers and get really frustrated.  Just as with practicing for an audition, however, the more I did it, the more comfortable I became with the process. 
    The process was so different than anything I had experienced before.  For an orchestral audition you save your energy and focus for the time you are onstage playing.  For my college interview, I had to be very focused for the entire day.  It started with a rehearsal in the morning with the faculty quintet, then a meeting with the search committee, lunch with the committee, a short rehearsal for my recital, my recital, a masterclass, a meeting with the students, dinner with the committee, and finally back to my hotel room where I pretty much collapsed.  What I distinctly remember about that day though was that it felt so great to be doing something productive after having been on strike for three months.  Even though I was involved in strike concerts the DSO musicians organized, there was a lot of downtime that made it very difficult to stay positive.  When I left Nashville after my interview, I remember feeling so good about the school and experience, that when I was offered the position about six weeks later, I was confident it would be a great fit.  The transition was fairly easy although certainly there are times I miss playing in an orchestra.  This past July, however, I was asked to fill in as acting principal in the Nashville Symphony for the 2016-2017 season.  Taking on that position has been a lot of fun although it is a challenge to coordinate my teaching and orchestra schedules.  My students have been very flexible and understanding, so that has helped quite a bit.

What is your general curriculum for a four-year undergraduate program?

    My curriculum varies somewhat depending on the student, but especially with first year students, I tend to reinforce the basics to strengthen a foundation for playing.  If a student is already doing well in that area, there is always room to expand with added tonal exercises and technical studies.  I give a technique exam at the end of every semester, although for the current semester (and spring of 2016), I broke up the exams so that rather than one big exam at the end of the semester, I tested students regularly throughout the 14 weeks.  Those tests usually include scale work (major and all three forms of the minor scales) as well as selected etudes.  I choose different repertoire for each student with the goal of having them play quite a bit of standard repertoire throughout the four-year program.  I like to have every student working on something different just to give everyone exposure to as much repertoire as possible in flute performance class.  This semester there is some overlap for various reasons, and it will be interesting to hear and discuss multiple performances of the same work in class.
    The biggest advantage in attending a liberal arts institution is the opportunity to explore other interests.  I always wanted to play in an orchestra, but when I attended Oberlin, my incoming class was one of the first that were required to take at least 24 credit hours in the College of Arts and Sciences.  At Vanderbilt, I encourage my students to pursue other areas of interest, but they also know I expect them to keep up their flute studies.  Currently I have students double majoring in music with economics, Spanish, communications, and pre-med. 

Who were your influences in developing your curriculum?
    My biggest influences were my teachers: Robert Willoughby, Tom Nyfenger, and Glennis Stout.  With Tom Nyfenger I learned to expand my interests in terms of repertoire and explore new areas.  Although I want my students to study the standards, I love finding new pieces that are not as well known to them or me. I recently discovered the Sverre Jordan Sonatina and am having a student play it for her Junior Recital.  Nyfenger also affected how I think about sound. At my lessons he would play a lot, and I would listen to his tone.  I found that really helpful as I developed my own sound.  I don’t think I sound exactly like him, but I have always tried to think about the gorgeous focus he had in his sound, and the vibrancy and energy his sound had for me. 
    Robert Willoughby taught me the importance of creating a firm foundation by mastering the fundamentals.  When I entered Oberlin, he had me adjust my embouchure from a tighter approach to a much more flexible one.  I found it difficult to let go of the security I felt with a tight embouchure, but when I finally realized the value of the adjustments, it opened up a whole new world for me in terms of sound. (I am sure Glennis Stout addressed this when I was younger, but I thought what I was doing was good enough and did not understand its importance until later.) Some of my current students have this same issue in varying degrees.  It is always a bit frustrating for them at first, and I can tell they definitely want a quick fix. Once they tap into the technique, it is amazing to see the transformation. 
    Willoughby also emphasized the importance of pitch.  When I work with students, I always try to make them aware of how essential it is to play with good intonation.  When I was at Oberlin, I spent countless hours in a practice room where a Strobe tuner was kept.  For those who remember them, the goal was always to get the spinning wheels to stop. When they did, that meant you were playing the note perfectly in tune.  Nowadays there are so many wonderful apps on smart phones to accomplish the same goal. 
    How to play a phrase and general musicianship were other important parts of Willoughby’s teaching.  To this day, I still remember a performance of the Oberlin Woodwind Quintet where they performed the Taffanel Quintet.  Willoughby’s execution of the final line for the flute at the end of the first movement was absolute perfection – shaping of the line, color, dynamic, control, flawless technique – and completely natural music making!
    The strongest memory I have of my lessons with Glennis Stout was that she introduced me to the French style of playing.  Stout was one of those who studied with Moyse during the summer (she also went to Eastman and studied with Joseph Mariano, as did Willoughby).  For me to study with her in high school and then move to Willoughby was a very natural progression. 

What led you to orchestral playing?
    During the winter term of my junior year, Willoughby gave me the opportunity to work with John Rautenberg, who was the associate principal flute of the Cleveland Orchestra.  Rautenberg had offered to give lessons to a current Oberlin student, with the focus being on orchestral excerpts.  The plan was for me to drive into Cleveland three times a week for a month to have lessons with him.  This turned into an opportunity to observe rehearsals with the Cleveland Orchestra, eat lunch at Rautenberg’s house, and then have what often turned into a three-hour lesson.  He made up a list of standard and not so standard repertoire that he expected me to learn completely.  I remember playing some very tough works for him, and then he would expect me to go home and prepare all new material for a lesson two days later.  It was tough, but it forced me to learn how to practice even more efficiently.  I also got through a massive amount of repertoire in the month.  With having moved so many times since then, I somehow misplaced the list he had me work from, but I do think it played a pivotal role in helping me decide to work for an orchestral position.
    With regard to auditions, I remember Willoughby saying, “Plan on taking quite a few auditions before you win one.”  Well, I was lucky and unlucky because I took two auditions as a college senior that went really well. I think that gave me a false sense of security, and I realized quickly in the auditions that followed that preparation was always the key.  I kept working on that aspect of my playing. I played in what is now the National Repertory Orchestra in college, and the orchestral program the LA Philharmonic used to have – the LA Philharmonic Institute – when I was at Yale.  By the time I finished my degree at Yale, I took the audition for principal in Hong Kong and won it.  My best friend from Oberlin was already playing in the orchestra; it would have been a tougher transition without that help.  Living in Asia made taking auditions tough and expensive.  Flying back and forth to the states was also incredibly tiring.  I probably took five to seven auditions while I was living there and luckily won a couple of positions after being there five years.  

What was your role as assistant principal flute? 
    As assistant principal flute in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, I was responsible mainly for the first flute parts on the first half of a standard concert and for playing alto flute when the repertoire (Stravinsky Rite of Spring, Ravel Daphnis et Chloe, Holst The Planets) required it. Although those opportunities did not come along on a weekly basis, they did occur a few times a season.  Doing something like Daphnis or Rite of Spring in some ways was easier because I only focused on playing alto.  For something like The Planets or Mahler Symphonies, I would play 4th flute/2nd piccolo many times, and occasionally those parts would also include alto flute.  I always loved playing alto flute and piccolo could be fun, too, but required a lot of practice to feel comfortable performing on it.  I remember recording Copland Symphony No. 3 with the DSO at one point and practicing one piccolo lick countless times. I should add that I had a terrific situation in Detroit with Erv Monroe as principal of the section. Erv was always generous when it came to throwing some big pieces my way. I got to play the symphony half of the concert many times during my tenure with the DSO.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra Flute Section in 2001

Playing soundtracks live with films seems to be a new programming strategy for symphony orchestras.  What sound tracks will you be performing this year in the NSO and what are the challenges of this type of performance?
    This year the NSO will play the soundtracks to Home Alone, Jurassic Park and the first two Harry Potter films. I did a few of these types of concerts with the DSO too. The conductor had a small screen next to him at the podium, and my sense is there was a timer running at the bottom of the screen for him to follow.  It was definitely his job to keep us in sync with the film.  I remember doing the Wizard of Oz and practicing like crazy to get some of those passages.  The music was really hard in some spots and fast.  In playing that music, I had great admiration for the studio musicians who did that work back in 1939. 
    Since I have been in Nashville, I have done some studio work which has been interesting.  For studio recording, you wear headphones, and everything is synced by the use of a click-track.  It definitely took me a little while to get used to that approach instead of following a conductor.  It is a skill that takes some practice. Your instincts tell you to stretch a phrase here or there, but you really can’t.  The advice I’ve gotten over and over is “follow the click track.”  With a ritard, the click adjusts for it, but the click determines the ritard, not the player.  The reason for that is that different sections may record on different days, and everything has to match up.  I just did a session recently for something where the strings came one day, the brass another, and the woodwinds were the final group to be recorded.  Although I have never run into a situation where someone got upset because a mistake was made, the producer does expect you to come in and read something down pretty much perfectly in the first or second take.  It can be fun, but also stressful because you see the music for the first time when you arrive at the session.

Do you play piano?
    Piano was my first instrument, and I started learning from my mom.  I played seriously up through my sophomore year at Oberlin.  In fact, I entered Oberlin as a double major on flute and piano.  It was a great situation for me because once my flute colleagues knew I played, I ended up accompanying for quite a few of them.  It meant getting to go to a lot of extra lessons with Willoughby, which was terrific.  I do recall him saying to me quite a few times, “Why can’t you play this on the piano like you would on the flute?”  I realized that although I really liked playing piano, flute was the better option for me.  After three semesters, I dropped the piano major. Of course at the time I said that I would keep playing, but my piano skills have suffered over the years.  I was playing difficult things when I accompanied my colleagues – Prokofiev, Sancan, Reinecke, etc.  Now it would take probably a good year of regular practice to get that skill back.  I still play for students in lessons on occasion but regret not keeping up my playing.

What kind of music do you listen to? 
     If I listen to music just for fun, I do not always listen to classical music.  If I do, I tend to gravitate towards Bach.  One of my piano teachers absolutely loved Bach and always had her students working on something by him.  If I listen to something more contemporary, I love singers like Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett.  I also like younger singers too – Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion, Michael Buble, to name a few.  I like some country singers – something that I started listening to prior to moving to Nashville.  I think Dolly Parton is absolutely amazing and also enjoy Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill. 
Do you record your practicing?  
    I record myself often when I practice.  I encourage my students to do the same because I feel it is such a great learning tool.  I currently use a ZOOM H5 recorder which was a bit of an investment, but even using an app on a smartphone can be really useful for practice sessions.  If a student is making a recording for a competition or audition, I always advise them to use the best equipment available. I also have a video camera that I use in my weekly flute performance class at Vanderbilt.  I will record each student’s performance and then upload the videos to a website that allows them to download and watch them.

How do you teach playing between the notes? 
    One of the best exercises I like to do to focus on playing between notes is practicing harmonics, but slurred.  It is definitely more challenging this way, and I always tell my students to play between the notes.  Many times I hear students play the fundamental note and then quickly jump to the second partial (one octave higher).  They also tongue the next note, rather than slur into it.  Adjusting the articulation from tonguing to slurring makes it more challenging, plus the idea of playing between the notes is more evident with the slur.

How do you teach embouchure and tongue placement?  

    I am definitely of the opinion that flutists should play with a very flexible type of embouchure.  I focus on keeping the corners down but using the upper lip to help guide the air and the bottom lip to help stabilize the pitch.  I also advocate practicing in front of a mirror.  I was taught at a younger age the French style of tonguing where a tiny point of the tongue comes through the lips to give a pristine beginning to each note.  I use this type of articulation pretty much all the time when I begin a phrase.  I find it useful when I have to begin a phrase on a very soft, high note.  Once I start playing though, I tend to tongue inside the mouth, and the placement varies depending on the type of attack I want.  I do feel I get more front to the note if I tongue a little further back.  If I want a softer beginning to the attack, I place my tongue slightly more forward – about where the top front teeth and the gumline meet.

How do you align the flute?
    Generally, I line the headjoint up with the first two keys of the body, and then turn it out just a tiny, tiny bit.  The idea of “one-third covered, two-thirds open” is my general approach.  The idea of covering more than that does not work well for me, and I feel it negatively affects pitch as well as the general sound. 
What is your weekly schedule like?
    This year my schedule is pretty busy.  I have a full teaching load at Vanderbilt, which also includes coaching two chamber groups, playing in the Blair Woodwind Quintet, and being on various committees that meet regularly throughout the semester.  In addition, I have added the symphony schedule this year which is on average eight services per week.  When I first said yes to playing in the orchestra, I did talk to my Vanderbilt colleague Leslie Norton, who plays principal horn in the NSO. My thinking was that if she could do it for all these years, I could do it for one. The first week was pretty rough, but it has gotten easier.  My students have been very flexible which has been a big help.  I have added teaching on Monday and Tuesday evenings and schedule lessons during the day whenever I can throughout the week.  Concerts normally happen on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and sometimes Sunday afternoon too. I have also done more studio work this year which takes up a bit more time, but it is also fun, and I like doing it.
What advice do you have for students who are preparing for auditions?
    Overprepare.  Be incredibly organized about putting together the material you will need.  I would make an audition book for each audition I took and then have it spiral bound.  It was so much easier to take it with me that way, and I could pull it out and practice something if I had a few minutes.  I also would encourage anyone taking an audition to record themselves a lot.  You can learn so much from listening to a recording of yourself. I encourage my students to do this.  Play for as many people as you can, even if they do not play the flute.  Creating an environment where you practice playing for a panel (even if it is just one person), can make the actual audition so much easier.  I also think making a set of flash cards with the name of a piece on each one is helpful.  When you practice, mix up the cards and select them one at a time to get used to playing the material in many different orders.

How do you find balance in your life?
    Right now I don’t feel like I have much balance as it is pretty much work all the time.  I do relax by swimming pretty much every day, and my dogs are a huge distraction.  I also try and spend time with friends as often as I can even if it is just having coffee or a meal together.     

    Philip Dikeman is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (BM, Robert Willoughby) and Yale School of Music (MM, Thomas Nyfenger). On the completion of his degree at Yale, he was named the George Wellington Memorial Scholar for outstanding musical and academic excellence. After graduation Dikeman played principal flute with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for five years and a partial season with the San Antonio Symphony before joining the Detroit Symphony in 1992. He has also played guest principal with the Minnesota and St. Louis orchestras, as well as guest associate principal flute with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He won first prize in both the National Flute Association’s Young Artist Competition and the Orchestral Audition Competition and was a member of the Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings for 18 seasons. For the past five summers he has taught at the Interlochen Arts Camp at the Interlochen Center for the Arts as a Valade Fellow Instructor in Flute. In 2014 he was Program Chair for the NFA Convention. He is also a Verne Q. Powell Artist.