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The Best Lessons Ever: With Baker and Kujala

Jan Gippo | October 2014

    I started playing the flute at the age of five, and had so many great teachers that it is hard to single out one best lesson. I had six primary teachers, and many seminars with some of the greatest flutists of the twentieth century, so I also run the risk of insulting a master who helped me immeasurably. Yaada Weber helped me grow up musically and socially in my teenage years, and Lois Schaefer of the Boston Symphony took me from a want-to-be to a well-trained professional. My two best lessons, however, both included listening to and watching a master teach and play.
    When I was thirteen, I won a competition to study with Julius Baker at a summer music camp at Lake Tahoe. I grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon where there were no flute teachers within 200 miles or even any professional musicians who knew anything about the inner workings of performance. I had to travel on two-lane highways to get to Portland, Oregon or the University of Oregon at Eugene to get that type of instruction. I knew nothing about flute and had never even heard about an open hole instrument or that flutes were made of sterling silver or gold. I had been given a flute from my family in Norway, a flute made in Germany, with a wooden, conical body and a metal headjoint. The footjoint was attached to the body of the flute.
    Baker was not happy with my instrument and said so quite bluntly in front of the entire class. He let me play and gave me a good musical critique, but it was his demonstration that opened my imagination. I stood next to him and watched his fingers and hand position as he played difficult passages. His fingers did not seem to move, and he barely touched the keys. When he played all those notes in fast passages, his fingers just pushed down a little; yet every note was heard, and the passage was in tempo, neither rushed nor slowed. To this day, I imagine a pearl necklace shaped in the contours of scale runs with the low C# in exact time and dynamic with the top D. If he played this passage underwater, there would be no ripples of water, no movement at all. His sound was above and beyond anything I had ever heard before, a lush, silver sound that sparkled as a cloud sparkles in a bright blue sky. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to achieve, and I knew no one could help me until I studied with a master.
    During my college years Lois Schaefer taught me how and what to focus on to get to the level needed to become a professional. I won an audition for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra as their piccolo specialist, and I must admit I felt overwhelmed. I certainly knew how to play the notes and blend, but intonation was much more critical now than before. After one year with the orchestra, I wanted to talk to someone about orchestral piccolo playing and get practical insights about preparation, rehearsal and performance.
    The Saint Louis Symphony went on tour, and the last concert was in Chicago. After the performance Walfrid Kujala greeted me at the musician’s entrance and gave me a wonderful compliment about my performance. Here, I thought, was my opportunity, so I asked if I could take a lesson. Mr. Kujala was very gracious and said it would be fun to get together and talk piccolo because we were colleagues. What a compliment. I scheduled a time.

    When I arrived at his home, we talked a little, and then I asked him to listen to me play so he could hear my problems. As happens in performance, there is always an adrenaline surge especially when a master is standing next to you. I played better than I ever had and had to assure him that I really did have some problems. (It was as if I had taken my car to be fixed, and it did not act up as usual.) Kujala suggested that we play some Kuhlau duets. Kujala didn’t say anything. We just played and played until I was exhausted and he seemed willing to stop. I took him to dinner, and we talked as colleagues.
    To this day I remember what I learned: subtle intonation adjustments while still having a full rich sound, keeping the tempo steady, hearing each note but phrasing within the tempo, blending through vibrato, using different fingerings, the use of dynamics to blend by voicing, and taking the expressive lead when the melody was mine. I also began to understand how to play as an important member of the orchestra and contribute to the symphonic texture, instead of just acting as a secondary voice like a sixth clarinet in a band. We talked about listening critically and consulting the score to see what the piccolo sound was doing for the orchestration.
    These words and sounds of wisdom helped me mature as a musician and learn to listen as a musician and love the art and artistry of great players. Walfrid Kujala is to piccolo artistry as Taffanel, Gaubert, Rampal and Galway are to the artistry of flute and music.