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The Best Lesson Ever: What You Do Is Good

Amy Porter | September 2013

    I give sincere thanks for all my musical lessons learned in this life, both the tough and the easy ones. It was the drive to play music that led me to seek out true teachers of the flute. They gradually showed me over time, that a flute lesson is not an individual meeting between student and teacher, but a slow journey toward making music. What makes a good private flute lesson is not the way the student plays. What makes a good lesson is the rapport, compatibility, and understanding between teacher and student. If there is no energy and concentration around learning music, even the best pairings seem to falter.
     I had five American teachers in my student career who were influential: Virginia Atherton, Deborah Carter Smith, Samuel Baron, Jeanne Baxtresser, and Trudy Kane. I worked in Austria with Peter-Lukas Graf and Alain Marion. Ms. Atherton and Mrs. Carter gave me basic training and skills on the instrument. My talent and creative inspirations came from my parents.
     Some of my happiest moments were listening to Sir James Galway on recordings and in live performances, and this later became a sweet friendship after we met in 1994. I have never played in a lesson with him, nor have I played for many of the famous, greatest names in the history of our instrument. I have studied with only a few, and they truly cared about only the music. As teachers they were the kindest, gentlest and most generous souls and laid a foundation that led me to believe that what I was doing was good. I did not need to look further to other teachers; I trusted them.
     After high school, my parents and I sought out a flute teacher who was focused on music at the highest level. The name Samuel Baron kept coming up as someone who was generous and kind and had a reputation for being a great player. Without a lesson in advance, I indicated on the application that I wanted to study with him. He accepted me as a freshman at Juilliard, and we fit like hand in glove.
     Mr. Baron was not overly personal. When I had the relationship breakup of my life as a 20-year-old junior, he gave me his handkerchief and said, “Here, blow your nose and let’s put all this emotion into your music.” We did not discuss the levels of trauma, physical exhaustion, and mental stress of being a Juilliard student. We just played flute music, and many times, we played together. He often played duets with his students, and I frequently got in trouble, miscounting second movements of Kuhlau duets and missing notable key signatures. He commended me when I was good and let me know when I needed to work more intelligently. It was an honor to have him tell me that he would like me to have a chance to study one year for my master’s degree with the new principal flute of the New York Philharmonic. It was that twist of fate that led me to seek out the grace, poise, and elegant playing of Jeanne Baxtresser.
     A teacher can only give compassion and advice. It was this combination of Baron and Baxtresser that formed my view of a private flute lesson. They both never let me forget there was more to listen for in my playing. “Dear, you didn’t vibrate the 10th note of that 17-note passage,” Ms. Baxtresser would say. Maybe that is why now I hate not listening for absolutely every single note perfectly vibrated, in tune and in time. I brought my etudes into my lesson with Mr. Baron, expressing my frustration and he heartily diagnosed me with “Etude-itis.” From his training, etudes changed my playing more than any one ingredient. Now, I require my students to play 3-4 etudes a week.
     A life in music extends well beyond the music. Ensemble etiquette was shown and embodied in Ms. Baxtresser’s job in the orchestra. To watch her perform with her colleagues was an extraordinary lesson. I now give an orchestral etiquette and “How to Learn” class as my first studio class. In my sectionals I say everything Ms. Baxtresser said to me.
     Listening to the absolute polish, consistency, and charm of Trudy Kane’s playing, both at the Met and in recital, led me to realize my own playing needed polishing. After I graduated Juilliard I drove into Manhattan from New Jersey twice a month for two years. She taught me a new view of vibrato, pitch, and rhythm, all staples in the diet of the operatic flutist.
     I also kept in touch with Mr. Baron and Ms. Baxtresser as the years progressed. Auditioning for the Atlanta Symphony included several expensive hours with Ms. Baxtresser that she taught to me for free – until I got the job. She was so sure I would do well in the audition, that she told me to pay her when I got my first paycheck. She knew what I was doing was good, even when I did not.
     When I played Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor with the Atlanta Symphony, I called Mr. Baron to ask for his extreme ornamentation that brought a smile to everyone’s face. His wife informed me that he was in the hospital but she would relay the message. I was never more touched than when I received a fax from the hospital to my home in Atlanta. They were handwritten on staff paper. Only the phrases he ornamented were shown.
     Another amazing lesson occurred when I was studying at the Mozarteum Academy with Alain Marion. After I played the entire Sonatine by Dutilleux, he excused the class for a mid-morning break and announced we were all going to go eat ice cream. He took my arm and led us to a nearby ice cream parlor. We sat on the wall of the Mozarteum and listened to him discuss the sunshine and how the ice cream melted down the cone. He bought me a vanilla ice cream cone that day, asking me to try it instead of my true love, chocolate. I felt like the teacher’s pet. We walked back, and I sat in the back row with a smile, only to hear him exclaim loudly “Amieee – come back now and play Dutilleux for me, this time with ice cream and sunshine.”
     I have had so many memorable lessons including one that took place when I was an established ASO member in my 30s with Keith Underwood that changed my playing forever. Others include playing for vocal coaches and oboist John Mack, or working with conductors Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson-Thomas, and Robert Shaw.
     Probably my best lesson ever, though, took place this past year in 2012 with my friend Sir James Galway. In a wonderful conversation at a gathering in Detroit, he asked me what I was doing. I spoke about my DVD, the Anatomy of Sound. I told him my thoughts of including a retrospective of great influential teachers of sound – Moyse, Nicolet, Kincaid, and others. He listened intently as he always does, and after I was finished, he gave a nod and told me, “Say what you say and do what you do. We already know what they said. Say what you say. What you do is good.”
     So that’s what I did. I keep believing that what I am doing in this lifetime is good and will benefit others. Thank you to my teachers both in playing the flute and mentoring me well beyond music making. I will continue to do what I do, mentor and love and continue to strive to give back. Watching your teachers can be the best lesson ever.