Who were your first flute teachers?
When I was in eighth grade, I went to Juilliard PreCollege where I studied with Katherine Hoover. After my first year, the Juilliard School moved down to Lincoln Center, but I decided to stay uptown at Manhattan School of Music PreCollege to study with Frances Blaisdell, one of the main flute teachers at the college. Frances was a legend and widely regarded as the first female flutist to have a professional career. She was a remarkable career model for me.
That same year, I heard Jean-Pierre Rampal live for the first time at Lincoln Center. I remember the experience as if it were yesterday. He played Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits as an encore, and I cried because I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. It was warm, singing and completely organic. It felt as if it was coming directly from his heart through his flute to my ears. From that moment on, this was the sound I wanted. I had something in my ear and I just couldn’t let go of it.
During my senior year of high school, I had a crisis of confidence – anxiety about auditions, competitions, performances, rejections. I even quit the flute for a month. A Juilliard friend suggested that I play for an upper-class Juilliard student, Ransom Wilson. This turned out to be a seminal moment in working towards that French sound I wanted. He encouraged me to attend the summer festival in Nice where both Rampal and Alain Marion offered masterclasses. I was admitted into Rampal’s class which he taught for about six hours every day. It was intimidating; the class was full of students preparing for international competitions. At these masterclasses, one had to volunteer to get up and play, so if you were timid, you would never have a chance. If Rampal liked your playing, he would give you everything. If he didn’t, he would just ignore you or flirt with somebody (this was well before the Me Too movement). His method was behavior modification of a sort. If you wanted his attention, you had to earn it. I got the message early on that Rampal was not going to support, encourage or correct mediocre playing, and the sooner you found that out, the better your lessons would be.
Who did you study with in college?
Because I was academically strong but had so much performance anxiety, I decided to go to college rather than to a conservatory. Upon my return from the Nice masterclasses, I attended Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia. Frances Blaisdell had arranged for me to study with Murray Panitz (then the principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra) who lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Swarthmore was an intense academic environment, and it was hard to motivate oneself to leave campus for lessons. I did see Mr. Panitz a couple of times at the beginning of my freshman year. He was a phenomenal player, but his style and teaching method were very different from my Rampal-oriented vision. It was just too big a dichotomy for me to embrace, so I spent my first year of college without a flute teacher.
Despite this, I continued to play and was principal flute of the college orchestra. I was selected to perform the CPE Bach D Minor Concerto orchestra under Harrison Birtwistle, the famous British composer. During the performance the orchestra got progressively slower in each tutti section, and every time I came in, I would shoot off. The newspaper reviewed my performance and said, “Ms. Chesis’ performance reminded me of an old Jascha Heifetz stunt, whereby Heifetz would come on stage and play a Paganini caprice twice as fast as it should be, and then have a policeman come on stage whistling and giving him a ticket for speeding. Ms. Chesis deserved a ticket for speeding in this performance!”
During freshman year, I won the New York Flute Club competition and was freaking out playing the winners’ recital. I began taking periodic lessons in NYC with Thomas Nyfenger, but I was still insecure about my playing and actually put my flute down again for a while. During that pivotal second semester of freshman year, I realized that I needed to have regular lessons, so I applied to transfer to Yale to study with Nyfenger. Unfortunately, we were just not on the same wavelength; I had something very clear in my head, and it was that French style. In retrospect, I wish I could apologize to some of my former teachers for what I put them through because I must have seemed very stubborn and resistant.
When I went to Yale, it was like being a kid in a candy shop because there were so many wonderful musicians to play with. I played chamber music galore, and that was when I started performing with harpist Sara Cutler with whom I collaborated and toured for 30 years as the Chesis/Cutler Duo. I majored in art history as I had fallen in love with Renaissance art when I went to Florence after the Rampal class in Nice. There were times when I viewed myself as a flutist and times when I didn’t (and my parents really encouraged me not to be a flutist).
As my senior project, I curated an exhibit at the Yale art gallery. My exhibit, Theatre Life in Paris in the 1880s-1900s, showed lithographic music covers, and I wanted the music to be heard in the exhibition space as well as at a live concert. The head curator said no, but I did it anyway. I was an interesting combination of fearful and tenacious. From that experience, I realized that politics in the art business were not going to be much different from those in the music world, and art history was not going to provide an alternative to becoming a flutist.
The following year, I was admitted to Juilliard for graduate school but also received Yale’s Murray Fellowship and a Rotary grant that would give me two full years in France. That was an easy decision. The only question now was whether or not I could get into the Paris Conservatory.
Chesis with Rampal in 1977
What was the audition process like for the Paris Conservatory?
Both getting admitted to the Paris Conservatory and leaving with a Prize (the equivalent of a degree) were equally challenging. There were two audition rounds for admission to the Conservatory. At the first round, the panel consisted of Maxence Larrieu, Michel Debost, Alain Marion, and Rampal. You offered two pieces from which they picked one out of a hat. I played Faure Fantasie, and that was it! At the end of the day, all of the candidates and their anxious parents gathered in the corridor, and an administrator announced who would move onto the second round, which would take place a month later. My name was included. Then they announced the fixed piece for the audition, and it was Chant de Linos. This was before Chant de Linos was popular at all, and I had never even heard of it. One month to learn Chant de Linos, knowing that if I did not get in, I would have nothing else to do for the year. There were very few spots for foreigners. At the end of that audition day, the results were announced. Students were either admitted to the class of Marion or Rampal. I was assigned to Rampal’s class. I felt like my dream had come true.
Paris Conservatory Class Photo 1979
What was student life like in Paris?
At the Conservatoire, studies were always held in masterclass format. There were no private lessons. Rampal was all about interpretation, finesse and bringing the music to life. He presumed you would be playing at a very high level; fundamental technique, and any remediations were addressed by a marvelous assistant teacher named Ida Ribera. Rampal wasn’t one to talk much. He preferred to demonstrate, so everything you learned was from him playing literally two inches away from your face.
The Conservatoire also came with very rigorous musical studies, which – having not been a music major and not studied in the French tradition – were extremely difficult. Everything was in French. I had not taken French since high school, so my French was not up to par. There was oral, instrumental, and rhythmic solfege; written and oral musical analysis; and sightreading. The Conserv-atoire was so rigid and had so many rules that everyone else seemed to understand. At the end of the first year, there were Les Examens, three big exams. Until you passed all of the exams, you were not eligible to move on to play the Concours for the First Prize (to graduate). If you did not pass, you had to go back to school for an entire year before retaking them.
I was again filled with self-doubt. The Parisian winter was bleak and wet, and I was living in a depressing apartment near Pere Lachaise Cemetery. I would do my solfege practice while visiting the graves of Bizet, Chopin, Poulenc, and even Edith Piaf. Additionally, nobody told me that in French music theory, crossing 7s (European style) meant diminished (rather than the little circle), so I crossed all my 7s on my theory exam, and got a ZERO. Rampal was livid: “You graduated with honors from Yale, and you got a zéro?” Fortunately, he convinced the theory teacher to allow me to retake that exam the following November.
What were your first experiences as a professional musician?
My first paid professional gig was playing on a television show about Henri Dutilleux. The pianist who accompanied my Paris Conservatory audition loved my playing, had studied with Dutilleux, and arranged for me to play the Sonatine on the show. As a result, I got to work quite closely with Dutilleux and went to his apartment several times. After rehearsals, we would go across the street to Bertillon for ice cream and talk about art. He had just finished his orchestral masterpiece, Timbres, Espace, Mouvement, which was inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and I had done a big art history paper on the painter.
At the end of my second year, I received the Premier Prix from the Conservatory but had no idea what to do with my life. I opted to take the Principal Flute audition for the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. Initially, the audition was only open to French flutists and then to Europeans, but nobody won. Finally, they allowed foreigners to apply. Initially, I had no interest in leaving Paris and being part of an orchestra, but I thought I might as well give it a try. The audition bore no resemblance to today’s U.S. orchestra auditions; I just played solo pieces and a concerto for the auditions. No excerpts were required until the final round, and they did not even release a list of them ahead of time. I had to play the excerpts in front of the entire orchestra. I was not at all nervous because I just didn’t care about winning the job. However, I won the position and accepted the offer.
That summer, I returned to the States to be a Tanglewood Fellow, which was a remarkable experience. I played Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun under Leonard Bernstein among many other memorable concerts. Then it was time to head back to the south of France to join the orchestra. I was 23 years old, the only female principal (there were perhaps only 5 or 6 other women in the back of the string sections), and the only American. It was a difficult situation. The orchestra rehearsed every afternoon and evening, so it was virtually impossible to make outside friends. However, it was a great flute section, and I’ve stayed in touch with them since then. After my first year, the Orchestra offered me life tenure.
What took you back to the US?
For me, the idea of a job like that at my age meant handcuffs – albeit golden ones. No one was there to say, “Stick it out for a couple of years, and you can move to a different orchestra.” (My mentor Rampal had said, “What are you doing in an orchestra? You are supposed to be a soloist!”) Around the same time, my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness at only 60 years old. I had already been away for three years, and I questioned whether I wanted to continue to be that far from home. While working in Toulouse, I returned to NY to play my debut at Carnegie Recital Hall. Back then, the New York Times had a section called Debuts in Review. To my surprise, I got a great review with a big picture and immediately found management – another fairy tale moment. It was suggested that I take a leave of absence from the orchestra to see what my performing life would be like in NYC. That’s what I did, and I never went back.
What was life like working in New York City?
I had my flute/harp duo with Sara Cutler and played in Ransom Wilson’s new chamber orchestra; I was a member of a trio that toured the U.S. with Columbia Artists Management, and I started freelancing. I arrived in NYC from a different position. Nobody had seen me grow up through the conservatory system. You know how people say if you go to a new place you can reinvent yourself? I was able to come back to the U.S. as a more formed, experienced musician than if I had worked my way up as a student. I sounded different from everyone else – not like an American or a French flutist.
My advice to all is to find your voice, identify your passion, and make your own way. Don’t be tempted by all of the shoulds and musts. Don’t follow the pack. Take the road less traveled.
How do you balance work and family?
It is challenging to raise a family and maintain a career. You have to be incredibly entrepreneurial, stay on top of everything, and create opportunities for yourself if you are not working in an orchestra. Nothing just comes your way; opportunities arise through meeting people, proposing projects and ideas, and following through. When my daughter Sophie was growing up, I was really determined to be home for family dinners. I knew that if I were in an orchestra, I would be out most nights. I then made a decision to bump up my teaching and travel less frequently, so if I went to France or Korea, it would be for only two weeks at a time.
My schedule now allows me the flexibility to keep my Cooperstown Summer Music Festival going (see page 16) and still be able to maintain diversity in my career with touring and other work. I also run the Woodwind Fellowship program at Bowdoin International Music Festival, and I often go to Europe to teach masterclasses in July. Additionally, about ten years ago, I started practicing Iyengar yoga which helped me tremendously in focusing my mind and becoming more aware of my body.
What is your approach to programming chamber music concerts?
There are several ways that I curate chamber music programs:
1. Personal preference for an anchor piece
2. Other artists/instruments
If the flute is featured in every work, I will generally have something in mind that I would really love to do. For example, with Robert Sirota’s Birds of Paradise for which I commissioned a video with footage from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I wanted to create an all-bird related program. I researched many possibilities and chose a variety of works including Couperin, Messiaen, John Luther Adams and Mason Bates. It was quite successful, and on October 6th, I will do a variation on this program including a new commission from Sirota – his take on the Beatles’ “Blackbird.”
For another concert, I wanted to perform the entire Claude Bolling Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio which I had never had an opportunity to do before. I brainstormed possible options for pairing. I could have done an all jazz-related program, an all-French program, some Baroque works, etc. Instead, I opted for something more unusual – a mini-opera by Lee Hoiby called Bon Appetit for soprano, piano and wind quintet based on an episode from Julia Child’s TV show The French Chef, in which the soprano actually makes a chocolate cake on stage.
I love the creativity and flexibility that curating chamber music affords me. Most recently I presented a program of music for flute, oboe, and string trios which included two wonderful new pieces for me – a Quintet by Sussmayr (whose claim to fame was completing Mozart’s Requiem) and Arthur Bliss’s Conversations. Then, allowing my mind to wander, I thought it would be fun to invite the audience to head over to the local beverage exchange for “cocktails and conversations” with the musicians.
What are your strengths as a teacher?
I think my gift is being an astute diagnostician. When I was younger and listened to popular songs, I never paid attention to the lyrics but always tried to discern what vocal sounds felt like in my mouth. I am interested in sound production: Is it nasal? Open? Accented? I somehow can imagine what students are doing inside their oral cavity, and I am able to make adjustments that have an immediate effect on the sound. I find it really exciting when I can demonstrate precisely what to do to make the change and achieve that aha moment.
What do you first focus on with students? Do you have a set curriculum?
Each student is unique and requires a personalized curriculum. I start by asking them to share their thoughts about their strengths and weaknesses. Most people tend to avoid their weaknesses, and stay in their comfort zone, which is perfectly understandable. I try to come up with a game plan of what needs to be addressed in order to move from one stage to another. All of it comes down to the breath. No matter how amazing the technique and articulation, if the breathing is not organized, engaged, and organic, the result will be awkward and unnatural.
Not everyone is a natural player. My goal is to create communicative performers who take what is on the page, and present it in a way that is not mannered, forced, or contorted, but rather thoughtfully and beautifully phrased. Let the music speak for itself. I think that was the biggest thing I learned from Rampal. His playing for me was like a good glass of red table wine, neither fancy nor cheap, but something you could drink every day (as the French do) and not tire of it. It is so important to play for the audience and to share something with them rather than to play solely for oneself.
I have students complete the same etude books; Altes Volume 2 (in duet version), Schade Caprices, Karg-Elert 30 Caprices, Anderson Op. 15, and Paganini Caprices are all on the required list. Everyone comes to lessons with two etudes, one of which should be memorized. Scales, intervals, arpeggios are all super critical, so I check them but don’t spend the entire lesson doing them.
For repertoire, students have several pieces going at once: a concerto, perhaps two other pieces of different styles, as well as excerpts. I don’t assign the same repertoire to everyone, but rather gear the choices to whatever technical aspects they are working on. If someone is attempting to achieve a seamless legato, it does not make sense to have the assigned repertoire be too challenging for the fingers. I ask students to meet me 50% of the way; I need commitment from them. I want students to be proactive and organized, letting me know what they have coming up, what they would like to focus on, and any particular problems they are encountering.
A major part of teaching people how to practice is to first glean how and what they are hearing and show them ways to make an effective change. I am a huge proponent of recording yourself in short chunks and listening back immediately to identify and address any issues. People often do not understand what to listen for, so during lessons I ask students to record a phrase or two and play it back to help them to analyze it. If students are able to become their own best teacher, they will make remarkably quick progress. In my 33 years of teaching, it has not been the exceptionally talented students who have emerged most successfully, but rather those who are organized and tenacious. There will be many rejections, and the way students respond to these will, in a large part, determine their ability to have success as professional musicians.
One of the most important things is to not get in your own way psychologically and physically. There are different sorts of skills that I find really beneficial, and I try to encourage them. However, my teaching is mainly about the whole person. There is so much more to being a musician than being a good flute player. I will address things very differently depending on a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and I think that is also what keeps it fresh and interesting for me. I am not someone who likes routine. I love the idea that while my teaching goals remain consistent, every day is different.
PrincipalChairs.com is an incredible London-based online resource that everyone should subscribe to. It is a collection of video lessons on different excerpts by amazing teachers, and the ability to hear such a variety of approaches is just phenomenal. BulletproofMusician.com is performance psychologist Noa Kagayama’s free gift to your inbox every Sunday morning. Each week focuses on a different aspect of performance anxiety and practice psychology techniques. It is available as both a blog post and an audio file. The great French horn player Julie Landsman has a website that offers excellent videos and practice sheets for the Caruso method for brass players. (JulieLandsman.com) It is a detailed zen-like approach that is certainly applicable to flute playing with a focus on subdivision, rhythm, and airstream. Tunable.com (also a phone app) allows you to physically look as well as hear your tendencies regarding intonation and vibrato. You can review the analysis of a self-recording done through the app and see the reason behind intonation tendencies. For example, you might be 50 cents sharp on a note but it is because of how you played the note(s) before it. I think these are all pieces of the puzzle that help students make quick and regular progress.
Do you have any advice for chamber, orchestral, or solo playing?
I think being a good colleague cannot be overestimated. One thing I do not support at all in my studio is unnecessary competition and bad-mouthing. Everybody has different gifts, and people should feel comfortable around each other. Other musicians are going to be people you meet again and again for the rest of your career, and that also goes for playing chamber music and performing professionally. Word gets around very quickly, and when your name is mentioned, you want it to be associated with positive things. You can’t be a diva. In running my festival, I always do my research when hiring people I don’t know. Sometimes I mention a name, and people say, “Oh, don’t go near that person. Impossible. Always cancels. Always late.” As an artistic director, I can’t afford to have that kind of problem, no matter how talented the performer. I guess the simplest advice is to come prepared, be on time, be friendly, and if necessary, act happy to be there. Be grateful for the opportunity. Be the person people want to be around, be the one people will recommend to do an exemplary job.
What are your future projects?
Now that my daughter has moved to Paris for work, I would love to do more masterclasses both here and abroad. In particular, I am looking forward to doing more flute fairs, masterclasses at universities, and traveling internationally a bit more. In the meantime, I am also very busy planning the Coopers-town Music Festival and have a large studio at MSM this year. It is always a bit of a juggling challenge, but life is never dull.
Cooperstown Summer Music Festival
After I returned to the US, I wanted to forge a career as a soloist and chamber musician, which is difficult if one needs to earn a living. I traveled a lot, often driving 250 miles per day on a community concert tour. Looking back at my tax statements, I was gone 175 days the first year of my marriage. It is difficult to sustain a relationship if you are traveling that much. When we had our daughter Sophie in 1994, she would often come with me, especially in the summer when we would travel with a babysitter from festival to festival. I did that for about five summers and realized that it was not a sustainable model.
The pivotal moment was when I was offered the job of full tenured professor at the University of Michigan, and I turned it down, which everybody thought was crazy. This offer forced me to look at my entire life (just like I did in Toulouse) and make a decision that seemed not only right for me, but for my family as well. I had been on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music for about a dozen years, and it would have been a big change to move to Ann Arbor as my husband’s job and our families were on the East Coast.
In light of this decision, I decided I wanted to create something of my own. My husband’s family has a dairy farm north of Cooperstown where we wanted our daughter to spend time, and initially, my husband suggested we keep it separate as place to relax. That is just not something musicians do, especially in the busy summer season. In 1999 I started with two evenings and one daytime concert, and the festival grew until we were doing ten concerts each summer. However, as Sophie grew up and no longer had time to spend in Cooperstown during the summer, I changed the format to concerts in the quieter spring and fall seasons, and then to four or five main concerts in August. 2019 marks the 18th year celebrated graphic designer Milton Glaser has created a poster for the Festival.
For more information, visitwww.cooperstownmusicfest.org