PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 7, 2006

The Fairest Flute of All

by Jim Newsom

As a self-taught jazz-inflected musician, I’ve always found it interesting to talk with classically trained players about their musical education, direction, choices and talents. One common thread in all such conversations is their uneasiness with improvisation. Even superstar Sir James Galway told me, “If somebody says we’re going to do ‘Summertime,’ I could sort of hack through that. But it would sound like me sort of hacking through it.”

I asked world renowned flutist Gary Schocker why he thought classical musicians had such an aversion to improvising.

“They could,” he said, “but they don’t want to. It’s scary. For one thing, when you improvise, you’re out of control. In classical music, a lot of the training for musicians is about developing a kind of control: You’re trying to control your sound, you’re trying to watch your pitch, you’re trying to make sure your fingers are close so that your notes all come down at the right time. It’s a very limiting education, the classical education.

“I studied very seriously in my teens, then I went to Julliard and I went through a period where I just didn’t like what I heard coming out of my flute. And nobody was able to tell me what to do to fix it, so I had to figure it out for myself. But in the process, I discovered improvising and I discovered composing, and I realized that playing was so much more than just making an attractive sound and making sure that the notes came out in a certain way. I’m not interested in the notes coming out the same way every time I play them; that’s the last thing I want.

“The ultimate performance for me is one in which what I play feels like it’s improvisation.”

Gary Schocker comes to Old Dominion University Saturday to headline the 13th annual Hampton Roads Flute Faire. The faire is a day-long event presented by local professional flutists, partnering with ODU and the Governor’s School for the Arts, whose mission is to “encourage everyone to participate in music, and especially the art of playing the flute.” Guest artists and teachers include the entire flute and piccolo section of the Virginia Symphony, and Dr. Shelley Binder, a former Symphony flutist now on the University of Tennessee’s music faculty.

Preliminaries actually began last Monday with competitions for elementary, middle and high school players, as well as “adult amateurs.” The college competition takes place Saturday. The top finishers in each category will perform at the faire.

Schocker has been to many such events. Now 46 years old, he was playing music when he was barely out of diapers.

“I started playing the piano before I was three,” he said. “My father was primarily a pianist, but he was my flute and piano teacher.

“My dad was in the West Point army band during World War II. He was concerned, with Vietnam, that I was going to grow up and get drafted. He wanted me to have a safe haven, so he decided that I could always play the flute in the band the way he did. Fortunately I never had to do that, but that was how it started.”

While other kids his age were immersed in the rock music of the time, young Gary Schocker pursued a different course. Seeing the legendary Jean-Pierre Rampal sealed the deal:

“Jean-Pierre Rampal was a big influence on me. I had just started the flute when he came to my town, Easton, Pennsylvania, when I was ten or eleven. I saw a concert and I thought, wow, I really want to do that!

“It’s so important for people to go to concerts, to have that kind of experience. A catalyst like that can actually make a kid realize who they are and what they want to be. When I was in high school, nobody knew what they wanted to be. I knew that I was going to go to Julliard from the time I was five or six---‘my dad went there and that’s where I’m going.’ In my head I just knew that I was going to be a performer.”

He’s also become a prolific composer, with more than a hundred published pieces. He’s performed with a “who’s who” of symphony orchestras, won numerous awards, and toured the world.

I asked what advice he had for aspiring young musicians.

“I think that people have to find their own way as musicians,” he replied. “There aren’t that many available positions---there are a few orchestra spots for people to get jobs, but you have to have the talent and the temperament to be able to fill those shoes.

“Ultimately music is so great because it’s a way of getting centered, being the most yourself you can possibly be. When you share that with an audience, you help other people find something in themselves that makes them feel more connected. And that’s my ultimate goal as a player---to play so that I can connect with other people, they can connect with me, and they can connect with themselves. You don’t have to play at Carnegie Hall to do that; you can do that in your church or your synagogue or your school.”

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.