By Erin Marissa Russell
The first time Cassy Hewett heard a flute, she knew that was the instrument she wanted to play. But when she was finally old enough to join the school band in sixth grade, teachers encouraged her to choose another instrument instead, because of the shape of her lips. Some students with a widow’s peak, or bow in the center of the upper lip, have difficulty mastering proper embouchure technique — the position of the lips and facial muscles that produces flute’s crystalline tone and light, ethereal resonance.
Hewett stuck to her guns, though, and now she’s just returned from performing with the National Flute Association’s Professional Flute Choir for the second consecutive year. A panel of judges selected the group from flute teachers and professional flutists who auditioned.
Hewett, a graduate student and Department of Music & Drama graduate assistant, is one of twenty students from the combined Texas Woman’s University and Brookhaven College flute choirs who performed in a showcase at this year’s NFA convention. TWU Music & Drama division chair Dr. Pamela Youngblood founded and directs the TWU and Brookhaven choirs.
Youngblood and TWU staff accompanist Gabriel Bita performed “American Suite” by Bruce Stark during the event’s “Music of the Americas” concert.
People from around the world attended the convention in Charlotte, N.C. for flute-focused competitions, masterclasses, exhibits, performances and workshops. Activities ranged from sessions on North Indian flute music to yoga exercises to aid in breathing – participants were instructed to bring their flutes along.
Hewett attended one of the yoga workshops in 2010 and found it an appropriate pursuit for flutists. She said yoga’s becoming more and more popular among musicians, and she does it often herself. Yoga helps with learning to use and control the breath, and can especially benefit those who deal with performance anxiety.
When Hewett performed with the professional choir, however, she didn’t feel anxious. She was asked to play contrabass flute, which was daunting but exciting. “The instrument stands taller than I am,” she explained, so it requires a lot of air and attracted plenty of attention from the crowd. Hewett said the sound of the larger flute gives it a different kind of impact.
A spectator pulled Youngblood aside after her duet with Bita to tell her listening to the piece had been “life-enhancing.” Bita and Youngblood recorded the piece, along with other works, in July and plan to release an album next summer. Bita said the song features jazzy rhythms and blues-influenced harmonies, but from a classical perspective.
Convention director Madeline Neumann said, “Flute choirs love to be heard,” and performers at this year’s convention had a potential audience of more than 2600 conference attendees. She said the experience was valuable for college students not only because of the learning opportunities in workshops and masterclasses, but because students could see the latest in flute technology in the exhibit hall or compete for scholarships.
One of Youngblood’s favorite parts of the conference is that the world’s most celebrated flutists who play at Carnegie Hall may be sitting next to a high school or college student. The group has a common bond, she added, and everyone is there for the same reason.
The TWU/Brookhaven flute choirs also performed at the 2009 NFA conference in New York.
Neumann said next year’s event will be held in Las Vegas, and there’s a big chance the choir will perform again.
The TWU and Brookhaven groups combine for concerts, and as Hewett explained, “The two flute choirs fuse together to make one big monster choir.”
Youngblood said she likes finding and performing music that’s just been written, and it’s important to her to support modern composers. “They pour so much into compositions, and those pieces need to be heard,” she said.
In fact, the flute choir has commissioned several original pieces. In addition to introducing the audience to new music, commissioning music means it’s designed for an all-flute ensemble. Flute choirs often play transcribed works for orchestras, but Youngblood said the effect isn’t the same without the other instruments. She prefers performing works designed specifically for the sound and range of the flute.
Youngblood described the flute choir as a family; some members have been in the group for more than 20 years. Flutists who played actively in high school are often glad to find a place where they can play with a group of other people and work on challenging pieces, she said.
Members are selected by audition, and non-majors are encouraged to try out for the course. Students interested in joining the flute choir can contact Youngblood at 940-898-2495 or firstname.lastname@example.org.