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Chatting with Alexa Still over Coffee at the Slow Train Cafe

Alexa Still and I met for coffee and an interview at The Slow Train Cafe, just a few blocks from Oberlin Conservatory. I first met Alexa personally after she came to teach at Oberlin and I participated in her Flute Intensive Workshop. During that class, I was very impressed with how quickly she was able to identify areas of concern, clearly describe the problem to the flutist, and also provide the information about how to fix the issue. It’s one thing to be able to chip away at problems with a student when you have the advantage of working with them every week for a period of year, but it’s not so easy when you are dealing with a short amount of contact time. In full disclosure, Alexa is a big fan of my work and was instrumental in helping to get a Body Mapping course at the Conservatory, as well as modifying my flute many times to make it playable by me as I was recovering from hand surgery.

KW: What’s on your list of things to address when you’re working with students at a masterclass or short summer program – as opposed to full semesters or years?

AS: I usually look at someone and I think first about the things that might stop them from playing in the future. I look for things that might wind up being so problematic that they cannot play. It might be that they’re overusing their embouchure, they might have terrible body position all over, they might be using their tongue to support their bottom lip… It might be anything like that and some of these things can sneak by a busy teacher. If you’ve got a chance to assess someone playing – to look at a snapshot of them in that moment- I think those fundamental big picture items are much more important than playing the right notes in the piece, for instance. So, body posture is a really big one. If you can fix that, then you’re in a good situation to fix a lot of other things that are subsequent, like air use, how they support, how much they are relying on embouchure…. the body position in a way is the most fundamental thing.

KW: Why do you think the embouchure stuff gets overlooked by so many teachers?

AS: I think this sounds really condescending and I don’t mean it to be, but a lot of people play the flute very innately and teaching is very often about passing on what someone else has taught you. If you haven’t had an embouchure issue yourself or had any reason to think about it, then you might not necessarily know what to do. I’m actually convinced that there are some very respected pedagogues out there who don’t really have much of a clue about how embouchures actually function. I was very lucky when I studied with Thomas Nyfenger—a big shtick of his was being able to copy other players. His party trick was literally standing there and playing through a piece while changing into the persona of another player every measure or so. And it was so incredibly obvious who he was emulating that we didn’t even have to discuss it. But the point is that Nyfenger had the skill to do that. He had figured out how to make a really radical shift from one player to the next, which included embouchure stuff. A lot of his teaching, from what I’ve heard, was stopping people playing and then rebuilding them. I remember him saying at one of my first lessons that I needed to tweak something a bit, some tiny, detailed lip thing, and it worked. It was miraculous. I guess that experience was maybe opening a door for me, into the idea that someone who understands how things work can change the mechanics of the way people play and make it work better. Whereas, I think a lot of teachers are just teaching what they’re doing personally. It’s kind of like how a lot of teachers don’t talk about support. It’s kind-of just off their radar because it presumably became so automatic in their own playing that they don’t think about it anymore.

KW: How did you then learn all the bits and pieces of what makes up an embouchure? Anatomy study?

AS: Mostly by messing around and trying to copy people who are playing badly. If I’ve got students with problems, I try to copy what they’re doing. It’s very instructive. But mostly, it’s experience. It’s a sad thing, but I teach way better now than I used to! With teaching, you just have to start somewhere and do the best you can, but everyone should know that they can get better. You absolutely have to be looking for ways to get better with everything you do, and with teaching, that’s really infinite. Everything is a learning experience for you as the teacher.

KW: What approach do you take when your students have to get braces? Mine is to explain that the braces are going to be difficult at first because some things have to change, but it will get better. Then it will change again when the braces come off and will again get better. The advantages are you gain flexibility from figuring out how to get lips around all the metal and your teeth/bite will be fixed.

AS: Absolutely… a lot of people have a smiling problem with embouchure. You can’t do that and play the flute with braces. So, braces are a really good time to stop the smiling! People struggle when they have braces because it’s such a radical angle change. If the braces are on top and not the bottom, you can build up the lip plate with some tape to replicate the extra thickness that’s happening with the upper lip area. You can do a few remedial things like that, but basically you’re just going to have to try to focus on other aspects of flute playing. At least with young students, when you tell them something, they tend to believe you (as opposed to adults!) So you can say, “You’re just going to have to trust me. You’re going to sound really bad, but we’re going to work a whole lot on how you breathe and we’ll be working on your finger technique. By the time you get the braces off you’re going to thrill everybody!” I’ve often thought about this, but never done it—but for a student with braces, I’d be inclined to put them on an alto flute for a while. It’s just really relaxed and takes away some of the preconceived ideas about what is supposed to happen.

KW: What about problems with tonguing and articulation? I find lots of issues with tongue placement.

AS: Yes… the fact you can’t always see what is going on with flute playing is sort of a problem. You can most often hear it, but not always. The student has to be open minded enough to try different things. I totally agree that you can hear tonguing issues. I usually start off with trying to de-emphasize the tonguing all together. So actually making them do gut-puffing routines so that they get pretty comfortable and capable at getting the right air speed going and controlling it from their torso rather than using their lips to start and stop. I don’t like any of that chewing stuff. And then, if you can get some good sounding notes gut-puffing, then it’s quite interesting to get them to try alternating gut-puff notes with a note with an articulation. And then they can even start hearing when the articulation is really not working. You can discuss the fact that normally the tongue is not spitting the air out. It’s like surfing, it has to catch and ride the air at the right time. Then you can talk about an accent and what is the difference. Then low notes and high notes and different air speeds and how different types of articulation might work better.

KW: In your approach, finger technique comes after the sound, right? We don’t care how fast you can go if you sound bad!

AS: Yes! And fingering stuff is about hand position. I had a great lesson with Walfrid Kujala once where he said he thought many people screw up their technique because they’re hanging onto their flute with their fingers. That principle applies no matter what you think about holding the flute: the fingers that need to be moving up and down should not be hanging on. Getting students to understand how to hold the flute is a big deal.

If I don’t have a lot of contact time, when it’s a short term teaching opportunity, I try to get them to realize that they probably have a finger or two that moves very nicely and they should use that as a role model. Oftentimes, someone will have pretty good sensation with the right hand index finger. Then you can point out that everything should move like that and if it did, technique would be smoother and easier. If someone has a truly disastrous hand position, I do tend to go through the whole explanation of here’s what people often do with holding it with a pressure grip between chin, left hand index finger and right hand thumb. Then, as a side note, I point out it should be right hand thumb and not the right hand pinky doing that holding. And then I show them here’s another way where you can do it where everything is balancing and it’s not so stressful. But in reality, I’m not sure how much of that concept can stick unless you’re there to actually work through it with the student over a longer period of time.

I definitely want to convey that they should not put up with pain. Playing the flute should not be painful. Students really don’t know — they often think pain is normal. It’s really appalling! If they do have pain and actually go get some help, then they might get fixed. Somebody might be able to help them. If they just put up with it, then they’re entrenching whatever is causing the pain, and it’s going to get worse.

KW: Let’s switch gears for a moment. How many flutists generally audition for you here at Oberlin?

AS: 55-70. Usually I take 3 or 4.

KW: For those who don’t make the cut, is your decision sound driven or are there other factors?

AS: Yes. Sometimes sound will do it. The biggest thing is that I want to like the person I’m going to be working with. That’s important. It’s a two-way street. I have to be able to feel great about spending a lot of time with someone for 4 years. If I don’t have a good sense about my vibes with this person, then they’re not getting in. This is why I do 30 minute auditions, so that I can really figure that out. The next thing I look for is musicianship because I can pretty much work on everything else. If someone’s not got much of a sense of music — well, it does happen — that can be a problem.

The third factor would be general at-oneness with the instrument. Students at this age come in so many different varieties, oranges and apples. It gets really difficult beyond a certain point because you’re just comparing different things.

KW: Is there anything else you want to say for this interview?

AS: Yes. I think, generally speaking, it’s a great idea to encourage young people to play loud. For some reason, they have this funky idea that they’re going to sound as beautiful, clear and pretty as the CD recordings and that just isn’t real life. And I feel I spend a lot of time undoing that pursuit of cleanliness, tiny sound thing. If people are playing louder, then they tend to be a bit more relaxed usually. It’s the same stuff that ties people up in knots.

I also think it’s a cool idea to get young people to play in big spaces recording themselves, with ear plugs in or something like that to mess up their perception of their sound. If you can get a student like that to play a bit louder and not be worried about the sound quality, then they’re usually doing things a little bit better. The flute works quite well when you put a certain amount of air into it! Things just tend to go better. Then if you have them pull their ear plugs out, they’re going to be pleasantly surprised. They really can’t get to that point if they think they need to sound good all the time because they are often squeezing the air at the aperture too much and not getting a good air column. It’s important to listen to recordings but also one needs to understand that a CD recording is not like live music. We have been really lucky to have big names here through the work of the Oberlin Student Flute Association…. and besides hearing the real sound, the students also get to hear them all screw up. Then I can say, “Remember the time that so and so was here playing Bach and screwed it up?” Live music is different than recordings!

KW: Where will you be teaching this summer?

Oberlin Flute Academy – June 26-30, 2019 https://www.oberlin.edu/summer-programs/flute-academy

Aria Academy – July 3-7, 2019 http://www.ariaacademy.com/faculty.html

Northern California Flute Camp (one day of teaching) July 5-13, 2019

https://www.flutecamp.com/

Interlochen Summer Arts Camp July 15-August 4, 2019 http://www.interlochen.org/person/alexa-still

Orford Music Academy – August 11-17, 2019 (http://www.orford.mu/en/cours/alexa-still/)

AS: thank you so much for interviewing me, Kelly!

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