Golden Milestones: An Interview with Adrianne Greenbaum

KH: Thank you for agreeing to join us for an interview. I know we just celebrated the National Flute Association’s 50th Anniversary. The convention was so much fun and a great way to finally come back together after the pandemic. As I recall, you told me that you are celebrating a few Golden Anniversaries of your own. Those of us who know you know that you have built a wonderful career as an orchestral player, professor, and freelance player. Would you mind sharing a bit of your path with the readers who may not be aware of all of your accomplishments?

AG: Yes! I should thank YOU for this opportunity to express my joy in having reached this point in my life and career while still continuing to perform, teach and explore (no emphasis on order, here!) 

After Oberlin, where I studied with Bob Willoughby for all 4 glorious undergrad years, I went to Yale to study with Tom Nyfenger. I must reveal that Willoughby was not pleased at all when I told him I wasn’t taking auditions for orchestra positions, but he wasn’t aware that this Jewish girl needed to find a husband because that’s what “we” did back then and time was galloping by to find this important life person. I indeed found my future at Yale, graduated with my Masters and got married in that same year of 1972. So this is how we get to my own 50th Anniversaries: officially being a professional and still married to the same man.  

KH: You are really a wealth of knowledge when it comes to so many different musical styles. What got you interested in playing Klezmer flute? 

AG: At Oberlin I developed a great appreciation for baroque music, having studied harpsichord with the fine professors all my years there as well. That answers a bit of how I created a major path towards historically informed performance practice. I did grow up listening to my mother sing Yiddish songs that she learned from her father—my grandfather—a cantor. (I never met him but he was known to be quite excellent so I would be fairly certain that I inherited the music gene from him.) And so the modes in Jewish music were a little familiar to me. Now fast forward to about 25 years ago when I received just enough money from an aunt’s will that I could do something special with my then 7 year old daughter and went to a multi-generational Jewish culture camp. It was there that I first heard klezmer and the band was led by a classical student of mine! I immediately fell in love with the music and found out where to learn how to play it authentically, with the same attention to performance practice that I had as a harpsichord student, i.e., not just reading notes. (Fun fact is that my first class assignment was to take a klezmer tune and ornament it and return the next day with my results. The teacher was amazed at how appropriately varied mine was and asked how I could do this so easily. I said that it seemed to be similar to baroque ornamentation. Further looking at hundreds of tunes I began to connect the very same ornamentation usage in baroque as in these tunes, wrote a paper that will be published in a German book on performance practice and also now involved in a transcription project of old manuscripts. So it’s not “just folk music” to those of us who lean into such detail as we notice how apparent it was that the klezmorim (klezmer musicians) employed the very same variation and ornamental figures as was in and written about in baroque music. This all excites me as I also now try to perform more on the simple system flutes rather than solely on Boehm system because the tone and different fingering informs even more how it sounded. Of course I also enjoy the improv that klezmer demands. Again, one does not read down the notes but rather learns from listening to old recordings on which there are but a handful of flutists. We listen to the old violinists as well. 

KH: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to explore other styles of flute playing or get more into their musical heritage? 

AG: There is actually a well-known klezmer artist who was asked why he played old time when he had his “own” music he could play. But really, who “owns” and who must belong to a certain group and need permission to play a style or genre of music? I almost can’t imagine anyone attending a concert of jazz, rock, Latin, baroque, bluegrass, whatever, that a flutist wouldn’t come away inspired to get into it and let it rip from there. My students have always been assigned folk music from other countries, especially in the first or second year of playing. Gives them a different palette for their ears while learning some tunes from different parts of the world. 

KH: Is there one person who has influenced your career in a major way? Or a few people? What did they contribute in order for you to become the player you are today?

AG: To be the flutist I am today I credit Robert Willoughby. I came to Oberlin from Akron, Ohio where I was that big fish from a small pond. I could sight read anything, play everything musically pretty much from the start. Willoughby pushed in an inspiring way, often loudly vocalizing and flailing about. And he never accepted good enough. I loved my lessons even if some were drenched in fear when not prepared enough. We did have a somewhat awkward start, however, because I truly thought he must have been hard of hearing: “Adrianne, here you have what is called an appoggiatura and then the resolution. You must be softer on your resolution.” I nodded with understanding, played again. And again. And again. He tried explaining that I was maybe in the wrong place as he insisted he didn’t hear ANY diminuendo. Three weeks of his not giving up, trying different ways to tell me, pointing exactly to the note, explaining yet again what an appoggiatura was. Conclusion for me was that it was clear that I was studying (for the next four years!) with a deaf man. Woe is me. 

I performed the sonata four weeks later, listened to my recording. 

No perceivable diminuendo…

Willoughby tested my knowledge, my level of practice (refusing to turn a page of an etude for me), was always genuine and energetic in lessons, and therefore taught me, with great attention to detail, from embouchure to technique to musicality—paying attention to the detail at the same time as the complete canvas—and all that I needed to have to succeed.

KH: What challenges have you faced as a player on the path that you created for yourself? (Gender discrimination, resistance to musical styles, etc)

AG: I had instances of both gender/sexual harassment and anti-semitism, limited to a couple of conductors. Early on the audition circuit I ended up on the so-called “casting couch” but soon enough that conductor sensed it wasn’t going to end well for him and I was allowed to leave—and of course didn’t get the gig… I know that I lost out on continuing to sub in a great orchestra because, as the personnel manager apologized to me flat out that I didn’t have relations with the principal when he was told who did and therefore not to continue hiring me in favor of the new sub in town. Antisemitism along with a definite crookedness that was displayed fairly heavily by my last conductor basically ended my 35 year run as principal. But the klezmer world improved since I got into it, having started from dealing with a sort of old boys network, but now, with so many females as leaders, certainly including me as one, the scene has definitely changed for the better.

KH: How did you overcome those obstacles? 

AG: I was, let’s say, somewhat naive, so it took awhile for me to understand what was happening, especially being a little less sophisticated compared to, say, New Yorkers. But age and experience brought more confidence so eventually any such obstacles were overcome and dealt with.

KH: Was there a defining moment in your career that sticks out in your mind? A moment that you knew you had arrived or reached a huge professional goal?

AG: I’ve given this some thought but I don’t think there is one defining moment. As anyone who has given or been part of a glorious performance, be it orchestral, chamber or solo, and felt you have really LIVED and this could be “it” for you, another comes along to give you that same euphoria. Playing a solo concert in Europe, playing certain pieces in symphony that leave you absolutely drained of emotion, or just jamming with the best musicians for hours; they are equally vital to me and serve as my life’s juice. But one defining moment? Perhaps the performance at the convention, having people marching and dancing with me!!!

KH: I have seen you play different flutes on different concerts. Do you have a favorite flute or one that is just extra special to you for any reason? Favorite piece of music (flute or not flute)?

AG: I began to play traverso at Yale and I am so glad I did because the non-Boehm sound took me to that different world. I have about 5 baroque flutes, each with a different tone, although frankly, when it comes to playing in concert, I just want what works, what will be best for the possible not-enough-practicing that could be the case. 

When I attended KlezKamp for the first time, the director, having noticed I was a professional, came to me and said I really needed to get a wood flute. Started with finding a couple wood Boehm system flutes. It became important to move into learning simple-system as I strived for more authenticity which also informs my teaching of my ongoing klezmer flute classes. I own about 25 flutes. Each of those has their unique sound and, again, it needs to work in order for me to play it in concert, so I have about three right now from which I could choose. My current favorite has to be my newest flute which I purchased at the convention, made in Terezin. What a glorious sound as well as the actual feel in my hands. I thank Michael Lynn for allowing me to purchase and own it.

KH: What advice would you give young players just starting their careers? 

AG: Today’s flutist absolutely must play everything they’re called for, everything they are handed. No early-career choices; do it all. Definitely don’t ignore the teaching end of the career. You learn every day you teach how to better your own playing right along with the student; you are your own best teacher when you are teaching. Immerse yourself in every situation. Push while you are young; don’t let anything slip by. Act and be professional. And get involved. 

KH: Is there a fun or quirky preconcert ritual you do, or just a fun fact about you that you could share?

AG: I wish I had a healthier ritual to describe such as what to eat or not.  So no, but those that really know me know that I love to dress up. What I wear will influence my performance because of the way I feel.  If it’s a major concert for me I will think about what I could wear weeks prior. I always bring choices if out of town. I’ll even sometimes choose the hat first, then the rest after. The hat is important. Ask me to explain in person. 

I just want to end by saying how grateful I am to play, to teach, and just overall loving all that I do and still getting to enjoy it after 50 years, with 48 of those teaching at Mount Holyoke College, with still more to come. 

And come and visit me on my website!!

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KH: Thank you for sharing your time and life experiences with us!

  1. Kathryn Thomson

    Adrianne Greenbaum is a wonderful, enthusiastic and energetic teacher. I have been fortunate to study Klezmer in her group classes. She makes learning a joyful experience.

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