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Dr. Brittany Trotter: Popular Pedagogy

Keith: Brittany, I want to thank you for allowing me to interview you for The Flute Examiner. It really is a small world. We just barely missed being in school together for our doctorates. We have crossed paths in so many other places that I feel like we have been friends for years. Let’s start at the beginning! Can you tell our readers how you came to play the flute and what your path to the DMA looked like?

Brittany: The pleasure is all mine, Keith! I am humbled and honored to be asked to share my stories with you and the wonderful team and readers of the Flute Examiner.  Ah, yes, we may have barely missed each other at WVU, but everyone who goes through those hallowed halls is connected for life.

I began my musical studies in the fourth grade playing the violin. It was actually handed down to me because my sister used to play it in elementary school but quit once she made it to middle school. In the fifth grade, I decided to be a part of band instead of string class after listening to the sixth-grade band perform for my fifth-grade class. After the concert, my classmates and I lined up to test out which instrument we were interested in playing. I initially wanted to play the clarinet, but after watching my classmates choose their instruments to play, I noticed that the young girls who would constantly tease me about my speech impediment were choosing the clarinet. “Well, I can’t choose the clarinet,” I said to myself and before I knew it, I was being asked by the band director which instrument I wanted to play. I was completely flustered and said the only other instrument I could name. “Flute,” I said, and miraculously I was able to get a sound out of it.

From the first few months of starting the flute, I knew I loved the instrument. Growing up, I was a very shy kid and I did not have many friends because of my speech impediment. At recess I would read a book while the other kids played together. After picking up the flute, I was able to put a sound to the stories I would read over and over. The flute became my voice that I believed could be better understood than my speech due to my speech impediment. My band director noticed my innate talent for the instrument and encourage me to take private lessons. She set me up with Mrs. Meri Newell, the flute professor at the local community college near my home. My parents could afford her full rate, but she still took me in as her student for half her rate until I got a part time job to pay her fully. With my flute teacher’s guidance, I was able to successfully audition for honors and All-State band. I loved honors and all state band because it was the first time I was able to travel outside of Mississippi. As a four-year member of the MS All-State band, I was able to travel to Chicago, New York, and Boston. This really inspired me to continue music in college because I had a real desire to move away from my small town in Mississippi.

I was fortunate enough to receive a substantial music scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi where I studied with Dr. Danilo Mezzadri. I initially began my studies as a music education major; however, Dr. Mezzadri pushed me to enter competitions as if I were a music performance major. I remember asking him at my last lesson of the fall my freshman year why he was so adamant about me doing competitions and he said something along the lines of, “Because I see great potential in you. You can make it as a performer.” This was very inspiring to me and after I left that lesson, I went to the music office to declare a second major – music performance. Dr. Mezzadri was very influential to me during my undergraduate studies. I was able to receive the prestigious Presser Award and be accepted into the Ronald McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. Dr. Mezzadri also introduced me to Dr. Nicole Riner, flute professor at the University of Wyoming. I absolutely adore Dr. Riner’s teaching and was accepted as a graduate assistant at the University of Wyoming. This was an amazing experience for me because I was able to travel and live far, far, far away from Mississippi. Attending the University of Wyoming and studying with Dr. Riner was definitely a dream come true for this Mississippi girl. 

After my MM, I auditioned at several schools and was quite blessed to be accepted into the doctoral program at West Virginia University where I studied with Prof. Nina Assimakopoulous. I was awarded a fellowship, which paid for my studies. I learned so much at WVU, including stage presence, competitive chamber collaboration, and I gained a vast understanding of performing contemporary music. At WVU, I was able to network with musicians in Pittsburgh and eventually break out into the freelance teaching and performing scene. With the opportunities I had at WVU, it made it easy for me to transition into freelancing in Pittsburgh, PA where I still reside today.

Keith: The DMA is a very challenging degree with loads of performing, studying, and research. How were you able to find balance during your studies?

Brittany: I was very lucky to receive a fellowship at WVU, which allowed me to focus on my studies, performances, and research. Having a fellowship allowed me to take the time I would have used to work a part time job and devote that to my studies. This helped me tremendously, however I was already very good at juggling and hustling. In high school, I worked part time (30-35 hrs a week) and managed to graduate in the top 5 of my class. In undergrad, I continued to work 25-35 hrs a week while participating in marching band and taking summer classes to graduate on time with a dual degree. Growing up, I saw how hard my parents worked to provide the loving and happy childhood I was able to have. Knowing how hard they worked motivated me to work harder to provide myself with more that they could give me.

Another aspect that helps me juggle things is the amazing group of friends and colleagues I met during my DMA. I do not think I would have made it through my comprehensive exams without the study groups we formed. WVU has a very rigorous course load and I was able to make it through with a little help from my friends (Beatles pun intended).

Keith: I remember how massive the undertaking of choosing a dissertation topic was for me and then the daunting task of working on the research. I believe your topic will be of great interest to our teaching readership. Can you tell us what inspired your topic and how you developed the concepts?

Brittany: In the summer of 2018, I was blessed to be accepted as social media intern for the NFA’s annual convention in Orlando, Florida. As an intern, I was able to work and watch performances and workshops from some of the top flutists who I admired for years, one of them being the stellar Valerie Coleman. I watched Valerie perform Fanmi Imèn, her newly commissioned piece for the High School Soloist Competition. Her stage presence and grace were mesmerizing and the piece evoked so many emotions for me. I heard nods to gospel, Motown, and blues that I have not heard in a flute piece before. I left that performance saying to myself, “I gotta write about Valerie and her music.” As I began my research, I noticed that no one had written a dissertation about her composition. This was shocking to me because I had admired Valerie and her compositions since I heard Imani Winds perform a concert at the University of Southern Mississippi years ago. It was very nerve-wracking for me, writing this dissertation, because I wanted it to encompass the essence and excellence of her compositions which have not only inspired me, but also so many of my colleagues and peers.

In my dissertation, entitled “Examining Musical Hybridity and Cultural Influences in Valerie Coleman’s Wish Sonatine and Fanmi Imèn,” I analyzed her use of narrative poems by Fred D’Aguiar and Maya Angelou in creating these seminal flute works and i Investigated how she incorporates several popular Americano genres in her unique compositional style. I learned so much through this research about how influential African Americans are to the birth of American music and how utterly brilliant Coleman’s compositional writing is.

Writing this dissertation was very rewarding to me and I am beyond ecstatic to have been granted high accolades for my research, including WVU’s Mary Tiffany Ferer Award for outstanding doctoral research in music. I am also a winner of the National Flute Association’s Graduate Research Competition

Through this research and teaching a class in the history of hip hop at Duquesne University, I started to create tone and technique studies for my young flute students using popular tunes. As flutists, we all learn tone development through Moyse’s Tone Development through Interpretation. However, I knew my young students would not have any knowledge or interest in learning arias. Hell, they barely recognize the folk tunes in their method books! What they do recognize is the music they listen to daily – pop and hip hop. There is a wealth of vocal excellence from artists such as Beyoncè, Lizzo, and Ariana Grande where I can use an excerpt of their songs to discuss phrasing, control of dynamics, and tone colors. My students are able to grasp these concepts quickly because they hear it on the radio daily.

Keith: Who are some of the artists that inspire your concepts? Who are some of your favorite artists? What are some of the ways in which you utilize this research in your daily work with students?

Brittany: Haha, well Beyoncè of course! I had a student who was having a hard time understanding legato phrasing. I always try to think of modern analogies to relate to pedagogical concepts for my students. At the time, I was listening to Beyoncè’s Homecoming album during my 5k and 10k weekly runs. “Hey, have you heard Beyonce’s Countdown?” I asked my student. “Yes!” my student said. “Well, at the begin of the song, she does this rip on the word boyah. The notes are simple. Let me teach it to you.”  After 5 minutes, my student was not only able to play the vocal rip, but she had a new concrete understanding of legato phrasing. It is those types of moments that make me feel connected to my students, which is getting harder since we are not in person at the moment.

Keith: How are you staying motivated to practice during the pandemic and how has your routine changed?

Brittany: Great question! Since the pandemic, the online flute community has been a source of inspiration and motivation for me. I found great pleasure in participating in various #challenges on Instagram and Facebook. I got involved with Katy Wherry’s Etude of the Week on facebook and most recently I participated in Dr. Julee Walker’s #pedflutewarmup via Instagram. I also learned a lot of different warm up exercises through Carmen Lemoine’s Keep Calm and Flute On facebook group. Having this wealth of practice challenges by the online flute community really helped me stay motivated to practice.

The biggest change to my routine has been incorporating more time for self-care. Before the pandemic, I spent hours in my car driving to and from performing and teaching gigs and eating an unhealthy amount of fast food. Now, I have changed my routine to include time for journaling and running. This past fall, I ran my first 10k and my next goal is to run a half marathon at the end of the year.

Keith: Do you have any words of advice to our readership regarding practice or career paths in the changing world?

Brittany: My dad is a preacher and growing up, our family motto was Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me.” I find great wisdom in this verse because it gives me a daily affirmation to say that I can do anything that I set my mindset to do. Throughout my career, I have had people tell me that I couldn’t do something, and I made it my mission to prove them otherwise. Yes, I had trouble along the way, but I didn’t give up because I knew I could do all things, and I could do those things because I have the strength to do them. So, my advice to our readership is: You have the strength – – Just do it.

About Dr. Brittany Trotter

An active performer and educator, Dr. Brittany Trotter has appeared as a guest clinician, soloist, orchestral and collaborative musician throughout the United States. She serves on the faculty of Dickinson College and West Virginia Wesleyan College as Instructor of Flute. She also serves on the musicianship faculty at Duquesne University where she instructs a course in the history of hip hop. As primary and secondary music educator, Trotter maintains a vibrant private traditional and Suzuki flute studio in the greater Pittsburgh area and teaches beginner woodwinds at Waldorf School of Pittsburgh. 

Recipient of the NFA’s 2020 Graduate Research Competition, Trotter continues to actively research and explore creative forms of musical hybridity in her teaching and performance.  Equally committed to the advocacy of music education and community engagement, Dr. Trotter engages with young musicians through her position as Flute Teaching Artist at Hope Academy of Music and Art and as the program coordinator for the Guardians of Sound’s Hip Hop Orchestra Summer Music Camp. She is also actively involved in the nonprofit sector serving as the publicity chair for Flute New Music Consortium and serves as the Junior Soloist Competition Coordinator for the National Flute Association.

Trotter holds a Doctor of Musical Arts and a certificate in University Teaching from West Virginia University. She also holds a Master of Music degree from the University of Wyoming, and a Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her former teachers include Nina Assimakopoulous, Dr. Nicole Riner, and Dr. Danilo Mezzadri.

Outside her professional performing and teaching life, she enjoys running, crafting, and reading.

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