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Care for Your Vision: An Interview with Erin Helgeson Torres

When did you know that flute was THE instrument for you? What has your education as a flutist been like?
Funny story…I danced ballet as a young student and had a fair amount of access to Western European art music because of it. Two instruments really stood out to my ear at that age, violin and flute, likely because I was drawn to the soprano, soloistic voice. Ironically, I REALLY wanted to play the violin but our school had a band program instead of orchestra. I made a sound on the headjoint the first time I picked it up and my band director had me leave with a flute the same day. 

However, I was reticent to the idea of playing flute forever. I progressed through middle school with the idea that I would do something else in high school, and again in high school, I though, “absolutely not in college!” In fact, I entered university and spent almost two years working toward a pre-law degree! At some point, I just knew I needed to pursue the challenge of playing professionally. Four degrees in music later, I think it stuck!

My undergraduate was a private liberal arts program in Florida, Stetson University, which gave me the access to a personal music education in flute performance (after I switched out of law) and happened to be the school that Geoffrey Gilbert “retired” to teach at. I studied with the dear Jean Ohlsson West. I went on to a gap year to teach privately (I had a studio of 40+ students) and then pursued my masters and doctorate at The Ohio State with one of the best pedagogues of my education, Katherine Borst Jones. Finally, I received an Artist Diploma at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music. I personally loved getting a little of all three education styles in my early flute life. 

We are very curious about all things related to the Tower Duo, the contemporary music flute and saxophone duet consisting of you and your husband, Michael Rene Torres. At Flute Examiner, we are especially interested in flutists who are creating and sustaining careers in non-traditional settings.  

First, where does the name come from? There must be a story!
Our last name, Torres, translates to “Towers” in Spanish. As there is balance and harmony in a physical structure or building, voices come together as one in chamber music!  

Summer 2019 Tower Duo Smiling

When did you decide to focus on making the Tower Duo its own distinct entity, instead of an occasional collaboration?  
We have been a couple since 2003 and we started making music together as a duo just for fun. It really started out as just wanting to collaborate together, but at one point, we realized how special the combination could be. We actually began performing as Tower Duo in 2007, during my senior recital at Stetson University. At first, we were performing pre-existing works (of which there were very few) and a fair amount of transcriptions but then our desire to contribute to the repertoire grew from listening to the blend possibilities and colors of the two instruments. 

One of the obvious challenges, I’m guessing, is that there isn’t a huge wealth of music for this instrumentation, especially when you were first starting out. Many of the pieces I’ve heard Tower Duo play have been commissioned by you, and how do you go about finding new repertoire that already exists?
In the beginning, finding pre-existing works was challenging. We certainly looked at a lot of reference repertoire list catalogs from the music library at our university. This is before a lot of this material was put on the Internet and made much more accessible. Additionally, Michael began composing for the duo almost immediately and exploring the boundaries of the ensemble from the get-go. There were pieces for sale here and there and we collected them but now it is much easier to accomplish this because so many more flute and saxophone duos exist, and they all commission music.  Many of these duos are friendly with each other and we share music and learn about new pieces written for the instrumentation by hearing the recordings and going to their websites. In an effort to make that goodwill gesture for other duos or young people wishing to start a flute and saxophone, we’ve put a short repertoire list of some of the original pieces that we’ve commissioned and performed on our website.

How do you find/decide on the composers you would like to commission to write pieces for you?
There is certainly no one single way to tackle commissioning. Most of the time, these commissions come from relationships and friendships. We find that composers will write more convincingly for our duo if they know us. Sometimes, there are consortiums with other groups, but other times we’ve discovered composers the old-fashioned way by hearing their music and reaching out. There have been instances of us performing in venues across the world where a composer reaches out to us to write for the duo!

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What is your favorite thing about working with composers on new music?  What’s the most challenging thing?
The answer is the same for both questions, ironically! The best part and also the most challenging is that you cannot know what you will get in the creative process until you are in it. A composer will create a brand new work with your performing group as muse and it becomes your job to breathe life into it. 

There is a sense of vulnerability with performing new music. It is not just the technical challenges that can present issues but also having the integrity to bring the artistry of the living composer to the forefront and pairing that with our artistic preferences as performers. Anecdotally, as we were preparing one of our favorite pieces for recording, the composer in session told us that we were not playing with enough grit and intensity. By the end of the session, we were shaking, exhausted, and sweating profusely, but we had struck the perfect balance between our performance sensibilities and the composer’s vision for the piece. Sometimes this work of creation pushes you to your absolute limits. 

What are your favorite pieces that you’ve performed and why do they make this list?
This is a hard question but a few jump to mind. 

The list has to start with Crosswind by Patrick Chan. It is evocative, full of subtle nuance and timbral exploration, extended techniques, and narrative. 

The second movement of Janus by Paul Hayden is one of the first avant-garde pieces we ever worked on as a duo and it really helped us find our identity. 

Early into our development, Michael wrote Four Short Episodes. They are fun, episodic, and character pieces for the group, full of gesture and contrast. We just love playing them!

After You by Linda Kernohan is full of theatre, and drama, and beauty and sadness. We get to fill the space and act and involve the audience in her (and OUR!) exploration of love. 

Finally, our newest commission and collaboration, Mountains Upon Mountains, Like Waves Upon Waves by Evan Williams for flute, saxophone, and orchestra is a masterclass in chamber music as concerto. It is lilting, dancing, and emotive, verging on impressionistic. We are loving premiering it this season with several orchestras.  

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How do you find and create performance opportunities for Tower Duo? It’s not good enough in today’s musical world to be an excellent chamber group with quality repertoire. You still have to hustle for gigs, right?
Tower Duo is a part of the tapestry of our professional lives. It is rewarding to have many different outlets to create art! For example, outside of my teaching, I perform as principal with several orchestras, sub with many others, play principal in an opera orchestra, and serve as solo flutist with a contemporary music ensemble. We fit Tower Duo into the mix, by performing as resident guest artists at festivals, universities, conferences, and art venues and on tour. A lot of time, we are booked because someone heard us perform before! Sometimes, we build our own tours based on relationships and opportunities and concert series that we are invited to. We also have built shows that can be chosen based on the needs of a festival. For example, our previous show, “Music in Motion” is all multimedia with video, electronics, and improvisation. 

Sometimes things work out because we are in the right place at the right time or we have the right connections. There’s a little bit of luck that is often present, which is not to discount the benefits that come from hard work and dedication to one’s craft. What lucky things have happened throughout your career?
I don’t know if I would just call it luck but our profession is all completely connected! You never know when one opportunity will lead to the next. 

When I was still in graduate school, I took a substitute audition with the Lima Symphony and won a spot on their list. I was only out to play a couple of times that season, but at some point, a brass colleague that I had not met yet recommended me to the director of the music school at Ohio Northern University for an open flute adjunct position. I was invited to apply, and successfully interviewed for the position. Seven years of adjunct work turned into a successful national search for Visiting Assistant and finally Assistant Professor position. More importantly, I came back and won the principal flute job in the Lima Symphony, which now has resulted in one of Tower Duo’s greatest collaborations, which I spoke about earlier. 

None of these things happened in a vacuum. Our relationships and connections (as well as skills and preparation!) contribute to a musical life well-lived. 

What advice do you have for young musicians who want to carve out a place for themselves in the music business as a flutist?
Beyond practicing hard and showing up, foster and care for your relationships! Be kind and whole as a human so you can approach this DIFFICULT work from a stance of wellness and gratitude. Be willing to learn some music business skills, like grant writing. Don’t let the first or second OR TENTH “no” stop you. We make art and it is more personal than most professions, so care for people, care for yourself, and care for your vision. 

Highly regarded as an educator, clinician, soloist, new music specialist, and chamber and orchestral musician, flutist Dr. Erin Helgeson Torres has performed and taught throughout the United States and abroad in the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Austria, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, China, and Canada. She is Assistant Professor of Music at Ohio Northern University where she teaches the flute studio and various musicology courses. Erin has served as Artist Faculty of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan and is the founder of the Mid-Ohio Flute Intensive, entering its seventh season.

Principal Flutist with the Lima Symphony Orchestra, Erin she also performs with the LSO Woodwind Quintet on “Mornings with the Maestro” and “Symphony Storytime” at area libraries. She looks forward to the world premiere of Evan Williams’s Mountains Upon Mountains, Like Waves Upon Waves, a concerto for flute and saxophone in April 2024 with LSO and has previously soloed on Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto. She also serves as Principal Flutist of the Worthington Chamber Orchestra and Queen City Opera, Acting Principal of Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra, and Solo Flutist with the Columbus Ohio Discovery Ensemble (CODE), a contemporary music ensemble. She performs regularly in various area orchestras including the West Virginia, Louisville, Central Ohio, Springfield, and Westerville Symphonies and and as associate musician with the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra. Additionally, she performs in the flute/saxophone duet, Tower Duo, with her husband, Dr. Michael Torres. Their debut album, CROSSWIND, under the Ravello label for Parma Recordings was released in January 2019.

Active as a soloist, Erin most recently completed a performance tour through the Balkans as a solo artist on the Derek Han Tribute Concert Series, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. She performed as concerto soloist with the North Macedonia Philharmonic Orchestra in Skopje, North Macedonia and Pristina, Kosovo, and the Symphonic Orchestra of the National Theater of Opera and Ballet in Tirana, Albania in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of U.S. – Albania diplomatic relations. Earlier in the summer of 2022, she performed as a guest soloist with the Lima Area Concert Band.

As a faculty member at Ohio Northern University, she toured China as a teaching artist and guest of the Chamber of Commerce in 2016. She also completed a two-week tour through China with the New Sousa Band under Keith Brion in December 2010. As an undergraduate, she received grants to study pedagogy in France and the UK and presented this research at the 2007 Florida Flute Festival. In 2008, Erin went to Austria and performed with the American-Austrian Mozart Academy Orchestra in the Salzburg Festival.

Her DMA Document is entitled, “Flute Articulation Pedagogy: The Effect of Language-Specific Consonant Pronunciation on a Flutist’s Articulation within the French and English Languages.” This research was conducted in Dijon, France in March 2012 and was funded by the 2011 Sigma Alpha Iota National Career Grant. Subsequently, Erin was awarded the 2013 Peter A. Costanza Award for Outstanding DMA Document.

Erin holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, The Ohio State University and Stetson University. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her saxophonist husband, Michael, and their rescue ex-racer greyhound, Arwen.

For more info about Dr. Torres, click here.

For more info about Tower Duo, click here.

  1. Sherry Mills

    Erin, you are the most amazing person I have ever met. So proud to know you and have met you when you played with the Greater Columbus Community Orchestra accompanying Jean Johnson. Thank you!

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