Interview with Mary Kay Fink, by Kelly Mollnow Wilson

photo credit to Roger Mastroianni

KMW: When did you know that flute was THE instrument for you? When and how did the piccolo burst into your flute bubble?

MKF: In grade school general music class we listened to recordings of all the standard instruments. I was really drawn to the ALTO flute. When it came time to choose an instrument for joining band, I asked to play it, but was told I had to begin on the C flute. I still remember my second and third choice instruments: saxophone and percussion.

As for the piccolo, my first experience was in high school marching band. Throughout college I did as little as I could, sometimes trading parts with classmates to avoid it. Once I graduated, I did not consider any professional piccolo auditions until the New Jersey Symphony opened up. They have a two person section, so the position is equal parts second flute, piccolo, and Assistant Principal. This appealed to me and I liked the idea of staying in NYC where I was living. Many NJSO members live in Manhattan and free-lance. While in NJSO, I began to “make friends” with the piccolo. It took a while to get comfortable and enjoyable—many years, in fact. Even when I first joined the Cleveland Orchestra, the piccolo felt strange compared to the flute. Now I love it.

KMW: You have been playing piccolo with The Cleveland Orchestra (TCO) since 1990, toured all around the world with them, you’ve premiered concerti commissioned by TCO for you, taught masterclasses and performed all sort of recitals in different venues. Is this the goal that you set out to achieve when you were an undergraduate flute student? 

MKF: As an undergraduate flute performance major, I was just hoping that someday, somewhere, somehow, someone would pay me to play my flute! I was hoping I could support myself making music and not end up waiting tables or something.

KMW: 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?

MKF: Oh my goodness. There are too many to mention!  Most of them are small, but they add up.   But people need to realize that you have to always be “putting yourself out there” in order for any of that to happen. No one is going to find you sitting in your bedroom and offer you a job.   Not long ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”He details exactly what you are asking me about. I feel bad for young people ready to embark on their careers now during this time of COVID. It is a huge disadvantage!!

KMW: What career advice do you have for young musicians who dream of having an orchestral position some day?

MKF: If you can imagine doing anything else for a career that would make you happy, do that instead!  (Unless it is another highly competitive creative career!) If you can’t imagine doing anything else, if you would regret not giving it a try, then you better give 1000% percent of yourself for the next several years. Yes, I mean one thousand!

KMW: What kind of professional performing opportunity do you want that you haven’t had yet?

MKF: What an interesting question! I feel fortunate that I have had such a variety – from performing on Baroque flute to playing avant-garde music with Robert Dick and even playing Chinese bamboo flute in a Chinese music ensemble when I lived in NY! I miss playing Baroque flute and there is some principal flute repertoire I would love to have the opportunity to play some day. I have a library full of solo flute and chamber music that I am realizing I will never learn, but very few regrets.

KMW: Obviously, things are different now during this global pandemic, but how are you able to juggle a full time orchestral job and a heavy teaching load?

MKF: Yes, things are different now!!!!  My full-time orchestra job is basically on hold. It has been exhausting at times in the past, but I feel that one job inspires the other, so I like doing both!     Recently my 97 year old mother moved in with us. Looking forward, I am not sure how all three responsibilities will work out, post-COVID. When I had a small child, I quit teaching altogether.   I will have to cut back at least.

KMW: What is your favorite thing about teaching? What’s the most challenging thing about teaching?

MKF: Many performers and athletes describe entering “the ZONE”—a mindset when time seems to fly by and the rest of the world seems to disappear. I feel this more when I teach! I enjoy the intellectual challenge of teaching. I also enjoy people. As for the most challenging part, I don’t understand why many students fail to take advantage of all the opportunities provided them, like guest masterclasses, as one example. It frustrates me.

KMW: What are some things that you say to your students frequently that come from your flute teachers?

MKF: So many!!!!!! I usually give credit to my teachers when I do this.

KMW: Do you find that your currents students have different strengths and weaknesses compared to students of 30 years ago like me.  What are you seeing/hearing and why do you think that is?

MKF: Another interesting question!  I think students are even more stressed out than before. I have read that mental health problems are more widespread in this age group than ever before. And the arts, of course, are full of sensitive souls. Orchestras are struggling to survive, the future of live music is in peril, then add on racial tension, global warming, etc – no wonder!!  I can understand their turmoil with all this uncertainty around them!  What I do NOT understand about students these days, is that many don’t bother to return emails, etc. This baffles me.      

KMW: Can you describe your most memorable moments/performances as a performer and as a teacher?

MKF: A long time ago my husband, pianist Nick Underhill, and I performed in a nursing home. The residents seemed pretty unresponsive and we didn’t know if anything was getting through to them or not. Then they surprised us at the end by unanimously singing a spiritual to us, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” It was very moving.

KMW: What have been your biggest challenges and how have you overcome them?

MKF: One huge challenge I had was convincing my parents to let me pursue music after high school. My father took me to the library and researched various careers and tried to talk me into Food Science!  It didn’t help that both my math teacher and English teacher pulled me aside and tried to discourage the choice. Even my HS band director tried to talk me out of it! When my parents saw how determined I was, they eventually came around.

KMW: What do you think are the benefits gained by  learning to navigate new ways of teaching, learning, and making music in the current environment?  The negatives are very clear and obvious (Zoom and piccolo do not go well together), but are there any hidden benefits?

MKF: There is one advantage to having everything virtual. It makes having out of town guest artists and teachers no more difficult than local ones.  Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) had Noa Kageyama (of “The Bullet Proof Musician” fame) teach a class last semester.  My CIM colleague, Jess Sindell, was running the virtual studio classes and bringing in guests from all over the world, almost weekly!

Rapid Fire Questions:

Favorite color: Teal I guess, as much as I have one.

Coffee or tea person:  Both. I love Starbucks’ Matcha latte. I need to learn how to recreate that.

Favorite things to do that are not flute related:  Nap, walk along the lake, read, watch good tv/movies, spend time with family and friends.

Dog or cat person:  Cat person!!  But in addition to our three cats, we also have a dog. I am allergic to cats and need to transition into a real dog person. Anyone know a cat-like breed of dog?

Fun fact about you that most people don’t know:  I was a live in cook for the well-known pianist Ruth Laredo, for one year. I had never cooked before she hired me. The first meal I made there was also served to the Tokyo String Quartet—they were there rehearsing with her.    

Favorite book or book that you read most recently?

Hmmm. “Disloyal” by Michael Cohen was my favorite book about Trump that I have read. My favorite passage was his description of “the hairdo.”  Overall it is frightening, though. I recently read “How Not to Die” by Michael Greger and as a result have been eating vegan for about 2 months now. I  think I can stick with it this time! Two books I have read recently have given me new and deeper appreciation for trees, Pulitzer Prize winning “Overstory” by Richard Powers and “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. I also really like historical fiction, biographies, memoirs, and books about how the brain works. I just started “The Feather Thief” by Kirk Wallace Johnson about the biggest natural history heist of the century. And it was pulled off by a professional flutist!!! I love non-fiction that reads like fiction, and so far this fits the bill.

Place you’d like to visit on vacation:  New Zealand and Botswana. But I would like to get “beamed” there. I am sick of flying!

Favorite place that you’ve been on vacation and would like to go back?  Italy. I was there on orchestra tours and would love more time there.

Favorite quote:  Eleanor Roosevelt has a treasure trove of great quotes!! Here is just one that I like: “You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude.”

About Mary Kay Fink

Mary Kay Fink joined The Cleveland Orchestra as piccoloist in 1990 and has appeared as soloist with the orchestra on numerous occasions, including a world premiere of a work by Gabriela Frank commissioned for her by TC). She has also been a member of the New Jersey Symphony, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Seito-Kinen Festival Orchestra. In addition, she has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Nashville Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and the Milwaukee Symphony. She was Associate Professor of Flute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1988-89), flute instructor at Baldwin-Wallace College (1994-99) and has been on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music since 1991, where she is currently head of the Wind and Brass department. In 1986 she won first prize in the National Flute Association Young Artist Competition and has been invited to perform at many of the National Flute Conventions. She has served on the NFA Board of Directors. Ms. Fink is quite active as a chamber musician, recitalist, and guest clinician.

She holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and The Juilliard School.

Her teachers include Robert Willoughby, Paula Robison, Robert Dick, Julius Baker, and Keith Underwood.

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