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Make Yourself Who You Are: Robert Dick On Creativity

Robert Dick is an American composer, improviser, flutist, teacher, inventor. A graduate of Yale University, in 1975 he published The Other Flute, the seminal manual on contemporary performance techniques. Described as “the Hendrix of the flute,” Dick has recorded over fifty albums and composed over 200 works. He invented the Glissando Headjoint®, a telescoping, sliding headjoint inspired by the whammy bar of the electric guitar. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA Composers Fellowships, and many grants and commissions. Currently, he teaches at New York University and The Graduate Center, CUNY, and performs all over the world.


I hopped on the train in Asbury Park, preparing for the trip to Robert Dick’s apartment for this interview. It involves two trains through New Jersey, a hike through Penn Station in Manhattan, and the subway ride to the Bronx. I was reminded of many similar trips to visit Robert during my years as his student.

Robert had truly inspired my career as a musician. When I was 14, he performed a concert in my hometown in Kentucky and I went, knowing nothing about his music. On that concert he played Flames Must Not Encircle Sides, and it struck me like lightning – I realized that this what I wanted to do with my life: play the flute, and play music like that. His music felt so free and heart-felt; it seemed like a genuine statement of self-expression.

Having the opportunity to study with him as a doctoral student at CUNY was nothing short of a fantasy for a small-town southern girl like me. Through conversations in our lessons and in writing a dissertation about his work, I grew very familiar with his style. Though most of our time was dedicated to standard repertoire, he would often share stories that aren’t published anywhere. I remember hearing about the time Julius Baker met one of the Beatles at the dentist office—Baker didn’t know who he was! There was another anecdote about the time Robert hung out with the bassist from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and they talked about the importance of singing. Today, as a composer and improviser myself, I feel incredibly indebted to Robert for what he has done for music… and for me. But, that’s another story.

I finally got off the subway in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium. I made it to Robert’s apartment, up three flights of stairs, and down a long, hushed, tiled hallway. I took off my headphones and knocked on the door.

MK:  Are you ready?

RD:  Let’s wait for our tea.

What are you practicing today?

Today, I was trying to get my electric flute thing set up. In my studio, there are four tiny little DPA mics mounted along the length of my bass flute in F, plus a headset mic. I need to get some help from a sound engineer to get this system fully working, because the preamp has got to go to the computer.  Before I moved, it was set up, and the mics were panned to make an amazing, tactile sound plane… it was great. But digital stuff isn’t my forte and I’ve done something wrong – right now it’s just mono.

Oh no!

 It shall fly again!

Your preamp looked pretty sweet.

I went for really good mics and an excellent preamp.  On all these things with sound, anything you lose can’t be made up for further down circuit.

(The tea timer goes off.)

No, the sound only loses quality.

Yes. It makes sense when you’re building your system to invest at the front end, getting the best microphone you can, and then gradually improving what you’re playing through.  The microphone is where sound vibration gets changed to electricity, and what the microphone doesn’t do well enough, is gone.

Oh, yeah. For sure. You’re going from 100%, your best flute sound, to… already losing a lot of the sound, just going through a microphone.

That isn’t necessarily true.  If you have fine microphones and use them well, the sound will be great.

(We walk to the kitchen and pour tea, then return to the living room.)

So, what have you been working on this past year?

In the past year, I’ve concentrated on improvisation and recording projects. I have not written many notes on paper. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve put any notes on paper in the past year. That’s just not where the music has been going. I’m concentrating quite a bit on solo music on the contrabass flute and I’m playing with others: with the drummer Tiffany Weitien Chang, guitarist Adam Caine, and a flutist I have been playing with quite a bit in Germany named Ulrike Lentz.

I’ve concentrated quite a bit on singing, and have been studying voice. I have a vocal coach; she’s a super jazz singer named Fay Victor. I’m preparing for my first performance piece, in which I’ll act and sing — which is going to premiere in New York in February. I’m working it out in collaboration with Rinde Eckert, a fantastic performance artist. It’s going to be called, Robert: Seriously Amused and is going to be a look inside what makes me go, with some reflections from childhood and current life.

I’ve been improvising vocally quite a lot this year and can really hear that my singing is much stronger. My connection to the voice of flute is much stronger and I feel it’s improved my flute playing. You never get too old to improve. My dream is to be the baddest 95-year-old flute player there ever was.

You have such an enormous catalog of compositions and recordings. How do you find inspiration and creative energy to produce new material?

 It’s not as if you’re born with a finite pool of creativity in you, and that as you live your life, you stick a straw into it until eventually you’re down to the bottom. Creative inspiration comes from where it’s always come from: life itself. Other people, hearing music, reading, looking at art, observing the world around ourselves – and just from within. Creativity happens inside us because it… just does. It’d almost be like saying, “How do you keep digesting?” You just do! “How does your heart keep beating?”  It just does!

What are you listening to right now that has inspired you?

In the last few years, the things that I’ve listened to most, and come back to again and again, are from a collection of African music that was recorded in the 40s, 50s, some in the 60s. This guy Hugh Trevor took a recording caravan out into the bush, all through Africa. …there are over 25 CDs of astonishing music. It just keeps blowing my mind over and again. I have also been turning back to some music that was a tremendous inspiration. Every few years I go back and listen to Hendrix again, and I’m in a phase doing that now.

What does creativity mean to you? How would you define the role of creativity in musicianship?

What is creativity to me? It’s life itself. Everyone does creative things all day long whether they’re cognizant of it or not. You’re not reading from a script when you’re talking, you’re actually making those words up as you go along. When you decide to walk into this room instead of that room, that was a spontaneous decision. It baffles me so much when musicians choose to exclude creativity from the most important part of their day, which is their music.

I don’t really think there can be musicianship without creativity. I’ve heard performances that clearly were devoid of creativity; to me, they were devoid of musicianship as well. It’s really not important how well somebody can blow the flute – what they’ve got to say, that’s what matters. A joke I’ve told in masterclasses many times is, “Does it matter who’s got the fastest chromatic scale this side of the Mississippi? And… will it ruin your day if I tell you it’s me?”

For some people, it would!

If it will ruin your day, you’ve got something serious to think about.  Are you just a flute athlete, or trying to be – or are you striving to be a musician?

Where do you think that comes from, the obsession with technique?

I think it has everything to do with the fact that most playing (and we’re talking about American flute playing here) descends from the orchestral tradition. For a very long time, conductors had the power to hire and fire. It was imperative not to make a mistake. If you played a wrong note, or missed an entrance, or committed some error that could be pointed to objectively… that became something to be dreadfully and totally fearful of, because it could mean losing your job. That’s where this “safety first” approach came from, I believe, and it certainly hasn’t helped the expressive profile of music in the United States.

I heard Rampal play many concerts; not only late in his career when he was in decline, but at his greatest, and never heard him play an error-free concert. Not being perfect at every moment didn’t really matter – because he was going for it. When you are going for it, your focus is not on your fingers, it’s on the emotional message of the music.  You might put just a little too much breath into something, and even though a note might crack – the crust of the earth remains intact; the planet does not split open and spill out into the solar system as cosmic waste.  Keep your focus in performance (and in practice). Stay in the music and don’t become distracted by an imperfection. If there is one, play the next phrase expressively, and everything will be fine.

Did your teachers ever talk to you about creativity?

I studied with some of the most famous flute teachers of the day: Henry Zlotnik, James Pappoutsakis, Julius Baker, and Thomas Nyfenger. Not one of them, even once, said a word to me about my creativity. By the time I worked with Nyfenger, I was in graduate school as a composer and was committed to a creative path.  He heard me play Afterlight, which I had just composed, and made a few snide remarks. (Anyone who knew him will know what I’m referring to.)  I believe his negative outlook towards the new and different came from his own personal issues.  He had real problems with anyone who broke through what he considered the proper “limits” – his term.  And one such person was me.

Julius Baker never had to say anything directly about creativity.  I was a teenager and we were working on standard repertoire, towards the end goal of me having an orchestra job.

I remember the story about the time you memorized Baker’s recording of a Bach Sonata and played it for him in a lesson.

It actually was profoundly musical what he had to say. When I was a freshman in college, for some reason I thought that Julie’s recording of the Bach E-flat Sonata was just IT. Although I had lots of ideas about the other pieces I was playing, I thought that anything I might ever wish to say with the Bach E-flat Sonata was said, and said better, on Julie’s recording, so I decided that I would emulate the recording as perfectly as possible.

I worked on this in secret, aside from the music prepared for lessons.  I had my first tape recorder and listened to his recording at half speed and quarter speed. I was trying to do it absolutely the way Julie did it, down to the last vibrato wave. Finally, the moment came to play it. After working on my “Baker” for about four months, we finished a lesson one Sunday morning and the next person was late. He said, “Do you have something else to play?’ I thought, “It’s now or never.” I said, “Would you like to hear the Bach E-flat Sonata?” As I played the first movement, I thought to myself that I was doing better than I’d ever done it. I was playing the man’s record for the man himself!  When I finished the movement, I looked up expecting to see Julie beaming and proud and pleased. He looked, for all the world, like his stomach was killing him. Something had gone horribly wrong, but I had no idea what or why. He said, “Why did you play like that? You sounded so good for the whole hour, and now it sounds like you’re not there.” So, I told him why I had played “like that.”

In books about shamanistic practice, it is said that in moments of total surprise, the world itself comes apart. It is true. The world dissolved into individual atoms and molecules. In shamanistic practice, total surprise is used as a pedagogical tool, used to blow assumptions open.  And my assumption that imitating Julie would make him happy was blown to bits, and the bits blown to bits, but I didn’t know why.

To Mr. Baker’s credit, he was a very careful thinker and an extremely intelligent man. After a few moments, which felt like an eternity, he said: “Oh, I understand. Let me tell you something. No! Let me tell you two things. The first is reality. The second is important. Reality is that when people wish to hear me, they call… me.” Every flute student reading this can surely feel how incredibly tiny I felt at that moment. And then he reached out and saved me, and said, “I like to feel that I’ve gone beyond my teachers, and I want to be damn sure my students get beyond me. I never want to hear another note from you that does not sound like yourself.”

I feel like he was trying to teach you about creativity in that moment, although those words weren’t necessarily being said.

Yes, I agree completely. “Be yourself.” That means, make yourself who you are. That was Julius Baker’s embrace of creativity in a maximal way, showing his greatness as a person and teacher. I could have left that lesson feeling lower than the lowest life form, and instead I left feeling inspired and burning to play music.

If you could be a beginner once again, how would you imagine your teacher working with creativity?

 If I could go back to the beginning once again, and be eight years old again, my teacher would help me play by ear right from the start, starting with little baby steps like singing a simple melody and playing it. This would lead to transposing etudes and things like that, working on understanding of what music is and how it works, not just perfecting its surface.  And most importantly, teaching that music comes from within, and that we need to pilot ourselves by our hearing – both in written music and the music in our imaginations.

If from the very beginning I was taught that music is about hearing, not about seeing, that would have done a world of good. My reading based training as a classical flutist ultimately didn’t hold me back more than 15 years in my development as a musician.  And I mean that.

Do you think there’s a time that’s “too soon” to introduce a student to those things, such as transposing and playing by ear?

No, it’s never too soon for music. …the beginning is the beginning. For example, I think it would make a lot of sense to have students sing each note as they learn them, right from the first lesson.  Transposing and the like can come a bit later, of course.

If you haven’t done it yet, you have to go back to the beginning and allow yourself to be a beginner, singing and learning to play by ear.  We often prevent ourselves from learning by trying to do too much too soon.  Just take the step you can take today, however small.  It feels great!

As an adult, when you begin something, you can go a lot faster than when you were a kid, and it can be very exciting. A lot of adults have forgotten the joy of being a beginner. If you think back to your first year playing a flute, percentage-wise, every week you learned quite a bit compared to what you knew the week before. Decades later, we’re trying to get an improvement of 0.000016% in a week. It’s an important improvement, to be sure, but we rarely get to make the huge leaps week to week as a beginner might.

Going back and being a beginner, you can recapture that excitement and joy and the whole fun of it, too. I think it’s important to keep giving ourselves interesting challenges, and to try doing things that today, we can’t do.

How do you envision the flute-playing tradition in the year 2075 – or 100 years after you published The Other Flute?

In some ways, I’m sure very little will have changed. I’m sure the chain of teacher-student, teacher-student, Taffanel and Gaubert, Andersen etudes… all of that is going to be trucking along in 2075.

The repertoire that classically-oriented players would be playing? All we can say is that some will stay the same and some will be different. Hard to say how, but I think the basic currents will still be there. There will be people writing music that’s supposed to be pleasant to hear, that harmlessly, and for the most part meaninglessly, looks backwards. There’ll be also experimentalists who are trying to explore and to push the envelope; some of that music will be wonderful, and some of it won’t.

I think there will be more of the flute outside academia. There will be more self-taught players, with less “refined” techniques, playing music meant to speak to a pop audience that will be almost totally unaware of classical music.

I think a knowledge of easy multiphonics will have peppered itself into everyday flute playing. The multiphonic virtuoso will still be relatively rare because developing multiphonic virtuosity requires a commitment to work at a level that very few people are prepared to make.  Even more importantly, there has to be a musical vision that requires virtuosity in extended techniques to express itself.

Where will the place of acoustic music be in our society? I don’t think there’s going to be lots more opportunity for people to be playing classical flute recitals outside of academia or flute societies; that has already become less and less usual. People will be playing what there is opportunity to play.

I think it’s going to be more like descendants of folk music with an extra shot of technique on the side. I’m wondering where beat-boxing is going to go over a long period of time. I’ve got a lot of questions in my mind about beat-boxing, and some reservations, but I don’t think it’s going to disappear. It would be terrible if it did. But where will it go musically? And again, to get to really high levels, it’s going to take some maniacs, and maniacs are not run-of-the-mill.

I think there’s going to be less professional playing of acoustic instruments, which is sad, but through my entire career I’ve seen nothing but a shrinking of that world. One has to look at it both as bad news and as good news. As bad news, it means a big diminution of opportunities for people who play instruments to make a living. The good news is that the boring parts of the profession will be replaced by machines. There’ll be less opportunity, there’ll be less people playing music, but I think there would be a chance to do more interesting kinds of things.

What would you hope to see change in the future?

I’m not a person who prays, but I pray that sanity about climate change will prevail and that we don’t fatally damage the world our children will inherit.  Without good air to breathe, good water to drink and food to eat, music won’t have much chance when humanity is locked in a struggle to survive.

In the meantime, my biggest wish for change in the flute world would be that teachers and students will wake up to the reality that just playing notes on paper and only playing the surface of the music without knowing what is going on in the music more deeply is just not enough.  Nobody wants to hear that type of playing except other flutists and teachers. It’s inbred.

Any advice for teachers?

Please let me speak to the generation of teachers who are now getting their first jobs. Instead of just doing it the way you did it with your teacher, you’re going to need to grow. It’s going to be a little scary because you’re going to need to learn things that you didn’t need to learn when you were a flute student – and it’s going to be thrilling if you do grow beyond simply preparing your students for the jobs of the past.

Had my early teachers done with me what they said I should do by myself, like ear training and theory, I would be a different artist today. I’d be further along and glad of it. To the people around 30 or so, now entering the profession: the consequences of what the world is going to be are in your hands. You can simply say, “Well, it was good enough for my teachers and it’s good enough for me,” or you could, I hope, say, “That wasn’t good enough. What can I do to improve what it means to be a musician who plays the flute?”

What about advice for students?

Ask yourself what you like, and be open to whatever the answer is. Hopefully, when music students go home and put on some music just for themselves, they are not only listening to classical flute music. I really hope not!  Whatever the music you like is, why not learn to play some of it, whether the flute is part of that music now or not?

Don’t let the pressures of what you’re “supposed to be doing” get you down. Don’t let the inertia of the ordinary drag you down. Dream of who you want to be and what you want to do. Look for the first doable step every day and take it! Keep your Big Dream in your heart and mind all the while.

More than one rock hero started with one chord. People talk about the first step all the time, but I think adding the first doable step for who you are and where you are right now is what matters. Suspend judgment about what you think your step should be, versus the step you can take and want to take.

What is the most common misconception that people have about you and your work? 

The most common misperception is that I’m a specialist as a performer and teacher. To think that I only do or like one kind of music, and that I have nothing to offer as a teacher in other kinds of repertoire besides the contemporary, that’s the most common misconception.

Looking back so far, what are you most proud of professionally?

What means the most to me is that I’ve been able to bring the music that I’ve heard inside out into the world. My musical vision has kept growing and changing and evolving, and I’ve been able to continuously realize it artistically and to make a career of it.

What’s next for Robert Dick?

The performance piece Robert: Seriously Amused is the major project coming up. I have started working on a book on throat tuning and have put work on the book aside for a while, to do more vocal studies.  I feel, compared to most flutists, I understand singing with the flute quite well, but realized that I wanted to go far deeper into understanding the voice itself before I publish a book on it. If it takes me six months or a year or longer to complete this book, but it’s a much better book – it will be really worth it.

We all need to realize that, in important work, we just need to work until it’s done, however long it takes. I have pieces that took years to complete. Again and again, I thought they were finished, but they kept calling me back to work on them further until their truth was clear and self-evident.

Dr. Melissa Keeling is a flutist and composer based in the New York City area. Melissa is a Trevor James International Flute Artist and an Endorsed Artist by K&K Sound. She holds degrees from The Graduate Center, CUNY (D.M.A., Music Performance), Middle Tennessee State University (M.A., Music Performance), and Western Kentucky University (B.S., Music Education). Dr. Keeling is best-known for her works for electric flute and Glissando Headjoint®.



From the editor: Melissa Keeling is a flutist and composer whose star is rising. I did not want to miss the opportunity to ask her a few questions, too!


JD: What are your influences as a composer, and what inspired you to take a step outside the classical world?

MK: My mom is a classical pianist, so classical music surrounded my childhood. I decided to pursue music as my career after seeing Rhonda Larson and Robert Dick perform in the early 2000s. Both artists had their own unique style, their own voice, their own music, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. I am so lucky to have had some truly incredible teachers, including Heidi Alvarez and Deanna Little. But, after finishing my undergraduate degree, the joy I was expecting to experience as a musician wasn’t there. I didn’t feel like I had developed my own voice. Instead, music-making had become a mix of envy, dread, exhaustion, anxiety, and disappointment. There were no long-term, sustaining performance opportunities immediately available. I’m sure many flutists out there can relate.

I was ready to “put the flute away” for good when I visited my boyfriend (now husband) one afternoon during my senior year of college. He is an electric guitarist, and I watched him play electric guitar with such joy. I asked him – is it possible to play the flute with those effects pedals? A few weeks later, I had a microphone and it was time to test it out. I will never forget the first time I heard my flute sound coming from the amp, with the distortion and delay pedals turned on. Instantly, I knew that I had found my voice. I am still working on developing that voice, but I find so much joy in music again.

As a composer, I am influenced by so many sources. For me, the line between “classical” and “non-classical” is becoming increasingly blurred — to me, music is music. Flutist-composers who have influenced me the most are Rhonda Larson, Robert Dick, and Ian Clarke. Other composers who have impacted me are Claude Debussy, Beethoven, and Terry Riley. In the non-classical realm, groups such as Jethro Tull, Children of Bodom, Radiohead, the Grateful Dead, and many others have influenced me. Art and nature are also huge inspirations. As Debussy put it, “There is nothing more musical than a sunset.”

JD: What sort of things do you to do practice the techniques you use? Do you find them beneficial to your flute playing in general?

MK: In short — YES, playing with effects pedals has been immensely beneficial for my flute playing and overall musicianship. It has forced me to think less about the flute, and more about music. Plus, it’s just FUN! The freedom that effects pedals and improvisation have given me is what I have been searching for, musically, since I first started learning to play the flute.

I practice with effects pedals every time I practice the flute. I view the effects pedals as a physical extension of my instrument, and approach them as I would any other “extended technique” for the flute. The effects don’t act as “makeup,” covering up your mistakes, but rather amplify them. So, it’s important to continue to work on tone and technique so those things don’t get in the way of the music.

Playing with effects has so many benefits for flute playing. For example, listening to yourself through a delay pedal gives you instant feedback on things like articulation, tone, vibrato, rhythm, and pitch. If you aren’t playing in tune when using a harmonizer effect, the intervals will be out of tune. With a looper, you can build harmonies, insert a bass line, and add rhythm by beatboxing. Because there is so little composed music for electric flute, I had to learn how to improvise, arrange, and compose. At first, this was very daunting, but it’s like jumping into a swimming pool: it’s freezing when you first jump in, but then you swim around a little while, and it feels great.

JD: What are some first steps musicians can take to encourage their own creativity?

MK: We are all creative! Creativity takes many forms, and doesn’t necessarily mean improvising or composing. Listen to music that brings you joy. It may or may not be classical music, and that’s okay! Good music is good music, no matter the genre. What do you love hearing? Listen to it voraciously, memorize the lyrics, dance with it, play flute with it. Go to a non-classical music concert and feel the energy of the space. That joy will seep into your flute-playing, no matter what you are performing.

For those who are interested in learning to improvise, go for it! Of course, you won’t sound like Charlie Parker on the first day; it is a process. For me, the hardest part was getting away from the written music on the stand and trusting my instincts. Try memorizing your favorite piece and playing it outside; feel what it’s like to play without looking at the music. Learn a melody from the radio by ear, and write it down. Turn out the lights and practice your scales (that’s how I started). A great place to begin improvising is pentatonic scales — if you play only the notes C-D-E-G-A, it will sound great no matter what! Do a little bit of improvising at each practice session, even just five minutes, and you will soon be on your way.

Most importantly, be patient and loving with yourself. It’s a long, beautiful trip for us all. Enjoy the journey!

  1. Thanks for this great interview! I had a classical flute education plus daily choir practice and, luckily, found my way into playing by ear and improvising despite my classical teachers pretending that world didn’t exist. I’m committed to helping young musicians experience music as playing written texts, playing by ear and experiencing improvisation as the most natural thing in the world.

    This is my Ted X talk on the subject.

  2. Anna Thibeault

    Fantastic article. Inspiring words from both Robert Dick and Melissa Keeling.

  3. Wonderful, with profound stories and quotes from both Robert and Melissa. Muchly enjoyed!

  4. Ralph Paul Marothy

    Wonderful interview! The creative spirit of Robert Dick really comes though and I experienced a sudden desire to create on my flute upon reading it.

  5. Such a fantastic article, I hope many flutists take the points on board and are inspired to take a creative journey! Thank you both!

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