Shanna Pranaitis – A Radically Traditional Flutist and Coach

When did you know that flute was THE instrument for you? What has your education as a flutist been like?

When I was about 6 years old, I heard someone play the flute and I fell in love with the sound and declared to my parents that I wanted to do what the nice lady was doing. I just wouldn’t let it go, I kept bugging them. Finally, when I was 8 we went to the music store for me to try it out. The store kept trying to tell me and parents that I was too young and I wasn’t ready because I couldn’t make a sound on the headjoint immediately. 

I spent a month sitting on the floor in front of a mirror (a month of tears, a month making myself dizzy) trying to get a sound out of the headjoint. And then it happened! I was SO excited! I could do it and I loved it! 

I lived and breathed every moment of my childhood for this sound and this instrument, and throughout all the difficulties, setbacks, and triumphs the one thing that has kept me going is the sound.

We blow air through a tube and magic happens! Each day I fall in love with the sound of the instrument and the magic that happens when I turn air into something I can hear and experience.

At each and every step of my journey I’ve had amazing teachers and mentors. My path is both very traditional and unexpected. I studied all the typical classical repertoire growing up, and attended Northwestern for undergrad and University of Michigan for graduate school. I took about 6 years off between the two, though, which I think is really important. It gave me time to develop more of whom I am and what I wanted out of my degree. 

I’ve always been fascinated by new music and pursued it since high school, so I sought opportunities to learn it and study it whether inside my degrees or outside. Richard Graef is responsible for introducing me to Camilla Hoitenga with whom I have a had a close relationship as a student and colleague for many years now. 

After graduate school, I realized what I really wanted was further deep training in new music repertoire and practices. I spent a few summers at the Stockhausen Courses learning that repertoire with Kathinka Pasveer. When I met Matthias Ziegler, it all came together with a  chance to study with him privately in intensive sessions. I spent a few years going for 4-6 weeks at a time to work with him. 

Beyond that I am rather addicted to learning and insatiably curious, so I’m constantly expanding my knowledge by reading, listening, conversations, classes, etc. 

While performing together in Chicago, I heard you say “Bass flute is my spirit animal.”  This is such a cool statement.  How did you discover that low flutes are your vibe?

It’s funny, right? I have a jet-pack of flutes, all of which I love dearly, but something about my bass flute is just me. It’s a small-bore, 5 open-hole Kingma bass, and when I play it it feels like it’s my voice I hear. This instrument is super quirky (in the best ways!) and has her own way about her, and the same could be said for me. 

There is something about the low frequencies of the instrument that resonant differently inside my body. It’s a really different physical experience of the sound. I can feel the lowest frequencies resonating inside my chest. Maybe most of all, it’s the capacity for creating new works and new areas of sound to explore that has me captivated by my bass. 

Now that I’m thinking about it, I feel that way about each of my flutes. Each of them has their quirks. My piccolo is a special project of mine and Lillian Burkart, in that we’ve opened holes in a few of the keys to give me more possibilities. My flute is a fabulous Burkart which is basically normal, but the metal combo is not something many people do (998 silver with a 19.5 gold head joint – it’s a beast!).  I also have a rare open-hole parabolic curve Kingma Alto flute, and that flute is also so perfect and so me. Bit tricky to pick favorites amongst your children I guess? 🙂

How did you become passionate about the field of new music?

I’ve been captivated by contemporary music since I was 13, but what sealed my fate was hearing George Crumb’s string quartet, Black Angels. I had no idea music could sound like that, and I’ve been exploring sound ever since.

It wasn’t always easy. I taught myself how to do most of the sounds in high school. My early passion for contemporary music left me feeling confused by general attitudes towards new music and creatively out of place in university programs primarily focused on old music. Fortunately, I had amazing mentors, an addiction to learning, and unfailing curiosity to keep me going. 

I have forged my own path – commissioned and premiered hundreds of works with colleagues around the world, founded ensembles, curated festivals, and developed tools such as FlutteXpansions that I now share with students.

I call myself a radically traditional flutist, because I believe the most traditional path for any artist is to create the art of their own time. As a flutist, I create, perform, and fearlessly explore the growth edges of sonic possibilities, while integrating new (and historically reimagined) works with electronics, movement, and other multi-disciplinary elements to create seamless, immersive concert experiences in order to illuminate new understandings. 

I’m obsessed with sound and believe whole-heartedly in Sound Inclusivity – the idea that all sounds from all musics and time periods are inherently beautiful and enrich our lives in a myriad of different ways. Our biggest obstacle as flutists is the belief that some technique is normal and some is extended, when all of these sounds are multiple millenia old in flute traditions around the world. 

These sounds are incredibly beneficial to all aspects of flute playing and allow us to gain more control over our sound, pitch, rhythmic understanding, and playing new music builds our interpretation skills in ways historical repertoire cannot. So, not including them is limiting ourselves in our artistic expression. 

To be super clear: I’m not about choosing between historical repertoire or creating new music – I want (and love) BOTH!  However, I firmly believe that cultivating curiosity and awareness to include all sounds as musical possibilities is the key to releasing the unlimited potential for artistic expression in each of us. 

Tell us more about your bass flute commissioning project “Bass Flute Unleashed” (https://www.shannapranaitis.com/bass-flute-unleashed)

OH, I love that project! It came about as a way for me to initiate my bass flute from Eva Kingma. I wanted to create a body of solo work that was focused on highlighting what was so awesome about that instrument. I was particularly keen to avoid pieces that fell into any kind of cliches for bass flute. So I have been carefully curating and commissioning a body of repertoire specifically for it (mostly with electronics) since 2014. I have plans to publish a CD of it in the next few years. Each of the works is really stylistically different, and I love performing them. The newest piece by Blaise Ubaldini hasn’t been premiered yet because of the pandemic, and I’m super excited about some others that are in process right now. 

What is your favorite thing about working with composers on new music?  What’s the most challenging thing?

My favorite thing is the collaboration process, especially when we get to brainstorm sound ideas back and forth. I will only work with composers who are willing to collaborate in this way, so that pieces are written together for me, taking into account who I am and my unique strengths. Inevitably we discover something neither of us has heard before or thought of in quite that way. 

The process of working with a composer is a bit like bespoke fashion for both sides when it’s working well. I’m not at all a composer, so often our process is brainstorming, and trialing ideas. The more interaction the better for me. I’m not a composer at all, so I leave the creation and construction details to them, and they can leave the ‘turning their vision into actual sound’ to me. Then we rehearse. The rehearsals are so fun to polish and mold the new work into its final form, too. I’m always really excited when I get a piece and think, “Wow they really understand me,” and, “Oh crap they truly understand exactly what I’m capable of! They wrote right up to the edge of it!” That’s the best – I learn the most with those pieces.

The most challenging thing is when the communication breaks down for any reason. Just like any other human relationship, if someone isn’t listening well or if someone is making assumptions instead of asking, it can get unpleasant. What we do is a human sport, so taking time to understand the human involved and apply what we know about human interactions, and communication, goes a long way to solving and avoiding issues. 

What are your favorite pieces that you’ve performed and why do they make this list?

Ok my most favorite right now is one I just premiered Chimera’s Garden by Lisa Coons. This is a deeply personal piece that she and I collaborated on for the past year. It’s an immersive piece for the audience, and involves electronics and a video score projected onto the stage, and I move and play with the images. It’s mostly what some would consider an improvised piece, but the sounds we decided on were carefully chosen and while what I play is never the same, there is a road map I follow. 

One of my other favorite pieces to play is Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s atsiminimas, which he wrote for me and the new bass flute. It’s an absolute masterpiece for solo bass flute, and the most difficult piece I’ve played. Despite his writing being considered new complexity (aka really hard), this piece is full of emotion, wit, and lyricism, and shows side of the bass flute I’ve never heard before in any other piece. (It’s on a disc of all of his flute works that I recorded for NEOS, streaming everywhere). 

Another favorite is Fredrick Gifford’s Shadow Play for bass flute and electronics, again written for my bass. This piece is so fun, and it’s mobile-form, so it’s parts can be re-ordered within a given set of rules, so performances stay fresh. The text comes Dante’s Inferno and it brings together two things I’m fascinated by: music and the integration of language in music. 

I could go on all day, but one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever played is Charles Koechlin’s Sonata for flute and piano. It’s just gorgeous. And I will never tire of playing any of the works by CPE Bach. 

When and how do you introduce your young flute students to contemporary flute techniques?  I’m not sure that’s even the right description – I’m talking about everything else besides “standard flute tone” which is the basis for everything.

I introduce it pretty much immediately. I couldn’t possibly deny them any of the sound possibilities, and beginners are extremely good at them! Doing this also eliminates that “these are different’ mystique that can creep in later. Their minds are so open in the beginning of learning an instrument, and I choose to keep them that way. 

It’s not always very didactic, but when they get an airy sound, I choose to have them learn how to purposely incorporate more or less air, so they learn control and flexibility. The same goes for almost everything. When it happens naturally as “mistakes” I simply tell them what they did and celebrate that. I have them do it on purpose a few times and then, we figure out how to control that from a place of curiosity and exploration. They avoid tightness in their embouchures this way too. So many benefits, and they think it’s fun! They also learn to improvise early too, because it keeps them free and playful in their practice sessions. 

Please tell us about your role as a coach.  How did you become drawn to this area?

My work as a coach is some of the most internally fulfilling work I do. Coaching is co-creative process of partnering with an individual in a process that empowers them to maximize their potential (personally and professionally). It’s not teaching or advice. As a coach, I ask more questions than I ever give answers, because I am interested in helping someone find their own answers. I’m like an external set of eyes and ears to the fullness of reality, and as such I can ask the questions that illuminate hidden beliefs that might be holding someone back or new perspectives. 

The training we receive in music school often lacks some major skills for navigating the creative world of today. This training can set up a straw man of expectations about what an acceptable career path looks like and/or how we should already be experts in everything we need to navigate our creative lives and careers despite never having experienced anything remotely similar to the reality of “professional” life while in school. The worst side of this is a belief that we should do it alone. 

But we have a different model – sports. No professional athlete ever goes without a coach who can support the athlete in making their dreams happen by helping them see what they can’t yet. As artists we are creativity athletes. At every level of our careers and lives there will be new challenges we can’t foresee, and if we give ourselves support, we can move through these new levels more easily and go even further than we might imagine. 

I see musicians of all levels and experience convinced they need more technical training or lessons, and this could be true in some cases. Very often, what I see in my clients, though, is that there are mindset issues and limiting beliefs that are holding them back from accessing their full potential with the incredible skills they have. So more often than not, we don’t need someone to tell us what to do any more, we need someone to ask us what we want and help us develop the internal tools for creating what we want. 

My coaching clients are highly motivated individuals who have a deep well of curiosity for self-growth. Their accomplishments include creating successful self-sustaining businesses, prestigious university teaching positions, stunning performances on stages around the world, thriving private teaching studios…etc. They understand the level of focus and awareness needed to achieve their goals.

However, when they come to me, they often are seeking something more than just reaching a goal. They can sense there is something more for them, something standing in the way of their most joyfully aligned life and/or the next level in their careers. They might feel boxed in somehow.

In our work together we identify their version of an astonishingly fulfilling and joyful life, and we co-create the path to this life. It’s a journey to illuminating the possibilities. It is not a simple fix, because there’s nothing to fix. It’s a question of becoming who you truly want to be in your life. It requires surprising levels of internal honesty and willingness to be uncomfortable.

I myself will never not have a coach, because I have seen the compounding effect of that investment. Music careers are a marathon not a sprint, and I am committed to the dream I have for myself, and I trust the coaching to help propel me to greater and greater heights at every level with more ease and joy. 

A couple years ago, I reached the dreaded moment of complete burnout. I was saying yes to too many things that did not align with my artistic goals and vision because I thought I should. I was doing all the things they say you should do to be a “successful” musician, and by many standards I was wildly successful in my niche of weird art music (aka contemporary music). 

And yet I’d hit the wall of “thou shalt go no further” and I took a much-needed sabbatical to think and reassess what I wanted from my career and life.

I did some internal digging and started working with a coach who helped me see how to integrate all the parts of who I am into what I do. She helped me see that I can just be me! That’s when the inspiration started flowing again and something big shifted. 

What I realized is…gulp…I just don’t care that much about the flute. It’s not my identity.

What I care about is people. 

I care about …

  • seeing the light in people’s eyes when they discover new levels of understanding
  • helping the beauty of true confidence shine forth
  • basking in the unbridled excitement people exude with illumination of their unlimited potential
  • and sharing the light radiated from within when people own their power and courageously pursue their vision

When I look at my life and career, all of my work (as a teacher, from the stage, etc) is about illuminating the unlimited potential inside each of us and stepping into the wildly messy, infinite space of creativity to claim the power within ourselves. 

As long as I can remember, I felt like I needed to partition myself off into different identities (the flute player, the contemporary specialist, the flute teacher, the daughter, partner, etc) to the minimization of lots of other parts of me – because we’re taught that we have to have an extreme hyper-focus on one thing. But it’s not true!

Now I fully integrate who I am as a human, flutist, and coach into the service of one idea and vision – which is to illuminate a person’s unlimited potential so they might experience radiantly joyful, fulfilling lives and careers that reflect who they truly are.

I serve individuals 1 :1 and I run the Radiant Sparks group program that focuses on helping musicians create beautiful businesses, and right now I starting a blended 1:1/group program to support a group of  individuals who want to stand more fully in their sovereignty in their lives and careers/businesses. I also offer flute coaching to flutists who want to blow open their artistry. 

What advice do you have for young musicians who want to carve out a place for themselves in the music business?

A few simple things:

  1. You are a business, an enterprise. You’ll be taxed like one (self-employment taxes!) so operate like a business from day one. The business owner can decide what fees to charge, what students or gigs to accept, and what the standards are for the business. You get to be CEO of you. Ask yourself, “what would the CEO do?” if you’re ever in doubt. 
  1. Create what you want to create and charge what you want to charge (see #1 above). If someone else has done it, it’s proof it can be done. If no one has done it yet, then clearly you must be the one meant to make it happen. There is no wrong or right path, choose what sets you on fire (not what you think should set you on fire – those are different). 
  1. Champion others. When you get accolades, look around and point to others who helped you get there, bring them with you on your rise. Celebrate the success of others around you. Offer compassion to yourself and others rather than judgment or ridicule. 
  1. Take a position of Chief Vision Officer in your life. Hold the vision, make agreements with yourself that enable you to make steps towards that vision, and take unreasonably bold actions with intelligent fearlessness.
  1. Let your curiosity guide you to continue learning and growing every single day. There is no arrival, no done, just new levels to explore until the time comes for you to “exit stage left.”
  1. Ask for help, get support. Take care of you first so that you can take care of others. 

As the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of FluteXpansions, you’ve put together an amazing collection of teachers and opportunities.  How did this come to be?  It’s a huge commitment of time and energy.

I had the idea for FluteXpansions and I pitched it to Matthias back in 2012 to ask if he’d do it with me, and he said yes. So, it took a few years to develop the website and we published it in 2015. I had always dreamed that it would become something more and it wasn’t until I was recovered from burnout that the idea came to me to create Sonic Immersion. Once I have an idea, there’s no stopping me, I’m going to do it. I worked with an incredible business coach to help me fine-tune the design and launch it. 

FluteXpansions Sonic Immersion (FXSI)  was created to provide flutists, flutist-composers, and improvisers on flute a safe space for exploration, growth, supportive community, and mentorship, while being immersed in a world of sonic possibilities and caring for the whole human. It’s a whole vibe, a place to get messy trying new things for yourself, continue challenging yourself and growing. 

FXSI is a completely different paradigm for a flute course and instruction. Because it’s participant-led, it’s very spacious, and we specifically do not set an agenda. We teach and support the areas of interest of the cohort. Each year will be totally different based on who joins us. This allows us to be flexible, and help a variety of flutists’ interests, such as how to teach or play specific repertoire or techniques, explore improvisation or electronics, Deep Listening and other somatic practices, etc. 

And because there’s time it doesn’t have to happen overnight. I purposely chose 4 weeks with only about 10-12 hours per week so that it’s possible to digest concepts over time and live life. I also purposely chose to keep it virtual, because of accessibility and equity issues. Anyone from anywhere in the world can have access to it, work, and live life. 

Last year our fellows ranged in age from university sophomore to in their sixties and were at all levels of career development. But this is not a problem to have a university professor and someone still studying in the same cohort. We are all peers together, and on a journey to discovery, and share the wisdom we have with each other openly. 

In essence I created what I had always wanted to have, and I gathered people who have been very special to me for the faculty. I have continually made it a priority to surround myself with inspiring mentors and colleagues who have forged their own luminary paths as flutists and artists. Beyond being brilliant artists, they are some of the kindest, most compassionate, and beautiful humans I know. 

Now, we’ve created a family of sorts that is continuing to grow. I’m so excited about it!

What were some unexpected things that you learned from organizing the first FluteXpansions?  

I have run large festivals and organized international tours before, so the organizational things were more of the same in many ways. I’ve also been teaching online for years and I knew how to create compelling experiences online, and how to use the technology to our advantage, create community, and logistically make things work. However, I learned an enormous amount about myself in the process. I suppose that’s maybe not so unexpected, but I learned what I was truly capable of creating and leading. I knew it would work, but I was surprised at how fast and how deeply we all bonded together. It is no exaggeration to say it was a life-changing experience. 

FluteXpansions Info

https://www.flutexpansions.com/sonicimmersion2022

Apply by filling in the application questions and booking a time for the interview call. Scholarship and financial assistance is available on a need-based basis to anyone who requests it. 

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