FLUTE Member Of The Week
March 13 to 19, 2000

The New Jerusalem
I went to the mailbox yesterday and found the Alry Publications, Etc. "Update". There on page one under the heading "New Publications" are two of my works, a setting of Blake's "New Jerusalem" for flute, soprano and piano, and a transcription of Gustav Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" for flute and piano. Forgive me the shameless plug, but the appearance of these two publications is the culmination of three years of work and I am very excited to see that work coming to fruition. I have RealAudio samples of my various published and unpublished works at my personal website, www.phylumchordata.com and the two pieces themselves will be available directly from Alry on April 1.

I'd like to take this opportunity (thank you Larry!) to tell you a little about myself. It's really bizarre that I'm getting works with voice and piano published (my other publications are choral works) given that I am a perfectly dreadful singer, and can't play the piano worth a damn. Not that I didn't want to play the piano. My first musical memories are of listening to the harpsichord around the age of five and really wanting to play it. Later on, I had the opportunity to take some piano lessons and I even found a $200 piano that I could pay for myself. Unfortunately, I needed some help organizing the move, and that help wasn't forthcoming. Let's just say moving a piano is a bit much for a lone thirteen year old.

As for singing, back in elementary school in upstate New York, my music teacher Miss Roach (probably Roche, but my memory for names is abysmal -- more on that later) thought I was a complete idiot (she was wrong -- nobody's perfect). I was one of those people who would have been told "just move your lips" had I cooperated with her even minimally. In fourth grade I took one of those standardized music aptitude tests, and to everybody's shock and consternation, scored quite well on it. The school recommended I try an instrument.

So the appointed day came for me to choose an instrument. I went with my mother into a room containing a display of instruments and a sales rep from one of those "easy payment plan" instrument companies. I tried everything and there were just two things I could make a noise on, the flute and the french horn. As happened frequently during my childhood, major decisions were accompanied by an increasingly urgent need to urinate. So I stood there hopping back and forth from one foot to the other, going eeny meeny miney, in increasing desperation, until I could stand it no longer. "Flute!" I gurgled, as I rushed from the room in hopes of saving my molars from a drowning. That's the romantic story of how I came to be a flute player.

The next year I and about ten girls trooped into a windowless, smelly locker room to start our lessons. It was probably the need to stand out from that mass of (yuck!) girls that led me to actually practice (that and the fact that if I missed a day I had to practice double the next.) In a few weeks I had bulled my way through a good chunk of the first volume of "First Division Band Method," virtually without instruction. Mr. Hanson, the instrument teacher, called my folks and told them I needed private lessons. He referred us to one of our list members, Claude Monteux, who then conducted the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, our local orchestra. I didn't actually audition for Claude, but for his wife. I do remember shaking hands with him as he came home during the interview. In recent years I have become a real fan of some of his recordings. Recently, it's been a real thrill to exchange some messages with Claude, and to get to know him a bit, thanks to the flute list. To a nine-year-old boy, he was the local "great musician" and I had him on a pedestal.

I got farmed out to one of Claude's students, a young French-Canadian woman named Margaret Pritchet. She was in Poughkeepsie with the sole purpose of studying with Mr. Monteux, and evidently had some time on her hands. During sixth grade, I got three-hour lessons in the chapel of the Oakwood School. These lessons consisted of me playing the Handel Sonatas while my teacher practiced the keyboard part. Looking back, it was an incredible introduction to the art of the flute, yet it seemed perfectly normal to me at the time. When I wrote to Claude Monteux about this experience, I remembered her name as Marie, probably because I romanticized the experience a bit (I was eleven when she left). He set me straight. What a memory for names I have!

My next teacher was Tacy Edwards, the principal flutist of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. She was a gifted and gutsy young woman. Gifted because she was a wonderful player and teacher, gutsy because she actually ventured into the so-called home I lived in on a weekly basis to give me a lesson. She introduced me to Moyse's "de la Sonorité" and "Exercices Journaliers" which gave me the basis of a technique that has lasted me my whole life. I recently joined the NFA and found Tacy's address in the roster. She's in Charleston, SC teaching at two universities and playing in the symphony. It was nice to reconnect after twenty years! I had a chance to thank her for her excellent work. I did not take lessons in college and worked with a teacher for only about a year and a half after college, yet I play in a section with three flutists with masters degrees in flute performance (including Northwestern and DePaul) and keep right up with everybody. When somebody asks how I did it, I say I had this great teacher in high school.

After working with Tacy, my principle teacher in all matters musical became myself. I am an autodidact, especially in composition. I have little patience for coursework. I used Sessions' and Schoenberg's texts for harmony, Fux and Schoenberg for counterpoint, and Kennan and Piston for orchestration. I listened to tons of recorded music. In college (Eisenhower College of RIT) I took maybe thirty credits of music history. I found the whole academic experience so distasteful that when I got out I went radically blue collar, first managing a warehouse and driving a truck, then becoming a carpenter. I wanted to be a blue collar Ives. Ha!

One good thing about college was that I met my wife Carol there. In 1984 we packed the cats and the junk that passed for our worldly possessions into a 1968 Dodge van and moved to Vermont. In November of 1986 our son Ben was born; our daughter Elisabeth joined us in 1991. The itinerant work I was doing wasn't a good way to feed a family, so I sidled my way into construction management, where I found myself at various times estimating, drafting, selling and supervising. When the bottom fell out of commercial construction in '89, I went through peer review and got a teaching license. I've been teaching music in a K-6 school here in Calais ever since.

Oddly, while going through the blue collar phase, I was playing, teaching and composing all the time, so by the time I did my peer review (alternative teacher licensure here in Vermont) I had quite a body of work and experience built up, including a pretty decent private studio. You might well imagine that I sometimes felt a bit schizoid straddling the two worlds of construction and music. Construction also helped me to perfect an absolutely foul mouth that I've had to struggle to tame in my present life.

About four years ago I decided it was time to stop composing "on spec" and start trying to figure out some way to make a little money from it. THAT IS A LOT OF WORK. I tackled marketing my choral works first, screwing up just about everything that you could screw up. Having gone through my first list of publishers, I was on the verge of making a list of even more obscure publishers and trying again, when Mark Foster Music (now a division of Shawnee Press) expressed an interest. I then moved to marketing some of my newer flute works and started to work with Alry. It's a real honor to work with both of these publishing houses, as the folks in charge are good business and music people. Amy Blumenthal at Alry Publications is a real sharp person who knows her business. I've learned a lot from her. She certainly has helped me improve my Finale engraving, urging me to be as economical as possible with the number of pages, consistent with quality. This improves the engraving for one simple reason: fewer page turns!

In '97 I became enamored of Thomas Hampson's recording of Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" (Songs of a Wayfarer). I had always admired the symphonies, but here in this early song cycle was a fascinating possibility: a Mahler program sonata for flute and piano. "Ging heut Morgen über's Feld" was the point of entry; the transcription work was most obvious in this song (actually in the final analysis it was TOO obvious and I went back and made quite a few changes after getting John Wion's advice.) The other songs took quite a bit of thought to get right and I had to draw on both the original version and the orchestral version. I feel that the trick to this transcription was doing it with a light hand, having the guts to leave well enough alone, not screwing around with things for mere ego gratification. This is why I call it a transcription and not an arrangement. I'm hoping that it will prove a successful addition to the flute and piano repertory.

I should mention another benefit of the flute list: I got a chance to exchange messages and then meet in person John Wion, who I had admired from afar for many years for his Musical Heritage Society recordings of the Romberg and Molique quintets. I have become very heavily involved in the transcription/arrangement of vocal music for flute, and in vocal composition and performance with singers. This is, of course, a real area of expertise for John, and when I saw him posting to the Flute list I contacted him, and he has been very generous sharing his ideas and expertise with me. Not to sound gratuitous, but I often find myself thinking, "When I grow up, I want to play like John Wion."

Composition and arranging suit me well because I have such an architectural approach to music. I "see" the structure of the music with some clarity. When performing, I try to grasp the architecture of the form and sculpt an interpretation that accentuates that structure, where each detail is placed with an ear to the nature of the work performed. No vibrato unless the music requires it! I'm perfectly happy to think the music. Performing is sometimes a bit frustrating because time and circumstances are the enemy of perfection, an enemy that masks itself under the cloak of superfluous detail.

One lister asked why I was such a trouble maker on the list (a friendly question, believe it or not!) One answer is that the reason I went to a liberal arts college rather than a music school is because I have have an interdisciplinary philosophy. I understand perfectly well why the list owners work so hard to keep us "on topic", but it is a struggle for me, since to me music is just another way of thinking, and the flute is just a tool for doing music. In my mind there are no Narnian wardrobes where one domain begins and another ends. Domains of knowledge morph themselves freely from one to another. Playing a Handel sonata on flute suddenly unleashes a torrent of ideas on neurocomputational philosophy or nesting HTML tags, or who knows what. A second reason might be a certain wicked desire on my part to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

Where to from here? I'm hoping to get 4-6 pieces a year published. I'm hoping that someone will commission me someday. I'm wondering after eight years of "punching my karma card", as Robert Dick puts it, in the public schools what I'm gonna do next. I've been hand coding HTML 4.0 and Javascript pages like mad since the first of the year. Maybe it'll be something along those lines. Maybe I ought to play a recital or make a recording. Maybe I should finish that last 3 credit course for my MME. Maybe I should scare up enough money to do a few more lessons with Louis Moyse (just bought a 4WD truck, the lesson money's going to the payment. Oh well.) Ah, possibilities abound!

If you waded through my blabbering up to this point, please be patient as I state some things I've learned about the world and music:

1) Music isn't rocket science. Don't complicate music unnecessarily. There are just a few simple principles that must be relentlessly applied (that's the hard part). Don't let "experts" snooker you.

2) Doing it is what matters. I learned in construction that the carpenter is the person who gets the carpentry done. The actual work is not done by the person who knows all about it and talks a good line, the self-appointed "expert" who achieves self-aggrandizement through verbal intimidation (although these "experts" do seem to make a lot of money....) By the same token, the composer is the person who gets the composing done; the flutist is the person who gets the flute playing done.

3) It is easy to pick up a craft; it is difficult to learn a business. If you're going to commit a lot of time and treasure to a teacher, make sure it's somebody who will mentor you in the business, as well as give you some assistance in the craft. Past a certain level it may be more about mentoring than artistry. This is the harshest lesson I've learned and every time I turn around I get smacked with it again. It's the true disadvantage of being an autodidact.

By the way, one might ask why did I spend $70 to buy "phylumchordata" as a domain name? Two reasons: 1) It's easy to spell. 2) I really wanted to think of a domain name that indicated that I use my hind legs for walking, but this was the best I could do. Ironic given that I went a bit nuts with the scrolling marquees and have flutes crawling all over the site like so many cyber-caterpillars. Incidentally, www.phylumchordata.com is good (??) place to see my ugly mug leering at you through the screen.

Steve Owens


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