Photo: Bo Huang
As a piano student, I took the competition, master class, and piano exam route, which meant my main concern was learning to adjust to whatever instrument was available on site, and making adjustments very quickly upon the first few notes. That is the life of a pianist – jiving with a strange instrument, and sometimes not having access at all to practise when you’re on the road. It wasn’t until I befriended some string players in university that I learned about what THEY went through – the search for the perfect instrument, and finding the means to borrow or purchase it. Then there were other things, like carrying it around, and not losing it (like the 1999 incident when an exhausted Yo-Yo Ma left his cello, worth nearly 3 million US, in the back of a New York City cab. He got it back the same day). It seemed like a search for a soul mate, and once you find it, it’s precious cargo you must keep an eye on. It’s a foreign concept to this former piano student whose worst nightmare may be a distractingly squeaky pedal.
I spoke with a few musicians in this five-part series all week, about the trials and tribulations of finding “the one”. First up is Juno-nominated flautist Susan Hoeppner, soloist, recitalist, and recording artist, who also teaches at The Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto. Susan is a dynamic player, a generous soul, and a whiz at arranging furniture, don’t you know.
Finding the right instrument isn’t a matter of walking into a store, trying a few out, and buying one. There’s more to it than that. What’s involved when finding the right instrument?
Research is required, from researching the many different brands of flutes on the market, to choosing the preferred metal (silver/gold, combination, 10K,14K, 18K), the voice and colour you’re able to bring out of the flute due to the head joint, the shape and cut of the mouthpiece, the combination of metals, heavy wall (thicker for more sound depth), light wall (for a brighter sound). Basically it’s choosing a flute that matches the sound and resonance of the performer’s own voice.
Wow! I had no idea there were so many options. Do you have different instruments for different concerts or even different pieces within the same concert program? Or just one that you use for everything? I sound like I’m asking about winter tires vs. all-weather tires.
I have an exceptional gold Haynes flute that I use for all concerts. I work on this unique instrument to achieve all the colours I want to hear. Regarding Baroque music, I still use the gold flute, but I aim to bring more of an airy quality without vibrato that is more true to the sound and style.
Have you ever been loaned a valuable instrument that you had to return? Was it like a break up when you parted with it?
In my first year at The Juilliard School in New York, James Galway lent me one of his gold flutes (with diamond and emerald jewels!) for a week while he was in the city. He let me play on this for the whole week, and even perform with him on this flute in a masterclass he gave at Juilliard. Needless to say going back to my own flute after that was a shock, but I remembered the sounds I was able to achieve on his flute and worked harder on mine!
I had no idea flutes could be considered a jewelled accessory! And speaking of which – instruments are expensive. Is it a matter of choosing between a mortgage on a home or a mortgage on an instrument?
Flutes are not as expensive as some strings, but depending on the price of gold, they can reach up to $80,000 for a professional model. Usually though, the average gold professional model ranges between $35,000 to $55,000. Payments are made on these instruments as if it’s a mortgage.
I’ve heard a few musicians describe finding the right instrument is like searching for the right life partner. Do you agree?
I believe this might be an appropriate description. The connection of an instrument is essential to making the best possible music – it’s not like picking up any instrument and playing it. It still can sound very good, but the connection isn’t felt. There is a deep intimacy, the innermost feelings and emotions are put into the flute every single time … for years and years. The instrument becomes very personal.
Susan’s upcoming appearances in 2018:
June 17-30 – Domaine Forget, Quebec (teaching and performing)
August 21-26 – Campus Musica Udine, Italy
October 21 – Mazzoleni Series recital, RCM Toronto (chamber recital with Judy Loman, Erika Raum, Steven Dann, David Hetherington)
December 5 – Manitoba Symphony Orchestra, 2 Concerti (Mozart Flute & Harp; Hatzis Flute Concerto)
Tomorrow: violinist Jonathan Crow.