How the DSO flute section was able to #keepthemusicplaying (and more!) during the pandemic

This past year has been like no other and flexibility, creativity, and patience have been more important than ever. Through all the challenges and many concert cancellations that the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon all of us, various musical projects have helped us stay inspired. Many of these projects were through the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and we are so grateful to the DSO for the opportunities they’ve created for the musicians. Additionally, we are in awe of the inventiveness of DSO musicians for all of the initiatives they spearheaded. Here is a look into the past year from each of us in the DSO flute section.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were several virtual musical projects, and while they were far from the satisfaction of performing as an orchestra on stage at Orchestra Hall, it was so nice to find ways to perform together from the safety of our homes. “Play On Your Porch” was an excellent DSO initiative that invited musicians in the community of all ages and levels to record themselves playing on their porch to be featured on the DSO’s social media. For this, I recorded the Badinerie from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor with DSO’s Principal Bassist Kevin Brown on our respective porches. Other highlights included a recording of Pomp and Circumstance to celebrate Metro Detroit’s graduating students, instrument demonstration videos to send to schools and homeless shelters for young people to learn about the orchestral instruments, video performances of solo repertoire for the healthcare heroes and patients at Beaumont Health, and a video using the app Acapella of Adolphe Wouter’s flute quartet with the DSO flute section, which was a personal favorite of mine as I absolutely adore playing with Sharon, Amanda, and Jeff in any capacity. 

The time away from Orchestra Hall also allowed the musicians the time to connect with our donors and patrons by making phone calls and writing letters thanking them for their support. Having conversations with these amazing humans was a beautiful reminder of why we perform and why music matters. This also gave me hope that one day we will be able to perform for a full audience again, and that day will be magical. In late summer, DSO chamber groups were able to perform for a small audience outdoors. After five months of not performing live, it was so satisfying to perform a woodwind quintet concert at the Dequindre Cut. Starting in September, the DSO was able to return to Orchestra Hall and perform live streamed concerts with many safety protocols in place. The season’s repertoire was completely changed from full orchestra pieces to smaller scale works, which allowed me the opportunity to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. While concert weeks have been sporadic since we returned to the hall, my favorite weeks have been those that I get to go to work and make music with the incredible DSO musicians. 

Teaching has always been a passion of mine and virtual private lessons have proven surprisingly effective and worthwhile. Zoom flute lessons have been a regular part of my life since March and a benefit has been being able to work with flutists from all around the country. I have private students in Michigan, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee and more, and I’ve enjoyed being able to continue lessons with these wonderful people virtually. The DSO’s Education Department adapted all of their Civic Youth Ensemble rehearsals and classes to occur virtually and DSO musicians have had a major role in teaching these students each Saturday. In addition to flute studio classes, I’ve been teaching Music Theory and Music Appreciation to CYE students ranging from fourth through twelfth grade. It’s been such a joy to work with these talented, young students. 

Over the summer, a group of DSO musicians decided to create a free week-long online program for the country’s top college students which was entitled the DSO Summer Institute. The program included private lessons, studio classes, masterclasses, wellness courses, and panel discussions, all organized and taught by DSO musicians. Hundreds of applications poured in and we were able to accept 118 students to participate. The week was a huge success and was a source of major inspiration for both the students and faculty. The administrative and organizational work was done primarily by DSO Second Horn Johanna Yarborough and myself, and was essentially a full-time job for a couple of months. The Summer Institute was an incredibly meaningful experience for myself and all involved and I’m so proud of what we accomplished. 

While this year has been hard in so many ways, there were some silver linings. My boyfriend, Ian, plays Principal Trombone in the Dallas Opera. In our few years together, we’ve each lived and worked in several cities, a combined list that includes Richmond, Raleigh, Knoxville, Sarasota, Nashville, Dallas, plus summers in Charleston, Santa Barbara, Lucerne, and the Berkshires, with our home base now in Detroit. Our musical journeys have taken us all over and so much of our relationship has been long-distance. This year, however, Ian has been able to live in Detroit since March, and I’m so happy he’s been here so we could weather the pandemic together. We started the pandemic with our 9-year-old Labradoodle, Evelyn, and recently added a second dog to the family, our 5-month-old Labradoodle, Cooper. Ian and I live near Belle Isle and take full advantage of walking our dogs all over the island, at the River Walk, and the Dequindre Cut. 

We moved to Detroit in January of 2020 and I was honored and elated to join the DSO. Little did I know, I would only play two months with the orchestra before everything would shut down mid-March during a dress rehearsal for Orff’s Carmina Burana. Despite the difficulties this year presented, I’m thrilled to live in Detroit and be a member of this world-class orchestra. I’m also excited to be a part of the fabulous flute community here, and am especially excited to get to know all of the brilliant and talented people at Flute Specialists. Until we can be together in person, I hope we all continue to see the light at the end of the tunnel and find ways to #keepthemusicplaying.

I remember the day we were sent home from rehearsal one year ago, not knowing when we’d return, like it was yesterday. Yet it also seems like a million years ago! I think my years of “Mom” training threw me immediately into survival mode, and my head was spinning with so many ideas for both my students and for serving the DSO from home. The first thing I needed to do was improve my tech skills. My usual “where do I click” mentality would certainly not sustain the needs on my plate now, trying to immerse myself in a virtual world I knew little about. Thanks to endless youtube “how to” videos and about 100 calls to my son, I now feel extremely competent in the virtual world teaching lessons, making videos, playing “virtual” chamber music and, most importantly, forming connections far and wide from the walls inside my condo.

Community and connection were two words I focused on, and was able to finally launch “The Unlimited Flutist”, an online program for flutists all over the world striving to be the best musicians they can be in a supportive, non-competitive environment.  This group inspires and challenges me, and I’m so excited for its expansion in the future. 

The initial lockdown was a welcome “pause” button for me, and offered me a chance to really spend time with my flute in a way I had not been able to since college. I enjoyed revisiting endless warmups, conditioning exercises, scales and etudes. I didn’t even realize I liked playing the flute so much! I now have a goal of recording all of the Bitsch Etudes. They are so rewarding to learn, yet such a (insert new spelling of composer name!). It became my mission to not let the music stop, so starting in the 3rd week of the lockdown, I began a weekly concert series playing programs for all the people on my floor of my building. I discovered that the acoustics by our elevator were quite lovely, and each person on the floor brought their chair into the hallway by their door each Sunday night at 7pm for “Sunday Serenade”. For some of them, it was the only time they left their condo or saw anyone all week long. This kept all of us connected through music, and was so beloved by all, especially me! I programmed everything from Bach to Beatles to jazz standards every week, recorded piano parts and then played along with them on my speaker. I continue to do these to this day, although now they are once per month. These concerts taught me that live music can exist despite ANY challenge, and always fills up a place in our hearts and souls that binds us together. It’s not at all about being perfect, it was all about sharing. 

Another pandemic perk for me was the ability to attend SO many virtual events of flute colleagues all over the world. I became quite the flute nerd, soaking up everyone’s warm up class, discussion forum, masterclass and festival. I have always wanted to do this, but was always working! I enjoyed this opportunity SO much, and continue to. And, I was over the moon excited to be SEMFA’s guest artist for their first virtual festival! Preparing for that recital and masterclass gave me so much inspiration, and being able to share that time with all of the wonderful flutists of our community was beyond special to me! 

All during this last year, the DSO has kept us busy in new and creative ways. I have connected by phone with many of our donors, played socially distanced concerts in parks and more recently back onstage at Orchestra Hall, produced countless videos, played live “at home” concerts for hospitals and spent many hours coaching virtually for our CYE programs. Each task was so rewarding, and I’m very grateful to have had those opportunities. I DO, however, crave being back onstage with all of my colleagues for a full orchestra, maskless concert with a packed audience, being swept up in that amazing sound from the center of the Orchestra Hall stage!

I want to acknowledge EVERY flutist and musician out there for their contribution this past year. In every big and small way, knowing we are connected as a flute community has made all of the difference. The way the students have been showing up on zoom, thriving despite the challenges…the way we have come together as an army of flutists here in Southeast Michigan…to say I am proud to be a part of this would be an understatement. Thank you to Flute Specialists for all you do, for inviting us to share our thoughts here, and to all flutists for having each other’s backs in this unusual, insightful, challenging yet unforgettable year!

 I can’t believe that it’s now been a year since the shutdown occurred. This was a very interesting time for me, as I was two months pregnant when we were sent home from our Carmina Burana rehearsal. I hadn’t yet announced my pregnancy to everyone, and the uncertainty of COVID made me grateful to be safe at home. 

Like Hannah mentioned, one of the first projects many DSO musicians participated in was the #PlayonYourPorch series. I remember performing Faure’s Morceau du Concours and Meditation from Thais one windy and slightly rainy day on my back porch for about 8 of my next-door neighbors. They loved it, and as I think back to this time, this was a major turning point in which Brett and I became much closer with all of our neighbors!

Being pregnant during most of 2020, I found there were days where I was excited to play a lot and other days where I needed more rest. However, I did come up with a project for myself that lasted most of the pregnancy. In an effort to help my flute students (now virtual at this point) have continued ensemble experience, I decided to video record the 24 Duets found in Rubank’s Advanced Method, Vol. 1. This was a fairly big undertaking while pregnant! It was the first time that I both recorded with my husband’s nice camera and edited videos in iMovie. The videos themselves weren’t short, either. In each video I gave the composer background at the start, followed by specific tips that applied to each duet. Then I played both flute parts, each at two different tempi. This took some time and research. After sharing this duet series on various forums, flutists from around the US, Canada, and England have been purchasing them on my website.

Participating in other projects and performances kept me going most of 2020. I loved recording a video recital for Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings at 7 months pregnant, which included some of my favorite Briccialdi fantasies. This definitely gave me something to practice! And at 8 months pregnant I recorded an at-home video recital for the DSO to use in senior homes, etc. Teaching virtually was also very fulfilling, as my students grew outside of Michigan to include Florida, NYC, and Spain. I also really enjoyed teaching and coaching students for the virtual Interlochen masterclasses and DSO Summer Institute. 

August was a wonderful month, too, as the DSO musicians began performing small chamber works outside, both in Detroit and at donors’ homes around metro-Detroit. Sharon Sparrow and I did a number of these, which was so gratifying to do after 5 months of not performing with anyone else! And in September when we began performing live-streamed concerts at Orchestra Hall, I performed the Strauss Serenade and Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks before taking my maternity leave.

As I sit here typing this article with a squirming baby in my lap, it’s hard to imagine life before my sweet Lily Claire, who arrived on October 28 at 11:17am. Taking 12 weeks of maternity leave was an incredibly special bonding time for the three of us in our little family, and I can’t believe how quickly she has grown! Juggling practicing, emails, diapers, and frequent feedings have definitely been a learning experience for me, and I’m working daily to focus on the moment at hand, whether I have my “mama”, “teacher”, “wife”, or “performer” hat on. 

I’m so grateful for all of the inspiration I have found online, whether it be other orchestras’ concerts, masterclasses, or practice videos! There are many silver-linings despite this being a strange time, and I simply cannot wait to have our audiences back in Orchestra Hall.

I had just finished the third rehearsal of Carmina Burana with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra when the call was made: “the remaining rehearsal and concerts are being canceled.” On March 11, 2020, the news of the incoming pandemic seemed to be changing every hour. Was I infected? Were my colleagues all right? What will this mean for the future of my job?

It was soon thereafter that the Detroit Symphony decided to cancel the rest of our season entirely. Having been the piccoloist of this orchestra for 29 years, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself! Like most of my colleagues, I ordered a good microphone and started playing with ZOOM settings so I could continue to teach my students. But when I realized I wasn’t going to be performing for several months, I stopped playing the flute and piccolo altogether.   

I’ve always played with a slightly offset embouchure, but this time off allowed me to notice that my left lip had moved a bit left, and the right lip had moved a bit right.  I decided this would be a good opportunity to adjust my  embouchure! So after two weeks off of playing, I started the painful and tedious job of shifting my blowing to a more neutral spot. I did hours of long tones and sounded like a beginner! My husband, David Assemany, asked me to close the door more than once, as my “COVID practicing” was driving him up the wall!

To be honest, it was a mental challenge to keep motivated and not feel overwhelmed with the situation. Sharon Sparrow shared this video from Jeanne Baxtresser with me, which really helped me give myself permission to realize it was OK not to pick up my flute or piccolo everyday. Jeanne’s words were comforting and made me realize we are all human and struggling to find our way with an unknown future ahead of ourselves.

As I slowly found a better position for my lips, I also took this time to rethink my breathing. I purchased the complete Play with a Pro masterclass series with Emanuel Pahud and spent a lot of time studying his breathing and the way he voices sound in his head. I also called our Principal Trumpet Hunter Eberly and asked him how he approaches breathing. When I applied what I learned from both of these great performers, I was now grateful for the time and space I had to explore something new in my playing.

After a couple months of not performing at all, I was contacted by Nicola Mazzanti to join his online International Piccolo Festival in place of his summer class in Italy. This was amazing. Almost a dozen piccolists each shared for an hour online how they approach the piccolo and how they practice with a global audience. Being the piccolo player of the DSO, I feel kind of isolated. There are tons of flutists in my community, but not that many piccoloists.  Getting to watch players from Chicago, Munich, Rome, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and many more major cities online made for a unique and wonderful experience that may not have been possible before COVID!

If you are interested in watching, this consortium is viewable at the International Piccolo Festival on Facebook.  Erica Peel of the Philadelphia Orchestra also organized a wonderful project: Practice With the Experts. In this free online packet, you can read 16 different stories and warm up tips from piccoloists around the world. I am proud to be included in this project; thank you Erica!

When the DSO went back on stage for our weekly webcasts in the fall of 2021, my first assignment was a chamber orchestra part for Archipelago S by Toru Takemitsu. This amazing piece included one flute part, which doubled on alto flute. After 29 years of performing on Orchestra Hall stage, walking onto the stage with a mask on, with no warm up time, being spaced 20 feet away from the nearest colleague and about 100 feet distanced from the principal oboe, no audience welcoming me to the stage and a camera probably doing close ups on my face, was entirely daunting. Even after two rehearsals and a lot of practice on my own, I was completely not in my comfort zone when I sat down for the performance.  I think I can attribute this to a lack of live audience for several months prior. I find that playing for a camera is much more disconcerting than playing for a live audience, because you have no idea if anyone is actually watching!

In the same month, I played a chamber music concert with my colleagues Will Haapaniemi (violin and viola) and Nick Myers (bass) which featured the Schulhof Trio for Flute/Piccolo, Viola and Double Bass. There was a small audience in the church and it was special to hear and play with these great performers. What was amazing for me was connecting with my colleagues, hearing their sounds, and reacting to and creating new sounds together. It was a wonderful experience connecting with an audience. Even though there were only 25 people in the pews, my heart, my motive, and mission came alive in a way that hadn’t during several months of playing on my own at home.

With all the angst, depression and despair of 2020, I resolved to use this as a tool to bring JOY to my flute and my teaching in 2021.  I’ve learned to trust the Zoom, and instead of succumbing to Zoom fatigue, I decided to have fun in each and every Zoom class or lesson!  I’ve had the opportunity to meet with players from all over the world, from upper Michigan to Japan, from beginner flutists to clarinets and saxophonists who want to improve their flute chops.

After a phone conversation with my colleague Eldred Spell, we became inspired after reminiscing about our teaching and my predecessor in the DSO, Clement Barone. We created a Zoom event and invited other Clem students to inspire each other by sharing with each other his playing and wisdom. Feel free to view our event along with recordings, pictures, letters and articles by Clem by clicking below.

As more people are getting vaccinated and the effects of COVID are lessening now on my life as a musician, I am becoming more and more grateful for the connections I get to have with my colleagues and with the audiences that are starting to return. I appreciate the magic of live sound like never before, and for this I am most grateful.