An Interview with Hannah Hammelhneuenschwander
How long have you been Principal Flute with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra?
I joined the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in January 2020, so have only been living in Detroit for a couple of months, but I love it here! The preliminary and semi-final rounds of the audition took place in April of 2019 and the final round happened in June. Following the final round, I was invited to play a two week trial in November. I played two weeks of concerts, the second of which was conducted by Leonard Slatkin, with repertoire including Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. During the second week, a portion of a rehearsal was dedicated to a flute excerpt round where I played several flute excerpts and the exposition of the Mozart Flute Concerto in G Major with the orchestra. It was a very thrilling two weeks and I was ecstatic to receive a phone call a day after I left Detroit inviting me to join the orchestra.
Tell us a bit about your background before coming to Detroit.
Prior to joining the DSO, I spent a bit over two seasons as principal flute of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in Tennessee. This was a wonderful first job – I had incredible colleagues and gained invaluable experience. The KSO presents a wide range of concerts including masterworks, chamber orchestra, opera, ballet, solo, and chamber, for which I played in the woodwind quintet with the other principals. I joined the KSO soon after graduating with my master’s degree from Rice University where I studied with Leone Buyse. Rice was the perfect place for me to attend graduate school as the curriculum focuses on audition preparation and achieving a successful orchestral career. My undergraduate degree is from the Oberlin Conservatory where I studied with Alexa Still. Oberlin is such a well-rounded education that allowed me to explore many facets of music. I studied the Baroque flute extensively, obtained a minor in Music Theory, founded the Oberlin Flute Association that invites famous guest artists to teach masterclasses and present recitals, performed contemporary music as much as (or more than!) classical music, and took classes in entrepreneurship, world-drumming, jazz, body mapping, arts administration, finance for musicians, and more. I feel so lucky that my path has brought me to Detroit where I am excited for this next chapter in my life and career.
What do you like most about playing with the DSO?
I like absolutely everything about playing with the DSO! I especially appreciate how devoted every musician is to artistic excellence. The energy on stage is electric and the passion and finesse are unparalleled. I am also so grateful to be in such a friendly, generous, and exceptionally talented flute section with Sharon Sparrow, Amanda Blaikie, and Jeff Zook!
What is your most memorable moment in Detroit so far?
My first week was particularly memorable as it was the week Jader Bignamini was announced as the DSO’s next music director. We performed Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique which you can actually watch on YouTube! I’ll never forget these exhilarating concerts.
Tell us how you got started playing the flute?
My mom plays the flute, so in second grade I started playing flute with my mom’s guidance. My dad plays bassoon and I also really wanted to play bassoon (which is still one of my favorite instruments), but my hands were too small at the time. I’m happy I chose the flute – I can’t imagine playing any other instrument!
Who are some of your most influential teachers?
My most influential teachers are definitely Alexa Still and Leone Buyse. During my education I was fortunate enough to play in many masterclasses and take private lessons with incredible flutists from all over the country. From each of these experiences I gained a valuable lesson, either technical or musical, that I think about every time I play the flute. I’m grateful to have a wide range of influences. For the last couple of years my most influential mentor has been Elizabeth Rowe of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I spent two summers as a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. She is a phenomenal flute teacher, musician, mentor, and role model. I have learned so much from her about how to navigate these tricky early years of being a professional.
What is the highlight of your flute performance career so far?
A few highlights that come to mind are times I had the opportunity to play as a guest musician with various amazing orchestras. As a graduate student at Rice, I played piccolo with the Houston Grand Opera during their run of Wagner’s fourth and final opera of The Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung. Brunhilde was performed by Christine Goerke and her voice gave me full body goosebumps every performance! While I was in the Knoxville Symphony, I was invited to play as a substitute for a few weeks with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Performing principal on Firebird with the PSO and piccolo on Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 with the NYP are also memories I will cherish.
Who are your favorite flutists to listen to? Do you have a favorite album?
To narrow it down, some of my favorite flutists to listen to are Emmanuel Pahud, Mathieu Dufour, Lorna McGhee, Emily Beynon, Bonita Boyd, and Paula Robison. I have so many more favorites but those six are in my regular rotation lately. Right now my favorite flute album is Paula’s album titled “Brasileirinho (Choros, Chorinhos, Bossas & Bach).” Not only is it superbly delightful and fun, but the flute playing (and music making) is out of this world.
What type of music do you most enjoy playing?
I have a soft spot for orchestral music in the Romantic era. It is so overwhelming to be on-stage with close to one hundred other people all pouring their hearts out in this gorgeous music. Playing chamber music of any kind is special because each member of the ensemble has an equal voice and the collaboration is more personal than in an orchestra. As far as flute music goes, I’ve been playing a lot of Baroque music lately, especially the Bach flute sonatas and Telemann fantasias. I always come back to these pieces and fall in love with them all over again every time.
What music do you listen to for fun?
Someone who never fails to make me smile is Stevie Wonder. :)
What interests do you have outside of music and what have you been doing during your Covid-19 stay-at-home time?
During a typical non-coronavirus week, I spend my free time practicing and studying for DSO, going to hot yoga classes, and taking my labradoodle Evelyn on walks at either Belle Isle, the Dequindre Cut, or the Riverwalk. I also enjoy cooking healthy vegetarian meals and have had more time to do that during the stay-at-home orders. I’ve also been spending this time playing solo flute pieces I’ve never learned and am learning the repertoire that I would’ve played with the DSO during these cancelled months since I know I’ll play these pieces sometime in the future. As to be expected, I’m also spending the stay-at-home orders watching a lot of TV and movies with my boyfriend, Ian.
Do you have any quick audition tips?
I could talk about auditions for hours, but the biggest advice I can give is to be exceptionally and overly prepared. I urge everyone to read Sharon Sparrow’s book titled “6 Weeks to Finals” where she gives fantastic and vital advice for audition success.
What is an obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
Over the years I’ve suffered from a few flute playing overuse injuries and now spend time every practice session on injury prevention to avoid any future pain, which includes a multitude of stretches and strengtheners. My shoulders and wrists have had problems, but what was scarier was when I was having embouchure pain. All of my injuries were solved with physical therapy, ice/heat when appropriate, and massage.
Do you have any advice for aspiring flutists of all levels?
I encourage flutists of all levels to keep their love of music at the forefront, to stay disciplined with all of their goals, and to stay positive no matter what. :)
Hannah Hammel is the recently appointed principal flute of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Before joining the DSO, Hannah held the position of Principal Flute of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra from 2017-2019.
As an orchestral musician, Hannah has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Richmond Symphony, and New World Symphony. Hannah has spent summers performing at festivals including Tanglewood Music Center, Music Academy of the West, Pacific Music Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, and Round Top Music Festival.
An active solo flutist, Hannah has won first place in the 2016 National Flute Association’s Young Artist Competition, 2016 Houston Flute Club Byron Hester Competition, the 2015 Atlanta Flute Association Young Artist Competition, the 2014 National Flute Association Orchestral Excerpt Competition, 2013 Central Ohio Flute Association Collegiate Division Competition and second place in the 2013 Mid-South Flute Society’s Young Artist Competition among others.
A native of Richmond, VA, Hannah began studying the flute with her mother, Alice Hammel. She holds a BM in flute performance and a minor in music theory from The Oberlin Conservatory (2015) where she studied with Alexa Still. She graduated with her MM in flute performance in 2017 from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music as a student of Leone Buyse.