I met up with flutist Amanda Sparfeld at a local trendy restaurant. While eating deliciously messy burgers, we discussed her beginnings in music, her evolution as a flute player, her career at the Michigan Opera Theatre and as a private teacher, and future projects and goals. Below are some highlights from this inspirational afternoon.
FS: Tell us how you got started down this path.
AS: I grew up in a somewhat musical family. My grandfather had been a trained opera singer from New York City. He pursued a career in opera, but then my mom was born and he basically ended up finding another job so that they could survive in Manhattan. But music was his love and his passion. I grew up going to a private school two miles away from my grandparents’ house in Connecticut which was about an hour from New York City and my mom worked at the school. My grandparents would pick us up at 2 or whatever time we were done, she would work until 5 and so I would spend 3 hours or so every day at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather, I’m sure purposely, would sit at the piano and sing and play. It was magical for me to see him in his element. Even though I didn’t really have a lot of conversations with him as a child, I could sense how much he loved it and how much he wished he had that career full time. He had trained very seriously to make it big, he had been on the radio, and I’m sure he really wanted to make it at the MET or something. I kind of picked up on that. Even before I started flute, I started piano and even before I started piano I was already thinking “I want to take the torch and I want to make this my life”.
FS: Did you sing a lot with him as well?
AS: He encouraged me to and he used to record me actually. And I would get a little shy but I would sing for him. I ended up singing in the chorus and stuff all through school and musicals too. When I was six, I think I was six or seven, I started piano. He was responsible for that. He found the teacher and he paid for all the lessons. And I loved it. I loved it because it was music.
But even so, during all that time, I wanted to play the flute. We had a very close family friend who through our church would play hymns in Sunday School. She had been trained at Juilliard and studied with Julius Baker. So she was no longer pursuing a professional career but had been Principal Flute in the New Jersey Symphony and when I was growing up was playing locally still on the side. It wasn’t like some amateur playing the flute. I was hearing a well-trained solid flutist. I was very much drawn to the flute, to the sound, to the way it looked, the beauty of the instrument itself. I remember hearing her play the Ibert Concerto and watching her. My parents played a lot of classical music recordings growing up so I just was always drawn to the flute. My mom had sort of natural musical talent but never pursued it. My dad didn’t really have any but they both played a lot of classical music which was helpful. I grew up hearing it all the time.
But my grandfather was really the biggest influence, I would say, in my life and the reason I’m in music. I begged and begged and begged to play the flute. Even when I was playing piano I was like “Please can I play the flute?” And they said you have to wait until fifth grade band. My dad would always do the thing where you blow into a bottle and you get the sound, and he said “Why don’t you just do that until you get your flute” so I would literally just practice on bottles. I would just do that for fun. I still remember the day I got my flute; it was the best day ever. I still remember the smell of the case. I was so determined to get a sound out. There was no question of course. When they do the presentation of all the instruments I was like “Alright, I know I want the flute, let’s just get right to it.” I remember going home and getting a sound out the first day. I had some 3 or 4 years of piano so I could learn how to play the flute itself and not have to learn theory which I think is a great way to start in music. I fell in love with music, fell in love with flute. Within that first year I started taking lessons. Once I started flute, I stopped piano. My grandfather not only paid for my piano lessons and bought our family a piano but then once I got the flute he paid for the flute and paid for all my flute lessons. So he was literally responsible for me doing music because my parents couldn’t afford it. I think my second flute was purchased technically by my grandmother because he had just passed away at the end of my eighth grade year. That was pretty tough because I had a really strong connection with him and musically so, especially. All my lessons through high school and everything were all paid for by my grandparents. So that’s how I got into flute.
FS: Did your grandmother get to see you grow as a flutist?
AS: Yes. I remember going to concerts with them and sitting in the audience at the New York Phil numerous times and saying that’s where I want to go. I want to be on that stage and I want to play with them. My dream from a very young age was to play with the New York Phil. I can’t even remember if I had been playing the flute or not yet but I still remember watching the flutists the most.
FS: So what did it feel like when you were finally on stage?
AS: Oh my gosh it was unbelievable. Unreal. I was playing second flute to my teacher (Robert Langevin) and he is one of the most laid-back people. He helped to make me very calm and comfortable in that situation.
FS: What do you like the most about playing with the Michigan Opera Theatre?
AS: : I wouldn’t have realized this when I started but I love playing opera because when I’m not playing, I’m listening to the singers and I feel like they are my teachers. I love the challenge of opera. It’s unlike a symphony orchestra which is a little more straight-forward: you’re on stage and it’s more predictable. With singers you have to be so flexible. You have to be staring at the conductor practically. Night to night it can change. They may take certain things a little faster, a little slower, they may stretch certain notes, they may rush through them. You never really know and you have to be so flexible as a player and sensitive. I think the coolest thing in addition to that is that there are times when I can play really loud and there are times I have to play super soft. I feel that this is really challenging, in a good way. I feel like it’s made me a better flutist, hands down. It’s so inspiring. It’s not really a surprise to me, having grown up listening to my grandfather sing. Go figure, I end up in an opera. I’ve been around singers my whole life.
FS: So you started playing in 5th grade, how much would you say you were practicing at that point?
AS: I wasn’t one of those people that that’s all I did. I loved it but I was also in sports and I was also a really good student. I know that we would have a chart in band and it would require us to try to practice a certain amount. I usually did more. I would say anywhere between 15 minutes and an hour at that point.
FS: And how did that evolve as you got into high school and beyond?
AS: High School-same thing I was really involved. I was doing cross country and track and soccer. I did a lot of sports and was really involved in school stuff. I probably did a couple hours a day, not as much as I should have done had I wanted to go to conservatory. I mean I did want to go to conservatory but I also went to a boarding school for my last two years of high school so I felt a bit alone in that I didn’t have someone helping me. I did have a really supportive band director who actually drove me to a lot of my auditions and helped make it possible. My senior year I was realizing I was a little bit far behind where I should be to get into some of the schools I wanted to get into. So I turned down AP courses that I wanted to take. None of the teachers could understand it of course. They were like “Why aren’t you taking an AP course?” and I would say “Because I have to practice. This is what I want to do with my life.”
By the time I went to college I re-dedicated or devoted myself. So at that point I was doing 4 hours a day in addition to rehearsals. From college on I did at least four hours a day.
FS: Who is your favorite flutist?
AS: (Robert) Langevin – he is my hero. It was like soul mates in a sense that his sound was the closest conception to my own that I had ever experienced. I listened to a lot of recordings and I would pick and choose what I liked. He was playing the way I had conceived in my own mind and how I wanted to play as well. When you find someone like that you say “I have to study with you. I have to keep working with you because you’re not going to make me change the way I naturally play”. He was kind of like my flute dad. A really humble, very genuine, sincere man. No ego. A hard worker and an incredible flutist. A very deep musician. My favorite thing about his playing is the soul behind it. There’s no “this is about me”. It’s about the music. An incredible, rare thing to find in someone that talented.
FS: What professional flutists do you find yourself listening to most?
AS: I find I don’t listen to a ton of flutists actually. I probably listen to more singers than instrumentalists. I would probably say it’s somewhere between Robert Langevin and Emmanuel Pahud. I do listen to Galway though. And [Raffaele] Trevisani. (laughs) It kind of depends on what I’m preparing for or what I’m in the mood for.
FS: Are you able to have any hobbies outside of all this music?
AS: I would say running is my main hobby. I like to read. I like supporting other art or concerts. I don’t do it a ton but I do enjoy going to other events or other concerts. I like to hike. I’ve done skiing, surfing, just about any sport I like to do. I would say running is my main outlet; it is the one thing I can do all year that doesn’t take a lot of organization.
FS: Do you have any advice for flutists of all levels?
AS: One of the biggest things I would say is that you don’t have to go to the best schools to do well. I think the most important thing is just putting in the time and having the passion and the drive. I feel like anyone can do it when you have those things. I don’t discourage having balance. There are times when I think maybe I should have worked really hard as a kid, but I just did what was normal to me. I wasn’t around people who were only practicing and didn’t do sports. It was normal for me to be balanced and I don’t think that was a bad thing. I think always finding the balance at whatever level you’re at is important. I’m not going to tell a 5th grader to practice hours and hours a day.
For anyone wanting a career, I think it’s a very tough business but it can be done. Resilience is needed. Resilience and a fighter’s spirit.
The other advice I have is stay inspired. For any student of any level, go to concerts, go to live concerts, go to as many concerts as possible. Even if you have to just go on Youtube. It’s ok to not be the best one, sometimes I think it’s better not to be the best. Stay inspired and always enjoy the whole process. Keep the love of what you do. Stay positive.
Amanda Sparfeld is the Principal Flutist with the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra at the Detroit Opera House and the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra. She is the former Principal Flutist of the Miami City Ballet, and has substituted with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
As a chamber musician and soloist, Amanda performs with organizations including New Music Detroit and Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, performed concerti with the Sibelius Camerata and Allegro Chamber Orchestra, and gives solo recitals around the country. Amanda maintains a private flute studio outside of Detroit and has served as Interim Flute Instructor at Oakland University in Michigan.
Amanda studied at Manhattan School of Music where she earned a Professional Studies Certificate from the prestigious Orchestral Performance Program. Other degrees received include a M.M. in Flute Performance from the University of Miami and a B.A. in Music from Principia College. Her primary teachers include Robert Langevin, Marie Jureit-Beamish, Jenny Robinson, and Christine Nield-Capote.