Perceptive Flutist, Master Teacher
by Sharon Sparrow
The teacher stands several yards away, eyes closed, listening intently.
“You’re holding your ribs,” the teacher says. “Try allowing your ribs to release before
you start the note.”
The student thinks for a moment and tries again. The sound she makes is
instantly bigger, freer, rounder.
The setting is the serene Holy Cross Monastery on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie,
New York. The student is one of many who come to the master class to learn
from this incredibly perceptive flutist and master teacher. And the teacher
is none other than Gary Schocker.
Known by many as the world’s most-published living composer of flute music, with more than 200 titles in print, and as a gifted flutist, having won many honors and performed when he was fifteen with both the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Mr. Schocker is also an exceptional teacher who is able to transform the playing of those lucky enough to study with him.
When asked how he can diagnose a problem just by listening, he replies, “When you have played your instrument for a long time, you can hear certain patterns. You know, for example, that if someone’s knees are tight, their back is going to be tight, and it’s going to affect their sound in a certain way.” When asked how he decides what to work on first with a new student, he says, “Well, I look at their hands. One of the major problems of flute playing is balancing the instrument without gripping it too tightly. The hands and arms have to be easy. If they aren’t, they will negatively affect the ribs and the breath. Everything has to work together. When a student first comes to me I listen. I listen for a spark there; is there a real musical personality? I usually start a lesson by playing a duet because a musically talented person will instinctively try to make music with the other person. Some inexperienced sightreaders will get stiff and start to count with their body, stopping the musical flow. Anybody can learn how to make a good sound and play fluidly, getting their fingers to move. The part that can’t really be taught is playing expressively. Music is a language and a thought process, which not everybody understands. You have to get beyond the rudiments of music to learn how to express yourself. Music comes straight from who you are and becomes sound. The body has to get out of the way.”
Years of studying the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and other body awareness disciplines, have given Schocker insight into ways to help people learn to let their bodies get out of the way of their playing. “People misunderstand breathing, how to get resonance out of their instrument. How their mask (the muscles of the face) works. People think they are getting volume by hitting their fingers hard on the keys, or by squeezing or lifting their ribs, when they take a breath. And when they blow, they start pushing the air forcibly from their gut, closing the ribs down, so they think incorrectly that they don’t have enough air. I look for ways to get people to be easier in their bodies. All of the instructors I’ve worked with have shown me certain physical habits of mine that were getting in the way of my playing. So even though I’m not an Alexander teacher or a Feldenkrais expert, I use all of the things I’ve learned, in conjunction with using my ears, to intuit problems that people have.”
His awareness of how people’s physical habits affect their playing has enabled him to help players of different abilities, including some with serious problems. “I’ve had a couple of students come to me suffering from focal dystonia, who couldn’t play at all, and I got them playing again. One person was seeing a psychiatrist who said that all of their problems would go away if they stopped playing flute. But this person really wanted to play! The flute’s a pretty sensitive instrument, and the harder you try to play it, the more difficult it becomes. If you can get people to take a step back from what they are working so hard at, you can get them to play more easily.”
Mr. Schocker has a collection of vintage flutes, mostly made by William S. Haynes and Louis Lot, and he says he has learned a great deal from learning how to play each one. “They all demand certain concessions,” he notes. “I love the old French flutes. I have five Lots, and they make the most spectacular sound. I have the flute that Jean-Pierre Rampal’s father Joseph owned. I find it thrilling, just knowing this was the sound that Jean-Pierre grew up hearing, and being able to make that sound. I have a recording of father and son playing a duet and there it is, you can hear the flute, and yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like. I think the sound of those old flutes was much clearer, cleaner, and purer than modern flutes, but not as easy to play. They demand attention. You can’t bear down on them.”
Many students who attend the monastery classes come back annually. Over time they make progress, and others are able to hear the changes. Some are also flute teachers, and they are able to learn new ways of working with their own students from observing Mr. Schocker’s approach with each flutist. He encourages them to get their students to sightread, and to listen to as many different recordings and live performances as they can. “They need to know how the music sounds with all the parts, not just the flute part,” he says. “If you only know the flute part, it’s like trying to copy a painting and only copying the purple part. Or like learning your lines in a play but not knowing what the other actors are saying in between. Maybe this is the fault of the society we live in, which places such emphasis on perfection. It creates an atmosphere of fear. We should emphasize musical enjoyment more. It’s supposed to feel good to make music, to connect with good feelings when we play.”
Schocker is constantly discovering new things about his own playing, and finding new ways to explain concepts of breathing, technique, and musicianship to his students. His fascination with the flute, and his pursuit of making the most expressive sound possible while keeping the body relaxed, means that there will always be something new to learn, by him and by the flutists who come to the monastery to work with him.
In addition to the retreats at Holy Cross Monastery, which are held twice a year, Gary Schocker teaches in his homes in New York City and in Easton, PA. For more information, visit garyschocker.com.
Flutist-composer-pianist Gary Schocker is an accomplished musician of outstanding versatility. At age 15, he made his professional debut when he performed as soloist with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has won numerous competitions including the Young Concert Artists, the National Flute Association, the NY Flute Club and the East-West Artists. Often, he concertizes in duo with guitarist Jason Vieaux. Internationally, he has toured and taught in Colombia, Panama, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, Germany, France and Italy.
Schocker has composed sonatas and chamber music for most instruments of the orchestra. He also has written several musicals, including Far From the Madding Crowd and The Awakening, which can be heard on Original Cast Recordings. Both shows were winners of the Global Search for New Musicals in the UK and were performed in Cardiff and at the Edinburgh Festival, as well as in New Zealand. In New York, they were winners of the ASCAP music theatre awards.
Schocker has won the International Clarinet Association’s annual composition competition twice and the National Flute Association’s annual Newly Published Music Award numerous times. Among artists who have played his compositions, James Galway gave the American premier of Green Places with the New Jersey Symphony.
In 2008 Schocker was commissioned to write the required piece “Biwako Wind” for the International Flute Competition in Biwako, Japan for which he also served as judge.
Gary has private flute studios in NYC and Easton, PA where he dually resides. He is on the faculty at NYU. He performs on Haynes and Louis Lot flutes.