Keith Underwood (Part 1): On the Art of Imitation, and How to Glean Transformative Insights From Great Musicians to Level Up Your Playing.

I have a vivid childhood memory of a time when my mom played me a recording of Itzhak Perlman and suggested that I try to imitate what I heard him doing. The stubborn little kid I was, I refused, arguing that this would be “cheating” and that I shouldn’t strive to be a clone of my favorite musicians. To which my mom said that I needn’t worry – there was no way I was going to sound exactly like Perlman, even if I tried. 😳

I think we all instinctively have an aversion to copying or imitating someone else. But in hindsight, I suspect my mom was right. Because while I couldn’t sound anything like Perlman, I do think I sounded like a better version of myself when I had a clearer, and more aspirational target to aim for.

Plus, there’s that quote often attributed to Picasso which goes something like “bad artists copy, great artists steal.” Which seems to suggest that we all have to start somewhere – and maybe imitation is the first step on the path to finding our own voice?

Whether it’s a particular quality of sound, the way notes are connected together, or even the exact number of wiggles of vibrato per note, what might happen if we tried to imitate, borrow, and perhaps even steal, some of the elements that we love most about our favorite artists?

It turns out that imitation/stealing is kind of an art of its own, and not only a fascinating challenge, but a fun one as well. Which may make you want to not only spend more time in the practice room, but record yourself – and listen back too!

How so?

Meet Keith Underwood

Flutist Keith Underwood is a highly sought-after teacher and coach, who is known for his ability to help solve many frustrating playing issues that flutists and other wind players encounter – often, using creative or unconventional approaches and techniques. His students are members of orchestras all around the world, and he himself has enjoyed an active performing career, having appeared with the New York Chamber Symphony, Orpheus Ensemble, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the New York Philharmonic. He currently serves on the faculty of Mannes and New York University.

In this episode we’ll explore…

  • 2:58 – Keith’s “origin story,” and how his teacher taught him vibrato using a David Oistrakh recording.
  • 8:56 – Why Keith loves Oistrakh’s approach to playing, and why he uses an Oistrakh video when teaching flutists.
  • 13:05 – How his teachers used slowed-down recordings to reveal the “secret” details that made great flutists’ playing so great. And how this revealed the hidden flaws in his own playing too.
  • 18:14 – Keith describes the broad range of influences he had – from Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis to James Brown to Pablo Casals – and what they had in common.
  • 23:22 – Keith describes violist Karen Tuttle’s “counterclockwise phrasing” concept, and how this applies to flute playing.
  • 28:43 – Imitating other musicians sounds like a bad thing, but is it really? What are we missing out on if we don’t include this in our practice?
  • 31:13 – An example of imitating Julius Baker’s vibrato and sound. And a story about the musician that Julius Baker himself imitated.
  • 41:15 – Keith explains why he wanted to be able to feel what other musicians he admired felt when they were playing. 
  • 43:31 – Keith’s describes how he was able to achieve this, “two notes at a time.”

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Noa
So I spent years, really decades operating under the assumption that practicing was essentially synonymous with repetition, where I’d just repeat things over and over until they sounded better. And then when they did sound better, I’d still continue to repeat things to make sure that whatever happened wasn’t a fluke, like can I actually do that multiple times in a row. And so it wasn’t, embarrassingly until my 20s or so that I started to understand that practicing effectively was really a lot more about problem solving than it was about repetition, and was a pretty transformative realization that changed how I felt about practicing. Maybe I didn’t love it practicing still, but at least I was much more engaged in it, it was more interesting. I was more apt to do it. And obviously, it was a lot more effective as well. And it translated better to the stage. And I’ve heard your name, pop up in conversation over the years, multiple times. And you’re known for being very creative and adaptive problem solver, across not just flute playing, but a number of different instruments. And so there’s a lot that I’d be curious to explore. But I’m wondering if it’s possible to start out by asking if there’s any way you could reflect on how this came to be like, whatever the mindset is, the approaches that helps you do this sort of thing. And wondering if it’s possible to cultivate this in our own teaching in our own practicing whatever our level of experience or our age might be.

Keith
Yeah, I think how things happened for me was that I played flute in high school. So I didn’t think of myself as pursuing a path in music at all. And at the end of high school, basically, I was more interested in playing Baroque music, just like as a hobby and recorder and stuff like that. And then a woman who taught a little chamber group I had with my friends in high school, she sort of took pity on my flute playing, I think, and then told me that before I went to college, I should take some lessons with a guy who she admired who was a doubler, who had retired from New York City to New Haven and taught kids and she said that you should take some lessons with this guy before you go to college, basically, so that you have a clue about playing. And I started taking lessons with Sal Amato, this teacher, my senior year in high school, and then he just made me so interested in music that when I went to a college, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, I kept taking lessons with him. And then over time, I just became fascinated with playing during my college years than anything with flute and then he was very innovative in the way he taught the flute and also he was a flute player who played all sorts of other instruments. He came to New York in the ’30s and decided, oops, I can’t make a living as a flute player. I better learn some other instruments. He taught himself saxophone, clarinet, oboe, and he wound up playing lots of 1950’s television shows like, you know, the original Tonight Show with Jack Paar and like the Bell Telephone Hour and Sid Caesar and all these great 50’s television shows he played on and he also subbed on oboe in the NBC Symphony. Played piccolo, I believe he played piccolo in Popeye cartoons. And he was very practical, a very, you know, no nonsense musician. I tell people the first flute lesson I had with Sal, he kind of set the template for what I was going to become because he said, well, you don’t have any vibrato at all. Like you need to emulate singers and he played me a Caruso record. And then he had one record of Jean-Pierre Rampal, who played in the Caruso record. He played Rampal record and said, You hear that? No. They’re using this thing called vibrato, which you don’t have.

Keith 
You can do that yourself on a flute. His other favorite musician, David Oistrakh. He was most gigantic David Oistrakh fan. So he taught me vibrato using Oistrakh recordings Rampal and Caruso. He just taught me how to listen to you know what people were doing and not just simply flute players. And then I went from studying with Sal to studying with the great Tom Nyfenger who was the flute teacher at Yale at the time, and Tom was another comprehensive musician who started as a piano major at Cleveland Institute, then switched to a theory major, then kind of a double major in flute and piano. And he was just amazing musician. Another person who admired whatever instrumentalist and would try to imitate the sound of. He also loved Oistrakh’s violin playing. He also loved Harold Wright’s clarinet playing in the Boston Symphony. All my teachers were interested in what you’re talking about, which was like, not rote, like practices 8 billion times, but like, I feel like they taught me, they would listen to records and what was wonderful about their teaching was like, they wanted to feel what it felt like to play a phrase like those guys. And so they were really adapt at imitating other players, both of them, and they taught me to teach myself by imitating other players. And over time, from studying with them, and from starting becoming serious about music at a more advanced age, you know, 20, 19, or something, I felt like, I have a lot of catching up to do. And I still didn’t think I was going to be a musician. It was sort of interesting to me and it was like the early 1970s, late 60s, so everybody was like, wow, man, do whatever you want. I don’t think if I was growing up now and I was in that position when I was 19, I don’t think I would have had the nerve to keep doing music. But the climate at the time, was encouraging for that. So I just like put things together in my mind, various ways. And then I came across people who were doing, when I moved to New York, people were studying with certain famous singing teachers, I watched their singing classes. I got to know, alternative, you know, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique or whatever. So I just was around people who were able to, like trigger great playing from or great singing from people with like very few words. And I became really into that. And then when I started to play jobs, and play and be with really good musicians, I wound up playing duets with people and just knowing other musicians. And then I felt like I was not trained, as well as many people coming out of big New York music schools, but I sort of picked up like the pieces, missing pieces on the fly.

Keith 
But by hanging out with great New York musicians, I was clueless about a lot of stuff. But I could do certain things from my Rampal obsession, I could do certain things that people really were interested in. So people asked me, how did you learn how to do that? I said, well, I just listened to this record and the guy sounds like this. And then I tried to feel what they’re feeling. And then when I tried to put it into words, and when I played for people, they liked the way I talked about things, and I got quick results with people. And one thing led to another. So through the 1980s, I wound up teaching many, many flute players who I thought were like, at least probably better flute players than I was, but I had something I could tell them. And then they sent me their friends who were singers or other wind players. And then I had a lot of contact with string players where I talked about various things. Like I would just watch people play and people who had back pain or arm pain, or playing stringed instruments would come and play for me and I would make little observations. And sometimes it’s something about how they’re thinking of, how they’re organizing a passage, like the patterns within a passage. But a lot of times it’s little things about how they move with the instrument, or how they are breathing. I guess I’ve known a lot of breathing teachers. That’s the thing Sal admired about Oistrakh’s playing was his breathing. And a lot of times, I use his little video, Oistrakh video, playing “The girl with the flaxen hair,” to teach flute players and also to teach people on Oistrakh’s attitude towards the violin is really amazing. I feel like there’s a way he kind of steps back. He’s so warm sounding, but he has a kind of detachment from the violin, and kind of looks around. And also if you watch, he looks around, and if you look at his upper body where you can sort of watch him breathing with the music in a really flow-y kind of way. So I think David Oistrakh is one of the best wind playing teachers you could imagine. And then when I taught string players from my wind player perspective, I could take certain recordings of string players and I can say, well, this this person is like, bearing into the instrument, this person’s like, coming off of the instrument, you know, there are these little things. And if you point out a couple of little things, then you know, then the ice breaks, and then people start to get a sense of flow.

Noa 
The theme seems to be that you’ve been very observant and very open. And even this idea about the climate in the 60s being encouraging of you’re experimenting and pursuing things, perhaps now, you may not. It seems like that’s sort of a theme around how you’ve been able to and I love the idea that you’re learning from multiple different instruments and different sources, singers, violinists, etc, not just other flutists. I’m wondering if it’s okay to go back a little bit and kind of go through some of that because you said something that made my ears perk up. You said that your teacher, Sal Amado, taught you how to listen. And I’m wondering what does that mean, exactly? And what did that look like? And like, how did that come about? Because I think we hear things a lot, but we’re not truly listening oftentimes, and there’s a lot that gets missed. So what if you could expand on that a little bit.

Keith 
Both with him and with Tom Nyfenger, lucky me, those guys they liked hanging out with me. And they caught that I understood what they were talking about. But I’d never seen anybody. That was the first time I ever had a lesson with somebody where they put a needle on a record. And they said hear that? This is what the person’s playing. And it wasn’t like a flute player. It was like Sal playing a Caruso record, and then playing what Caruso was playing on the flute. And I was like, what? Where’s the music for that? You know, just by ear, he was playing the phrase and then he said like he’s playing these three notes and he’s vibrating this note into this note and it sounds like this. And I spent so much time with Sal like that, you know where he was helping me hear things by just listening, listening to them and many, many times. He said, well, this phrase that Rampal played, this Vivaldi concerto is really great. Why don’t you play this concerto? I’ll teach it to you. Like the music wasn’t there. We were just learning. We were just learning it off the records. Yeah, you know, he’s doing this and he would play the phrase for me. And then, he just taught me to like, sort of like a jazz musician, play whatever I was hearing. When I started studying with Nyfenger, I was completely raw and a lot of work. But he picked up that I used my ear to do that kind of stuff. And he said, oh, you know, I have a huge record collection, you have to come to my house and I’ll play some of my favorite recordings. And then, I would go to his house and he would do things like play me, he loved Julius Baker, the great flute player who was the principal of New York Philharmonic. He loved Baker’s playing so much and music. It was Baker playing Bach sonatas and he would put the record on reel to reel tape recorder, and he would slow the recording of Baker down to show me how the note connection sounded at half speed. And how many pulses of vibrato. Baker was doing a half beat and then how undulations of pitch was going. And then, he would play the music at hand. You know it would be dropped an octave at half speed and he would imitate it at half speed then he would play it back at full speed. So you could hear these connections. And then Tom, mean guy, had a microphone hooked up through his tape recording. So why don’t you play the same phrase? And so I played a Bach sonata slow movement. Tom recorded me. And then he played me back at half speed. So you can hear my vibrato come to a screeching halt every time I moved my finger. So you could say well, I wasn’t connecting my notes or legato enough but you could hear that every time my fingers move, there was like this like sort of bump. I could hear slowed down Baker that that didn’t exist. And then once I could hear myself and the other person just for a moment, I could hear that then it kind of broke the spell. I’m sure violinists have something like that, like where one person holds the violin and fingers it and the other person bows the violin, right?

Noa 
I recall that. Yes.

Keith 
Those little string camp kind of things. It’s like that with a flute. It’s like Tom was you know having you hold the flute and then he could play a note with a vibrato and then he would finger the music while I felt like I was playing one note. And then that was that was just a completely unforgettable feeling because I didn’t know exactly when his fingers were going to move. So I didn’t plant my feet on a note or connection, it just went through. And that’s an example is like, when he did that with me, I never forgot what that felt like. And then I was, I somehow was able to finger a flute. And remember that feeling. And if he hadn’t done that trick with me, I would never know it. And I could have beat myself up over note connections forever, and then tried to push myself through.

Noa 
That’s fascinating. So when you said, your teachers taught you how to listen, I don’t know what I had in my mind. But what you described seems simple on one hand, but incredibly profound in another in the sense that a) when you’re listening to recordings and having to then try to imitate or replicate in some fashion, what you’re hearing, it forces you to listen in a different way. Because you need more detail, right, in order to be able to aim for something specific. And then the next level of actually then recording your imitation of it. And then actually comparing it with what you were trying to imitate, and it has been so forth.

Keith 
You have to listen to yourself, like record yourself. Yeah.

Noa 
Imagine it’s incredibly revealing on both of those levels, both what you’re aiming for, and also what you’re producing. And, and I’m assuming that a lot of the adjustments and changes you make then are, in some ways intuitive, and you’re forced to experiment, right to keep trying a variety of things that may or may not work until you start hearing something that’s closer to what you are trying imitate and that also sounds like it could be a lot of fun.

Keith 
Oh, gosh, it’s amazing. Obviously, in 1968 or nine, we didn’t have YouTube. Sometimes you had performers play on television, you would see them on television, but lucky me, I got to see some of my idols play live like Rampal, as I’ve tried many, many times. I didn’t see Oistrakh play but I saw people like Horowitz, I saw Horowitz’s comeback recitals that he eventually they played in Carnegie Hall, I saw Arthur Rubinstein I saw Rostropovich play. And at the same time, my friends and I were trying to play jazz, in college or rock. I love Jimi Hendrix so much. I thought Jimi Hendrix was such a great musician. And I love his singing. I love his guitar vibrato. I love this rhythmic sense. And then when I saw Jimi Hendrix play in person for like two minutes once I was on my way to a chamber music recital. Somebody had given me a ticket to a chamber music concert in the afternoon, on a Sunday, and Jimi Hendrix was playing and Woolsey Hall, the big hall on his first tour. And my hip friends were all going to see Jimi Hendrix play. And I had my ticket to see the Debussy’s flute, harp, and viola chamber music at the smaller hall, and my concert was at four o’clock, and Jimi Hendrix was playing somehow at three o’clock in the afternoon. I went by the hall, Woolsey Hall, right at three, well, Hendrix is playing in there. And I walked into the rotunda and there was like a card table set up in front of orchestra and I can hear him playing and somebody sitting at this card table take into this. I said, I’m going to a concert down there but that’s Hendrick. They said, do you want to see him play? I said, yeah, so they opened the door like six inches. And I saw Jimi Hendrix playing Purple Haze for like 30 seconds or something to a minute. They opened the door right when he played and I could see him play and my impression, senior in high school was like, okay, that’s the loudest thing I ever heard in my life. Gotta get to my concert. But then two years later, I was obsessed with his recordings. And then my friends and I were making comparisons between how’s this for cross pollination? My friends and I were listening to Coltrane records, Hendrix records. We loved Miles Davis, we loved James Brown soul music, and we were listening to things but at the same time, we were listening to David Oistrakh, Vladimir Horowitz, you know, all these great piano, we’re listening to classical music, rock music and jazz just like, nerds. We loved Pablo Casals. We were listening to Pablo Casals cello suites and his recordings of Brandenburg Concertos with Marlboro orchestra and then we were saying like, wow, Pablo Casals’ rhythmic flow is a lot like Hendrix’s is where other people would go like [sings], where other people play like that, Casals is kind of like [sings]. There was this kind of circular quality to both recordings of Pablo Casals’ conducting. And then also like his [sings], you know, whereas like you could listen to another great musician who sounds [sings], it sounds like bearing down, whereas like the people that, at the time, I was like attracted to their playing had this kind of buoyancy, both in their sound, but also in a rhythmic flow. And then when I started to see them play, I could see a very simple thing with some of the wind players or singers that I admire is like when they’re changing registers. Julius Baker is very much like this when the music’s going down. He looks like he’s going up, he moves in opposition to the registers. So Julius Baker plays like [sings],

Keith 
you know, he kind of lifts into downward intervals, and he kind of [sings]. He kind of settles on upward interval. Then when he’s accenting, he goes [sings], he kind of lifts into like, gold notes, where other people are definitely [sings], they’re bearing down on things. I started to hear this sort of loopy kind of, I used to call it, regenerative. You know, like you hear a person. Hey, did you ever come across from Karen Tuttle’s teaching? You know who she is?

Noa 
Of course, the violist.

Keith 
She’d be highly podcast-y if she was around because like everything, she based her way of teachings, string playing and phrasing on Pablo Casals’ cello play, because she played in the Marlboro orchestra. And a friend of mine knew her really well. And we talked about how David Wiseman is a great classical guitar player, he and I talked back in the 70s. He knew her and he said she talked about how Pablo Casals’ phrasing was kind of regenerative. At the time, she called it counterclockwise phrasing. Have you ever heard of it? It’s like if I put my hand in front of me, and I made a circle. Like, if you imagine the clock face, you know, 12 o’clock, three o’clock is away from me six o’clock is bound to floor. Nine o’clock is where my chest is. And if I sang a phrase or scale if I sang [sings] that’s clockwise. Counterclockwise as you imagine that the scale is going [sings].

Keith 
And whatever sub units, you could go [sings]. So if you sang [sings]. If I sang and make a clockwise motion, [sings], I get tied up.

Keith 
If I make a counterclockwise gesture and sing phrases or subunits of phrases with counterclockwise motion than my body releases. Right now, I’m teaching a class at Mannes, it’s for wind players and pianists, and rather than teaching people like a chamber group, I want the pianist to learn how to read and to accompany people and sight read without preparing heavily and I want the wind players be able to like teach the pianist a part and show where they’re going and stuff like that. So I talk about this kind of stuff. And I was talking to a pianist who was really good, played for me last week, and she was accompanying Saint-Saens bassoon sonata and I feel like, you’re great but your shoulders are tight and you’re kind of leaning into the music and pianist that I admired open up their back and sit back, sit back from the music [sings] like this rather than leaning in. And then, she came up to me after she finishes, oh, that thing about the back, you’re talking about with wind players for the sound, but also for the direction with the pianist, my favorite piano players do that. Alexander teachers call it staying in your back. You want the music to project. The people are in front of you, you want the music, but you lose touch with your back, you play like [sings], you’re doing that. But if you do have an awareness of your back, you imagine that the audience was behind you and you are playing to the audiences behind you, [sings]. You get this three dimensionality to your sound. And then things like your shoulders and your finger, by being aware of your back, your shoulders released. And, you know, when you’re bowing, there’s more smoothness to the bowing, but she was saying, so I just called up on YouTube. Oh, you mean like staying in your back like this guy, you know, and it’s like Arturo Benedetti, Michelangeli, great Italian pianist, or like Rubinstein, you can see and or Oistrakh, you can see, with that generation of players, you can see that people have this kind of, almost detached, they want the music to sound, but they have like a different resonance in their sound, because they’re not forcing the instrument. And they’re not compressing into the instrument. They want the sound to sort of blossom, but they’re sort of backing away in order for the sound to open up. And that became like a theme of what I taught really a lot, including these note connections, like when somebody else played the flute, fingered the flute while I played, I could feel like I made a no connection like [sings]. I felt like I was backing away from the flute. And I realized that my klutzy note connections were like, Why am I [sings], I need to play through the note connection, but I was not doing myself any favors by pressing into note connections to try to connect them. And so there’s kind of three dimensional distance for me three dimensionality in distance from the instrument that is triggered by things like I thought that counterclockwise thing was really beautiful.

Noa 
We’ve already sort of talked about it, but I was struck by how observant you’ve been over the years, that little tiny things that other musicians have done and pulling together commonalities and differences and your instrument and then applying it to other instruments and noticing that and other students and I mean, in my head, at least, it seems to all come back to this idea of the demands of being able to imitate people effectively. And I know on some level, it might sound like imitating others is a bad thing and that kind of less creative but

Keith 
That’s the thing that teachers say, oh, you want to sound like yourself, you don’t want to sound like somebody else. So what’s the point of imitating and then the answer is like, I’m sure it’s like a common joke, why are you trying to imitate Jean-Pierre Rampal, is like you need to sound like yourself. But a person who’s an imitator, like my teachers would say, don’t worry, you’re never going to sound like Jean-Pierre Rampal. But by imitating him, you’re actually going to sound more like, in a certain way, if you hear them execute something and you say, wow, that person can trill [sings] and they can get out of the flow from trill to trill, or they articulate from, you know, they articulate and don’t get hung u, and that’s worth imitating man. Once again, don’t worry, you’re not going to sound like David Oistrakh.

Noa 
You know, that’s what my mom said to me, you know, she always had me listen to recordings. And you know, I love listening to Perlman recordings, and she said, to try to do what he was doing. And, and I had that same, you know, age seven or eight, whatever, I had that same argument. And she said exactly that. Yeah, don’t worry, you’re not going to sound like Perlman just by trying to sound like, you know, you’ll pick up other things that he’s doing that are like you said, worth cultivating or emulating and it sounds the way you describe it, that you end up being a more creative and a more flexible and a more effective musician by trade. And I love the thing too, of trying to imitate what you hear other instruments doing. Which obviously, there’s no way for a flute to sound exactly like a piano. No one’s going to confuse the two but you end up becoming a more interesting flutist it sounds like and so I’m wondering, like as far as how to do that, is it as simple as just listening to what they’re doing and trying to do something similar? Or is there more to it than that? Or like, how does that work?

Keith 
You’re gonna find that, for instance, a wonderful thing that Tom Nyfenger said to me about imitating other instruments. He loved Baker’s playing. Julius Baker’s dad was a flute player, but his dad wanted him to be a violin player. So Baker, I think until age 14, had violin lessons and he eventually asked his dad who played the flute, can I play the flute and stuff? He said, if somebody’s watching this podcast, corroborate me on this, but it’s kind of a great story. I, a couple times had lunch with Baker and I said, you sound like other instruments. You don’t just sound like a flute, you sound like a violin. He said to me, my dad wanted me to be a violin player, but when I was like 12 years old, 13 years, I was so intimidated by Heifetz recordings, I thought like, I can’t play this instrument. I’d be better off trying to imitate Heifetz on another instrument, than play the same instrument. But you can hear in his first recording that Julius Baker made, it’s called A Flutist’s Favorites. He plays like Saint-Saens’s The Swan. And another early recording, he plays Hora Staccato and he sounds remarkably Heifetz-like. And then eventually, people that I taught who got an orchestra job, Debbie Baron, just retired as the piccolo player in the Dallas symphony. And I taught her for vibrato using slowed down cassettes of Baker and also I had this cassette that had Oistrakh, Baker, Galway, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Pavarotti, it had like different people, I slowed their vibrato sound so what you see is this. And then, Debbie’s teacher, eventually called me when she got into Dallas Symphony, her high school teacher, Frances Blaisdell. She was one of Kincaid’s first woman students at Curtis in the 1940s. She was friends with Baker, and she said, how did you change Debbie’s sound? She was in her 70s and she says, can I come and take a lesson with you? Could you show me what you do with Debbie? Okay, well, I changed her sound largely by playing slowed down recordings of different players. Does this seem weird? You know, here’s Julius Baker playing Daphnis and Chloe. I can tell this his vibrato is 123456 [sings].

Keith 
His pulses, like six for 8th notes, three for 16th notes is pretty steady, even though he doesn’t sound like [sings], he sounds like very velvety and unobtrusive, with his vibrato, but it connects so beautifully. I talked to Debbie, I said literally play this number of vibrato in this note and this note, and then she developed this kind of great sound. And I said, does that sound weird, Frances? And she said, no, when Julius Baker came to New York in 1940, I think it was 1948, we used to play duets together. And when he came to my apartment, I felt like I never heard a flute make that kind of controlled vibrato. And I think she’s the person I first heard that story. He said, well, I imitated Heifetz, because I was too terrified to imitate Heifetz on violin. So I asked my dad to let me play the flute. And when my dad said it was okay. He was kind of an amateur recording guy. You know, he had like an early Ampex tape recorder. He said, well, I took this recording of Heifetz playing Saint-Saens, The Swan, and I slowed it down to half speed and counted how many pulses. So Francis said, you know, it sounds like a mechanical thing to do, but that’s how Julius Baker told me he learned how to do vibrato, and that Nyfenger had heard that story too. And he said, Julius Baker sounds like a violin, including not just simply the vibrato. But there is a way that Julius Baker sound goes into the flute and off the flute, it sounds exactly like on the string, off the string. You know flautando. It sounds like all these various violin colors because he’s, he’s kind of like, adjusting his air compression into the flute and out of the flute and into all these sorts of things. But Nyfenger said, you know what’s another instrument Julius Baker is imitating? I think people underestimate how much he’s a wind player who’s imitating the sound of a piano. Like his sound is very unique. His sound is very unique, not simply because it’s flexible and colorful, but because it’s there, he has great control over the decay of a note. And Tom said that it sounds like he played things slowly with or played a piano. And then you know, when you hear a note on a piano goes like [sings], a piano naturally goes slightly sharp. You know, it’s like [sings], like that. And he felt like Baker had learned how to do that on a flute, like even in short notes, [sings], and he did that by being into piano playing. I described that in a class in Chicago once and a guy came up to me afterwards. That thing you said about the piano, I think that’s right. I went to Curtis with Julius Baker, and one day, I was walking by a practice room, and I heard this beautiful flute sound, and is totally out of tune piano, you know, I heard like, a triad on the piano, and then this beautiful flute sound. And I was like, what, why is this flute playing with this super out of tune piano, and then he knocked on the door, he wants to know who the flute player was, and Baker opened the door, and there was nobody else in the room. Oh, that was you, he says, why are you playing with that super out of tune piano? Or doesn’t that bug you, he says, well, as far as I can tell every time you play with people, it’s always out of tune. So I’m trying to make my sound match whatever, I’m trying to put my notes in a position that makes that fits in with whatever is going on. So I don’t mind that the piano is out of tune. So what he was doing, he was like playing you know,

Keith 
G-D-B, you know, like three note chords kind of spread out and like putting the sustain pedal down on the piano. Then he was playing like scales or like little arpeggios. And he was trying to fit in the piano sound or vibrate in such a way that the pitch had kind of like, you know, you could say that vibrato is masking the out of tune-ness, but you could also say by vibrato, having a fluctuation in pitch, it hits one string of the piano could be out of tune and then the string next to it to be like sharper. But somehow if the flute sounds gently undulating, it makes it fits inside the piano sounds better. And so that’s corroboration from a couple of different sources that he was imitating, trying to match a piano. And the thing that I’m really kind of possessed by is his articulation. How you play short notes, and I feel like the best wind players, their articulation sounds like keyboard articulation. If they’re playing with a really great keyboard player, the individual decay of note sounds like, hate to say percussive because like when you’re singing instruments, you think, oh, sing through the line, but this kind of buoyancy in the sound that the piano does naturally. Or if you’re playing certain instruments like high flute in fast excerpts like Beethoven symphonies, or, of course, piccolo, I feel like what is the piccolo supposed to sound like in an orchestra? I feel like in a way, a flute in an orchestra is like a bridge between the wind section and the violin section. It’s like in the rain of violin, and when you can take your little David Oistrakh vibrato and then play solo the flute solo in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto or something like that, and you have this violin-like quality. And if you can pick up that kind of string vibrato thing, and I think flute is that kind of a bridge. Piccolo I think is actually the bridge between the wind section and the percussion. So I think like Piccolo, xylophone, marimba, I feel like really good piccolo playing, like in a Shostakovich symphony, sounds like a ringy kind of mallet instruments. And I feel like people on piccolo, lots of times are flooding the piccolo with air and winding up with like [sings], you know, like, there’s too much air being thrown in each note. And when they pick up, you have this like sort of mallet like sound, of all things, would you think about it as a wind instrument [sings]? Letting the instrument resonate but like being more aggressive with your tonging, without associating aggressive tonguing with like huffing and puffing air? I love the fact that when instruments use air, but I think there’s a real downside to thinking of air being the solution to everything on a wind instrument. There’s like a resonance. And the way you use your vocal tract, and a way that you let the instrument vibrate, you don’t flood the instrument with air.

Noa 
There’s something you said right when we started that I’m wondering if you’ve already spoken to, but I kind of wanted to ask about it anyway. You said something about trying to feel what other musicians are feeling even for like a short span of time of two notes are a phrase and I wonder if a) you can expand on that. But also wonder if everything you’ve talked about thus far is really related to that in terms of how carefully and how attentive Have you listened to different nuances and observe physically what other musicians are doing? Yeah, I don’t have a question per se, but I’m wondering if you could say more about that.

Keith 
Yeah, we talked about that a little bit on the phone when we were talking about doing this. And I was saying, like, when my teacher loved Rampal’s playing, when I first heard Rampal play the flute, I felt like, okay, I don’t play like that at all. I was just like, what? Was that the same instrument I played at night, and his buoyant, fast playing like, he was extremely great articulator and I felt like, I have no idea of how to do that. Can I play the flute for just a moment? You know, like, I heard him go like [flute playing]. I heard like these sparkly sounding runs [flute playing]. And I played something like [flute playing], I had no idea. So I thought, can I play two notes like that [flute playing]? Okay. Can I play three notes [flute playing]? Okay, that’s four notes. Can I play the next four notes [flute playing]?

Keith 
I just started from the premise that I sucked so badly, I couldn’t play like a one octave scale. But I was like, can I play two notes that sounds like that. And I would just listen. I didn’t have like slowing down stuff like, I dropped the needle on a wear out a record [flute playing].

Keith 
Then I sort of like, flared it out into this sort of thing. Then I started to get a feeling for it. And then people, once I got to music schools and people thought that I sounded like good. How did you learn how to do that? And I said, I learned how to do it by being so bad that I tried to do it two notes at a time. And then I eventually like I was telling you over the phone, I ran across teachers who said, well, Tom Nyfenger, for instance, had a one of his favorite flute players was the principal flutist in LA symphony in the 50s, Arthur Gleghorn was an English flutist, played a ton of movies, would use the flute on a lot of movies in 50s and 60s. But he’s an unbelievably great articulator. His Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals is maybe the fastest I’ve ever heard and immaculate. And when I started studying with Tom, I told Tom that I’ve learned to play, he was like, how’d you do that? You know, like I said [flute playing].

Keith 
I couldn’t do that, but I could go [flute playing]. I built it up from one note at a time. Well, he said his favorite flute player was Arthur Gleghorn. Arthur Gleghorn described how he got his technique as he practiced fast passages, two notes at a time [sings] – two notes, then three notes, is important. So Arthur Gleghorn had discovered my technique, you know, he’d heard about me. And then I ran across other musicians who did the same thing. You could say, well, this passage, or it’s a common thing that like people can start bad a fast passage fast, but they can’t finish it. You know, they’re going like, it sounds like [singing]. It sounds like a mess in the middle, or they can’t get out of it [singing]. You can’t you can’t end it well. So you could apply the same technique, so like, I don’t end this passage well [flute playing]. My fingers are not coordinated, you know, so what do I do, go back to the beginning of the passage and play out and then play it slowly and and try to focus on that area. Or maybe you focus on the last two notes you play [flute playing].

Keith 
You work your way backwards, you play the last note, then the last two notes, then the last three notes, and then last four notes, and you back your way. So once you get back to the beginning of the passage, you have a feeling of coming home to the end of the passage rather than as like, journeying into the poison desert or never to return, you know, and like hoping you survive. So, it gives you a very different kind of perception.

Notes

8:56 – Keith mentions Oistrakh multiple times throughout the episode. But here’s the specific video that he mentioned, with regards to Oistrakh’s sound and approach to the instrument: Oistrakh plays Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

43:31 – The “two notes” method that Keith describes does make a lot of sense from a motor learning perspective. For more on this, check out the podcast episode on “chaining” or at-tempo practice with trombonist Jason Sulliman.

More insights from Keith on breathing?

Keith is particularly well-known for his insights in the area of breathing, and you’ll notice that we didn’t even get to that subject in this episode! Fortunately, Keith was kind enough to agree to chat further, so this conversation will continue next week, where you’ll hear Keith delve into more details about breathing and how to use your air in the most effective way.

Where to find Keith

You can contact Keith via his Mannes or NYU faculty pages. And also find him via Facebook or Instagram.

Photo credit for header photo: Wendy Bodner; street signs by Stephanie McNabb

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