What do you think makes a great orchestral player?
It is impossible to separate most of those critical characteristics from those of a great soloist, chamber musician or session musician. The fundamentals are universal and without them, no musician can function at a high, professional level in any of those areas. In fact, after you get past those fundamentals (a special, personal sound, great technique, rhythm, pitch/intonation, expression and dynamics) many of the aspects of a great orchestral player have to do more with the personal aspect. Being a great player is the first step, but learning to be a team player (with leadership) is crucial. Knowing the music beyond the flute part is critical, as is understanding ‘balance’ and recognizing when to be soloistic and when to be background or a part of the harmonic fabric. That comes with experience and serious study. Good intonation will never be over-rated!!
Do you have a preferred method of teaching?
I continue to do a lot of private, one-to-one, teaching through The USC Thornton School of Music and The Colburn School Conservatory of Music. I run a one-hour masterclass each week at both schools. During the year I teach quite a few guest masterclasses at various institutions. I also run a week-long intensive class each summer in Los Angeles called Beyond The Masterclass. The answer is that at this point in my life I just prefer teaching the flute in all settings. I also have many private lessons throughout each year – often a lesson where a prospective student is actually ‘auditioning me’ as a potential future teacher. The details of my style of mentoring include a mix of the standard etudes (lots of Anderson), solo repertoire and plenty of orchestra excerpts (and full parts). If I had to characterize my teaching style I would say: always encouraging, always honest and my lessons often include addressing personal issues, which are influencing a student’s performance. I don’t invade privacy, but I am available as a listening ear or sympathetic shoulder when needed.
You have played on many soundtracks. Any of them particularly memorable?
Many are very memorable. I can mention a few, which are not in any order of preference!
1. Nijinsky (1980) – The LA Phil was engaged for the soundtrack and I was still in ‘the band’. It was memorable because I played many, many different versions of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune on the days we recorded.
2. Nell – Mark Isham wrote a beautiful, intimate score which featured lots of alto flute (with the microphone inches from my mouth!)
3. The Joy Luck Club – Rachel Portman was unhappy with her ethnic flutist and I was asked by the contractor if I had my arsenal of ethnic instruments with me. I always had a trunk full of my ‘toys’ and enjoyed a few days of lots of transposing and making things work.
4. Jurrasic Park – Any score by John Williams was always ‘as good as it gets’. That one featured very technically challenging pages and the unusual feature was that Steven Spielberg didn’t want to reveal the dinasaurs to the orchestra, so all of those scenes were blacked out so that we wouldn’t see them during playbacks.
5. Far and Away by John Williams featuring The Chieftains as guest artists. This had tremendously challenging tin whistle parts for the orchestra (often chromatic) and at the last minute I was asked to play the pan flutes. That was the most stress I ever experienced on any movie because I wasn’t really very experienced on those very unfriendly instruments.
6. James Newton Howard, John Debney, Joel McNeely and Alan Silvestri were favorite composers for me. Great writers and nice men.
You can find a comprehensive list of all of Jim Walker’s film soundtrack apprearances here: http://www.larrykrantz.com/movies.htm
How do you prepare your student for orchestral auditions?
1. All of the major excerpts are emphasized from first year through to their final year of college.
2. I encourage ALL students to perform excerpts in masterclasses to get used to the pressure.
3. I hold mock auditions behind a screen and run a video camera to record ‘the evidence
4. I have created synthesized versions of all of the piano accompaniment/reductions from the Baxstresser Orchestra Excerpt book and my students use them to get a sense of the ‘real music’.The software I use is called Smartmusic and it is my favorite teaching tool ever! The tempos are completely adjustable and although the sounds aren’t authentically natural, then give a very accurate version of what is in the music, not just the solo flute part.
5. I often ask students to play excerpts on the spot, without proper warm-up, etc.
6. We do a lot of work on the Mozart G Major 1st mvt exposition because that is often the first thing an audition committee hears.
What do you look for in a young flautist auditioning for an orchestra?
It is understood that any applicant has to have the advanced technique to play the entire required excerpts well (Firebird, Leonore, Scherzo, Til Eulenspiegel, etc.). However, I feel that the most important ingredient is having a beautiful, personal sound, including the ability to fill the scope of a large concert hall. Equally important is flexible musicality (to be able to adjust to the ideas of lots of different conductors – BUT ESPECIALLY THE “BOSS”).
Where do you think the current orchestral scene is heading?
I would love to be optimistic but it is difficult, given the cultural climate in the world. The U.S. has many wonderful orchestras with big budgets. However, they are under constant pressure to find resources to sustain one of the most amazing artistic phenomenon’s in the history of the world: 100 musicians coming together to recreate one of a kind performances of true masterworks. It is very troubling that much of the world has no idea of what a great orchestra is and how truly powerful it can be. The diminishing arts support from the American government(s) is very troubling. There are certainly some amazing performing arts centers throughout the land in the U.S., but funding for musicians’ salaries is hard to come by. Add that to the unprecedented numbers of amazing young musicians looking for work and we have a crisis.
I go to sleep every night asking myself, ‘Are you being totally forthright with all of your students about the difficulty of trying to build an orchestral career’. I do my best as a teacher and mentor to help all of my students face the reality of the job market and I try to help them become as proficient as possible in every flute-related area possible. At the top of that list is teaching. There is still a recognition and understanding by much of the world that learning to play a musical instrument at a high level translates to success in many non-musical career areas. Therefore, many parents still encourage/insist that their children study music. I will paraphrase something I once heard a brilliant educator say to incoming freshmen: “you all have made an irrational decision to study music at this level.
The passion that drives this path can’t be denied. The truth is that is can be a completely amazing career if things work out. So GO GET IT”! I hope this gives some insight to my thoughts and opinions about a subject, which still drives me to ‘try to build a career’, as I often tell my wife after accepting another gig!
Visit Jim Walker’s website: http://www.jimwalkerflute.com
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