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Tom Ottar Andreassen

Should I Stay or Should I Solo?
An afternoon with Robert Aitken.


Unlike most string players, and quite possibly most orchestral players, flutists often seem to focus on orchestral careers and not on being soloist or playing chamber music. Why that is is a topic for other venues but the fact that orchestral playing can do damage your playing is something that never came up when I was in school.

A familiar topic to string players, the decline of ones playing quality from having to blend as one of many players in a section is an easy leap of logic to make. What is more of a surprise is that the same thing can happen to wind players, though for different reasons, if we aren’t terribly careful.

Despite the popularity of the flute orchestras and concert organizers don’t book us as soloists. “And yet the public comes,” says Robert Aitken. “In fact [when he played] people left before the second half, I played on the first half. They were there for the flute. If Tchaikovsky had finished his concerto…all the fragments we have is just with strings…If Dvorak and Tchaikovsky had finished their concertos, the flute would be much more popular on the stages.

“What is missing,” he says, “is the repertoire.” Bob continues on to accuse the advent of Mozart’s genius eclipsing all the great flute works with his pieces for piano and violin. “Since Rampal and Galway, there really aren’t any flutes actively programmed in symphony concerts. Pianos are really the only instrument considered a solo instrument and maybe the violin.”

Robert Aitken is a key figure in the flute world and music in general through his work as a composer, contemporary music programmer, and international soloist and teacher. Bob was also the youngest principal woodwind player ever hired by the Vancouver Symphony at 19. Seven years later Bob served five years as co-principal flutist of the Toronto Symphony, after which he devoted the rest of his career to solo performances and composing.

“I didn’t leave the Toronto Symphony because I didn’t like it, I enjoyed playing in orchestra, and it’s a fabulous feeling when you’re in the middle of those fabulous pieces like Symphony Fantastique or something and you’re right in the middle of all of that. It’s wonderful…I left because no freedom, no flexibility, no ability to play solos.”

This is the cry of many flutists playing in orchestras, no time to flourish as a solo player. Bob felt strongly that solo playing and musicianship would be aversely affected by orchestral playing unless tended to very carefully, and if one were allowed to do so.

I visited him on a very hot and humid day at his midtown home in Toronto amidst the chaos of the construction of a new subway line nearby. Bob strikes an imposing yet friendly figure with flowing white hair and a chatty disposition. I’ve known Bob since I was in my first year of university and we covered every topic from the early days of instrumental management agencies to women in music and from Marcel Moyse to the perils of being an orchestral flutist.

Soloist vs Orchestral flutist

In contrast to most North American orchestras, Bob says that in Europe there is more support for solo playing. In fact to earn a position in a big orchestra like the Berlin Phil, it is generally regarded that you are also a fine soloist. As well, bigger orchestras often have more than one principal flutist, offering time to the musicians to develop their individual sound, style, and musicianship outside the orchestral setting. This seems to be the key to staving off “the orchestra effect.”

Bob’s “aha” moment came in his early days at the Marlboro Festival, a retreat for advanced classical training in Marlboro, Vermont, USA. He performed the Mozart D maj. quartet with the folks who were later to become the Guarneri Quartet. Participants of the festival were of the highest calibre with the likes of Pablo Casals, Hermann Busch, Rudolf Serkin, Marcel Moyse all passing through the festival. When they finished playing the Mozart, Serkin came onstage to congratulate them, Moyse had tears in his eyes, and the rest of the musician audience at the festival were equally moved. Two years later, Bob went back to Marlboro and of course was asked to play it again. In the intervening time he had been active as a principal flutist and this second performance was perfect.

“Perfect tuning, every note in place. Absolutely perfect. Just like a good orchestral player.” Bob said. “But the magic was not there. I could feel it even while I was playing.”

Bob believes it was his time as an orchestral musician, with the emphasis on perfection, attention to detail and subsuming one’s own artistic thought to the whole that affected the emotional impact of this second performance. He left the orchestral world soon after.

“It’s a very different way to play. If you are playing for flute alone, or with piano, in quartet, with orchestra…it’s all different ways of playing and if you are in an orchestra for a long time, you can’t really play solos anymore. With Berlin, they don’t play all the time and can maintain their solo playing, but with most other places, that’s not the case. That’s the main reason I left the Toronto Symphony, they wouldn’t give me time to go play. I was flying all the time and had to fly between rehearsals and concerts…one day I played the Ibert Concerto in Boise Idaho in the afternoon and grabbed a plane after the concert and arrived just in time for the second half of the concert with the Toronto Symphony—because they wouldn’t let me be free.

Bob felt that since his time in orchestras, the playing has become more automatic. “Since then I would occasionally play in orchestras at festivals, each time I realized again ‘Oh my god, how did I survive?’ The players were like machines, no shaping. Good orchestras don’t do that, but a certain type of player doesn’t think musically through the phrase, they haven’t had that kind of training. Most orchestras are not as good as they were when I was in orchestra. They think they’re better but they’re not. Because it’s too democratic. Before the orchestra was the instrument of the conductor… in the days of Koussevitzky and von Karajan and George Szell of course…he [the conductor] picked the players that sounded well together, that matched the sound in his ear. Of course the players complained because it wasn’t democratic.” Bob recalls that in Cleveland Szell was merciless, he’d hire and fire at will. Back then you could recognize an orchestra on the radio as each one had a unique sound. “Not so much anymore,” he feels, “they all sound the same.”

It is also the fatigue of having so much music to learn and so many rehearsals that there is no time to attend to one’s personal development and playing.

Also at issue is the style of playing that exists in each orchestra. During Bob’s time playing in orchestras, there were distinct styles of playing, recognizable in recordings. In North America there was what was colloquially known as the “Philadelphia School,” from the vast numbers of orchestral wind players trained at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the US.

Philadelphia school of phrasing

“When I joined the TSO everybody was from Curtis or closely related to Curtis. That came from [Marcel] Tabuteau, the oboe player [considered the founder of the American school of oboe playing.] He had a system of playing which was {2-3-4-1} not {1-2-3-4} so that the music had a flow over the bar line. If you have 2 players and one is playing {1-2-3-4} and the other is playing {2-3-4-1}, it is perfectly together but never sounds well together. I think the [Toronto] Symphony sounded really good when I was there but even by the time I left, there were musicians who played in a different way and it didn’t blend as well…Nick Fiore [principal flutist] was in there and he studied with Kincaid who was very much the Philadelphia School. That’s what we called it. And back then Toronto was a very good orchestra, even Stravinsky enjoyed coming to hear us because we were very good. Today, if you listen all those wind players are not playing the same and it doesn’t sound as good. They are all great players but they aren’t blending as well—they all have been taught different ways of playing.”

Bob Hated Marcel Moyse

“I started off with Nick Fiori and the Pennsylvania school and deeply endorsing that way of playing and then I went to study with Moyse. And I hated him. After one summer in Marlborough, I swore I’d never go back. I first met him in front of the building on the lawn and he asked me ‘What music do you play?’ I said ‘I play all music’ and he rhymed off all of these pieces… ‘You play Tulou, Demerseman, ….?’ and rhymed off a bunch of composers I’d never heard of and he said ‘How can you say you play all music?’

“I played a piece he handed me, it was the aria from Sappho {Bob sings very straight rhythm} and his comment was ‘Well this young boy he has some talent, but about music he knows nothing.’ He then proceeded to talk for the better part of an hour about me and about music and I could have crawled into a hole and died. Here I was, principal flute of the Vancouver Symphony at 19 and I thought I was something, still with all the humility of a Canadian we still don’t think we’re something, in front of all these great players I just felt terrible. Of course in the end he gets me playing {sings musical version of the music}. I hated him; Didn’t want to see him ever again. Part of the problem was my ignorance, I was so steeped in the Philadelphia school, I couldn’t play the way he [Moyse] wanted me to play: strong, weaker, stronger, weakest. I could only play the Philadelphia way, always {2-3-4-1, 2-3-4-1}. He was absolutely right of course; every phrase does not start on the second beat as it was played in the Philadephia school way.

“I went back home and saw Nick [Fiori] to play duets and he asked me all about my experience at Marlborough. When I finished he asked ‘Do you mind if we both go?’ So we went together in the spring to Paris and played for Moyse. We stayed for a while that time and Nick Fiori fell totally in love with him and I came to understand he was right.” Bob continued to study intermittently with Moyse over the next nine years and was his major influence.

“His approach was totally different, it was looking at every phrase in its own context and approached mostly as with the melodies in operas, which you then apply to other pieces. The music is played the way it comes, the way you see it.

How have you changed?

“As the years went by, I’d say I’m not the same teacher as I was at U of T [University of Toronto, a recognized Canadian school for music]. I’m teaching differently. In some cases I’m even teaching the opposite of what I did. In fact almost everything is the complete opposite now. For example tonguing. Tonguing is still a huge problem for most flutists, probably because of a student’s native language. Still, you don’t have to tongue in your language, you can learn another way. In France most people tongue between the lips and the teeth, claiming that Moyse did it that way but Moyse DIDN’T do it that way! As a matter a fact he got really mad at you if you did. Between the teeth, you don’t trap any air behind your tongue, it’s better to put the tongue at the top of your mouth. Most people have too much of the tip of the tongue and still don’t have enough air…people have to work on having as little tongue as possible touching. That seems so logical but I’m not seeing that from even good players.

“What does it do to your lip? Repeated striking of any area causes numbness in any area of the body. That proves that we can’t tongue that way because it desensitizes the lip too. All my French students, they all changed.

“I’m teaching very little now and when I do I am almost always working on sound and that you have to be in the right shape for the notes. I used to teach you push out your stomach to keep the tension. Now I stress to keep the chest out but not for air, for the resonance for the note and then you push the air out with the stomach. Before I used to say the ribs are not important, for years and years.”

Any piece left on your bucket list that you’d like to play with orchestra?

“After playing the Khachaturian [with a Toronto-based orchestra. Your author had the honour of playing the piccolo part in the orchestra. Bob encored with the Hüe Fantaisie.] I said to myself that I’d like to try the Rodrigo but I don’t know if I could. Well, maybe I could!”

Final Thoughts

“In life, especially in music, you need luck, I said to Sharon Khan, a famous Israeli clarinetist and she said, ‘But you can help luck happen.’ which is true but when the luck comes along you need to be ready. You need to be prepared.”

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About the author

Jaye Marsh

Jaye Marsh

The Red Scribbler

Jaye is currently principal flutist with the Peterborough Symphony, the Summerhill Orchestra and piccoloist for Orchestra Toronto. An active freelancer and chamber musician in Toronto, she has also appeared as a soloist with numerous ensembles including the KSO and Hart House Chamber Orchestra. Jaye has also appeared with a number of ensembles including the Canadian Chinese Society for the Arts Orchestra, the Cirque Musica tour, and Evanescence.