Read the original version of this interview in the New York Flute Club Newsletter
When I was a master’s student at Juilliard in the early ’80s I received a phone call from my former teacher, Deborah Carter, who raved about a star student and asked if this student, Amy Porter, could please stay with me for her Juilliard audition. Upon meeting Amy and hearing her play (she practiced just about nonstop for the three days she was in my apartment), I knew she was a major talent. I have followed her career with interest and awe as she won both national and international competitions, became principal flute at the Atlanta Symphony, established herself as an international recitalist and concerto soloist, and, most recently, earned awards for teaching and scholarship as a professor of flute at the University of Michigan. Amy and I conversed via email during the first weeks of February 2012.
WENDY STERN: The week of March 24, 2012 is certainly a busy one for you…not only are you the guest artist at the NY Flute Fair, you will also be the soloist in the NY premiere of Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears with the American Composers Orchestra at Zankel Hall. How did this concerto [whose title refers to a particularly brutal forced relocation of Native Americans in the late 1830s] come to be written for you?
AMY PORTER: Michael Daugherty [a faculty colleague at the University of Michigan’s School of Music] had mentioned to me for many years that he would like to write a flute concerto for me. He is booked many years in advance as a composer and it took about seven years before he became available for the commission [which was sponsored by a consortium he helped put together]. When Michael composes, he works with instrumentalists to write idiomatically for each instrument. We worked together for two years, listening and playing and understanding the fine line we were walking with American history. He held several reading sessions with a U of M student orchestra to make sure the score was perfect in every way. It was important to both of us to have a beautiful and mournful piece at the same time without sounding [like a] cliché. Michael composed an amazing and unforgettable piece that, so far on my tour, has been met with high approval from the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations. I think it’s one of his best works and I am honored to be the muse.
WS: You have been so active in expanding the existing repertoire for flute…at your gala flute fair recital, you will be playing another work written for you, by David Sampson. Could you tell us about Undercurrents?
AP: David Sampson is a dear friend from my freelance days in NJ and NY. A few years ago he mentioned that he would like to write a piece for me.
WS: Was this also done collaboratively? AP: No, Undercurrents was written without any input from me. David sentittomein2008andIwasableto learn it and program it on my travels the following year. I have played it ever since. It is a wonderful, virtuosic piece for solo flute that has a “theme and variations” motif, and I am so happy to play it for his local flute- playing audience. He is such a popular composer for brass players, so I am excited he finally wrote for solo flute!
I began wanting to fight for classical music and the only way I knew how was by teaching the next generation. As my teaching evolved, many, many ideas came flowing out of me and I felt I had to make them into reality.
WS: Amy, I was so fortunate to attend your masterclass at the 2010 NFA convention in Anaheim…you were so connected with each student and your comments reflected many lenses of observation— physical, visual, aural, and personal—all enabling the student to connect with at least one point to create a pathway to more understanding of the intricacies of their piece and the performance process. You obviously are a dedicated, thorough, and inspired teacher. Can you tell us how some of your pedagogy ideas and ideals have evolved?
AP: I began to develop a seriously strong commitment to teaching when I joined the Atlanta Symphony. When I would teach my private students, I would be invigorated and energized, and felt like it was effortless to connect with people through a personal dynamic. I began enjoying discussing all genres of music, not just orchestral music. I began wanting to fight for classical music and the only way I knew how was by teaching the next generation. As my teaching evolved, many, many ideas came flowing out of me and I felt I had to make them into reality. For instance, when I came to U of M and began teaching the Karg-Elert caprices, I found myself saying the same thing over and over again. My DVD idea came to fruition because I didn’t want to repeat myself for the rest of my life!
WS: How and when did you decide to go to U of M? What were the biggest influences in your teaching process?
AP: I was asked to audition for the position at U of M in 1999, after a friend recommended I audition. U of M had been looking for the right teacher and had a failed search. I was part of the second search. That was 13 years ago and it has flown by faster than any time in my life.
WS: In 2006, you were the recipient of the Henry Russel Award from the U of M for distinguished scholarship and conspicuous ability as a teacher…did you ever imagine you would be so honored as a teacher when you were the principal flutist of the Atlanta symphony? AP: I never thought I would be in a major symphony. I never thought I would be a professor, not to mention a full professor with honors at the greatest university in the country.
WS: What were the biggest influences in your teaching process?
AP: When I arrived at U of M, I used my lessons with Deborah Carter Smith, Samuel Baron, and Jeanne Baxtresser as models for lessons, topics, teaching style, and behavior. I couldn’t have had better role models.
WS: Your Flute Fair masterclass is entitled “The Anatomy of Sound.” This is the same title as your annual workshop for flutists at U of M…how did you come up with this fantastic title and what are some of the unique characteristics of this class?
AP: I was teaching one day in 2000 and was trying to explain what it was that I did to find my own personal sound. I said to the student, “Playing the flute with your own sound has to begin with seeing who you are, and knowing you CAN make a sound from what’s already inside you. It’s … the anatomy. Of sound.” After meeting Jerry Schwiebert [a movement therapist on the U of M faculty] my workshop was born. We offer an opportunity for adult flutists of all ages to participate in master classes, and join in-depth discussions about the study of flute tone, breathing, and body awareness both in flute practice and in performance. Every age adult and performance level (student, amateur, semiprofessional, and professional) can apply but we mainly attract the adult students and teachers.
The repertoire-based workshops focus on all aspects of practicing and performing and the movement workshops feature Professor Schwiebert focusing on performance efficiency, reducing the stress and tension associated with performance, while increasing the student’s capacity for expression. Laura Dwyer teaches the “yoga for flutists” class. This year is our 10th anniversary and I am happy to feature Paula Robison as my guest teacher and recitalist. It is truly my favorite time of year. Playing the flute with your own sound has to begin with seeing who you are, and knowing you CAN make a sound from what’s already inside you. It’s … the anatomy. Of sound.
WS: Do you teach beginners as well?
WS: How did your DVD The ABC’s of Flute come about? AP: I was asked by Larry Clark, the editor-in-chief of Carl Fischer, to please write a script for the flute—they already had an ABC’s of Violin. He had seen my previous DVDs.
WS: And from your description of “The Anatomy of Sound” workshop, it seems you enjoy teaching adults, as well…do you have a preference?
AP: I enjoy teaching adults because they can look to the experiences in their life and understand how music and life relate. [See sidebar by Cheryl Brinn.—Ed.]
WS: When you perform, you project a sense of “oneness” with your instrument as well as amazing endurance. Please share your feelings about physical awareness as well as musical awareness for your own playing as well as that of your students.
AP: I have been deeply affected by all the movement lessons and yoga practices that I have been taught through the years. I am not an expert in these areas, so I hire the experts to work alongside me. This path I teach is simply one that I have taken and it has worked. I am not injured, I hope never to be injured, and I take a preventative and holistic approach to playing the flute.
WS: Upon visiting your web page (www. amyporter.com) I learned that your parents said you sang before you spoke! Did you always want to be a musician? How did you start?
AP: Yes. I always wanted to be a flutist. The flute was introduced to me during an in-school demonstration. I looked at the flute and saw all the fingers move and I was entranced. I made a sound the very first time I played on the headjoint….but I discovered the trumpet the next year and actually played both until I was 17!
WS: I had no idea! You know, I don’t play the trumpet, but I buzz my lips all the time as a warm-up. I wonder how much influence playing trumpet has had in your amazing success as a flutist….
AP: A lot!! I know what it feels like to be a brass player on the flute! I understand the level of engagement the lips must have to support a wholesome sound.
WS: Growing up, were your parents supportive of your music? AP: I grew up in Wilmington, DE, but my father drove me to Philadelphia countless times for rehearsals and to attend Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. It was their dream come true for me to have a career in music, and they revolved their lives around it. My mother lived to be 66, dying of cancer when I was just 26 years old. Then my father passed [away] a year later at age 77. They never learned I won the job in the Atlanta Symphony. My mother used to say, “You should go play in the Boston Symphony.” I would reply, “Mom—you can’t just go and PLAY with the Boston Symphony!” In 1994, after winning my prize at the Kobe Competition, I played six weeks with the Boston Symphony as its principal flute. [When] I played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at Tanglewood, my old stomping ground, with Christopher Eschenbach, I looked up at the stars and said, “OK mom, I guess I can play with the Boston Symphony.”
WS: What kinds of things do you enjoy when you are not playing or teaching?
AP: Cooking with my boyfriend Chef Michael, eating lots of food, working out, staying active, traveling, reading, playing Scrabble, doing crosswords, and taking care of my 16-month-old black lab Lillian.
WS: What kind of advice do you have for flute club members?
AP: Thank your local flute club! Get out and serve your community of flutists! These nonprofit flute clubs serve as the roots of flute playing in this country and are a resource for so many flute lovers. I have always known that if you receive great information, you must pass it along to someone else. If you have talent you must inspire others to find theirs. Flute clubs need to stay enriched by a supportive membership and board with enthusiastic flutists who serve as leaders in the profession of music performance and music education. I am so happy that the NYFC is enriched by the leaders that are in place today. I have enjoyed working with everyone and, as a former NYFC member [two years in the mid ’80s and two years in the early ’90s], I look forward to seeing old and new friends alike in March.
WS: Amy, thank you so much for talking with me.
Wendy Stern studied with Deborah Carter Smith, Amy Porter’s first teacher, before coming to the Juilliard School to study with Samuel Baron and Julius Baker.