I’ve Heard That: An exploration of greatness and how it is changing

Judging   •  Teaching  •  Enjoying  •  Admiring  •  Worshipping

All musicians listen somewhere along this spectrum. As a flutist, where do you listen on this spectrum? As a child, what level of flutist did you think you would become? Who did you listen to? Did you want to be like them? Were you able to listen critically enough to know what you wanted to improve in your own playing? What distinguishes between you, a great flutist, and a master? What makes a good flutist great? What makes a master? Can a master do no wrong? Is it the amount of repertoire they can play? Can masters really just pick up anything anyone has ever written or just wrote and sightread it? If they could, that must be very boring. Is there no challenge they face?  Do they listen from on high and find every way they could “fix” something in every performer? Is it their way or the highway? Differences can be appreciated and admired, but then does admiration and encouragement turn into comaradery or rivalry at the peak of greatness? 

When you’ve heard one “master’s” Poulenc Sonata, have you heard them all?

These are a lot of questions. 

What would happen to our perceived hierarchy if we kept asking these questions?

When I attend conventions, performances and competitions, there are so many great performers who show their agility by playing the old standard repertoire juxtaposed with the abstract: New repertoire of aurally expressed emotion portrayed by variances in sound production and tonal modulation organized in complex rhythmic freedoms that line up to create, for the listener, a range of feeling somewhere between beauty, awe, curiosity, and anxiety. Thank goodness we are finally digging up things written by people we have not heard of! Is it the flexibility of this performer who exhibits such profound range in ability that makes one admirable? Do we judge superiority based on what is familiar or comfortable for us? 

What makes a performer great?

Can someone really do something different with the standards or have we heard it all; would anything different even be “acceptable”? These standards are so often taught to students that young performers get slapped with “do it this way” when they are taking chances in exploring their own musicality and ability to express their emotions. When do we allow them the freedom to express their emotions musically without judgement? What discriminations do we place on the young master? Beyond technique, air control, breath capacity, flexibility, musicality, phrasing, etc. there lies…

The tone.

Tone is special. How a person’s particular sound responds to a particular metal, or combination of metals combined with the shape of the embouchure hole and riser produces an infinite array of tones that are unique and define the person. Within that unique tone, the depth and range of the variety of emotions that can be portrayed with that one special, sparkling, projected tone; is that what creates greatness? 

There are so many great flutists that sound the same, that can play anything with ease, that would be incredible in any orchestra and may or may not have a resume that reflects their artistry and mastery. So, what makes someone bankable, admirable, worthy of saying, “This is the way you should play it, like ________”? What makes a flutist great? Is it that we know their name? That they have been in a famous orchestra? That they have toured and played for massive audiences? That they can play anything? That they are kind or humble? How did they get those opportunities? Are they self-made? Did they graduate from a prestigious university? Why are so many of them men? Is it perception? If they did the phrasing of the young student mentioned before, would it be called genius? When you’ve heard one, have you heard them all? 

The internet is flooded with incredible (and not so incredible) flutists. I once did an experimental critical listening and writing lesson with my students. I had them listen to ten videos each of the Telemann Sonata in F, first movement. Many of them picked a flutist that was overconfident in their abilities, but had an eye-catching video, which I thought was hilarious, but they chose this person as winning the competition. What does the general public think or know about great vs. masters? Is the performance community highlighting spectacle? The field is dense. Who rises to the top and why? Because they are good, you say? Because they are better than the rest? Because their personality is attractive when they play? If a master came and had a blind audition, would that person be recognized as being great above all others in the room and would their Mozart be heralded as “non-disagreeable”? Would they win? I often imagine planting myself into an All-State audition room. I wonder if my artistic and tonal maturity would win or at least be recognized? 

Are there great musicians who quit because they got bored, frustrated, or are geniuses in other areas? Are we at a loss because we will never hear their interpretation of Poulenc? Can anything different be done that is not excessive? What does it take to be a master and to reach a level where everything you do becomes admired? Names of the past will be spoken, but they can be and are surpassed because times, tastes, technologies, and abilities change. Will there ever be another [_________]? No, because they were a product of their time and their contributions forever changed the flute world and raised the bar for the next generation to hurdle past. 

Maybe I just answered all of my own questions.

About the Author, Rebecca Cauthron:

Rebecca Cauthron is an adjunct flute professor at Dallas College Mountain View Campus (7 years), flute instructor at Duncanville ISD (25 years), and is in her first year teaching in the Austin area. She also teaches early childhood music, performs with local ensembles, was a founding developer of the NFA’s Youth Flute Day, and has written The Potential Contender, which bridges the gap from elementary music to an intermediate flutist.