The Flute Academy

Fluterview with James Kortum

Apr 05, 2016

James Kortum is currently Lecturer in Flute at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Originally from the United States, James came to Australia in 1977 to become Principal Flute with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Subsequently he has been Principal Flute with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and Second Flute with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He has also been Principal flute with the Hunter Sinfonia, Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra, Pacific Opera Orchestra and Also Guest Principal Flute with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (New Zealand). James also has been the Principal flute with the Sydney Productions of Phantom of the Opera and Fiddler on the Roof. Prior to his current appointment at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, James was Lecturer in Flute at the University of Newcastle Conservatorium of Music for eight years. While at Newcastle University, James completed a Masters of Arts (Music) degree in 2005. He wrote the flute text The Purposeful Flautist: Technique to Interpretation. In 2014 James, along with Andrew Macleod, Principal Piccolo of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra have created The Complete Flute course for advanced flautists in Macedon, Victoria. In 2015 James and Andrew will be running courses in Macedon and Sydney. James is also a passionate yogi and in 2012 received the Advanced Diploma in Yoga Teacher Training from the Yoga Institute (Cammeray, NSW). Now teaching yoga classes for musicians, James teaches classes at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Australian Institute of Music. He has also given classes in Buonconvento, Italy, the Australian Flute Festival (2013, 2015) and Rice University, Shepherd School of Music (Houston, Texas)

What do you think are your greatest achievements as a flute player?

I have had a wonderful career as flautist and teacher spanning fifty years. There have been numerous personal performance highlights, but if looking at my “achievements”, I would say my most proud achievements have been through my teaching. Over the many years I have taught, I have had so many wonderful students. It has been my pleasure to share the love of flute playing with them. The reward of helping my students grow and develop as musicians and create their own life in music is very satisfying.

What do you think are the most important attributes in a student who you believe could be successful as a professional flute player?

The attributes to becoming a successful performer begins with the passion for the flute and music making. In learning anything we do is a step by step process. There will be hills and valleys along the way and tenacity, or the ability to keep going and believe in oneself, is an essential attribute to possess. From the beginning student to the seasoned professional, the most essential attribute for a successful career is the discipline of practice. The hours spent in the practice room far exceed the time we actually spend on the concert stage. What I personally find exciting in being a musician is there is always something new to learn. We never “arrive” as performing artists. We are the perpetual student! The delight in finding a new tone colour or nuance in phrase in a work that is frequently performed brings a freshness to that performance, plus encourages us to dig deeper into the musical message beyond the notes.

Who are the flute players you find inspirational and why?

In this day and age there are so many wonderful flute players, which show how flute playing has developed over the years through the lineage of master teachers and performers such as Marcel Moyse, William Kincaid, Geoffrey Gilbert, William Bennett and Joseph Mariano to name few. Philip Sieburg was a seasoned professional who to my good fortune when he retired from his performing career moved to the town next to where I lived. Every lesson with Mr. Sieburg was an inspiration and for the seven years I studied with him, he always ended the lesson with a duet which sent me home on Cloud Nine! I still have his sound in my ear. It was Mr. Sieburg’s patience and dedication to the art of teaching that has influenced my passion for teaching. My other main teacher was Donald Peck, Principal Flute Emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I studied with Mr. Peck at DePaul University. Mr. Peck was an amazing teacher and performer. It was said of Mr. Peck’s playing he was a musician who played the flute. In the four years of study with Mr. Peck his artistry was a constant inspiration. He challenged me on all levels of my playing, but always stressed the music must come first. He was a master of providing solutions to challenges and getting me to think “outside the box”. Mr. Peck played with a vast palate of tonal colours, which inspired me through my studies to explore the flutes potential in sound and colour. I am very grateful to have had two amazing teachers in my formative years. In brief looking at the flautists of today, some personal favourites are Emily Beynon, Michael Cox, Leone Buyse, Andrew Liberknecht, Thies Roorda, Rien de Reede, Marianne Gedigian and Denis Bouriakov. The list could go on and on, but with all these artists the sincerity and integrity of their music making and the sharing of their voice through the flute never ceases to inspire.

When you’ve had some time off, how do you quickly get your playing back up to standard?

After a break, I get back into my practice very gently. I always say to my students it is what you put in your practice over the amount of time spent practicing that is important. It is knowing what you are trying to achieve and having the awareness of the desired result. Break or not, my practice always starts with simple exercises or melodies to get me in touch with my breath and use of air. For wind
players in particular it is all about the air. No matter what I am playing, I like to connect with the natural ebb and flow of the air. The air is the fuel of our sound. In my practice, when starting that first note, no matter the number or speed of notes after the initial attack, I like to exhale before I inhale and wait for the natural inhalation and release of the sound. At the conclusion of the note or notes played, I pause briefly on the final note being aware that the release is open and singing, before going on to the next note or phrase. Spending time observing the breath and focusing on the quality of the breath intake, I find the concern of having that “full breath” occurs more effortlessly. By honouring the “natural” pauses in the breath, I also get in touch with the feeling in my body of the breath, noticing how open and receptive the breath can be without “gasping” it in on the intake. I find the sound has more resonance or ring as the body I more relaxed and can be used as a resonating chamber. Having spent time in this fashion, I find within a shorter period of time I feel efficiently warmed up and ready to go on to whatever repertoire I am working.

What is the best advice you’ve ever had from a teacher?

The best advice I have received was being told, “You have to be in it to win it”. With age and experience I now want to add that when those performances, competitions or auditions come up, you must also have the space to be able to put all the effort into putting your best foot forward. For whatever reason if you do not have the time to prepare as you would like, it might be better to let that particular opportunity go. There will always be more opportunities. If you rely on “hoping” it all goes right, chances are when under pressure the experience might not go as you would have hoped. You not only want to be in the best playing shape, but also be in the best head space. There are so many books written on peak performance, but one of my favourites is The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. I read this book while studying at University and to this day still find it to be helpful to both my own performances and teaching.

If you were to give a beginner flute student one piece of advice, what would it be?

To every beginner flute player the best advice I could give is to establish good playing habits right from the start. This can be achieved by having a regular practice routine. The practice session is the time to establish the good foundations or building blocks to flute playing including, tone production, finger technique, articulation, posture, hand position and breathing. If bad habits are in place it is always harder to rectify them. To do anything well there must be some effort involved. Apart from the importance of practice, never lose sight of the joy in making music.

If you were to give an advanced flute student one piece of advice, what would it be?

To every advanced player my advice is to not skip steps in your practice. As a student progresses the challenges are greater, but often the goal is to be able to perform the piece “tomorrow”, often at the expense of skipping the essential preparatory steps. Remember when learning new works it is more important to program in all the right notes, rhythm, dynamics and articulations, etc. Do not sacrifice technicality for musicality! If all the foundational aspects are thoughtfully programmed in, it will be easier to achieve the desired tempo and musical intentions resulting in a confident performance. I always tell my students to make sure that they are in control of the music rather than the music is controlling them.

Do you have any advice that has helped you to prevent repetitive strain injury?

Fortunately, I have not had any repetitive strain injuries, but do have certain postural habits that I must be mindful. Since
the flute is an asymmetrical instrument, all flautists must be thoughtful in how they hold the flute. Especially at a young age we often are more flexible in posture and possibly for years can get away with less than ideal posture and positioning, but after years of playing those patterns can become well and truly entrenched causing problems down the track. I recommend when working on faster passages to always start slowly, first focusing on the note accuracy and efficient hand and finger positioning. Do not just do mindless repetitions! When building up speed make sure the fingers stay in the same relaxed position as when playing slower. I often see when people play faster their finger position changes dramatically looking more like a “missile site” and often creating technical “smears” that were not present at the slower tempo. Working for precision in the early stages of practice will in the long term result in being able to achieve the desired result in temp and technical ease in execution.

What sort of daily exercise do you practice on the flute?

My daily practice routine commences with a variety of harmonic exercises, followed by a selection of simple melodies, operatic arias or slow movements. This gets me blowing, thinking musically and ready to move into the “technical” portion of my practice. For technical practice I rotate a mixture of Taffanel et Gaubert Daily Exercises, Maquarre Daily Exercises and Reichert Seven Daily Exercises, plus articulation exercises, which can be incorporated in the previous technical exercises. The beginning of my practice session is time to explore the all important playing foundations and always trying to push the boundaries. After covering the mentioned exercises, I then like to do some studies, such as Andersen, Hugues, JeanJean and Karg-Elert. I find by working through studies it helps me in problem solving. After all of that foundation practice, I then work on whatever repertoire I am preparing for the next performance. Depending on the execution demands of this repertoire, I will give myself flexibility to vary the earlier portion of my practice to cater for the challenges at hand. Remember DO NOT just go through the motions when practicing. Mindless repetition is a waste of time and could lead to sloppy execution and postural problems! As mentioned before, “practice with purpose and awareness”! Each time you make an improvement, you have put another building block in place to your playing foundation!

What's the funniest or weirdest thing that has ever happened to you as a professional player?

One of the funniest moments I have ever had on stage was when playing in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra we did a family concert where we had to dress as a tv or movie star. As a flute section we decided to appear as the “Flutestones” and I came on stage in a giant dinosaur outfit. I will never forget the “gasp” from the audience when I walked out on stage. It’s probably the most attention any second flute player has ever received!

Top photo courtesy The Flute Tree. Other photos courtesy James Kortum.


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