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First in a 10-part series

Flutist Mindy Kaufman: 'Music is a language'

New York Philharmonic flutist Mindy Kaufman joined us Friday in a live chat about her work. Click here to read the transcript of that conversation.

February 23, 2001
Web posted at: 10:19 a.m. EST (1519 GMT)

In this story:

Piano at 7, flute at 8

First job

Orchestra life


(CNN) -- The New York Philharmonic is a company of performers -- a company similar, in many ways, to those that employ most American workers. The Philharmonic makes and distributes a product: classical music, in live performance and on recordings. It has a highly-skilled primary work force: 106 virtuoso musicians -- The Players.

Player Profile
Mindy Kaufman

Mindy Kaufman, flutist and piccoloist

Hometown: White Plains, New York
Age: 44
Age at which she began to play flute: 8
Early music education: White Plains Public Schools
Formal music training: Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York
Professional resumé:
1976 -- while still a student at Eastman, joined Rochester Philharmonic as Second Flutist
1979 -- at age 22, joined the New York Philharmonic as Piccoloist 1989-90 -- on one-season leave from New York Philharmonic, served as Principal Flutist, Milwaukee Symphony
Number of years with New York Philharmonic: 21
Favorite pieces to play: Mahler symphonies; Shostakovich symphonies
Recordings: Several recordings with New York Philharmonic; works by Dvorak and Kodaly with Milwaukee Symphony; movie soundtracks: "Aladdin," "The Cotton Club," "The Untouchables," "Cape Fear," "A Time to Kill"

Ten of those musicians will be featured here at in a Q&A series beginning with this article and appearing every Friday through April 13. These Philharmonic musicians share unusual insights into their jobs: the occupational hazards, the workday routines, the challenges and the rewards of playing an instrument, working in an orchestra and making music for a living.

First Player: Mindy Kaufman, who, like countless girls in the '60s and '70s took up the flute, but, unlike most of her school bandmates, made this woodwind instrument with the silvery sound her life's work.

What is your average work week like?

We work five or six days a week: We rehearse as an orchestra about 20 hours a week, and we have concerts three or four nights a week. We work on Saturday nights and almost every holiday -- if you don't want to work on holidays, if you want to go away on the weekends, you shouldn't be a musician. And then there's practice time.

How much do you practice? Do you practice every day?

Like Horowitz used to say, "If I miss one day, I know it; if I miss two days, my wife knows it; and if I miss three days, everybody knows it." I will practice anywhere from one to three hours a day.

My practicing consists of a bunch of exercises. It's almost like playing tennis, where you have to work on your serve, your backhand, your forehand, the lob -- you have all these different shots, and you have to work on all of them, because they're all part of the game. With the flute, I have to work on playing low register (low notes), high register, and middle register, so I can play loud and soft in every register.

I work on fingers, so the coordination is perfect -- the fingers all have to move together, at the same time. I'll do some scales, I'll do some intervals ("jumps" from one note to another). One of the challenges of playing the flute or piccolo is to get those intervals smooth. And that's all done with our lips, the way we hold our lips -- we call it our embouchure ("OM-buh-shoor"). Another challenge is to crescendo (increase the volume) and diminuendo (decrease the volume) without having the pitch change. It's the strength of the muscles in your embouchure that control that, so most of my exercises focus on my embouchure.


Piano at 7, flute at 8

graphic Mindy Kaufman talks of many players in the New York Philharmonic having fellow musicians as spouses or lovers. Do you think that, in general, careerists have better relationships with people in their own or other vocations?

Same vocations: You can share more of your life with someone if you have a profession in common.
Different vocations: You get a healthy variety if your partner is in another line of work from your own.
View Results


How old were you when you started playing the flute?

I started pretty young -- I was 8. I had started playing piano when I was 7, so by the time I started the flute, I could read music, and had already had some exposure to music.

Why the flute?

I don't remember really knowing what the flute sounded like, but I think it just seemed like a neat idea, so I picked it. My twin brother was going to play clarinet, so I wanted to do something different.

Where did you learn to play?

In the public schools in White Plains, New York -- I started in a band in elementary school. A lot of people have maybe one good teacher, one influential teacher -- and I had all good teachers. I had so many, starting in elementary school all the way up to White Plains High School.

In the school bands you played in, were there about 20 flutes -- all played by girls?

Not quite 20, but yeah! (laughs). At that time -- this was in the early '60s -- you just knew that if you were a girl, you didn't play the trumpet or the trombone. If you were a girl, you played the flute or the violin or the clarinet. Girls were definitely steered toward certain instruments.

At what point did you decide to study flute seriously?

graphic The term "flute" can refer to many instruments, a family of them. "Piccolo" is a more precise term for a particular instrument. Here, from, are details of the development of these instruments.

I started to get serious when I was about 14 or 15. I was practicing a lot -- and I didn't have to be told to practice. It was something that I liked to do, although it was still like a hobby.

And at what point did you first think about making this your career?

When I was in 11th grade, which is when you start thinking about colleges. I just thought, "I am so much better at this than anything else."

So you're a professional musician by default?

(Laughs) Clearly I had a passion for it -- and I didn't have a passion for anything else in life. I didn't know, in 11th grade in White Plains High School, how it was going to work out -- yeah, maybe I was one of the best flutists in White Plains, but on a national level? I never asked anybody, "Do you think I can make it in music?" or "Do you think I should do this?" It was a calling. It was just clear to me that this is what I was going to do.


First job


See other installments in the series

Week 1:
Flute, Mindy Kaufman
Week 2:
Cello, Carter Brey
Week 3:
Trumpet, Phil Smith
Week 4:
Bassoon, Judy LeClair
Week 5:
Bass, David Grossman
Week 6:
Horn, Philip Myers
Week 7:
English Horn, Tom Stacy
Week 8:
Violin, Glenn Dicterow
Week 9:
Trombone, Jim Markey
Week 10:
Percussion, Joe Pereira

You said "flutist" -- what happened to the term "flautist?"

We like "flutist" now -- I would say most flutists like to be called "flutist" now.

What was your first job as a flutist?

I actually got my first job in the Rochester Philharmonic when I was still a student, going into my junior year at Eastman (School of Music, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York). So when I graduated from Eastman I had a job, which was really fortunate -- there aren't that many jobs that come up per year for this instrument.

When this job with the New York Philharmonic came up, I said, "This has my name on it."

Apparently it did: You successfully competed against 60 other piccolo players for the open position as piccoloist. And when you joined the Philharmonic in 1979, weren't you the youngest member of the orchestra?

I was 22 -- I was about six or seven months out of school. I've now been with the Philharmonic for 21 years.

How hard is your job? What are the especial challenges of playing the flute?

First of all, the breath control is demanding -- people don't realize this, but the flute takes a tremendous amount of air. It's a funny thing to see these little girls, 7 or 8 years old, playing the flute -- I remember getting dizzy when I first started. It's very much like a sport, where you have to do it a certain amount every day just to be in shape enough to do it.

Are there any occupational hazards to playing the flute and piccolo?

Some people do develop tendinitis, or different kinds of repetitive stress injury. But you can get tendinitis from anything: You can sit at a computer and get carpal tunnel syndrome; you can play tennis and get tennis elbow -- and there's nothing wrong with the racket.

I'm very aware of how I hold the instrument, and how I sit -- if you learn to sit properly, you can avoid a lot of injuries.

Do you have a special chair?

TEST Here are excerpts from two New York Philharmonic Special Editions recordings, one prominently featuring the flute, the other the piccolo. The latter instrument's work in "The Stars and Stripes Forever" is one of the best known orchestral lines in the United States -- we hear it annually on the Fourth of July. Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," opens with a languid flute familiar to anyone who knows the impressionist style of modern classical music.

Flute -- Claude Debussy's "Prélude á l'après-midi d'un faune," from "New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcasts 1923-1987"

WAV sound

Piccolo -- John Philip Sousa's "The Stars & Stripes Forever," from "New York Philharmonic: An American Celebration," Volume 2, CD 5

WAV sound


I do. It's a special chair with a flat back. Since I'm not that tall, I got one sized for my height, which is about 5 feet 5 inches. It's so important -- your sitting comes out in your playing.

And do you do any special exercises?

I practice Alexander Technique (a mind-body technique centered on proper spinal alignment). And I do go to the gym a couple of times a week -- being physically fit helps.

What happens if you get sick, get a cold?

It depends on what we're playing: If I had to play something that was slow, with long breathing lines, it would be hard. I think that when you know you can't get sick, you don't get sick. Still, if one of us has a piece or a part that's really hard, we'll give copies to other members of our section -- we all have to cover for each other, in case someone can't play.


Orchestra life

Can you characterize the majority of the parts for flutes and piccolos? How often do flutes get the melody? Or solos? How often do you play the lace and frills?

The piccolo often plays the icing on the cake -- the frills -- because the piccolo (sound) can probably carry above 75 percent of the orchestra.

The New York Philharmonic's performance home is Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York  

Flutes do, almost always, have the melody. When you have an instrument that's in that register, like the violin, you're going to be playing the melody -- or a counter-melody. And usually, there are a couple of flute solos every concert - maybe not big ones, but there's usually something.

Other times, even for the first flute, our role is to be in the background: Just because we play a treble instrument doesn't mean our 'voice' should be heard all the time, or is more important than another voice.

Do you like most of the parts the flute has to play?

Most all the time, yes. Sometimes we are playing a piece that I'm not too crazy about. But you just do it. It's not a long-running show -- we don't have to do it for three years. We just have to do it for a week.

How different is playing the piccolo from playing the flute?

The fingerings are the same on both, and the range of the flute and the piccolo overlaps for about two octaves. But the sound of the two of them is so different -- just because you're playing the same notes, doesn't mean they'll sound the same.

How many flutes and piccolos do you own?

I have two flutes, two piccolos, and an alto flute. My primary flute I've had since '86 -- I bought it at an auction at Christie's (auction house in New York City). It was made in 1940 -- I consider it kind of an heirloom. The piccolo I have is made by someone who lives in Boston and used to work for one of the big flute companies. Oddly enough, the best flutes in the world are still made by companies in Boston.

Instrument Profile

Player's Primary Flute

Made: 1940, Boston, by Verne Q. Powell
Made of: Sterling silver, with gold head joint
Purchased: At auction at Christie's, New York, 1986
Cost: $10,000 for flute; $6,000 for gold head joint


Player's Primary Piccolo

Made: 1995, Boston, by Burkart-Phelan Flutes
Made of: Aged African grenadilla wood
Purchased: From the manufacturer
Cost: $4,000

What are your instruments made of?

The piccolo's made of grenadilla wood. The flute is made of sterling silver, and I have a gold head-joint on it.

What's required by way of maintenance?

When you play, moisture collects inside the instrument; you have to clean the moisture out daily. And the pads (on the underside of the keys) change with the weather. All sides of the pad have to hit evenly; if they don't, you have to glue little pieces on the underside of the pad. It's a lot of work and a real art -- and there aren't too many people who can do it well. The person I've used to do it for 25 years just died. I'm using a friend of his now, but I'm still heartbroken over that.

How does your work compare to office work, or factory work? Do you have to attend meetings? Travel for work? Wear a uniform? Punch a clock?

Well, we have to be punctual -- if a concert starts at 8 p.m., we can't arrive at five after 8. You're late one or two times, and you're out, you'll be fired.

And we have a "uniform" for concerts. The men don't have too much discretion -- they have to wear a tux or tails. We women have to wear long-sleeved all-black tops or dresses, with a long skirt. Every time I see black clothes that will work, I buy them!

As far as travel, we travel about six weeks a year, when we go on tour.

Is there a "corporate" hierarchy within the orchestra? Do you have the equivalent of a supervisor?

I guess that would be the principals in the orchestra -- they head each section; they make the musical decisions about how the section will play. But it's not like you get an office memo, telling you what to do -- it's more of a discussion. And ultimately, the conductor is the "boss."

What about job security?

We have job security -- after two years in the orchestra, we have tenure. I'm tenured now, so I don't have to worry about saying the wrong thing to somebody and losing my job over it.

What about opportunities for career advancement -- in this "company" of players or another orchestra?

That can be limited -- mostly because there aren't that many positions in an orchestra, and they don't open often. I've been here at this orchestra for 21 years -- so my position has not been open for 21 years, and might not be for another 21 years. A slot as a principal player might not open up for 50 years

graphic The flute and other woodwinds sit near the center of the orchestra when in performance. Have a look at flutist Mindy Kaufman's position on stage.

And what about the market for your "product" -- is there enough demand for the live performances of classical music you supply?

I hope so. Music is not the part of the education system it once was -- and we see the effects of that when the kids grow up to be adults, and don't really care about classical music. I hope that the education powers-that-be somehow realize how important music is -- and not just because some study shows that you might score better on your math test. Music is as important as language -- it is a language. Music is an essential part of an education.

How hard is it to do this work and balance your professional life with your personal life?

I'm not married. When I was younger, in my 20s, marriage and children were not top on the list -- I put it off, and put it off. But I'm not saying you have to do that to be a professional musician. Most people in the orchestra are married, or have some kind of relationship. A lot of musicians are with other musicians -- I think probably because other musicians understand the time commitment; understand why you have to practice that piece for four hours, and practice it now.

What music do you listen to when you're "off-duty?"

Classical music. And I love Latin music. But because I'm around music a lot, I don't put it on much when I'm home. I like quiet.

Next week's Player: Carter Brey, Principal Cellist



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