#FluteFridays: Interview – Dr. Melissa Keeling

Happy Friday, fluties!

This post is going to be the first of its kind. I put a feeler out on Twitter about doing interviews with other flutists, and the response seemed to be pretty good. So here we are!

For the past two weeks, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of speaking by email with Dr. Melissa Keeling, electric flutist and Trevor James International Artist, about her attraction to the flute, the trajectory of her career path, and a few other things. Check out her answers below!

  1. So for those who may not be familiar with you or your work, would you mind introducing yourself and talking a little bit about what you do?
    My name is Melissa Keeling and I’m a flutist, composer, improviser, and educator currently living in New Jersey. As a flutist, I perform a wide range of repertoire, including orchestral and chamber music. I also compose music for the electric flute, which is a setup involving guitar and vocal effects pedals such as delay and looping. In addition to playing flute, I also teach K-8 music at a local elementary school.
  2. When did you first start taking an interest in the flute? Was it a particular experience?
    I have always been obsessed with music, even from a very young age. My mom is a pianist and my family is always singing. I had a radio in my bedroom and would lie awake at night listening to Tchaikovsky on NPR. When I was in the sixth grade, I was finally old enough to join the school band. I initially wanted to play trombone, but my parents convinced me to play the flute, saying that it would be easier to carry on the school bus. I began taking lessons in the eighth grade, but wasn’t serious about the flute until about age 15.
  3. What was your “a-ha” moment, when you knew you wanted to pursue music – be it flute or composition – as a career?
    When I was in high school, Robert Dick performed a recital in my small hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Walking into his recital, I had no idea who he was or what his music sounded like. I was completely blown away by his virtuosity and creativity. I remember watching him play Flames Must Not Encircle Sides, which features circular breathing, and I was enthralled from the first note to the last. I walked out of that recital with the conviction that I would become a musician and this is the type of music I would play. A few years later, when I was a junior in high school, I attended a performance by Rhonda Larson and was awestruck at the sheer beauty and freedom of her music. I had tears in my eyes during the standing ovation at the end of her concert, as I realized that this is what I was meant to do – to play the flute. I entered college not as a performance major, but as a music education major, a decision I am so glad that I made. I didn’t start composing until many years later, but the seed was planted.
  4. Let’s talk about education for a moment. You have a DMA from The Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY) and studied with Robert Dick there. How did you know that the DMA was the right course of action for you after your Master’s degree?
    There was still so much I wanted to learn about music. I wanted to take my playing and academics to the next level, and felt that getting the DMA was the next logical step. The opportunity to study with Robert Dick, and especially to write a dissertation dedicated to Robert’s work, felt like a dream come true. I was excited for the adventure of it. Having grown up and lived my entire life in the rural south, moving to New York was something I personally needed.
  5. When did you first take an interest in electric flute, both as a performer and a composer? When did you know it would be something you’d make a major aspect of your professional life?
    When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I felt that I’d acquired a solid technique, theoretical knowledge, and an understanding of phrasing and expression – but strangely, I didn’t feel artistically fulfilled. As much as I love playing Mozart, Telemann, and Fauré, I felt like I wasn’t truly expressing myself. I was just finishing my music education degree, and was ready to put the flute away and focus primarily on teaching.
    I was dating an electric guitarist at the time (now my husband), and he had an array of effects pedals. I was intrigued and asked him if there was a way to use the pedals with the flute. After a few weeks of experimenting with different microphones and amps, I had a functional setup. From the first moment that I heard the delayed and distorted flute tone come through the amp, I fell in love with the sound and infinite possibilities. There is very little electric flute repertoire, so I realized I would have to write my own material. I had minimal improvisation and composition experience, but immediately knew that I had found my musical voice. It was what I had always looked for in music – freedom, creativity, and expression. Once I opened the door, there was no going back.
  6. You’re a composer, a flutist, an International Trevor James artist, a K&K Sound endorsed artist, and a school teacher. Between teaching, performing, composing, recording, and keeping up an active social media presence, you have a lot on your plate. How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
    Everything is connected. Balance and mindfulness are crucial for me to stay productive and motivated. If my body is in pain or I’m feeling disconnected from loved ones, it affects my music. I have experienced intense periods of burnout, and I’ve learned to listen to my body and take time out for family, exercise, and relaxation. I try to use my time wisely and efficiently, set clear goals for myself, and am always making lists. I listen to as much music as possible, especially non-flute music. It’s often during these times that I find inspiration for new projects. “Time off” doesn’t necessarily mean “time wasted,” so there’s nothing to feel guilty about.
  7. Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur? How do you manage both your entrepreneurial endeavors and your own practice time?
    Yes, I consider myself an entrepreneur. In addition to composing and performing, I also produce all my recordings and videos myself in my home studio. Though it’s very time consuming, it allows me to have total control over the final product. I love what I do, so it doesn’t seem like work.
  8. Let’s talk a little more about practice time. Do you have any particular warmups you use every day? Preferred method/etude books? How do you tailor your warmups to what you practice each day?
    I vary my routine every day, but if I play nothing else, I play fundamentals. That’s the cornerstone of everything.
    My rotation of exercises includes whistle tones, harmonics, singing and playing, arpeggios, tone development, transcription, transposition, intonation, articulation, and multiphonics. I spend a good deal of time on scales – major, all forms of minor, chromatic, modes, pentatonic, blues, whole-tone, and octatonic. I like to invent my own exercises combining multiple techniques, such as playing harmonics on whistle tones, or singing in harmony with the flute. I do all this from memory so that I am fully present in the moment – warmups are a meditation for me.
    Improvisation is a central component of my warmup, for both tone development and technique; my favorite way to practice a scale is to improvise on it. I often include the Glissando Headjoint as part of my warmup routine, and have invented my own set of exercises for it. I love playing on this headjoint – it has a technique entirely of its own.
    Method books that I find myself returning to are the Taffanel-Gaubert, Moyse’s “Tone Development Through Interpretation,” Robert Dick’s “Tone Development Through Extended Techniques,” the Trevor Wye series, and Reichert’s “Seven Daily Exercises,” op. 5. My favorite etudes are the Paganini “24 Caprices” op. 1, Berbiguer “18 Exercises,” and the Karg-Elert “30 Caprices” op. 107. 
  9. How do you organize your practice, especially with the recording you do? Do you focus more on particular warmups, excerpts, or pieces?
    My practice begins by setting goals for that session and stretching, and then fundamentals. I spend some time on etudes and repertoire, and finish with electric flute, alto flute, glissando headjoint, and my own compositions. Ideally, I practice for one hour, multiple times per day. The one-hour limit is enough time to do substantial work, but short enough to maintain mental focus and intensity.
    There is a cycle for how I produce recordings – the creation stage, the practice stage, the recording stage, the editing stage, and then the release. I usually have more than one piece in development at any given time, each at a different stage.
  10. What advice would you have for young students who may be struggling with motivation, or wondering if music is what they’re supposed to do?
    Relying on music as a way of making a living is not for the faint of heart! If you choose to pursue another career, you can still make music. But, if you wake up in the morning and think, “I can’t possibly imagine doing anything else besides music – I HAVE to do music,” then go for it! The ebb and flow of motivation is natural. During times I’m feeling less motivated, I turn to what I love most about music. For me, this usually means improvising on the electric flute, but sometimes it means playing my favorite classical repertoire or listening to my favorite band. Know what makes you happy, and go there. Music should be a joyful experience.Tom Petty said, “Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life,” and I agree. I’ve traveled all over the world and met the most incredible people because of my life as a musician. Dream what you want to achieve and make it happen. You are limited only by your own imagination.

You can check out more of Dr. Keeling’s work on her website, www.melissakeeling.com, and her YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/user/sonyqTV!

That’s all for now, folks! Until next time!


#FluteFridays: Flute Fest 2019 Recap

Happy Friday, fluties!

Almost a week ago, we held our second annual Flute Fest here at the MU School of Music, and it was a fantastic success. We had presentations from multiple MU alumni, including Ryan Koesterer, Karen Sanders, Dr. Amy Knopps, Kathleen Basi, and Lisa Thill Franck, plus a presentation on the Prokofiev Sonata from Dr. Hannah Porter Occeña, a workshop on flute maintenance and repair with our featured vendor Jerry Rowden, a masterclass with our own Prof. Alice K. Dade, and a wonderful lecture-recital on the glissando headjoint with the one and only Melissa Keeling!

Here are a few photos of the day, all courtesy of our photographer Levi Civjan:

Dr. Hannah Porter Occeña presents on the Prokofiev Sonata
MU alumnus Ryan Koesterer presents on the life of a military musician
Our featured vendor Jerry Rowden presents on maintenance and repair.
MU alumna Karen Sanders gives a workshop on Alexander Technique and Flute.
Truman State senior Donald Rabin performs Prokofiev for Prof. Alice K. Dade in masterclass.
Eighth-grader Maggie Langel receives instruction from Prof. Alice K. Dade in masterclass.
Lisa Thill Franck (left) and Kathleen M. Basi (right) perform one of Basi’s duets in their workshop on collaborative composing.
MU alumna Dr. Amy Knopps presents on being a flutist and a music educator.
Dr. Melissa Keeling performs on the glissando headjoint as part of her lecture-recital.

It goes without saying that this amazing day would not have fallen into place as well as it did without months of careful planning and preparation. Our officers worked tirelessly to cover every detail of the schedule, from catering to room reservations to Melissa’s electric flute setup. For me, the best part of the day was watching all our hard work come to near-perfect fruition, and watching our fellow studio and society members enjoy the day we worked so hard to put together. It was incredible to experience this event and learn from our presenters alongside them!

So if you’re part of a registered student organization on your campus and want to plan a flute fest at your university, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure you pay attention to your administrative training. I know just how boring and irrelevant that yearly stuff can seem, but you’ll avoid a lot of questions and confusion later if you take careful notes and try to absorb as much of it as you can. You have to follow the rules to get the funding you need.
  2. Think ahead, but don’t rush. Small details will inevitably slip your mind through the planning process, and you may not notice that they have until someone else brings it up. While I was focused on the details of getting individual guest artists to campus, my other officers were looking at scheduling, catering, and everything else we would need that day. That being said, you have to make sure that all your bases are covered on each guest artist and event, so don’t move too quickly. Find the pace that’s right for your organization.
  3. Keep in touch with your fellow officers and your advisor. It takes more than one person to pull off an event like Flute Fest and do it well. If you’re divvying up jobs, keep in touch with your exec board on how things are going, if you run into a roadblock, or if you need to pass off your job altogether. People will pick up the ball for you if they know it needs to be picked up, but they can’t help if you don’t ask. Your advisor will always be happy to help as well; they want things to go well just as much as you do.
  4. Keep in touch with your guest artists. Informing them of the schedule, lunch, and everything else they might need – as well as answering their questions – is one of the most important parts of event planning. The biggest thing we had to coordinate ahead of time for our Flute Fest was probably Melissa’s soundcheck, which wound up going really well. But without proper, prompt communication, it could have ended up being a confusing mess.
  5. Thank your guests! This week, MO Flute is going to be working on obtaining stationary and sending out written thank-yous to our guest artists for their time and talents last Saturday. The biggest thing you should always remember for any event is that the people you bring in are what make your event what it is. They don’t have to spend their time going to where you are and giving a presentation, but they choose to because it’s what they love. Don’t take them for granted!

That’s all for now, folks! Stay tuned for Flute Fest 2020 next spring! Until next time!