#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!