August 2014 Convention
Chicago, IL

Mimi Stillman Masterclass

Mimi Stillman

Mimi Stillman taught this first of three masterclasses featuring winners of the Masterclass Performers Competition. She centered her class around the legacy of Julius Baker and the tradition of woodwind playing at the Curtis Institute. Stillman was a student of the legendary teacher and New York Philharmonic flutist, and she shared many tips and tidbits from his teaching, noting that “the lineage from which we have come is so important.” The pieces selected for the class reflected that lineage, running the gamut from Baroque (Bach, Sonata in E Major) to French Romanticism (Gaubert, Nocturne and Allegro Scherzando) to Impressionism (Debussy, Syrinx) to 20th-century modernism (Ibert, Concerto). Competition winners featured were Jeemini Lee, Jennifer Slaughter, and Hyejeong Ryu with Colette Valentine at the piano. Alternate Ian Wenz, although at the ready, did not have the opportunity to perform.
Primary topics covered were concepts of color/timbre, breathing, phrasing, posture, vibrato, and grouping of notes in runs. Carrying on the Baker tradition, Stillman suggested “when there is a change in harmony, change the color,” noting that “one thing Julius Baker said the most was ‘sing.’ ” She also encouraged one performer to “think about shadings of vibrato. Mr. Baker used vibrato on every note, but used different shadings, or styles, of vibrato.” Regarding the topic of breathing, “when asked where to breathe, Julius Baker said, ‘don’t breathe.’ ” She also remarked that “breathing is more than just air in the lungs...” It’s about “oxygen in the blood and getting signals to the brain. Moving around detracts from that. Always have more breath than we need.” In the Ibert, in particular, she quipped, “breathe slow, play fast.” She also encouraged longer phrases rather than fewer smaller climaxes—“be consistent until the big climax”—and to analyze what the main point of the phrase is. “Take us on a journey. Always think about where you are going.”

Stillman shared with the class Baker’s deep connection with Bach and his influence in the Bach revival. Early in Baker’s career, Bach was not performed much, but Baker, as a member of the Bach Aria Group, was an important influence in the revival of Bach’s music. Stillman provided interesting insights into tempo and style for the first and second movements of the Bach Sonata. The first is marked Adagio ma non tanto. “Adagio” did not mean “slow” but “at ease” in the Baroque period, so the meaning of the tempo marking is “relaxed but with motion.” The second movement should be light and playful—short notes should “pop”: “Make it sparkle.”

Two things Stillman shared about Julius Baker struck me as very profound and well worth emulating. When asked what his favorite piece was, Baker said that it was whatever was on his stand at the moment. What a great statement about his lifelong love of music. Stillman also quoted him as saying, “You are your own best teacher.”

Mimi Stillman and Hyejeong Ryu

—Rebecca Hovan

photos by Brian Covington