August 2017 Convention
Minneapolis, MN

Hovan Masterclass with Jim Walker

Jim Walker taught one of two masterclasses featuring winners of the Masterclass Performers Competition. Three of the six winners performed with pianist David Gilliland in an engaging and informative class. As always, Walker’s witty and dynamic teaching style resulted in a most satisfying experience for the performers and the audience.

Walker prefaced the session with a few words about his approach and philosophy. “When you teach a lesson or class, there are so many different directions you can go. I will go different directions with each student. I always want to be deadly honest and completely encouraging.” He most certainly stayed true to that and seemed to set each of the performers at ease—as much as one can be performing at an NFA convention for a world-renowned flutist!

James Thompson and Jim Walker

photo by Brian Covington

James Thompson led things off with the first and fourth movements of Reinecke’s Sonata “Undine,” Op. 167. Walker’s comments for Thompson focused primarily on dynamics and intonation, but his initial feedback was general. “It comes down to refinements,” he said. “What will take you to the next level? You are the teacher. What can you do to make it better the next time?”

Walker often spoke directly to the audience as well as the performer and said of this last remark, “Reverse roles and ask [the student] for self-critical feedback.”

Moving on to a focus on dynamics, Walker said, “Ninety-nine percent of flute players are afraid of extreme dynamics!” After having Thompson play a passage with piano dynamics, Walker asked him if he felt that the pianist was too loud. When the student said he thought so, Walker responded, “Is it okay to talk to the pianist?….Yes!! Don’t be afraid to collaborate and share ideas.”

A humorous moment occurred when the soloist and pianist had difficulty finding the same location in the music; they were playing from different editions, and the measures were not numbered. After a few minutes of trying to find the spot, Walker that the musicians put a box of pencils in their bathrooms. “Next time you are going to be in there a while, take your music with you and number the measures!”

Walker recommended that the headjoint be moved for intonation, when possible. “Earth-shattering announcement—headjoints move!” As he talked more about playing in tune, he quipped that, “it’s better to be sharp than be out of tune,” and he recommended that the performer get in a habit of checking the headjoint position to be in the optimum position for the next thing coming. Walker said he adjusts his headjoint often during a piece depending on what is coming up—assuming, of course, that there is time to make that adjustment.

Next, Alyssa Primeau played all four movements of the Bach Partita in A Minor, with breaks between movements for work in between them. “If you are kind of serious about the flute,” Walker said, “an important watermark, or milestone, is this piece.”

After hearing the Allemande, Walker told Primeau that “it’s all about your intention, not about making me happy. Have a very clear intention about how you want to play this piece.”

Regarding the pacing and phrasing of this movement, he spoke of waves and “oceanic movement”: “This is not a metronomic piece,” he said, encouraging Primeau to “feel the waves.”

Walker said, “a lot of times we don’t think of trills as going to the bottom of the note. They often fluff or flutter. Really dig into the trill notes.” He then turned to the audience and intoned, “Practice trills!”

In the Courante, in contrast to how free the first movement can be, Walker encouraged Primeau to be more metrical. (She tended to add an extra beat to some measures at breathing places.) He also addressed the issue of vocal throat noise that seemed to crop up in this movement, in particular, noting that it is one of the hardest things to correct. The best solution, in his opinion, is to have a student intentionally try to do it; often they can’t. Staying more open will help, but it is not a guarantee. It will still happen sometimes.

The primary issue in the Sarabande was intonation. This movement, Walker said, is almost always a quarter step flat. He recommended checking pitches by having someone play along in unison on the piano.

Melissa Merkel, James Thompson, Jim Walker, Alyssa Primeau, David Gilliland (pianist)

photo by Rebecca Hovan

He also suggested putting on a drone for a particular pitch that returns often, such as A, and playing with it. Try to land on the pitch in tune every time. Set the tuner at 441 or 442 for more of a challenge.

He also referenced the use of vibrato in this movement. Turn off the “vibrato auto-pilot” and try to figure out where to add vibrato for expressive effect. Have a cellist or violinist friend play it and see where they use vibrato.

There were just a few minutes left for the Bourree, and the main concern here was contrast of dynamics. Before the class was over, Walker made a general statement about suggestions from a teacher. He said, “Almost every good suggestion from a teacher is going to feel weird. Digest it a bit. Change always feels weird.”

The final piece was the Griffes “Poem” performed by Melissa Merkel. Again, there was a focus on intonation and use of vibrato. One of the biggest issues with intonation in this piece is the recurrence of so many C-sharps.

“The trick to playing C-sharp in tune is more about the core of the sound than ‘playing in tune,’ Walker said. “Try to get more air into the flute with a spin. Generate more movement in the sound.”

Again, Walker focused on the use of vibrato in this piece, as it can often be difficult to decide where to put it for best effect. “When you are making decisions about vibrato, downbeats are generally a good place to put it, even though it often feels unnatural.”

Regarding the age-old question of B-natural vs. B-flat on the downbeat of m. 113, Walker referenced a past comment by a notable flutist that would seem by any measure to be definitive.

“Frances Blaisdell studied with Georges Barrère—who the piece was written for. She said that Barrère said Griffes told him it should be B-flat.”

 In addition, Walker offered suggestions for alternate or special fingerings to improve intonation or stability of certain pitches. “The high D-sharp without right hand pinky is usually deadly in tune. The funky sound gets covered up by the piano unison….E-natural is flat—add the second trill key just slightly. For high A, add the C-sharp key.”

The performers were well-prepared, NFA pianist Gilliland, was excellent, and Walker was his usual gregarious self as he offered positive commentary and constructive criticism that was relevant for the performers and audience alike.

—Rebecca Hovan