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Interview with Summer Series performer Tyler Martin

Jul 23, 2020, 09:13 AM by National Flute Association

Tyler Martin is a solo flutist, orchestral musician, and teacher. Read his bio here. He will be performing a Celebration Series concert as part of the Summer Series at 7:00 p.m. CDT on July 27th. 


Your bio on your website says you are passionate about teaching and music advocacy. Can you tell us about that?

Within the past couple of years I’ve been able to get my teaching career off the ground, and I’m fortunate enough to have a small studio of talented students that inspire me every week. My students are truly responsible for getting me exciting about coming up with creative ways to pass along what I’ve learned in my experience to them. This in turn gets me really excited about flute in general and encourages me to continue to explore and ask questions even of myself, of how I can improve and how I can help my students to improve. 

In terms of the advocacy side of things, it has always been essential to me, especially as I’ve forged my own path with it in classical music, to give back especially to my community of African-Americans, people who look like me. It became increasingly important for me to do my part and to provide resources and share my experiences with those who looked like me and were interested in or could be interested in exploring music, in some cases beyond their individual or family means. While I was at New England Conservatory, I was an engagement director for Nova, which was a new fellowship program that they actually started the year that I joined. We were tasked with providing NEC and the greater Boston community with two evening-length performances as well as one large-scale community engagement event, which I was in charge of. That consisted of a multi-medium artistic performance that we provided for the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Roslindale, Massachusetts, which was a huge success. I was so happy to be able to provide that service to them. 

Your drive to give back to your community of musicians who look like you—is that inspired by things you experienced as you were forging your path?
In part. I come from a middle-class background so I come from a certain level of privilege, but I definitely think that with classical music in general, at least in the beginning stages, interest has a lot to do with access, and I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to pursue the types of things that I feel are pretty standard. 

I was lucky enough, finally, my senior year of high school, to be able to be a part of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, which was a great exposure to me and really what got me interested in orchestral music and wanting to be an orchestral flutist. But I kind of came about it by happenstance. It wasn’t ever told to me or expressed that maybe I should be looking into programs like this. I didn’t even know at the time that programs like that existed. To be able to have found that and participate in that was just eye-opening for me as a young musician.

Is there anything that you want to share about your experience as a Black classical flutist?
Even you asking this question incites feelings of anxiety and nervousness, especially within the context of classical music for me. On the one hand, I feel disappointed, because in order for me to feel like I’m doing my part, I have to make myself even more uncomfortable than I already am to participate in conversations about race relations and Blackness. However, I am encouraged that it’s a conversation that, for the most part, at least within my community, is being had. 

First I’d like to say that I can’t completely separate my experience as a Black flutist or a Black musician from my experience as a Black person, but that being said, in my experience, there’s always been a sort of unspoken rule not to discuss issues of race with my colleagues—one, for the fear of losing opportunities based on my opinions, and second, for the lack of attention that’s paid to my voice in particular. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to defend myself against colleagues, standing up against, in my opinion, what was obviously racial bias, only to have my claims dismissed or be labeled as angry for speaking out. I’ve always felt that I had the need to be better than in order to achieve the same level of recognition as some of my other colleagues. And these feelings are oftentimes heightened because I’ve also been keenly aware of having always been the one Black person, or one of two, in ensembles and other professional spaces throughout my collegiate and professional career. I’ve always felt the need to be more accommodating or more friendly in order to combat pre-formed biases that people may have had based on their level of privilege. 

I am, however, pleased that the issues have now risen to a certain level of social consciousness, and while I don’t necessarily have all the answers, I’m glad that we’re at least starting to recognize the issues.  


What can you tell us about your upcoming Summer Series performance?
I’ll be performing two short works: by Lili Boulanger, her Nocturne, and by Ulysses Kay, Prelude. Amid the recent turmoil, I’ve thought a lot about how every day I try to fit into a world that wasn’t made for me, how being Black in America is not safe, and how I am not safe. I offer these two short pieces as my response. “Nocturne” directly translates to “night music” or “night,” which can symbolize an ending, and I hope for an end to racism and hatred. “Prelude” serves as an introduction to something more important, and I offer Kay’s Prelude as an introduction to a better and brighter future. 

Ultimately, it was really important to me to feature the work of an African-American composer, and to fill out the program I also wanted to perform Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne because it’s one of my favorite pieces of music and it also happens to have been written by a female composer, which I also think is super important. The two works together encompass a little bit of how I’m feeling about everything that’s going on right now. For me, music has always been something that’s very emotional, and I can’t really separate it from how I’m feeling just in general, as a person in life. And I felt that these two pieces really worked well together to give you a glimpse into how Tyler is feeling about everything right now. 

Have you been to any other Summer Series events?

I have. I was a little apprehensive about how the Summer Series was going to work as an online platform, but I am surprised to say that it definitely captures a lot of my favorite parts about attending the convention in person. I’ve been able to watch a lot of different performances from different flute players as part of the Celebration Series, and one of the added benefits to its being online is the ability to re-watch a lot of these performances, which we don’t get the opportunity to necessarily do when it’s in person. Some of the panel discussions have been informative in a different way. Lastly, my favorite part of the convention is just hanging out with my friends from around the country that I don’t get to see as frequently as I’d like to. The Meet-Ups are a really nice way to come together even though we can’t physically be together. 

You mentioned the ability to re-watch the concerts. Do you mean you go back and watch some of the concerts a second time? 
For example, I really liked Shantanique Moore’s performance. I didn’t see it at the time that it was scheduled, but I was able to watch it later. And I’ve since watched it again. For me, with performances, you don’t always catch everything during the first listening or the first run-through of it. So it’s nice to be able to revisit those. Or if you’re working on a particular piece that might be similar to or the same as what somebody else is performing, it’s helpful to be able to have access to those recordings. 


You’ve talked on Instagram about how, on days when you don’t feel motivated to practice, it helps you to start by playing a familiar song in a different genre. Do you have any other tips for staying motivated and focused?
I don’t know if this qualifies as a tip, but I don’t like having to be in a routine and do things over and over again the exact same way, so for me, things that help me stay focused and motivated are to constantly switch things up and not get stuck in the nitty-gritty of things.

But the most important thing for me is also to feed into my own curiosity and to explore. I feel like a lot of musicians don’t really explore their instrument how they should or aren’t curious about their instrument how they should be. Not just, “Oh, can I play this C major scale perfectly,” but what are the mechanics of the flute? How does the flute work? How does what I bring to the instrument make it resonate the way that it does? So many different questions that I feel are so important to being a great flute-player. Just exploring and having that curiosity is what keeps me fired up. 

It sounds like that curiosity might lend itself to a certain playfulness or experimentation.
Exactly. And even just knowing what works for you. I’ve had a lot of different teachers, and all of them are super talented artists and musicians and have tons of really important things to say, but does that mean that everything that they tell me necessarily will work for me? No. Not everything is gonna work for you, but finding what does work for you is the most important part, figuring out those components—what are the pieces to that puzzle? 


Who or what inspires you as a flutist or an artist?

If I’m thinking specifically about other flutists, who inspires me the most are definitely my teachers: Alice Dade, Mark Sparks, Paula Robison, Leone Buyse. Each of them in their own way has given me a different perspective or different approach to flute. There are other artists. Obviously I am really a fan of Demarre McGill; I did a masterclass with him a few years back, and that was such a powerful thing for me. 

But interestingly enough, the bulk of what inspires me is not flute music or classical music at all. I draw most of my inspiration from other genres of music like soul and house and gospel and punk and R&B and also the other performing arts like dance. Ballet in particular for some reason just resonates and connects with me and inspires me. 

How does that inspiration from those diverse sources translate into your playing? 
Most of it is at a subconscious level. I don’t know how much of it I’m actually directly transferring from one medium to another. I just performed William Grant Still’s Summerland, and that’s an example of how a direct correlation between other genres of music can affect classical. For example, the end of Summerland just reminds me so much of being in church growing up and listening to a lot of the different harmonic or sound progressions within gospel music. So in that, I was directly translating my experiences in other areas to a performance. 

But for the most part I think a lot of it is on a subconscious level. It’s really this idea of exploring that I was talking about before: exploring just everything—music in general of all different types—and allowing that to become part of your musical language or musical vocabulary. 

It sounds like there’s a certain energy of inspiration that flows through and transcends genre or format.
Right, because I also feel in classical music sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in a box, like five goes to one, make sure you resolve your ti to do, all of those rules. It’s easy for us to get caught in the specificity of that instead of taking a step back and realizing it’s still music; we’re still ultimately trying to say something, trying to convey some extra musical idea or meaning or express some sort of feeling to our audience. And I feel because I wasn’t as rigidly trained in some of these other genres that I mentioned earlier, there’s this sort of freedom that allows me to be able to just do, and I can bring that sort of energy and spirit into classical music. 


You were involved in an art show that touched on the stigma surrounding mental health in the Black male population. How do you think that phenomenon affects artists in particular?
I think first that it’s important to note that mental health challenges are a result of both genetic and environmental causes, and the environmental side is an issue that affects artists especially. When you think about the nature of what we do as artists, it makes sense. We’re constantly under judgment—not all negative, but still judgment nonetheless. I mean, heck, we judge ourselves a lot of the time. But for those of us who interview or audition for positions on faculties or orchestras, we face additional pressure. We spend hours perfecting our craft and pouring into our art, just to put it on display. And let’s be honest: many of us bear a substantial if not enormous amount of “no”s in search of the elusive “yes.” These are just a few examples that I can think of off the top of my head. But I think the climate of the classical music world today demands perfection, or at least that’s the goal. And while I don’t necessarily think that these pressures cause mental health challenges, I do think that they contribute additional stress to those who experience the challenges. 

How do you mitigate the effects of that stress, that expectation of perfection, enough to keep going in the classical music world?
Thankfully, music is just so important to me and to who I am as a person that regardless of all the negatives—because there’s negatives that surround anything that you want to do—I continue in it, because, in some ways, it provides the outlet to be able to express all of that, all of my feelings towards that and my own personal dealings with that. 

What are some of the positives?

There’s tons of positives. Many of my closest friends I’ve met because of classical music. And there’s no joy to me that’s more all-encompassing than when I get to perform, especially with a group of friends. That to me is just the epitome of why I do music: being able to create something that’s bigger than me with people that I love and that I care about. It’s just—it’s the best. 


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