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Interview with Summer Series participant Brittany Trotter

Jul 30, 2020, 08:45 AM by National Flute Association

Brittany Trotter is a flutist and educator. You can learn about her here. She’ll be participating in the Summer Series at the following events: Celebration Series concert (8/3), Graduate Research Competition (8/10), and “3-2-1 Liftoff!: Getting Your Ideas Off the Ground” (8/12).


You work with a couple different organizations doing recruiting, program coordination, and scholarship coordination for young low-income Black and multicultural musicians. What drew you to this kind of work? 
Knowing that I was one of those kids. When I was younger, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, and if it wasn’t for teachers giving me the opportunity, I would never be involved in music. I feel like it’s part of my life’s mission or the purpose that I have on this earth to give back because so many people have given to me.

When you say you wouldn’t be a musician if it weren’t for your teachers giving
you the opportunity, what did that look like? How did you get into music?
It’s really a funny story. I first played violin when I was four because my sister gave up the violin, so of course, like any other parents, my parents were just like, “Give it to the second child. Get our money’s worth out of that instrument.”

And then in the fifth grade, I remember that the sixth grade band performed a concert for our class. After the concert, the band director asked us to line up at a table to test out the instrument we would like to play. I didn’t even know what the instrument names were. I was so enamored with the musicians that I forgot to memorize what instrument was which. So when I got to the table, I was kind of stunned when the band director was like, “So what instrument would you like to try?” I was like, “Flute?” because that was the only thing that I remembered. I instantly got a sound out of it.

But even going in, my band director said that I had a natural talent for the flute. Getting toward my eighth grade year, he was able to coordinate with the flute teacher at the community college for me to get lessons. At the time, my parents didn’t have that kind of money to invest into private lessons, so what she did was give me a very discounted rate. My lessons were $12 an hour, for a woman who was worth $40 an hour.

And that was just because they saw your potential and wanted to provide that for you?
Yes. That was great. And then when I was in high school, I was in all-state band. All-state band in Mississippi is, like, the biggest thing ever. All the high school students, even junior high students, meet twice a year to audition for this. So you get over 400 kids trying to be in this small all-state band. In my ninth grade year, I made it into it, but of course it was a lot of money at the time. It was, like, over twelve hundred dollars to be a part of it. My band director and another band director from a different school district helped me fundraise that money so I could participate.

I would never be where I’m at at this moment if it wasn’t for those kind teachers who believed in me, and so that’s what I like to instill in my students. 

Speaking of students, let’s talk about your teaching. Your website says that you give personalized lessons to fit the needs of students from four-year-old beginners to intermediate teens to adult hobbyists. That’s no small feat! How do you flex to meet the individual needs of such a diverse student base?
What I do with all of my kids is: before the start of each term (I have a spring, fall, and summer), we talk about our goals. They tell me what they would like to improve upon, and then we make a plan of “OK, so this repertoire and this technique will get you where you want to be.”

And I always follow up with them at the beginning of every lesson; I’m always like, “So was there anything difficult that you tackled or any problems?” and we always start with that right away. And since COVID, I have a little bit of time on my hands, and I send them personalized recordings. If we’re doing a duet together, they have their part, my part, and then the two parts together so they can really listen in to it.

And then I am always in contact with their parents. Maybe one of them had a hard day. Sometimes my student will tell me straight away, because the first thing that I say is, “How are you doing today?” Or if I notice it, I contact their parents and say, “Hey, I noticed that this was happening; is there anything I can do?” My parents absolutely adore me for that because they know I care for their child just like if they were my own child. 

That’s a whole additional dimension—being invested in the emotional wellbeing of these kids.
I always tell my students that in our lesson we’re not only to work on being a good flute player; I’m also working on you being a confident, self-sufficient musician or person in general, and all of the stuff that we talk about can relate to any career choice that you would like to pursue. 

What kind of results do you see from taking that approach?
I see my students really self-invest into their learning. I have a couple kids where when we were studying scales, they made little scale notebooks where they wrote down all their scales. Or they get very invested in their practice journal and they show me pages of, like, “This is what I worked on.” I had one student who made a metronome tracker chart where they can put their different pieces and in one corner it has different tempos, so they color it in so they can see their progress.

Whenever we really dive into our repertoire, one of my favorite activities is for them to make up a story for their piece. Some of them make up stories, and my younger kids make a drawing of what their music is about. It just adds that special layer where they have ownership into what they’re making. 

Do you feel like they are more invested in their music and in their practice because they feel seen and engaged with on that personal level?
Oh, yes, definitely. They’re super engaged, and they teach me. Sometimes they come into their lessons and they might say, “It’s so funny how these multiphonics are two notes; I notice that if I do this with my lip, they come together,” and it’s something that I didn’t really think about. It’s like, Perfect! So I teach it to my other students. This one student had a perfect way of getting these multiphonics that I didn’t even think of. Or how they explain concepts. If I explain it one way, I ask them, “Can you say it back to me in your own special way?” And they say it in a completely new way, and I take their idea and I run with it with different students. 

It sounds like you’re open, you’re really listening, and you’re adapting as you go.
It’s so important as music teachers that we’re not a stick in the mud of “this is how you’re supposed to do things,” because each student is different.

Let’s talk about you as an artist. How would you describe yourself as a flutist?
Oh, wow. Can I get back to you on that? I have such a whole impostor syndrome going on in my mind all the time that to talk about myself is super embarrassing. 

That’s probably more common than we realize. 

How do you combat that or move forward in spite of it?
It’s two things. First is my students. I want to make sure that I am that role model that they think that I am. So when I feel this way, I’m just like, I wouldn’t want my students to feel this, and so I push myself, knowing that I don’t want to be hypocritical by asking them to push themselves out of their comfort zone, and yet I’m not.

And then the second thing is—my dad is a Southern Baptist preacher, so I grew up in the Black church all my life. When I say that all weekend I was in the church, it was that, because my dad had some meetings in the church with the deacons and the deaconess and the choir and it was a whole ordeal. Having that spiritual upbringing really helped me to confront this, because I know that one old saying in the church is that the Lord would not put more on your plate than you can handle. I abide by that. When things are hard and I’m feeling like, Oh, my God, I can’t; is this it? I’m just like, no, because there’s a bigger entity that knows that I can do it.

Congratulations on being a 2020 NFA PhD/DMA Graduate Research Competition winner! You’ll be presenting at the Graduate Research Competition Summer Series event on August 10th. Can you give us a preview of what you’ll be talking about?
My dissertation is on the wonderful Valerie Coleman. I have admired her for quite a while. She is a super amazing woman. I remember when I first met her, I just I could feel the warmth of her presence and just that invitingness to it. I decided to write my dissertation on her because I went to the 2018 NFA convention where she played and premiered her work Fanmi Imèn. I remember just listening to it and I was like, OK, I have to write my paper on her. Then as I was researching, I was like, How has no one else written about this amazing woman? She has such a broad catalog. And so it was that pattern—I was like, Let me do this, but also that impostor syndrome in me was like, Oh my God, if I mess this up, it would look so bad and I don’t want to make this wonderful woman look bad at all!

Just to give a little preview: I’m analyzing her two tone poems for flute and poem—there’s Sonatine and Fanmi Imèn—and what I do is I investigate the transformation of the narrative poem that she used. For Sonatine, she used the poem Wish by Fred D’Aguiar, and then for Fanmi Imèn, she used Human Family by Maya Angelou, and so, I was seeing how using those two poems connected and transformed her music work.

What can you tell us about your Celebration Series performance on August 3rd?
I will be performing two pieces. The Jennifer Higdon piece, I’m very excited for playing this piece because the piece is about the violence and the terror of living in this world. You see on the news every day that there’s some kind of destruction, there’s some kind of police violence, there’s some kind of killing in your neighborhood, and it said in the program notes that she was inspired to write this after reading a newspaper article about the murder of Lena Bruce. Lena Bruce was a college student, and a stranger, a homeless man, came into her house raped her and brutally murdered her. That’s one way that I connected it today—Lena Bruce was a young African-American woman, and we see so many young African-American women in trouble, like Breonna Taylor or Atatiana Jefferson, who was just playing video games with her nephew when the police came and just shot her.

The piece is just so emotional and gritty. It was very therapeutic for me to play that, because just going through what we’re going through today, there are so many things that I haven’t fully expressed in myself or have been vocal about because of course I’m a very shy, introverted person. When I play my flute, I’m able to bring that communication; I’m able to finally speak what’s on my mind.

And then I'm playing Evan Williams's if/else, which was written for Lindsay Goodman. I first heard the piece performed by Lindsay at WVU (I was in my second year of my doctoral studies at the time) and thought after her performance, Man, I really want to play that piece.

His piece is about Boolean logic and is for interactive live electronics. So, in one movement, if you play anything below a certain note, an E5, nothing would be triggered with the electronics, but if you play above it, something would be triggered. I kind of think of it like the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken, because it’s that kind of logic, that if you go on this one path, or if you go on both, what would happen? That is so relevant today with COVID, because I know with me and a lot of my other friends, having this disruption in our lives and getting our gigs and our teaching and performance get canceled, it’s easy to wonder, What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to go forward with this?

You’ll also be a panelist at the “3-2-1 Lift off! Getting Your Ideas Off the Ground” Summer Series event on August 12th. Can you tell us about that?
I’ll be talking about how to use social media to your advantage. Now everything is so digitalized and we as musicians can’t do our basics of making sure that we play at a fancy hall or put out flyers, because of course there’s no contact with people. So now the modern musician is really presenting themselves in a new way, gathering an audience online and maintaining that audience. I try to do that with my own personal social media accounts, and I also run the social media for the Flute New Music Consortium.

I’ll be talking about different ways that you can create graphics on Canva, for instance, and just how to have an online voice that is authentic and not like, Oh, I’m trying to sell you something, but yet not fake to you.

What’s next for you?
Just being a recent graduate with my DMA, my next step is to find that coveted full-time tenured position, which is getting to be a little bit more hard now since colleges are all on a hiring freeze. That is still on my burner, but now since COVID happened, it really got me to thinking what else I can do. So I’m really into volunteering in organizations. I’m really invested in my students and making sure that I am being that teacher who is looking for opportunities for them to be a part of. So that’s like being asked, Hey, do you want to do this summer festival? I think this is great, or, Hey, I think you need to do this competition; this would be great. And then really just giving back to my community. I’m working with a colleague to see how we can do more community-based music-making, especially in the age of COVID—how can we make it more accessible for people to access great music? 

It sounds like you took something that a lot of people might have found frustrating or discouraging and turned it into something positive—being creative about exploring what other things you can do.
Yes, and I believe that tenured job will come along. My parents often get mad at me, because I’m like, “OK, I need to do this and this and this and this,” and they’re always telling me to slow down. But one thing they always used to tell me is if something hasn’t happened, if I’m working hard for it, “God is never late; He is always on time.” So I know that even though it’s not happening for me now, when I need it, it will come.