Making It Together

Two flutists pursue success side-by-side.

Published in the National Flute Association’s The Flutist Quarterly

 Spring 2015, Vol. 40, No. 3

  Performing with the Pacific Symphony

Performing with the Pacific Symphony

Perhaps the most common response I receive when people learn that Benjamin Smolen, principal flutist with the Pacific Symphony, is my partner is, “How can you date another musician? Another flutist!” Inevitably, their subsequent commentary sounds something like, “It must be hard to be in constant competition with each other.”

And the honest truth is yes, at times, it is difficult to be in a relationship with another professional flutist. Competition has been unavoidable, especially considering we are the same age and have many of the same goals.

But after nearly seven years of trial and error, we have managed to maintain a healthy personal relationship while pursuing our respective musical careers. In fact, we view potential auditions and competitions as a chance truly to support one another (with just the slightest tinge of lighthearted competitive edge). When both Ben and I were accepted to compete in the live rounds for the National Flute Association’s 2014 Young Artist Competition, we knew our best chance for success was to be totally committed to making it together, despite any challenges along the way.

The Young Artist Competition was certainly not the first time Ben and I had to prepare the same music together. From being practice buddies in Boston to living together in Ann Arbor, it seems that for nearly as long as we have been together, we have worked toward many of the same solo competitions, summer festivals, and professional auditions. Naturally, vying for the same accolade sometimes brings out our competitive spirit against one another.

FINDING A BALANCE

One specific instance that comes to mind is when Ben and I auditioned for the same regional orchestra. I viewed it as a great opportunity to be a working orchestral flutist while still in school, whereas Ben initially thought of it simply as a good audition experience. Ben won and I received runner-up; needless to say, I was more than a little upset and jealous. The tension in the car made the hour-and-a-half drive home feel like an eternity.

  Rigoletto Fantaisie in Graz, Austria

Rigoletto Fantaisie in Graz, Austria

We definitely have had our moments of friction while on the audition circuit, but through those early experiences we were able to determine boundaries to set and what works to maintain our sanity and patience in our personal relationship. Sometimes simply not entering the same competition or audition has been our best compromise; other times, if we are competing together, it is best to avoid each other until everything is over.

Through the years, we have managed to trade back and forth with our professional successes and failures. Such distinctions have made it easier to view each other as equals, which, in turn, has helped balance our relationship, both personally and professionally.

To describe a long-distance relationship as challenging would be an understatement: the two of us have full-time performing and teaching obligations and live 1500 miles apart. (Ben lives in California; I am in Houston.) But out of mutual respect, we agreed that given our years of diligence and sacrifice toward professional music careers, we owe it to ourselves as individuals to pursue whatever opportunities come our way, even if that means being apart.

THE NFA COMPETITION

While preparing for the Young Artist Competition, living in different places actually gave us valuable time to prepare the repertoire separately. Our playing styles are distinct from each other, so it was essential to have time apart to establish our own personal interpretations; presenting something that was not representative of our respective musical personalities risked the chance of a disingenuous performance.

Furthermore, since much of the early preparation was woodshedding technique, it helped not to hear someone else doing the same incessant repetitions. Even though we were working separately, there was still the opportunity to advise one another or give helpful practice tips. During past audition preparation, we would conduct video lessons to imitate mock auditions; even during informal practice sessions, we would record short excerpts to get a quick second opinion.

I initially thought my summer schedule would be quiet and flexible, affording me plenty of time to prepare all of the repertoire required for the competition—for me, a total of nine pieces. Normally, I do not have an extensive summer season, but since Ben does, our summers have often been spent together in California; being in the same place for a couple months instead of a couple days gives us a much-needed sense of normalcy.

But somehow, almost as soon as I arrived in California, my summer was completely booked: I went home to Kentucky for my brother’s wedding; Houston Grand Opera went on tour to New York for the Lincoln Center Festival; and I had plenty of additional teaching and performing in California in between all of my trips to keep me occupied. And now, to add to an already flute-dense summer, Ben and I were practicing the same music under the same roof; our lives were practically all flute, all the time.

THE PLUS SIDE

The positive aspects of having another set of critical ears vastly outweigh any competitive attitude we might have toward each other. Dating another flute player is like having a constant accountability partner, someone who is always there to listen, critique, assist, and support. He can commiserate when a practice session or run-through does not go smoothly and can offer his advice and experience on preparing the same material. Who would not want another professional’s opinion whenever you need it?

  Kuhlau in the Boston Public Library

Kuhlau in the Boston Public Library

We always want the best from each other, and most times, offering complete transparency has proven to be the most beneficial. While preparing for the NFA convention, it was convenient to walk into the next room and ask for a better alternate fingering—especially for the many quarter tones within the commissioned piece—or simply for an impromptu run-through, although it was taxing at times to hear each other practicing the same music, sometimes simultaneously. The entire first round was unaccompanied, so it was easy for us to do complete mock auditions.

Quite possibly the biggest complication leading up to the convention had nothing to do with musical preparation but rather with my dog, Ponzu. Despite Ben not being allowed to have pets in his apartment, Ponzu accompanied me to California for the summer.

Eventually Ben’s landlord discovered our little stowaway, and thus we spent every day during the two weeks before the convention commuting with Ponzu in friends’ houses during the day and back home at night. While it certainly was hectic having to run around town trying to find a place for Ponzu, it was surprisingly fortuitous; the inconvenience granted us time to have thorough practice sessions by ourselves once again. We were able to polish our own interpretations without hearing a fellow competitor next door. With one of us accompanying Ponzu and the other at Ben’s apartment, we practiced for hours each day, and in the afternoon we gave mock auditions of each round. Rotating through all of the repertoire by means of such dedicated practice sessions and run-throughs certainly enabled both of us to feel more prepared and confident as we headed to the convention.

THE CONVENTION

Once in Chicago, Ben and I rarely saw each other. We agreed it was in our best interests to have our own separate spaces in which to focus and relax. Having stayed together in the past for orchestra auditions, we were aware of the potential tensions that could arise. We knew that not only did we need to be apart from each other, but also from the convention itself. While it was refreshing to be reunited with so many friends and colleagues, I viewed the whole experience as a business trip; thus, I stayed with a friend a half hour north of downtown, and Ben and his pianist stayed at a relative’s townhouse.

Staying with my friend was a welcome distraction to get my mind off the stress of the competition. Though the competition spanned the entire convention, I had precisely enough time to warm-up and practice each day, travel to and from my friend’s place, rehearse with my pianist, and compete. I had invested so much time, energy, and money into this competition, I owed it to myself to give it everything I had and remain focused yet calm during my entire stay in Chicago.

  Mozart Arias in the Boston Public Gardens

Mozart Arias in the Boston Public Gardens

As with our preparation together all summer, it was encouraging to have Ben with me during each round of the competition. Once we finished performing, we could vent our frustrations and rejoice at our successes, and the other person could completely empathize. For the semifinal and final rounds, we had adjacent warm-up rooms, which allowed us to stop by and provide last-minute support and reassurance to each other. Traveling and competing is strenuous enough, but having such a familiar shoulder to lean on made it more bearable.

My fondest memory of the competition occurred during the announcement of the results at the closing ceremony, and not for the obvious reason. Ben and I were standing on stage next to each other anxiously awaiting the results. When we first considered entering the competition, we half-heartedly joked how it had to be us at the top; we did not care who actually took first prize so long as the other was claiming second.

As names were announced, reality began to sink in; we made it all the way through the entire competition and were now the top two, together. After Ben was called for second place, he immediately turned and gave me a big hug in front of everyone. His action was completely sincere, and I knew he was as genuinely proud of me as I was of him.

It was at that moment I knew that all of our collective experiences led us to the point where we could really support each other regardless of who got first and who got second. In the end, though we are competitive flutists, we are able to fully respect each other as artists and celebrate in each other’s successes.