Rhonda Larson Artist Interview
Rhonda Larson is a Grammy winning flutist, composer, and Pearl flute artist. This Montana native integrates her classical training with various flutes from around the world, merging the most soulful elements of sacred, classical, folk, Celtic and ethnic music. Rhonda also runs her own publishing company, Wood Nymph Music. www.RhondaLarson.com
Can you give us an overview of your development as a performer?
Looking around, I realize my life has evolved into a music path that is out of the ordinary, so I will share some stages I went through, in the hopes that it is useful to those who are only now forging their own paths in life. What I first must say is that I have always been dedicated to following my heart as much as possible, even if circumstances looked like I might be making a bad choice at any juncture. It wasn’t even that I purposely set out to follow my heart, but that I always knew, often retrospectively, when I wasn’t following my gut and went with someone else’s interpretation of who I should be or not be, what I should do or not do. But what interests me the most at this stage of my life is the work of giving back something of beauty through what I do with music. And of course, my commitment is to continue evolving, which is an active agreement, and the opposite of complacency. I take the example from the famed cellist Pablo Casals. A journalist came to his house to interview him in his eightieth year, and while at the door, she heard him practicing Bach. When she came in, she asked, “Sir, why are you still practicing at this stage of your life?” He replied, “Because I think I’m getting better.” I, too, have chosen a life-long path with music, and the evolution continues no matter my age.
I knew from my earliest memory that I was going to play the flute, but I finally started playing it at age ten. I can’t emphasize enough how much my knowing what I was here to do with my life formed my path at every turn. I have always felt it has been fortunate to know what I would be doing, but I really had nothing whatsoever to do with knowing, it was just something I arrived with.
Growing up in the mountains of Montana has, in no small way, helped form my essential self/character in many ways. On a daily basis I experienced how awe-inspiring nature was, from earth to sky. It breeds gratitude, starting with being grateful you survive severe winter weather. It always feels like God is in nature, like Thomas Hardy once wrote, “God was palpably about the countryside, while the Devil went with the world to town.”
My first band director was important to me throughout my school years. He was encouraging, instructive, and demanded the highest standards. He was the first example of what I later learned about the true meaning of the word ‘education’----that is means to “bring out, bring up, lead forth” (rather than the mistaken paradigm of ‘putting content into’). Every one of my favorite and most effective teachers were the ones who really brought me out, and everything about them was instructive for me, and I would not be who I am today without them. I am so grateful for their significance in my life!
And as they say, Death is a teacher for all, and my first big devastation in my life came at the age of sixteen when my best friend was killed in a car crash. It crushed me, and my grief felt so heavy that I could not see what there was to live for. And then it came back to me, like someone whispering it to me, “what about the flute?” The most profound and constant lesson from her death has always been the reminder that life is precious, and short---we are here, and then gone in a flash. It taught me that I must be mindful of how I choose to use my time while among the living.
Before she was killed, I was already struggling internally with my own body image, and following her death my problems developed into an eating disorder, now referred to as bulimia. For six years of my young life, I was trapped in the whipping-stick cycle of bulimia, up until my second year in college. This was a manifestation of very low self-esteem, feeling ugly, fat, deficient, and simply ‘not good enough’. But “what about the flute?” wasn’t really a question in my heart, it was a reminder. It meant my life would not be about me, per se, but about playing the flute/music. My eating disorder was because I was terrified to be myself, whatever that meant. It was a crisis of self-rejection, not ‘taking up my own power’, as it were. This gradually brought me to a place of learning how to interpret my life properly, as in the way that brings life, not punishment. To choose courage over that fear, boldness instead of apology for being alive and taking up space, and quiet peace rather than noisy anxiety. Choosing this perspective is something I practice, like I practice the flute. It physically and spiritually brings vitality to my life, rather than draining my reserves. Struggles in my life have shaped me like a sculptor’s chisel shapes stone. It is learning how to accept myself fully, then learning to forget myself, and then getting to work!
Shortly before my senior year of college I won first prize in the National Flute Association’s Young Artist Competition. I recall that when I was preparing for it, my biggest fear was that I would be the least of players, perhaps I would be laughed off the stage! I had no idea what standard of flute playing was out in the world, other than Julius Baker, and James Galway. I always considered them as two of my personal Teachers, though most often it was from their recordings alone, so I went by their standard, and continued my work toward ‘becoming’. When I won, I was completely unknown, both in my university’s ‘name’, and my name. The second-place winner came from the Juilliard School, and the third prize winner came from Israel.
At the end of my senior year of college, I met Paul Winter (The Paul Winter Consort), whose music I had loved since high school. He invited me to join the Consort, so literally one month after graduation I was on tour with them, from Moscow, Idaho, to Moscow, Russia. The whole world had just opened up in front of my eyes, from its people to their various music cultures. This was the most pivotal time in my life because it stretched me as a musician beyond my beloved classical world. I had never really given much thought to all the different styles and genres of music in the world, but now I was standing right in it, and I was fascinated by it and drawn to it, as I am today. Being in the Consort and traveling worldwide “widened the stakes of my tent” as the saying goes. I was with the Consort for six years when we won a Grammy Award for our live-from-Spain recording, “Spanish Angel”, and I set out on my own path shortly thereafter to discover what form my path would take.
How did you come to writing your music, and how do you go about composing it?
One of the most important things that came to me from playing in the Consort was music improvisation. In concert, we improvised just one piece every night, and always in the dark because it gave both audience and Consort a new environment from which to make up the music—heard but not seen. Musically, we never knew what might happen, but all five of us in the Consort were improvising with one another, and a ‘piece of music’ always came from this daring act, night after night. Many musicians have anxiety over the thought of improvising, but it really is just being able to make up something as you go, responding and melding with one another. This making up music perception is what led me straight to composing my own music. Previously, I never thought of even trying to write something, until one day (after leaving the Consort) I was so desperate for a new piece of music to play. I wanted something that might have musical elements and techniques that I am drawn toward. I suddenly thought, “why not try to come up with something?” My first composition came right out of me, just for the trying. I think it helped that I was suffering a broken heart at the time (from a failed relationship), so I was particularly open to newness flowing through me. So “Lament” was written. Then came another surprise by way of another piece, and on and on, just one composition at a time.
I don’t know how other people compose, but I start with making something up until it starts to turn into something. Perhaps a pattern, or perhaps a melody. From there, I experiment with what ‘wants’ to happen next, and then literally compose measure by measure, or phrase by phrase, until it is finished. I try to compose the piece for as long as I can without writing any notes down (and defining their math, etc.), until it becomes too complex and I need to start writing the fast passages out. I could not compose without the use of my recording device, because I record everything, and listen back, and see if it works for me or not. Even if I might really like something I came up with, I often have to get rid of it because it does not work where it is or how it fits. When I’m composing, it ends up being from four to six hours a session, but it feels like two hours because the time goes so fast. Some pieces take days, some take months, and my most recent piece (Metamorphosis) took four years! It is such a happy moment when a piece is finished being ‘written’, because only then can I begin working with it, learning to understand how to express it best, both technically and musically.
Can you share about your technique of singing and playing simultaneously?
I’ve always been interested in how many distinct sounds the flute can produce, so I’m often experimenting with it. The technique of singing and playing has been around for some time on flute, but I was looking for a different outcome. Was it possible to get rid of the ‘buzz’ that is naturally produced by combining flute and voice, and make them stand on their own, together, something a bit more beautiful than raspy? I lived the question, and I began to see that the answer was yes. But getting to that non-buzzing point took two years for me before I ever offered it to an audience. The way the process works best for me to produce it is that the voice is upfront, and the flute sound is produced with very little air going to it---like blowing hot air. So far, I have used the voice as the melody, and the flute as harmony or accompaniment. What is difficult is not letting the movement of the voice or flute change anything inside my mouth or my lips---they both must be able to produce their sounds independently but simultaneously. And they must be produced without negatively affecting the other sound. Hence, the two years of training through it. Once you get used to doing it, it becomes easier to produce. My reason for everything I do is to expand my own sonorities to create something new, and then hopefully have it among my performance repertoire!
What led you to include flutes from around the world in what you do?
Shortly after I first began composing, I started with just one ethnic flute, a bansuri (bamboo flute from India). When I was learning to get around on the bansuri, I first wondered how I would ever learn it. But to my surprise, it didn’t take long before I could use it in my music. Some flutes require more time to learn than others. Adding one flute at a time is how they have all come to be in my concerts and recordings. In the process of learning them, or learning from them, I like how it feels to actively be a Student, like the Casals quote previously mentioned. Historically, flute and percussion are the two oldest instruments, and because of that, nearly all cultures around the world have their own kind of flute and style of music. This gives we flutists a wealth of options from which to expand our musical palette, and there is no time like the present. In my own concerts, it has added such a special element to play a variety of flutes, I can’t imagine not having them among the sounds of my music. It has also helped my regular flute playing because some of these flutes have an entirely different character, and there is a great freedom in expressing myself with changeable, earthy sonorities. And what a joy it is to be led to music of the cultures from which these flutes come.
How did the Covid pandemic affect your year?
It was shocking and devastating to see that the whole human world was vulnerable to this virus, with so many people losing their lives and families, and not one of us knew if our own life would not be next! As for my daily life, when the shutdown came last March, I continued on as I had the day before the shutdown, and as I have done for the past thirty-plus years--- I have been doing my daily work at home when I am not on the road. I thank God for having a practice (the flute) that is a daily way of life, and I felt even more fortunate that I did not have to reinvent my own wheel for my work when Covid hit. I couldn’t help but notice that so many people suddenly discovered that they have never spent much time alone, if any, and many didn’t know what to do with themselves. I have spent at least half my life in various practices whose work happens in solitude (flute, yoga, writing, composing, exercising…), so being without a social world or a performing world simply allowed me to go deeper into my work, and with the added freedom of not even having to look at the clock. With outside obligations and timelines wiped off the table, I went to work as I always have, but with more available time. I practice in a church nearby, so I go there every day and do my work. When I shut the door of the church, I leave the entire world outside, and focus completely on what I am doing. It is a gift to be able to have a sacred space like this to practice in! The shutdown has also been a sweet time spent together with my husband Lee, who was immediately home-bound from his university teaching.
Do you have any advice or suggestions for others?
I invite each of you, young and old, to give an alternative flute a try—be it an ethnic or folk flute, or an historical flute. If you try it out, it seems to me it only adds interest to what you already do on one flute, and your listeners will respond well to hearing different sounds from these evocative and often playful instruments. Give it a try to play, say, a crystal flute, or a Native American flute, or an Irish whistle. I predict you will be completely smitten.
I also want to encourage everyone to try making up some music on your flute. Start with what mood you are in when you pick up your flute, then make something up. First, enjoy how liberating it feels to not be reading notes, but hearing them more keenly because the ears pick up where the eyes have nothing to read. I highly recommend recording what you play, because you might find yourself surprised how well and naturally it comes to you, and you will want to hear it again and maybe develop it further! All this, just for the free price of trying it! In your practicing, try doing something new. What will you start with today? Perhaps you will try making up your own exercises, rather than reading etudes. Our work is not just the flute but can be considered everything we you do with a practitioner’s attention. You can always be as much of a complete artist in the solitude of your room as you choose, playing something that came from your own being, not someone else’s, and is from right now, which is the only time in which we all find ourselves.
Most of all, I want to encourage each of you in your particular music journeys, no matter what stage of evolution you think you should be in. You never know where your own musical interests or experiments might lead you, and it might be changing before your very eyes, even now. I never imagined my musical life to evolve into the tree it has become, and I would have to say it came about by the sheer surprise paths my life took, and my following what interests me most and makes my heart jump. I hope for the same for each of you in your lives, and often think, “we lucky few, we players of the flute”!