Leonard Lopatin Artist Interview

After Leonard E. Lopatin retired from the Asheville Symphony, he and his wife, Jackie Lopatin retired to Mannington, WV in 2019. Lopatin is a Juilliard graduate who left a full-time job as 3rd flute and piccolo player with the Metropolitan Opera in 1979 to move to Boston to learn how to make flutes and explore theories he had about tone production. Best known as a flute maker and designer of the SquareONE family of flutes, medical issues forced him to curtail the full-timecreation of new flutes and he found himself—for the first time in his life—composing small etudes for his own pleasure, compliment to his Tone Study for the Lifelong Flutist which is currently available for purchase at Sheet Music Direct and Sheet Music Plus.


 

What are you up to these days?

A: Oh, not much. (chuckle.) You know I’m pretty much retired now, right? Well, OK, I’m retired from the type of professional playing I’ve been doing since age 22. I’ve developed some physical problems relating, I suppose, to repetitive motion, not to mention sheer overuse. Holding the flute transversely, as we do, was becoming increasingly difficult, and at age 65, I had to leave the Asheville Symphony. I just couldn’t get through a two to three hour rehearsal without severe pain. It turns out that I have slipped rib syndrome in which several faux ribs broke away from my sternum. It eluded diagnosis for a long time because, as I eventually learned, when you tell a doctor that you have back trouble, they assume spine, and spend a huge amount of time studying your spine, as if that is the only thing in the rear of your body. Well, the rib cage has a front and a back side as well. So after we moved to Mannington, WV, this condition and the semi-successful surgery to correct it made it impossible to practice enough to keep my playing up to my standards. I started to get severely depressed. I decided to resume playing the alto saxophone, which I hadn’t played since I was fifteen. At that time, I had taken the advice of my teachers and concentrated on only the flute, because of how “delicate” the flute’s embouchure is. It was the right thing do do at that time. But the flute embouchure also requires strength.

The lack of flute practice made it feel and sound as if I had completely lost my embouchure forever. The sax doesn’t have that “hold me up in the air!” problem that the flute has. In fact the alto sax lets me rest my right arm on my leg. That really helped. It wasn’t the flute, but I could play music. Intermittently, I would get the flute out and have a go at it. I’d been, and still am, finding ways to work around the pain, so I’d stop honking and start tooting once in a while. Mostly, that was too depressing. I sounded like a beginner on the flute. But I know a thing or two about life. I know that it doesn’t matter if you need to go back and do the things you once did as a beginner over again. Learning feels good and it is good. It keeps your mind alive and well. I also knew that I had a pretty smart teacher: me! After a very long time, having accepted that I was doing this for my soul, for my love of the flute, for the way it gave me a voice for so many years, and not to meet any kind of goal, I started to sound better. The hardest part was not judging myself too harshly. It didn’t matter if or when I might start to improve. I was playing because it’s a good thing to do, learning because it’s also a good thing to do. One interesting thing—I think that the saxophone helped me regain a lot of the strength I had lost. It was helping my flute embouchure at this point in my life. I sound pretty good sometimes now!

Another big thing that has happened is the completion of my book, Tone Study for the Lifelong Flutist. I’m still searching for a good way to produce a print edition of this 185 page work, but the download is available for purchase at Sheet Music Direct and Sheet Music Plus, thanks to ArrangeMe, A Hal Leonard company. It had been years in the making.

I also just recently finished revamping my website, SquareONEflutes.com.

What does your schedule look like for the next 6 months?

A: I’m excited that I’ve been asked to do a masterclass in the Spring at Fairmont State University. This is not something I’ve done a lot of. It will be interesting to see what I can bring to that setting with my unique mixture of knowledge and experience.

 Flute making-wise, the main thing I’m working on is producing pads for the SquareONE flutes out there in the hands of my customers. Many of them are needing to be re-padded. I have a new type of pad now. Originally, I had stuck with the traditional woven felt and cardboard design. Those pads work fine, but with technicians and players alike often being nervous about how to work on a flute with square tone holes, any and all advantages are welcome. My new pads combine a very thin felt core with a perfectly flat brass backing to create a pad that is super easy to install and extremely stable. I love them and have had great response.

What are your goals personally?  Professionally?

A: As I said before, I’m still playing, but more for my own continued learning about the instrument we all love, and about how the human mind and psyche work as we get older. Why do we work? Why do we retire, and how do we retire if we choose to? What do you do if you can’t do what you love anymore? Are we sure we can’t do it?! I have a blog called The Opinionated Flutist, where I think “out loud” about all of the above. I enjoy writing, and this blog is fun to do.

Recently I’ve been composing some etudes for flute. I hadn’t ever really thought of myself as a composer before, but some time ago, I realized something. You know how most of us music types always have one tune or another going through our heads at any give time? Well, at one point, I just couldn’t place the tune in my head. I couldn’t think where I’d heard it. Was it from a piece I played a long time ago? I eventually realized that it was my tune. I had made it up. There were more as time went on. I decided to start writing them down. No goal in mind particularly, but what would be the harm? This led to my putting the patterns in these tunes down in etude form. I have only four of them completely finished and ready for public ridicul...oops, I mean publication! But I have many more started. One is almost finished!

What inspires you the most in life?

A: Music. Creativity. The quest for perfection, knowing perfectly well that it doesn’t exist. Bach’s 3-Part Invention in Eb Major – it explains EVERYTHING.

What has been your greatest challenge?

A: I have a real tendency to get in my own way. I’m a terrible perfectionist, and though it’s easy to joke about how I’m working on becoming a better one, it’s true what people say, that you shouldn’t let the perfect stand in the way of the good. I know that’s true, but I haven’t always been able to just “get on with it” and accept that I've done the best I can.

What is the most exciting thing in your life right now?

A: Musically, the book I told you about earlier, Tone Study for the Lifelong Flutist, being out there, with folks downloading it, just makes me so happy. I love to think about flute players working on the patterns I put together; using them to improve their tone quality and their legato. And I’m looking forward to getting my little etudes out there to lots of players.

On the home front, now that Covid restrictions are easing, it was great fun doing a small bit of performing at our local West Augusta Historical Society’s Round Barn. My wife, Jackie Britton Lopatin, has a great interest in history (she refers to herself as a storyteller and documentarian) and was recently elected to their Board of Directors. Together we put together a program about my flutes and flute making. I played a piece on my concert flute, and then Jackie talked (or rather, in her parlance, bragged) about my accomplishments, then pulled out a flip chart of the photo documentary she made about the designing of the first SquareONE alto flute (which you can find on my website: Dreams to Reality). Then she had me play a couple of short pieces on my alto flute, including Suo Gan, the traditional Welsh Lullaby, which can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iR1GMxkGqQ. We answered questions and Jackie finally had me demonstrate my prototype SquareONE piccolo. It was well received and a lot of fun. I’m not up for long symphonic performances any more, but the sound quality of these short pieces in the Round Barn’s great acoustics came across well.

 

Why Mannington, West Virginia?

A: The quick and easy answer would be affordable housing. The more complex issue is that my wife saw a lot of things to like about this historic district when she was writing short stories for the now defunct “Grantville Gazette,” based on a science fiction series by Eric Flint in which a small town in West Virginia (which looked a lot like but was not identical to Mannington) was transported back in time to Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. She liked that most things were within walking distance, including a public library, post office, City Hall, a museum, and a public school. Part of one of her stories took place in a big Victorian at the corner of Pleasant and Locust Streets. When we had occasion to house hunt, on a whim she looked up “Mannington, WV, houses for sale”, and the first thing that popped up was this house right across the street from that big Victorian, and we could afford to buy it outright rather than having to take out a mortgage. It just felt as if it were meant to be. One thing we couldn’t have predicted was how nice the neighbors are and how welcoming they are!

One habit you wish you could break?

A: I’ve never been one to keep to a “normal” sleep routine. I know it would be healthier in many ways. I don’t know if it’s just the notion, rightly or not, that we artists have to be free (whatever that means), and we are on call to serve the Muse 24/7/365, or if I’m just wired this way, but I just keep staying up until 4 or 5 AM. I keep saying that I’m going to try to do better, but...

If you had a super power, what would it be?

A: What do you mean if? 😉

What is one thing you wish you knew at 19?

A: I don’t wish things like that. Really. We can never truly know what we should do. How could anyone know what they’re going to need, who they’re going to meet, what they’re going to be interested in? It’s easy to think you know, and there is the trap. We can say, “If I were to do that over again, I would do it completely differently.” Well, maybe you would, but probably not. And if you could go back and do things over, but armed with all this precious knowledge, you might just end up thinking, “Now wait a minute! This is not what I want to do at all!” So I think it’s best to just accept that as humans, the best thing we can do is decide how we want to live, and figure out the best way to do that in the present. Now is all we have.

What is your Spirit Animal? Why?

A: I’m not really a spirit animal kind of guy. I identify with the unicorn a bit, but they don’t exist. Maybe that’s their appeal. Flutes with square tone holes didn’t exist either, did they? Well, not quite true. There were flutes made with square tone holes made in the late nineteenth century, but they didn’t ever get beyond the experimental stage. So they’re sort of unicorns. But my unicorns are alive and well!

What is your Super Power?

A: You asked me earlier what am I completely bored with at this time. I didn’t have an answer, and I couldn't think why. Now that I think about it, I realize that not getting bored with certain things is kind of a super power of mine. I’ve always had a great capacity for working on tiny details; working on getting something exactly right, no matter how many times I have to repeat, no matter how slow I need to go. I’m referring to playing passages on the flute, but this could be about working on making a part of a flute that is difficult to get just right. The same kind of patience is needed. If you can’t tolerate a high level of over and over and over and over and over AGAIN, kind of BOOOOOOORING, you might not stick with it until it’s really and truly right and correct. Oh, and since we’re talking about flutes and music, it has to be beautiful as well. No problem, just repeat a couple or three hundred times, and you’re there!

 

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