Dr. Martha Councell-Vargas enjoys an adventurous career as a soloist, chamber musician, and teaching artist. She also creates multi-media productions that combine flute performance with visual elements such as choreography and video projections. Having earned performance degrees from Oberlin Conservatory (BMus.), Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music (MMus.), and University of Iowa (DMA), she currently serves as Professor of Flute and Presidential Innovation Professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
Can you give us 5 career highlights?
Performing with Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Ecuador at Casa de la Música, a gorgeous concert hall that overlooks the city of Quito.
The process of making my CD’s was truly fulfilling, and receiving unsolicited, favorable reviews in American Record Guide and Gramophone Magazine was very lovely and rewarding - the icing on the cake.
An unforgettable moment for me will always be the moment I entered my studio at WMU for the first time. I was so honored to have been offered the job, a chance to work with fantastic students and a supportive community of colleagues. It was also genuinely surprising when putting together tenure and promotion portfolios because it gave me perspective about the long-term journey my career has taken – both as a teacher and as an artist.
My live multi-media performances in 2016 and 2018. My first multi-media show, Illustrated Flute Project, was in April 2016. I worked with advanced dance students and choreographed two flute works, then performed live. Dancing around while playing is the ultimate challenge, but what a unique experience! It is truly a gift to be able to perform at the highest level with collaborators who are just as invested in the work as I am. In 2018 I produced and performed in a show called Visible Voice, for which I programmed works specifically to give voice to those among us who are often silenced. The process of creating this show involved making relevant connections to members of my community, which made the experience deeply meaningful to the audience and to me.
In 2022 I was honored to receive one of three university-wide Presidential Innovation Professorships at WMU. This generous award funds the commissioning, discovery, performance, and recording of flute works by historically under-represented composers in a project I call the HURCworks initiative.
Here is the background: In 2020, feeling despondent and hopeless while sequestered in my home because of the pandemic, I virtually assembled a team of flutists, including my former teacher, Leone Buyse, Professor of Flute at Rice University, and WMU flute students of color Sarahi Hernandez (BMus 2022), Tia Davis (BMA 2021), and Gia Evans (BMus 2023), to re-think the standard flute repertoire. We worked together to curate, update, and expand our repertoire list, adding over 200 works by historically under-represented composers, a project we call the HURCworks Initiative.
The WMU flute curriculum now draws repertoire written by a broader representation of composers, including women, LGBT+ composers, and composers of color. As an immediate outcome, two flute majors won the Undergraduate Research Excellence and Creative Scholarship Award for on-campus interdisciplinary performances featuring HURCworks in 2021.
How about 3 pivotal moments that were essential to creating the artist that you've become?
1996: Panamá City, Panamá. Oberlin has a Winter Term project called Oberlin in Panamá. A student wind quintet and a student string quartet partner with organizations in Panama to perform concerts and teach at music camps, both in the city and in the nearby mountains. I was lucky to be asked to join because I had taken six years of Spanish in middle and high school (and the original flutist canceled at the last minute). Being immersed in a culture so vibrant, generous, and passionate about life, I was so impressed and inspired, I almost did not return to the US! Since then, I have dedicated many of my scholarly and artistic pursuits to the music of Central and South America and the Caribbean. I traveled to Miami and Cuba to study the charanga flute tradition, and I’ve been very fortunate to be invited to perform in Honduras, Ecuador, Argentina, and Peru.
What do you like best about performing?
I love the feeling of freedom when I walk on stage for a performance. There is so much non-performance effort that goes into performing – the booking, the travel, the publicity, and all the administrative logistics. That’s the stuff that makes me nervous! When I finally reach the moment where I am carrying just my flute, focused only on the music I’m about to share, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. As an artist, I am so blessed to be able to wordlessly connect to people I’ve never met, and to share the beauty.
I love the silence that exists between the conclusion of a piece and the audience’s applause. That is such a magical space, so hard to put into words, but undeniable! It’s like being suspended in mid-air, a hypnosis, a trance, a meditation that unites the performer and the audience in a brief but powerful moment of shared stillness and wonder.
I love the connection to the audience. After a performance, I can be self-critical – even before I return to the dressing room! However, I frequently meet audience members for whom the performance was deeply, personally meaningful – if a relative had recently died and she played flute, or a particular work on the program brings to mind a special memory, for instance. The audience often humbles me that way. Those experiences remind me that my assessment of the performance is irrelevant; the performance is about the audience’s experience, not mine.
Vittes, Laurence. “Sounds of America: ‘Fantasía: Solo Flute Music of the American Continent.’” Gramophone, Vol. 93 (2016): III.
“Musically profound…powerfully rhythmic…seductive…vivid…”
Gorman, Todd. "Collections: Martha Councell-Vargas – ‘Fantasía.’" American Record Guide January 2016: 185-6.
“Martha Councell-Vargas plays with ease and excellent control. She produces a full, rounded
sound and has a solid command of the instrument’s entire range.”
Gorman, Todd. "Gran Danzón." American Record Guide Jul 2014: 170-1.
“Played with solid assurance and grasp of Latin and jazz playing styles…”
“…cooks from the very outset…”
“Cover of the year.”
What does your schedule look like for the next 6 months?
I am currently planning a tour which includes several performances of HURCworks across the Midwest, and I will be recording several works in our recital hall in spring 2024.
The Professorship also allows me to continue to pursue avenues for multi-media performance. Currently, I am learning aerial yoga, and plan to create a video and eventually a live show in which I combine aerial dance with flute performance. Stay tuned for that. (and please wish me luck, I will need it!)
What are your goals personally? Professionally?
I can honestly say, with enormous gratitude, I have achieved many of the dreams I had as a student. I have performed all over the world, in venues big and small, as part of an orchestra, chamber ensemble, as a soloist. The life of a flutist is truly complex, rich, and full of surprises – mostly good ones! I am now focused on performing multi-media shows that combine flute performance with visual elements; I do feel motivated to honor that vision at this stage of my career. However, today’s musical landscape is very different than the one I experienced when I was a young professional 25 years ago, so my most important goal is to effectively guide my students toward their dreams. When they succeed, that is the most rewarding achievement of all.
What inspires you the most in life?
My students inspire me. I see them working hard and overcoming so many obstacles in order to pursue their dreams. They have energy, drive, and vision, and they’re passionate about people as well as performing.
My daughter inspires me. At 11 years old, she is energetic, compassionate, kind, intuitive, bright, hilarious, un-self-conscious, and she does not let anything bring her down. She also happens to be a beautiful violist and pianist! She is the most brilliant inspiration to me, and the greatest blessing of my life.
What has been your professional greatest challenge?
I must say the global pandemic and subsequent shut-down in 2020-2021 was supremely challenging for me. I admire my colleagues who moved seamlessly from face-to-face teaching to the online format. It’s all a big blur to me now, but I remember feeling quite frustrated professionally, because my utter lack of experience with technology and audio engineering stood as an obstacle prohibiting me from teaching to best of my ability. My daughter was also experiencing remote school as a second grader, so my attention was constantly divided between her needs and the needs of my students. Thankfully, I had people to help me, and my students were patient with me! But I can say without a doubt that was the most challenging time – both professionally and personally.
What has been your personal greatest challenge?
Overcoming self-doubt. For a variety of reasons, I have a tendency to be my own worst enemy with regard to achieving, experiencing, and accepting success. Though I have been able to move away from it, I do have the bad habit of becoming absorbed in self-criticism. It’s a downward spiral and a losing game! Perfectionism is dangerously destructive. Thankfully, I am fortunate to have found people who have given me tools to help me battle the inner voices, but it is an ongoing struggle. I hope to someday arrive at a healthy balance between accepting myself as I am and addressing areas for self-improvement, while practicing self-compassion and trusting/celebrating my strengths.
Who were your music mentors? and what did you learn from them?
Leone Buyse: I met Ms. Leone when I was 17 years old, studying at the Tanglewood Institute. She had decided not to participate as faculty that year, but my teacher at the time, Greig Shearer, insisted that I seek her out and ask for a lesson. I was nervous to do so, but finally mustered the courage to approach her after an open BSO rehearsal. She was so gracious, patient, and kind. I knew from that first lesson that I wanted to study with her regularly, and eventually, I did, for my Master of Music from Rice University (2000). For the last thirty years I have been privileged to know Ms. Leone, and my life is better for it. I will always strive to emulate her poise and professionalism, her quiet confidence, her meticulous attention to detail, her humility and grace.
Michel Debost: Where Ms. Buyse focused on the meticulous details, Mr. Debost told me to throw out my metronome to avoid playing like a robot! He was energetic, hilarious, and terrifying. Mr. Debost, could see the artist inside of me and he drew it out – or should I say he yanked it out!? …with humor and joii de vivre, but of course. I am indebted to him for strengthening my flute playing by insisting on my best efforts, both technical and artistic, at all times. He always held me to the very highest standards, accepting nothing less, and I am a better flute player for it.
Can you give us 5 quirky, secret, fun, (don't think too much about this) hobbies or passions?
Antiques/Estate Sales – you never know what you’ll find, and the sales always tell a story
collecting rugs, especially from far-off lands
shoes, I just love shoes. And bags.
Hiking/Camping – nothing like embarking on a hike, knowing you have everything you need right there on your back! True freedom.
Exercise, including aerial yoga on sling, silks and lyra/hoop!
What 3 things would you offer as advice for a young flutist?
(It’s unoriginal advice but)…practice, practice, practice!
In order to be a performer, it’s not enough to love music, you have to need it.
Envision your ideal future in great detail, exactly as you hope it will unfold. Vision is so powerful - if you truly believe in your dream, you will actually achieve it, or maybe something even better than you could have possibly imagined.