ArticlesFeaturedIssuesJuly 2024

An Evening with Helen Campo

by Reva Youngstein

An evening in March, at a downtown Manhattan venue called Arlene’s Grocery, we were all treated to a night of flute, poetry and original songs. The performer was the multi-talented Helen Campo, my friend, and professional flutist in NYC, who also, it seems, has been secretly writing and recording songs in the privacy of her Upper West Side apartment. Helen’s songs gave us so much to feel, think and savor. Her collection of songs covered a wide variety of styles (like country, folk, rock and more) and her lyrics told stories that were moving.  Some of them were poignant, like “Letting Go of Love” others contained wise commentary, and others, still, like “Plastic Man” were more like a joyous romp. Her song “These Words” was soothing, like a lullaby, and had me completely mesmerized.

Her voice rang out clearly, effortlessly, and was well balanced, between light and strong.  Helen has perfect diction, and dead-on perfect pitch.  She made each song into a dramatic and emotional experience. Helen, as a well-known professional flutist, started the performance playing her flute with virtuosity, then moving to a reading of her poetry and finally, to the singing of her songs.  It was a rich evening.

Helen was joined by Andy Buslovich on guitar, John Miller, bass, Hiroko Taguchi, violin, Matt Vander Ende, drums, and Alec Bart on keyboard.

After such a surprising and memorable evening, I was compelled to know more about her songwriting. How and when did she start writing songs?   Last week, Helen and I shared a delicious lunch and lively conversation on this very topic at her Upper West Side apartment.

It turns out that Helen has never actually sat down and purposely written a song. Her song ideas simply occur to her when waiting for a subway, in line at the grocery store, or on the street, pushing her children in a stroller. Whenever an idea would come to her, she’d stop and pull out a receipt or whatever paper she could find in her bag and scribble it down.  The flash of inspiration might be simply a phrase of poetry or occasionally the words would appear with a rhythm with note names attached. Or, “Sometimes seeing an image would inspire an idea, like the slant of the sun, the edge of a building, or a long forgotten memory surfacing like a lost shoe.” Helen added.

The words always come to her first, on their own, or accompanied with the music, but the music never comes to her first. Further, she never plays her songs on her flute or works out the harmonies that way. Like the lyrics, the harmonies just enter her mind.

In her teens, she composed instrumental music: a set of flute variations to play as an encore piece after a concerto performance, and later, she wrote a vocal sextet based on a poem she was studying in literature class with her favorite English teacher, Mr. Wilkinson. “Once I write down the words, they create rhythms in themselves. Sometimes one goes against the natural rhythms for effect, though, like a false cadence in music. These things can emphasize the moment by surprising the listener.”


But how did Helen learn to craft a song so beautifully?  How has she been influenced, in her writing of lyrics and of music? Helen gave a sad answer to one of these influences: “My parents were both on death's door [with illness] during my childhood, so I’m sure that provided fertile soil and perspective to my songwriting, fortunately or unfortunately.”

Though, while they lived, the Campos were very active in their daughter’s education. Her father, Anthony Guy Campo, a doctor, was chairman of the Board of Education and helped raise money and break ground for Helen’s new school building. Helen’s mother, Helen Anne Turini Campo, a nurse and a lover of poetry, succeeded in bringing more poetry and literature into the school curriculum. “It became a part of the curriculum to stand in front of the class and recite poetry from memory. I think my mother was partially responsible for this ... I was so into poetry back then, that my parents’ sole Christmas present to me one year was simply a book of poetry collected and illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. I adored this book. I memorized and recited so many of these poems in my class. “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” and  “The Day is Done”, were two favorites.

Helen’s musical influences and experiences are varied and lengthy and span throughout her life. From an early age, she was surrounded by great music performance and music education.  She was exposed to orchestral music, playing in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra on Saturdays, and learning theory, counterpoint and composition during the week at Settlement Music House in Philadelphia. Later, in addition to her flute study, Helen would study world music at New England Conservatory, and have further exposure to jazz, pop, reggae and more.

What a golden opportunity to sit down with Helen and look closely at a few of her songs, my personal favorites, learning of her creative process.  “Letting Go of Love”, a poignant song, is about a past relationship before her first marriage. “Letting go of love, I weep and wash all words away

My body folding forward into the emptiness inside me

I wanted you to always stay here, right here by my side,

in meadows filled with come what may”.

“Plastic Man'' is a clear contrast, and is more like a joyous romp.  Very catchy, this song came to her in a grocery store line. Here, Helen looks at a man who flirted with her on a show, but wouldn’t own up to it. Thinking highly of himself, he fancied himself taking over her life completely.

“Plastic man, your plastic hands descend on my party

And they push the other guests out o’er the rim

Till there’s nothing left but you for me within.”

Later in the song, Helen says to this Plastic man “I may just be your safety pin” as if he were a larger than life blow up doll puffed up beyond his emotional limit and suddenly finding himself in danger of being popped .

The final song of Helen’s March evening performance at Arlene’s Grocery was “These Words”, a very moving, intimate lullaby.  Here, Helen’s lyrics repeat “These words, these words. These words, these words are our children.  We share with them in joined separation”. All words join with a higher power, and the words themselves take on a new life.

Loving her songs, I pressed Helen further about her songwriting now, currently.  Does she continue to write and compose? She explained “I wrote mostly everything decades ago after studying a bit of meditation. What did Leonard Cohen say, “When your life is burning well, poetry is the ash”? Although, I might leave out the word “well” in this case, because I think all this came out of me mostly when things were going poorly [in my life], which is why I felt I needed to study meditation and read books on creative visualization. In fact, most of the stories depicted in my songs are purely from my imagination, and in which love doesn’t work out, because invariably I'd wake up from my dream world and realize it was not reality. So, it would evaporate as depicted in some of the songs. I haven’t written anything since being married to my cellist-husband, Danny Miller, these 14 years, though. At one time I was primarily inspired to write melancholy songs, but now I'm too busy being happy!”

Helen may not be actively writing new songs, but she is by no means idling in her creativity.  She did record about 14 of her songs about 20 years ago, but with no drum tracks, so, her son Eladio Rojas will play drums. These drum tracks will be added, and an album of songs will be released, entitled “Letters from the Fire ''. Luckily, she copyrighted everything. Additionally, she will be publishing and making recordings of 20 or so pieces commissioned for a flute, tuba, marimba trio she used to have, called SingleTree. She is also planning to put together a book of her poetry with daughter, Maddy Rojas’ illustrations.

Lastly, she also has plans to finish a book she’s been writing.  It will delve into technique development, something that she discovered and is based on a secret musical technique she accidentally learned as a child. “I credit this with helping me win a lot of competitions and auditions in my early years and to be able to tour as a soloist in my teens. I’m thinking that’s just about enough with my busy freelance schedule. Sometimes I play with 4 different orchestras in the same  week, or, later this month playing a concerto from memory with  the Inwood Chamber Players and piccolo with City Opera on the same day! I’m definitely very lucky!”

As Helen and I finished our conversation and lunch, I thanked her heartily for the delicious meal she’d prepared for me.  Helen generously shares recipes and her love for food with her many friends.  In fact, she is well-known for her formidable skill and talent in the kitchen.  I asked her, finally, how cooking has been a meaningful part of her life.  “As far as food is concerned, I grew up with a mother who made homemade pasta all the time and a father who made his own sausage from scratch. They were constantly cooking wonderful things. That’s just how we ate. Also, as a musician on tour, I’ve traveled to so many different countries and loved exploring the native food as a way into the culture.  So, I just think of food as a part of life, like music and poetry. It all goes together: proportion, balance, beauty. We just try to create positive things and hope for the best.”

Helen Campo 
Leonard Bernstein said, "Miss Campo plays the flute the way I wish I could sing." Since her debut at the age of 14, Ms. Campo has made more than 1000 solo appearances, been the principal flutist of 11 Broadway shows, performed on hundreds of movies and TV commercials, and played every position including piccolo with numerous orchestras including NY Phil, NY City Ballet, NY City Opera, Orchestra St Lukes, and ASO. She has also held positions with the Houston Symphony, NY Pops, NJ Festival Orchestra, Greenwich Symphony and motherhood to name a few.
Reva Youngstein 
Flutist Reva Youngstein is an active performer throughout the New York area. She performs with the NJ Symphony, American Symphony, and plays regularly at Carnegie Hall with Musica Sacra and with the Orchestra of the Oratorio Society of New York.She can be heard in Broadway pits of Wicked, and the most recent Les Miserables.  She has been on the music faculty of the Brearley School in Manhattan for twenty years, and for several years served as woodwind coach for the New Jersey Symphony’s Academy Orchestra.  As an author, Reva compiled, edited, and organized a large pandemic project in 2020-'21: "Musicians Cook!" a 300 page, 100% musician-made cookbook of recipes, stories and original artwork featuring and celebrating the many New York City-area musicians.   (

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