Every musician has a few favorite pieces, ones they look most forward to playing and sharing because of a special connection to the music itself or to the composer.
We have many. As a duo, we perform what we like to call “wickedly great” works from our repertoire featuring living composers. A few come with fantastic backstories, and we’d like to share them. This way, when you listen, you might have something extra to listen for.
Crystal Healing by Gary Schocker (2016)
This piece by flutist-composer Gary Schocker is truly special to us, because it came directly from my return to music. In 1992, Duo Sequenza performed at the Bar Harbor Music Festival in Maine. The next year, I (Deb) went back alone and performed Gary Schocker’s Regrets and Resolutions for flute and piano while on crutches after having had hip replacement revision surgery. There, I connected with Gary.
A note on Gary: A gifted composer and flutist, Gary has written music for many instruments, with almost 300 works in print—half of them including flute. Many of his compositions are part of the standard flute repertoire. Gary is also a wunderkind who made debuts with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra at 15. Today he teaches and performs around the world.
After 1993, life circumstances dictated my stepping away from concert performances—for 21 years. Those 21 years without concertizing were incredibly painful for me. In 2014, I attended the National Flute Convention and was inspired by reconnecting with friends and colleagues. I began to contemplate a return to music. While at the convention, I happened to pick up a biography of Gary Schocker, which included a certain familiar reference among his “significant events:” my performance of his work in Bar Harbor in 1993.
I couldn’t help but think it was a sign. Upon my return home, my husband encouraged me to track down Paul to ask if he’d be interested in bringing Duo Sequenza back together.
Yes, he was.
Our reunion and return to concertizing coincided with Indiana’s bicentennial. Yet there was also another 200th birthday to celebrate: that of my crystal flute, an 1816 Claude Laurent four-keyed flute— which I had no idea how to play (but would soon learn).
What came next was the perfect convergence. I reached out to Gary and told him about the flute, which he termed the “crystal beast.” He was so inspired by the idea of composing for it that Crystal Healing was in my inbox two weeks later. Because our connection in Bar Harbor had been during my recovery from surgery, and the composition marked our duo’s return to the stage years later and the restoration of my sense of purpose, Crystal Healing was named as an acknowledgment of the healing power of time and music. It’s a piece written expressly for the tonal qualities of the crystal flute as a duet with guitar by a masterful composer.
Duo Sequenza premiered Crystal Healing in January 2017. We have since recorded it for what will be our third Navona Records album, featuring the Laurent crystal flute.
Gazzedolphylloni by Harvey Sollberger (2008)
This jazz-inspired duet is a meeting of the minds between Italian flutist Severino Gazzelloni and American jazz alto saxophonist, bass clarinetist, and flutist Eric Dolphy—written by pre-eminent American contemporary flutist Harvey Sollberger.
Severino Gazzelloni was the principal flutist with the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Turin, Italy for more than 30 years and an inspiration to many composers of new music in the 1950s and 1960s. He also inspired many flutists, among them Harvey, who played with the Group for Contemporary Music in New York under Charles Wuorinen. Gazzelloni also inspired and taught flute to Eric Dolphy, who admired his style greatly.
The 1950s and 1960s marked a period of intense innovation and inspiration. Art, music, and life were all intertwined with each other. Gazzedolphylloni looks to capture the spirit and tension of this unique period. The guitar part invokes Gazzelloni with recognizable elements like angular staccato notes and large interval leaps that would be familiar to listeners of midcentury contemporary classical music. The flute part is largely an improvisation with extended techniques; in an eight-page score, five pages are open for improvisation with a few text directions from Sollberger, like “enter into a quiet duet with guitar’s sliding dyads” and “play hide and seek with the guitar.” And the parts where flute and guitar play together are mostly in a jazz style, leading up to the end as a wild finish where the instruments jam the theme to an exciting accelerando that lands on a funky jazz chord with a flute high F.
This is a very special piece. As Paul says, “I admire that Deb really took on the spirit of the improv. She wove a part with imitation that fits into the cracks between my part and stays in the tonality of the chords I play. It’s remarkable—and a joy to play.”
Four Romantic Songs by Kent Holliday (2014)
This piece was a joyful discovery we made through music publisher Cayambis Music Press. When we found it, we thought ‘wow, what a great piece of music!’
Yet we had no connection to Kent, a departure from our usual experience. Holliday is based in Virginia and was, until retirement, on the faculty of Virginia Tech University. His Four Romantic Songs is a beautiful, neo-Romantic piece in four movements with interesting rhythmic treatments and beautiful expressive passages for both instruments. Each of the four movements explores a mood in a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern: Pensive, Passionate, Nostalgic, Reflective-Determined.
One of the most interesting parts of this piece from a flute perspective is that Holliday wrote several indications of espressivo and legato, words usually connoting the use of slurs but with a conspicuous absence of slurs actually written in the score—leaving the player a bit of a puzzle for interpretation. For flutists, so much of the character of a piece comes from how the notes are articulated, determining how they sound in relation to each other and whether they are connected (slurred or in a legato style) or highly separated in a staccato style. I had an especially fun time creating different articulation styles that honored the composer’s desire for a legato feeling, freely exploring the many possibilities available to the flute.
Four Romantic Songs has become a staple of Duo Sequenza’s repertoire and is included on our second album, "Yes...It's STILL a Thing!" to be released in late 2021.
A few years ago, violist and radio commentator Miles Hoffman wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times about what he called the Classical Music Insecurity Complex.
He shared that many people distrust their reactions to hearing classical music—or dismiss listening to it entirely, recorded or live—out of fear that they don’t “know enough” or that someone more expert will disagree with them. People may feel that they don’t know what they should be listening for in serious art music. Listeners are bewildered or confused. They don’t want to look like they don’t “get it.”
This feeling is common; we see and hear about it all the time, which is why we’re passionate about explaining why YOU are so important to live performance. Listening is easier than you think. Let us explain.
The power of live music
First, music isn’t made of printed notes on a page any more than a journey is made up of a map. The notes are simply the instructions on how to get to where we’re going. Music is made in a moment in time and space.
As musicians, Paul and I each spend hundreds of hours practicing in solitude. When the music starts to emerge and come alive, my experience is that it just longs to be heard by another set of ears. This is why we are deeply honored by your presence in our concert hall. You’ve decided to trust us to guide you on a journey. It’s a big responsibility: it’s up to us to take you somewhere new together, somewhere beyond the mundane.
This is the true magic and joy of music: its power to take us somewhere that words cannot. Certain intangibles of the human experience are too deep, too beautiful or sad or exciting to be conveyed in words. When we try to translate them into words, something is lost. What you feel when you hear your favorite song is this power. It’s the music burrowing into your heart and soul and taking you outside the present moment.
Live music is even more special, because it only exists at the moment that you’re experiencing it. The art is happening right then, right there, right now. As each note is played, it lasts only for its indicated length, and then it's gone...never to be heard quite the same way again. As a musician, I understand that each note has a special purpose that only it can fulfill. It has relationships to the notes that came before it and after it, and it’s up to me to understand and interpret those relationships, and to bring you along on this journey.
Listen in new ways
With this in mind, there are a few ways that we recommend you can listen to live music, without self-consciousness and intimidation—simply for the pure pleasure of being part of a shared journey.
First, concert halls and performance spaces have been quiet for more than a year. Now we are just at the beginning of these experiences returning. There will be a special joy in simply being able to have the opportunity, should you so choose, to attend a live performance.
Second, a live performance can be a chance for you to leave our frenetic, technology-driven, schedule-oriented daily rhythm behind. Performance spaces are like airplanes—they’re one of the last spaces where (if you’re dutiful about silencing your phones), people cannot reach you in an instant. You can turn off the incessant demands for a time and relax into an experience that can take you and your mind to new and fantastic places.
Third, it’s all right if you don’t like it. Many people are afraid that they won’t, and this fear keeps them out of performance spaces. But you’d order something at a restaurant that you haven’t tried. You’d go to (or stream) a movie and openly share your opinion. It’s all right to try something and not like it. Bring this open-mindedness to the concert.
How to listen to classical music
Some pieces are “about” something: they have a theme that offers an entry point for the listener. Some don’t. Either way, we, as artists, and you, as listeners, each bring our own experiences and our own selves into the music, together creating something altogether new each time, even if you’ve heard the piece before. Even, in fact, if you’ve played the piece before, as musicians who attend performances understand.
The art of listening can be distilled down to the simplicity of this: openness. Regardless of my and Paul’s detailed knowledge of the musical score in front of us, we each revel in having a new experience of the music with every performance. We never know quite what to expect from the music, and here’s the key: Neither should you.
This bears repeating. Just as in life, in classical music, we should never know what to expect. We human beings are in a constant state of flux. We find ourselves in varying degrees of harmony or disharmony with the world around us. Who we are and how we are, in any given moment, is going to inform how we experience the music as we hear it. Focused, attentive listening, without expectation, offers a unique opportunity for us to become, for just 90 minutes in the concert hall, a real human being instead of a human doing. When it comes right down to it, listening and experiencing live classical music in the gestalt of time and space binds us together as a community, and enhances our common human experience. It’s sort of like meditating in a group.
Leave your cares at the door
We encourage you to leave your worries, cares and any Classical Music Insecurity Complex at the door. Bring your ears to the concert hall and open your mind and heart to partake in the nourishment of your whole self. Permit the sound to suffuse your soul to its deepest levels. Bring a special someone or your longtime partner or your date. Bring your friend. Bring your (older) child or teen and share a new experience. Make an evening out of it, with a dinner out before or after. Read about the music beforehand if you want. Don’t if you don’t want to.
When you do join us, you’ll be part of a long history of humankind coming together to hear something special. Live classical music performances were once the places to see and be seen. People played music at home, and they attended music performances together in celebration, out of shared interest, or because a performer or composer had attracted a following.
We can still channel this excitement today. Simply put, there’s no right or wrong of ‘what or how’ when we speak of listening to classical music. The only wrong way is to not listen at all. At the core of it, there’s only our common experience as human beings. Bring yourself to the conversation. It’s three-way: between the composer, the artists, and the listener. We need you to make this special thing we call music. After all, if great music is performed by passionate artists, but no one is there to hear it, has any music been made at all?
Ask any working classical musician what the most difficult part of their work life is, and you’ll rarely hear about the music. In some ways (but not all), the music is the easy part. It’s the business of music that’s the hard part. This is because a working classical musician is much more than a professional performer. We’re entrepreneurs juggling multiple priorities and projects at once. As we like to say, our professional lives are where musicianship meets entrepreneurship.
Practicing is one part of the day
As students and young musicians, we think practicing is going to be the focus of our days. Here, the old saying “there are no shortcuts to the top” rings true: you simply have to put in the time to learn to play your instrument and to reach a level of mastery where the physicality of the instrument becomes secondary to your ability to express the music through it.
This takes years and years of solitary practice, of auditions and lessons and rehearsals and performances. And even once we attain mastery, we have to maintain it, which takes dedicated hours each day (a minimum of three for Debra and five for Paul). When we add rehearsing and teaching into our days, we might have our instruments in hand for seven, eight or even more hours.
Entrepreneurship in classical music
Classical musicians choose a number of paths to make a living in this profession. Some of us win jobs in symphony orchestras or opera orchestras. Many more of us, though, have built careers where we’re doing a number of things at once, from touring to teaching and recording, all while scanning the horizon for more opportunities—for next season and the future. This is when musicianship meets entrepreneurship, because being entrepreneurial is all about seeing an opportunity and putting yourself (and your music) in the right place at the right time. But it doesn’t happen alone. It takes careful observation and research, and lots of networking and creativity.
Sometimes opportunities find us, through referral or a past connection, but more often they come because we go out seeking them. Because of this reality, a day in the life of a classical musician starts to look a bit more like a day in the life of a sales and marketing professional. We’re looking for opportunities (in marketing they’d be called leads), and then we hope to strike up a conversation with the presenter or the performing space or the event director. We want to make a meaningful connection to the market that the presenting organization or event serves: the audience. Because a working classical musician lives in the present as well as in the future, this kind of activity is a constant for us. We’re living through today but we’re well into planning what’s on our schedules later in this season, the next, and the next after that.
We’re also juggling the day-to-day chaos as our schedules shift—something familiar to any entrepreneur. In non-COVID times, this might be because a student needed to move a lesson, or a rehearsal got rescheduled, or the sound check at a touring venue needs to be pushed back, or because our session at the recording studio was changed. Even the most organized among us can’t completely control the chaos, no matter how hard we try.
In addition to managing our daily and long-term schedules, we have to make time for marketing and communications (email inboxes, social media channels), administration (like reviewing contact details or negotiating payment), and planning (selecting repertoire, commissioning composers, and choosing the pieces for our next recording project).
Nothing compares to live music
Of course, this is the familiar rhythm of a life in music before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. For the last 15 months, though, we haven’t been able to be together with our listeners. The pandemic has silenced the world’s concert halls and opera halls. It’s emptied our performing spaces and put us all on Zoom. Simply put, the catastrophe of COVID has hit the performing arts, especially classical music, in devastating ways, from the loss of livelihood to the lack of human connection on which we musicians thrive. While today’s technology makes human connection in the time of COVID-19 possible in so many ways, it’s just not the same for music. You simply do not have the same experience as hearing music live, in a hushed and darkened concert hall.
This is what we live for, the moments of transcendence and magic that we can only share with our audiences live, in a concert. It’s what we wake up thinking about each day, and what we keep in mind as we work through the business of being a classical musician. It’s what we hope to share with each of you as we emerge from the last year into brighter days ahead. What’s the one thing about the last year we might hope to hold onto? More time to practice.