Today we are excited bring you the second episode the in our new Pathways series! We will be talking with folks just like you, reaching out, inspiring each other, and lending each other a hand in our musical journeys.
We are joined by Musical U member Sharilynn Horhota. Before her engineering career and three children, Sharilynn was headed towards becoming a professional flute player. Now she has returned to the flute in a surprising way.
Sharilynn has been sharing her journey inside Musical U so we had some sense of her interesting backstory and all the cool activities she’s been up to – but as you’ll be hearing, Musical U is just one part of all the resources she’s been drawing on and all the ways she’s been stretching herself since returning to flute.
In this conversation we talk about:
- How studying Alexander Technique in Finland let her feel much freer in her playing and opened up her sound.
- The specific resources and exercises that have helped Sharilynn start to improvise, and in a way that feels like she is truly expressing herself, rather than just improv-by-numbers following chord tones.
- And the two clever variants on traditional exercises, scales and long notes, which she now gives her flute students to help them improve faster and enjoy practicing more.
You will surely find a lot to relate to in her story – and pick up some handy ideas and pointers that you can apply in your own musical journey.
Watch the episode:
Links and Resources
Have you picked up useful ideas or techniques in your own musical journey so far that you think could inspire or help others on their path of exploring their musicality? Get in touch by dropping an email to firstname.lastname@example.org! We are always looking for new guests for Pathways and would love to share your story next.
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Sharilynn: Hi, I’m Sharilynn Horhota. I am a classical flutist in pursuit of Jazz improvisation, and this is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Sharilynn. Thank you for joining us today.
Sharilynn: Thank you for having me.
Christopher: I’ve been so looking forward to this because you’re one of our most active members of the Musical U community, and I’ve been kind of watching your journey from afar and found it so fascinating, and inspiring, and I’m really excited to have a chance now to share that with the Musicality Now audience. You have a really interesting backstory in that you began in a very classical direction in a very serious way. And that’s not quite where you’ve ended up today. So I’d love if we could begin with that early backstory, and how you got into playing flute in the first place.
Sharilynn: Okay, so the backstory is typical for kids pursuing music, started in the 6th grade band. I wanted to play clarinet, and so I listened to everything that had clarinet in it. And when I showed up to band class, he said, “You’re playing flute. I have too many clarinets.” Okay. So there we go. I’m playing the flute, and went through the typical high school band. I excelled at it. I practiced a lot, and I know we always have the talk about talent. I learned quickly. And then if I got something, I just went for it more and more, and continued to practice.
Sharilynn: So our high school band director was phenomenal. He was one of those special band directors, and he was truly my inspiration for staying in music. I have a number of friends that I still have contact with from my high school that are also still in music. So he was truly an inspiration. Band directors really have a bigger influence than I think anyone can imagine. They see these children, especially the high school band directors see these kids for four years. And they see them grow. A lot of growth happens over those four years. I have a couple high schoolers, so I see it. And he has to deal with it again and again. I’m happy mine have grown. But I was very inspired by him and didn’t know what I want to be when I grew up. My mom wanted me to be a travel agent, and I was a rebel. I don’t think I wanted to be anything my mom wanted me to be.
Sharilynn: But I loved music, and I needed money for college, so won a music scholarship. So there you go. I went into music, and a local community college had a very gifted flute teacher. And I had the blessing of going there. And she was phenomenal. And she was very connected in the flute community. So went there for two years, and she was the one that introduced me to my teacher in Hartford, Connecticut, who’s at the Hartt School of Music. His name is John White, and he’s the principal of the New York City Opera. So I transferred there, and I sent an audition tape and all of that, and I got in.
Sharilynn: My background was nothing like these kids I went to school with. I started flute lessons as a sophomore in high school. Most of them had had lessons throughout middle school and high school. So I was behind, but she was such great foundational teacher, Darling Davian was such a great foundation at that junior college level that I was ready for it, and then when I got to Hartt, I ended up doing fine as principal of the wind ensemble. And he told me, “I’m going to put you in orchestra because you’re a strong player. I want you as principal player.” So that’s what I got to do, and my conductor was the father of one of the top flute players there. And so the extra pressure was there to do well when I had a solo. And he’s a very intense man, so the look he gave me when he would bring me in for my solos was highly intense, and I just love him. He’s just a great musician. And met many great musicians while at Hartt.
Sharilynn: But what happened with me, I worked with some of the best.. two of my chamber music coaches were… one was a chamber music player throughout New York, Frank Borelli, I’ve seen him somewhere in podcast land interviewed, so he’s still out there playing. The other one is Bert Lucarelli, who, I attended one of his recitals at Carnegie Hall. So going from small town to this was a big deal. They are great people.
Sharilynn: I had the opportunity to have master classes with Julius Baker, who my first teacher knew, well. She knew him well, and she was the one that got me going to his master classes in the summer. And he’s a legend. He’s absolutely a legend, and he did me this huge favor. I played for him at one of his master classes, and the opportunity to either play once or play three times. And I think that particular time, I played for him three times.
Sharilynn: And on the first time I played, he looks at me and he goes, “You’re nervous, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yes.” And we were in this beautiful church, and he looks out the back door, which was open, and he said, “Oh, look. I think I see a squirrel out there.” It’s like the movie Up. Squirrel! Everybody got up and looked because he said to do that. And he said, “You feel better now?” And I said, “Yes.”
Sharilynn: Well come to find out, my teacher says. He does not do that for everybody. A lot of the people he would just let them play and not say anything. But he let me play and he proceeded to rip me apart. He showed me where my weaknesses were, and then I went to work. And I just, for the next two days, because I had two days in between, it was a week long master class, I shedded. I just shedded, Practiced my butt off, and when I came back and played for him again, he just sat back, folded his arms, and he nodded at me. And what a gift. So love that man, love his playing. Now that he’s gone, I realize what a huge blessing it was when it was going on. You have no idea. High school, college, everything’s good. So I went from that into my work at Hartt, and I got some gig opportunities there. We’d go out and play for parties and things like that.
Sharilynn: But I remember talking to my teacher and I said, “You know, this is all really great, and I like playing and stuff.” I said, “But something’s missing.” And he said, “I don’t know. I have no idea what it is.” And he says, “You know, I got an idea. Let me send you up to Bryan and Flutes, which is a custom flute maker in Boston, and he goes, “I got some connections up there. Why don’t you go spend the day with them and see what they’re up to?” So I spent the day with them. They were great, let me take a flute apart completely. I loved it. So that was my first introduction to that. Nothing went on after that. I think it was just a little planting of the seed. After I graduated from Hartt, I wanted to continue to study because I didn’t feel like I was ready.
Sharilynn: I had some opportunities to play with the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra while I was getting ready to go to Finland. I spent a year working so I could raise the money, I met a teacher on the summer prior to graduating that was from Finland. That’s how I ended up there, and loved playing. She used Alexander technique along with her playing, and I think my teacher was very well aware of the tension that I had in my playing. I just wanted to do it so badly, I guess. And so he said, “I think this lady’s perfect for you.” And so he sent me to her master class.
Sharilynn: And I think what impressed me the most was everything she played gave me goosebumps. Such a musical player. And that was kind of, I guess my vibe, is that if I was going to do anything, I wanted to move people with what I play. I didn’t want to sit there and listen to them flap their fingers around, or… I wanted them to feel something either I’m communicating what the composer had asked of me or within an ensemble that we all band together and play together. I wanted that. I wanted what she did. So I ended up putting the money together to go to Finland for a year, and then I ended up getting a scholarship so I was able to go for two years.
Christopher: And I wonder if I might interject there – because you mentioned something in passing which was Alexander technique and how to relates to tension. If someone watching or listening isn’t familiar with that, could you explain what that was, and why it was relevant to this?
Sharilynn: Yeah. Alexander technique is basically a study in how to use yourself properly. So you’re getting into how the body should naturally function. Alexander, I believe it’s Matthias Alexander is his first name. He was an actor on stage, and he had a situation in which he got up on stage, went to say something, and nothing came out. And so, horrifying for anybody, and he went to town to see, well, what is this about? And he began to research that.
Sharilynn: And he came up with this technique. What he first discovered was that the connection between the head and the neck, so it’s right if you nod your head, that portion right there, that connection has to be free. And if you think anything about the brain, a brain has to communicate to the rest of the body. So he said, or what he discovered, then, was if this connection is free, then we are able to freely do what the brain is asking for the rest of the body with nothing in the way. So I took Alexander technique lessons while in Finland, and I spent a lot of time, actually, the initial lessons, they teach you how to stand and how to sit, seriously.
Sharilynn: And Alexander technique is about giving yourself direction, so you give yourself direction with the head. The head goes forward and up. If I had room to stand, I would stand. But you have to stand forward, like have to lean. You’re not leaning, but you’re giving yourself this direction that your head is going to go forward and up as you stand. So you’re not putting pressure down as you lift yourself or anything like that. And then on the sitting part, he would get on my knees and just kind of remind me, knees forward and away, so that your knees just go down. So you’re not trying to make anything happen. Your body will naturally want to do these things. After a lot of that, then they get you on the table and they start working on your shoulders. They’re trying just to release that tension as he’s working with me, maybe pulling arms, almost like a chiropractor may do if they’re working your ligaments. As he would work on me, he himself was releasing tension. So has a little bit to do with energy.
Sharilynn: And I have pictures of myself after having Alexander technique, and my shoulders are probably about this much lower. Because we keep so much tension in our shoulders. So much tension in our neck. And as a flute player, it comes out here. And so you’re doing some funny things with your neck trying to get that flute where it needs to go. So I have continued to practice that. It was incorporated in my lessons really early on. She did not use Alexander technique, but it was always about how you use yourself. Getting out of your own way was her motto to me most of the time. So the Alexander technique was huge for me. And I think, just a sense of, it’s a mindfulness about your body, if that gives the right context for it.
Sharilynn: So I would have to say, the Alexander technique is still around. I know someone just up the road from us about 35 miles is an Alexander teacher. So it is still out there. It’s still around. Primarily it was in New York at the time. I don’t know how I got this guy in Finland in Helsinki. But he studied New York. So it’s something that you have to go to a centralized location to study, and they’ve got something close to that now, and I don’t know if you’ve run across it. It’s called body mapping.
Sharilynn: You haven’t run across it? It’s a similar type thing where they’re looking at the true anatomy of the body, the true physiology of the body, and incorporating that into the instrument you’re playing, or how you’re using yourself as you play. And I know that’s pretty much what my teacher had taught me. Darlene Dugan, my first teacher that I had in a junior college. I talked to her about that, and she was kind of cynical. She said, “Yeah, I’ve been teaching that for years.” Love her. But it’s basically, and I see it all the time in kids, this bad posture, and bad positions, and all of that. And Alexander technique may be sensitive to that in that sometimes I can feel it in myself, that I’m literally uncomfortable as I watch and listen to this person play. And my teacher in Finland could literally say, “Release your ankles.”
Sharilynn: And that note would pop out. I’m like, “Really? Release my ankles, and that works.” Yeah, it’s crazy. But she just was that good, and it’s that sensitivity you get from practicing it for so long. She was quite good at it. She didn’t even need a massage ever. But she could-
Sharilynn: Alexander technique, you’re talking to yourself, saying, “Release your shoulders, release your neck.” It’s weird, but it works. There’s just so many things that we do where we talk to ourselves and it does work. So it’s not that far out there. But go ahead.
Christopher: So it sounds like that was a great help to you. Was that part of the secret behind why this teacher could play as movingly as she could, so musically? Or was this unrelated and just a side perk of going to study with her?
Sharilynn: No, I bet you it was very much like me. That she needed it, would be my guess. When you’re a very sensitive person, like I’ll cry at a commercial. You’re sensitive to everything. So if somebody’s next to you, and they’re glaring at you because you got the chair in front of them, I feel that. And I feel it very strongly. And Alexander technique is one thing you can use to help through that.
Christopher: Interesting, And so how did those studies in Finland go? How did it develop you as a flute player?
Sharilynn: Oh goodness. It just opened up my sound like crazy. I had a good sound coming in. A lot of flute playing is about your sound. But it really opened up my sound, it made me feel more confident in my technique, the playing fast that we have to do as flute players. It just really opened up all of that for me, and it opened up my expression where I could take on certain pieces and really allow myself to let go more than I could before.
Christopher: And did it kind of scratch that itch, or fill that gap for you? You said that you heard this teacher play, and she was able to put such emotion into it and make it so moving. Did you start to feel like you were able to do that same thing?
Sharilynn: Yeah, I think I was getting there. Definitely. And some of the things I got to do while I was there were extra special for me. I didn’t do a lot of orchestral work outside of the symphony I played in before I left for Finland. In school, there just wasn’t an opportunity. But when I got there, there was a conductor’s orchestra, and there I had the opportunity to play Sibelius. To play a Finnish composer’s music in Finland, and that just… And then I got to see what he saw when he wrote some of his music. And coming from the lessons I had with her, her approach, incorporating the Alexander technique, and then having that constant experience to go through the repertoire, yeah, I felt like a player.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I feel like so far, this could be the beginning of an interview with a world leading professional flautist. And that’s not actually how your story continues.
Christopher: Yeah, so, what happened next?
Sharilynn: Well, I came back from Finland, and I was 25, and I’m like, “Okay, now what? I have to make money.” And I think, at that time, my story would probably be different if I had a mentor. I didn’t know what to do. My parents weren’t musical. They thought I was nuts trying to do this. I just didn’t know what to do. So I took a GRE, got everything ready to work on a master’s degree. I was asked to go to University of North Carolina. And life gets busy. I don’t know why I turned that opportunity down, but I did. When you perform for a teacher and they want you to study with them, they do want you to study with them. And I don’t know if it was money. Really don’t know. But I didn’t end up doing that.
Sharilynn: I went to the college that was in my parents’ town, or in my parents’ state. Because you have to have that residency. And I ended up going back into music education. So instead of getting a masters degree, I guess I was going to finish a bachelor’s. I had my bachelor’s in performance, but I didn’t have it in music. So I went there, and I’d have to say, the first semester I was there, great, great orchestral experiences.
Sharilynn: Funny story. Can I take an aside, because it’s just too weird. I played in the orchestra, and we had a soloist coming, a violinist playing a violin concerto with us. And then there was a gentleman that came in to rehearse the orchestra, where the real guy comes later. And that guy knew me. He was from the Norwalk Symphony. He was the concert master. That was nuts. Norwalk is in Connecticut. I was at school in South Carolina, and he looks in the orchestra and goes.. so that was just too weird, but it was super fun. But I enjoyed the orchestral experience there, but something was missing.
Sharilynn: And so I took this class, because I had most of my education stuff done. All I needed was some music ed classes. I took physics in the arts. Physics in the arts is basically a really watered down version of physics. In any way it would apply to art. So there was a lot of wave theory watered down. Whether it be sound waves, or visual waves. So I enjoyed that class. That class was great. And he required a research paper, and for the research paper, I did architectural acoustics. It sounded cool. And the author of the book was actually a consultant that practiced in Clemson. So Clemson is an hour away or something from Columbia, from where I was. So here’s this book, and I was so impressed with what he had in the book, and enjoyed the experience so much I called him.
Christopher: Good on you.
Sharilynn: I called him on the phone. I’m like, “Hi, I used your book as a research paper, and I am a classical musician. And I’m kind of digging this acoustic stuff. What’s this all about?” And he spoke to me for an hour and a half, and after the conclusion of that, I was on the way to become an engineer. He said really, that’s the quickest way to do it. You could do a master’s in physics, but I didn’t have a technical undergraduate degree, so that’d be kind of tough. And so I switched my major to engineering. I did it, so I’m not completely cold. I had high level math in high school. I had all the calculus classes and stuff like that. No precollege ones. Just regular high school classes. But I was good at it. So I hadn’t had math in six years. Never took chemistry, never took physics. And I jumped right in, which, you’ve got technical experience. You know that was nuts.
Christopher: A little bit crazy in a good way.
Sharilynn: But I loved it. And I was really well taken care of. There was one gentleman… I must have talked to him. I forget how this happened, but one of the professors there wanted to do an acoustics class, and he said, “You need to take this class.” I said, “Dude, I’m just struggling through calculus right now. But he said, “No, no, don’t worry. You’ll get an A. Don’t worry about it. Just come.” And he did some really great stuff, but some of the practical stuff was super cool. It was before they made… I guess before they got into actual vocal things, where you could give the information, and then it would vocalize what you put in. So that was still early technology. And he did some projects in that. But what blew me away is that he drives the wave occlusion. I didn’t know what he was doing. That was still new to me. So seeing second derivatives and all that craziness was a little wild.
Sharilynn: But I spent a couple years in that, went to University of Minnesota afterwards to specialize in acoustics, and while I was in University of Minnesota, I got to do some acoustical testing. I worked for a company that we tested acoustical panels. We would test them for absorption and transmission. So absorption are the typical panels that you’ll see in a concert hall. They absorb sounds so you don’t have echoes going across the hall. And then there were transmission tests that we would do for certain materials that perhaps if you have a building that you’re making, and you do not want to hear your neighbor next door, then you’re going to get something with a low transmission coefficient. So we tested for that. And so I got involved with that and graduated from University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Christopher: Got you. And you’re the kind of person that I’m sure we could do a whole hour, if not 10 hours, just on your engineering career, and it would be equally fascinating, but I’m going to try and keep us on the music. And so would it be fair to say your flute got put back in the box for a while? Were you able to keep that up at all alongside the career, or was it just too hard to juggle?
Sharilynn: At University of Minnesota, I still had to work, and I was working at 3M. So I was pretty much working full time and taking engineering courses at night. I’d usually try to do two at a time. So that’s pretty tough, so I really wasn’t playing at all. I tried to do some work at the church there to play for Mass just to kind of keep my chops. But there wasn’t time. So a lot of my skills went by the wayside, unfortunately.
Christopher: If you don’t mind me asking a slightly personal question, was that sad for you? You had this identity around, “I’m becoming a flute player.” Was it a decision to be like, “I’m putting it aside. I’m going to do this engineering thing.” Was it just kind of gradual, and you didn’t reflect on it too much? How were you thinking about the fact that you had been a flute player, and now maybe weren’t going to be?
Sharilynn: I think at the time, I got so focused on doing the engineering thing, I was not sad. But seeing my kids, which hadn’t made it into the picture yet, get into music, then it got sad.
Christopher: Got you. And I’ve seen you make comments, I think within the Musical U community about, I guess, having some doubt along the way. Before we got to that engineering fork in the road, as it were, you maybe weren’t feeling 100% gung-ho about your future as a top level professional flautist. Is that fair to say?
Sharilynn: Yeah. There’s a common Far Side cartoon that shows an elephant sitting at a piano, and he says, “What am I doing here? I’m a flutist.” I kind of felt like that sometimes. I think there are things that I struggled with. I think there were times I got up to perform, and I didn’t want to be there. So I’m learning why now, but there were a lot of times that I don’t know. I don’t know what it was. Actually, I know now what it was. It had a lot to do with preparation and how I got to where I got to. But in the orchestra, it wasn’t so much that way, but the solo performance… I don’t know, it was hard for me to stay focused, and sometimes wanted to be somewhere else.
Christopher: Interesting. And I don’t want to short circuit our conversation, but looking back, can you shed some light on what was going on, what had factored into that? Why weren’t you kind of fully stepping into that role, would you say now?
Sharilynn: It really was preparation. I started late getting those flute lessons, and so, had I had them in high school, that would’ve helped. We played difficult music in high school, so I developed a lot of bad habits. And so instead of playing every note and the run so that you could hear every note, I faked it really well. I had something, my teacher used to call it the Finnegan Smear. Which is my maiden name there. He goes, “We need to fix that.” But that is just not where you fix that. That has to be fixed in high school.
Sharilynn: When you’re fixing it in conservatory, you’re behind. And so I knew that, and that is probably, it was a good thing, because it has changed what I do now. It has changed how I approach everything I do now. My own practicing, my teaching, all of that.
Christopher: Cool. I’ve seen you say, I think in a previous conversation that back then, you just didn’t know how to practice. You knew to practice, but you didn’t know how. And I definitely want to hear more about that, and how you do it now. And how you help your students to do it now. But I’m sure our listeners and viewers are going to be frustrated if I don’t let you finish the story, as it were. So if we can get the kind of nutshell summary, you took this fork in the road towards engineering, and we know not to like, spoiler alert. At some point, you picked up your flute again. What happened in those intervening years?
Sharilynn: Intervening years, I took a job in Florida, and worked at that job for a short time, and then did some work for a Department of Defense company. Did that for a while. And then ended up actually teaching AutoCAD, which is a computer-aided drafting program. And at that point, I met my husband, and a couple years later, we had children. And I am an all-in kind of person that, if I’m working, I’m all into working. And if I’m a mom, I’m all into a mom. So I went all in as a mom, and quit my job. Loved my job, I absolutely loved empowering people. In just two years, they would walk out of my classroom into a job. But, I wanted to be a mom. And so I have three children. One is in college, one is a junior in high school, and one is seven.
Sharilynn: And it’s my college student that brought me back into music. When he got to middle school, he was quite talented. And I guess, having a musician mom, I’m going to make sure he gets what he needs. And that’s where the hindsight’s 20/20 started to set in. “Gee, if I had this, wonder what would’ve happened.” So I was very happy to provide that for him. He is a very talented player, and has excelled in just about every avenue. He plays saxophone and clarinet as well. And he started on the flute. And my middle son plays the trumpet, and he is doing quite well with his studies in addition. So I’ve got a trumpet player, saxophone player that doubles, and both those guys are into Jazz. And so my oldest one started playing gigs around town. So I want to hear him play.
Sharilynn: So I go, and they all ask, and they talk to me, like, “Hey, do you play?” I’m like, “Yeah, I play flute, but I’m classical.” “That doesn’t matter. Bring your flute. Come on. Just join us.” It’s not that easy. But they like to say it is. So, what happened was, one evening, one of the guys that said, “Hey, I want you to check out my flute. I’ve got this Yamaha flute. Would you give it a look?” So I got it out, started playing a little bit, and just noodled around a little bit. And I’m like, “Oh, it’s pretty nice.” And I handed it back. And the next thing I know, the guy that was the leader of this big band that Matthew would play in, invited me to play. So it was a piece by Bill Holman called Bill’s Blues, and the head, or beginning is played by the flute. And it’s long. So I had to use swing rhythm and all that. And I didn’t really now how to do that at all. And it’s a sight reading band, so..
Christopher: Up until this point, had you listened to much Jazz?
Sharilynn: I love jazz. Yeah, that’s a really good question. When I was in high school, I wanted to play Jazz desperately. Hubert Laws was out. He was super popular. Herbie Mann was out. Paul Horn I think was the other one. And in college I discovered Dave Valentin. He was a Latin Jazz flutist. So I was all over these guys. I like this more than Classical. It has always been in my blood. So I got let into this Jazz band, and since they’re a sight reading band, there’s no… I didn’t know how I was going to sight read this. He did give me some music eventually. But what I decided to do was figure out by ear from the recording, because I was scared to death.
Christopher: And was that something that had ever come up in your classical training, playing by ear?
Sharilynn: No. No, it had never come up. So I got to play that, and it was, I guess decent. He didn’t fire me. And then there was a 25 measure solo afterwards, and someone’s like, “Oh, play pentatonic scale, play pentatonic scale.” Like, okay, pentatonic scale I can play. You know? So there’s just not time to think about all that. So I made it through. I played a lot of A flats. So, I’m still playing with them. They haven’t fired me. And what I can’t do, though, the score patterns are so complex. I’m not there yet. So I tend to write out solos if I’m going to play a solo with the guys. So I’m on a quest.
Christopher: And so just to set the context, it was a few years ago that you joined this band. Is that right?
Sharilynn: Yeah. About two years, maybe it’s two years. And I thought it was just to play in the band with my son, and that when he’d go to college that, “Goodbye. Thank you honey, that was good.” No, now they got me playing everything. I play whatever the pianist has, and if there is a flute part, you can give that to me. And one time they whipped out Stars and Stripes, which was great. But sight reading, that’s a little interesting if you haven’t done it in a while. But that was super cool. Stars and Stripes with big band. So that was a highlight for me. But yeah, I’m still in there. They didn’t fire me, so it’s all good.
Christopher: Fantastic. And you, two of your three kids are still at the age where they’re at home with you. You’re still clearly playing a mom role, but somehow finding time for music alongside that, and making great strides in what you’ve been working on. Tell us a little bit about that. How has music come back into your life? How does it fit into your week-week routine? What kinds of things have you been working on since joining that band?
Sharilynn: My whole practice routine has completely changed. Since this introduction of Jazz, I do so much more by ear. I do a lot more listening. I listened, in the classical realm, but the listening now is so much different. So much more intense. Because you’re listening to reproduce. And I have this… A lot’s happening, actually, so it’s a little bit hard, but my practice routine is different in that I take things such as Improvise For Real has some exercises out there, and so I practice a lot in my car. So I listen a lot to things I’m working on, or a solo that I’d like to transcribe.
Sharilynn: Or I’ve got a set of exercises that I purchased from David Reed. They’re called Sing the Numbers where his system is based on where you are within the tonal map. So you’re singing one, and three, and two, and four. And so I listen to this lovely voice sing the numbers, and then I get to echo it. And so part of my practice routine when I have my flute in my hands is to play that again, and then play the notes. So I figured out what key it was in, and then I go ahead and play the notes. So that’s part of my practice routine.
Sharilynn: And another one I just picked up from a gentleman named Michael Lake, Alto Bone is his website. He has something out there where he takes the Brahms Lullaby and you got to figure it out, and then he gives a tone, and then you have to play it. So he gives you just this tone, and then you have to play the whole tune. And so I am trying to get through that. That is quite a challenge. That is part of my listening part of my practice session. Then I created a warmup that I like to go through, and I usually base that warmup on the key of pieces I’m working on. So I’ve got some stuff I’m working on in B flat right now. And I use that as my warmup.
Sharilynn: And I got pulled back into classical music. We have a new accompanist at our church. And I’ve just gone back to play at church again to kind of get performing regularly so I’m not nervous. The Jazz band’s so nerve-racking for me because it’s so new. So I kind of want to make performing old hat again. And our new accompanist is from the Northeast. He’s a very high level player. One of those people that play by ear, and they have perfect pitch. One of those guys. Name the tune, he can sit down and play it. And so he’s challenging me, and he wants to do a recital. He just showed up. And then I get to do this. So he’s making me play some classical tunes, and I’ve pushed the envelope, and we’re playing stuff that’s kind of half Jazz, half classical. And he did pick out one piece he wants to do, and it’s called Meditation by Massenet. Common piece that’s played by violin or flute or piano. And I approached it differently, and that’s probably the biggest change in my practice routine is, I know this song. I played the recording and learned it from the recording. I don’t look at the music. I don’t have it solid yet, but that’s how I rehearsed it with him, was without the music.
Christopher: Very cool.
Christopher: I want to dig into some of this if I may because I know that for some people following along, that sounds a bit magical. And I think some of the exercises you just described, or maybe the kind of legwork that gets you to being able to do that, to just listen to a piece and figure it out. But I wonder if you could break down, what does it look like when you say you listened to that piece, and without the sheet music, you figured out how to play it? What would, say five minutes of doing that look like?
Sharilynn: Well it’s more than five minutes. It’s a lot of listening. It’s just a lot of listening. The five minutes might be the part of me trying it out. But it’s just a ton of listening, and what I did was, I have an app that will allow me to loop things, so I would just loop it. So I’m folding clothes, making dinner, and I’m looping that little section that I’m trying to learn. So I will do that, and then that’ll be my practice routine. Later on in the evening, I’ll go and I’ll work those few bars. So I broke it down to like 10 bar increments, and I set up a backing track so that I could play over it so I could hear the chords as I went through it.
Sharilynn: Because I wanted to hear the tension in the music, which is something that I’ve picked up since I joined Musical U, is listening for the tension and the release in the music. Where that never occurred to me as a classical player. It’s crazy, but it never did. And you guys have definitely enlightened me to that. I listen differently than I used to thanks to the, what was the course I took? Musician’s Ear. So the intense listening. But I knew that I needed to do that in pursuit of Jazz anyway, that I had to up my listening. I hear my son doing it, I started doing it, and I listen to players that I want to emulate. And I listen to other players. So I knew that had to happen. But this looping thing, totally recommend it. You can listen intently, or you can listen to it in the background while you’re doing something else. But it’s always there. You start to get the tune in your head and be able to sing it. And then if you can sing it, you can play it.
Christopher: So I’m going to play the part of our prototypical audience member, and say, “Really? Is that really true?” So you mentioned listening for the tension and release. How much are you actively, consciously doing stuff in your head when you listen so that later on, when you pick up your flute, you have some idea what notes to play? And how much is it just passive, and then somehow, when you pick up your flute, you know the right notes?
Sharilynn: It’s mostly passive, because I have kids, they always need something. But I do do the active listening when they’re not around. And I have to just kind of limit myself to what I’m listening to. And you’re right, it’s not that easy. I have spent a great deal of time learning some of the principles that they have in the Improvise For Real book. I sing those numbers. I’ve spent time in some of the modules that you have at Musical U going over the intervals, going over the chords, singing the chords.
Sharilynn: I actually developed some exercises for my kids where you find a particular tune that goes with the interval you’re trying to learn, and then I played that tune in 12 keys. Because I figure I have to, if this is what I’m supposed to do, if I’m supposed to learn this language of Jazz, and I learned from Brent Vaartstra at learnjazzstandards.com, and had to do it in all 12 keys, so why don’t I start with something easy like two notes? Maybe I should do two notes, and try to do that interval in all 12 keys. And what I decided to do is take maybe, I don’t know, descending major second. Was it Mary had a Little Lamb? Right? That’s a good one to start with. And that’s pretty easy to do in all 12 keys once you’ve learned your key signatures. So I did stuff like that and kind of pushed myself that way because I really want to harness that.
Christopher: Fantastic, and one of the things you mentioned there was David Reed’s Improvise for Real, and I wonder if we could just spell out a little bit more of what’s going on in those exercises you mentioned. So it is singing the numbers course. It’s using the scales degrees, right? So when you talk about singing the one and the three, and the two and the four, which would map particular notes from the scale.
Sharilynn: Right. He has two levels, and I had already done some ear training, so I bought level two. So I can explain level two in detail. He has the premise of that we have seven notes in the scale. If we talk about C major scale, we have C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. So he starts with that, and then he says, “Well, you can build a chord on each of those scale tones.” And he calls those the seven worlds. So the chord would be let’s see now, C is one, three, five, and seven. And then the G chord is two, four, six, one, and etc.
Sharilynn: And so in this Sing by Numbers Two, he plays the one chord, so he’s playing C, E, G, and B, and then the singer proceeds to sing some of those scale tones. They give you three trials. One seems to be a general trial kind of experimenting with all of the scale tones. The second one is only the chord tones. So if it’s the one chord, you’re only singing one, three, five, and seven, which in a key of C is C, E, G, and B. And she just comes up with every iteration of those notes that you can come up with. And then the final one kind of expands beyond the octaves. You could be singing the top level seven, to one, to two, maybe three above that. And then they go below one to seven, to six. So I think it’s great, son and I, my middle son and I sing that on the way to school. So I make him practice with me. I think this is all coming together and helping.
Sharilynn: There is a very powerful talk that I heard Brent Vaartstra at learnjazzstandards.com interview Marshall McDonald, who was the lead alto with the Count Basie band. And he said that when he began improvising, he just sang stuff and tried to duplicate it on his instrument. And that sounded good to me. And so actually yesterday when I got out my horn, I’m like, “You know what? Let me just hum a little something and see how things are going.” And I was finding notes. My new progress journal says to improve my ear to instrument connection. And so that’s been my main emphasis, is just clueing in this ear. And it doesn’t happen fast. It takes time. And it’s a frustrating thing. We all get frustrated with it, even people that are great are like, “I don’t do that. I don’t understand that.” And I’m a little bit crazy in pursuing this.
Christopher: This has come across.
Sharilynn: There are a ton of people I would sincerely… I can’t tell you. I could tell you just even what I listened to today. You want to know what I learned today? I’m really nuts about it, and I’m encouraged because I think I’m starting to get there. And it’s a different mindset. I know that you talk a lot about mindset. This mindset of really knowing what you’re going to play beforehand is huge, whether you’re just doing classical music, or Jazz improvisation, if you know it really well, your fingers tend to find it better. I wish someone would’ve told me that years ago because the classical preparation that our pianist has asked me to do, I’m listening to that stuff like crazy. I don’t have a lot of time to practice the stuff he wants me to do. And so I decided I’m just going to listen as much as I can. And I’m having a better chance at finding my way, but then being frustrated I can’t play that. I just slow it down super slow until my ear understands it. And I’m having much more success.
Sharilynn: That is definitely something I’ve noticed in my kids. I teach lessons as well, and they’ll come in, and they just can’t get something. And I make them sing it. And if they can sing it, they turn around and they play it like that. It’s nuts. So we do not use our ear as much as we should. We really don’t. Not in the classical world at all. So that’s been my big lesson. It’s through Jazz. Jazz has taught me to listen, listen, and listen some more.
Christopher: Got you. And before we move on, I want to ask one follow up question that I know will have been on people’s minds, which is, you were doing these kinds of ear training exercises like the Improvise for Real course, for example, and playing all 12 keys as an interval or melody, and then we also heard about how these days, if you’re approaching a new piece, you might choose to skip the sheet music and just figure it out by ear, or using a lot of listening. How much are you, and I’m asking this because the answer genuinely varies in my experience. It’s not that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer. Different people do it different ways. But how much are you consciously applying what you learned? So are you using, say, that numbering system when you pick up your flute and you’re trying to play what you heard? Or is it just kind of embedded at that point, and it comes out automatically?
Sharilynn: I think it’s a combination of the two. Michael Lake that I mentioned, I think he, the exercises that he provides, the instructions are, “Don’t think about where you are. Don’t think that there- here comes the octave jump.” So he instructs you not to do that. And I get that. And I think the more you emphasize on that, it becomes a little more automatic. However, I think when you know where you are, it gives you a little bit more of a grounding place rather than just throwing yourself out there. “Yeah, let’s just see if this works.” Because then you don’t know where you mess up. So if I’m trying to get through, I think it’s Brahms Lullaby that I’m learning, at what point am I messing up? I’d have to hum the tune, and like, “Is that the place?” I wouldn’t even know.
Sharilynn: But I think what he’s trying to say is get the left brain out of there and let the right brain do what it’s supposed to do. Right brain can hear all this stuff. The right brain has the feeling. So I think that’s what he means by that. But I literally use a combination of the two. And if the notes go by- sometimes the notes go by too quickly, and you can’t even come up with the number. So it’s almost like it starts on three, or that’s four, and I think all my practice in going through all 12 keys, it’s not hard to come up with what four is. And even in the key of B or something like that. I would have to say I use a combination of the two.
Christopher: Wonderful. And you mentioned there, “I wish someone had taught me this way back when.” Or, “I wish I’d known that back when I was learning.” What other things come into that category for you? And obviously you have the teacher’s perspective now. You’re consciously deciding what to give these kids, and they’re practicing, and they’re learning the instrument. What else falls into that category for you?
Sharilynn: I would have to say how to practice. I wish that they would’ve literally told me how to practice. I didn’t know. I spent hours trying to figure out how to practice, and at one point, since I had to get back into this, and my skills were pretty well, I had to figure out how to get back up to speed. And so I took my engineering mind along with my musical mind. I said, “Hey, if this is what I have to do, what’s the right way to approach this? What is the problem here? What is it that I’m missing out, or what is it that I typically don’t do correctly?” And I’d have to say the big thing that came to me was how we play between the beats. For instance, if you’re playing something that’s eighth notes, where does that eighth note fall? Is it falling exactly on the upbeat?
Sharilynn: And so I take my students through a series of exercises which, we’ll take the major scale. They have a pattern that they typically play for the major scale. And it’s an audition pattern. And so I’m good with that. I can understand that. When you play the audition, play that pattern. But if you want to get better at playing the flute or your instrument, you need to do it differently. You just have to keep changing it up. So my kids play, exercise, and I set the metronome at 40. And then I will have them click the subdivisions. I actually put some backing tracks for them where it clicks the subdivision. And you’re playing your major scale in eighth notes, but your sounds, each sound you play, matches with the metronome. So at 40, it’s really hard to kind of figure out where the upbeat is, so you just match the metronome. And then they’re instructed to change the rhythm to triplets as they are comfortable.
Sharilynn: And then we move to sixteenth notes, and then, thank goodness for metronomes that have different subdivisions, like five over one. That gets crazy, and that makes them think. They’ll be like, “Yeah, I know my scales.” I’m like, “Okay, play it this way.” “Oh my gosh.” But they’re able to do it. I do this as a clinician at the schools, too. So I’ll have the whole group of them doing it. And so we do five over the beat, six over the beat, seven over the beat. That’s kind of mind blowing. But that’s the whole scale. When you get to the next beat, you start again on the main note. Then you do eight over the beat, and I think there were two things. The reason I did that was to feel what’s happening between the beat so that you’re exactly matching that finger exchange with the metronome. So you get control of your hands.
Sharilynn: And the number two reason was sometimes these notes just, you’re asked to play fast notes so quickly. And if I didn’t touch on that, that was something that was hard for me in that I didn’t have music instruction, and the level of music was so high that that’s where I created- Oh, I did say that. That’s where I created the smear. Because I could fake it really well. This way, it teaches them to play every note in between. And they are so confident. And I think that was probably part of what was lacking in my confidence is that I wasn’t sure if it was going to come off or not. So who wants to stand on a ball and play their flute for everybody? And I think that this technique has worked so beautifully in what my students have accomplished, and kids that I work with in the schools. And then they stay at 40 for a long time.
Sharilynn: But if you do the math, once you get up to eight over the beat, you’re actually playing sixteenth notes at 80. That’s not that fast, you know? And then it kind of eases you into the fast playing. And by doing a lot of research into Josh Turknett, his Laws of Brainjo. And one of the things he touched on was that this fast playing just comes with experience. And I think that it made me feel good that this exercise really kind of gives them that experience. And you’re being precise about what you do every step of the way. So it’s not like deer in the headlights like, [inaudible 00:53:50] “Sixteenth notes.” That’s what they all do in high school. They’re afraid of sixteenth notes. But I teach them how to practice like this.
Sharilynn: And I’ve got one young lady that just she said, “Okay.” Just do everything I said, “Okay.” And we have a, not a competition, but all district band that was three counties. So it’s three surrounding counties and all the high schools involved in those counties. And she won first chair as a sophomore. And it’s just that she’s confident. She’s been able to kind of work her way through like this. And she took my challenge to do Happy Birthday in all twelve keys, too. She’s maybe as nuts as I am, I don’t know.
Christopher: Very cool. Well I was saying to you before we hit record that I think you’re going to really enjoy the interview we have coming out with Gregg Goodheart and a couple of other things you just mentioned align perfectly with what he was saying.
Christopher: For example, often, the sticking point is for the student is in actually doing what the teacher told them to. And if they would just do what the teacher told them to, they would get a really long way.
Sharilynn: I agree. Yes.
Christopher: He was also pointing out that actually if you really crack practice and you get your repertoire to a certain level of mastery, performance anxiety isn’t really a thing anymore, because you know you can do it. And you know you can do it at speed. So why would you be worried?
Sharilynn: And it’s exactly it. And I’m sure he mentioned that the more you do it, the more confident you feel about performing. That’s why I went back to play at church because I play Saturday and Sunday. So I play every week. I guess on Sunday there’s probably 800 plus people, and then maybe 400 on Saturday night or something. So you got an audience. But it’s a safe audience. They can’t fire me. So it’s all good. But with this new pianist, I get challenges. And I have to share this one with you, too. He switches things all the time. All the time. So my new challenge is when he changes key, I got to figure it out faster.
Sharilynn: He just randomly changes key. He goes, “Yeah, I want to play this song.” I had music for the song. It’s not one I knew real well. Did not know it by ear at all. So there wasn’t even time to even figure the numbers for that. And the guitarist and I just looked at each other, and we’re like, “Oh.” Yeah. So that’s my new mission, is to hear when he changes key. Aye-I-Aye.
Christopher: Keeping you on your toes? That’s great. Well, if I’ve picked up anything from this conversation, Sharilynn, and your posts inside Musical U, it’s that you are someone who thrives on that challenge. And you certainly don’t shy away from it. I wonder if there were any insights about practicing in particular that you wish you could go back and tell yourself, or that you’re now giving your students. When you said you didn’t know how to practice, are there other things you’re giving them?
Sharilynn: Definitely. I think that they always say to work on your sound, you need to do long tones. And I’ve met other professionals who used to say, “pfft, I don’t do long tones.” But there are so many cool things out there that you can put with let’s say long tones. So if you’re working on your sound, find some good examples. Some of those are the drone tones. So you play a drone tone, and you can match that sound. And what I have my students doing is kind of combining that with the Improvise for Real mentality in that play the tone or the drone tone, but then go in the scale pattern above that. So let’s say if it’s a drone tone on C, then play D against that.
Sharilynn: How does that sound? How do you feel about that? Do you like that? And then you go back. You’re getting a sense of where you are on the scale, and if you’re playing, let’s say, C, D, to C, then you’ve just given yourself a great example of what a major second is. So you can begin to get these intervals in your ears. Then you’d go C to E, back to C. Very slowly, C to F, back to C. C to G, back to C. C to A, back to C. And C to B, back to C. And then do the octave. Check your information on the octave. That’s a good way to do long tones, is that type of thing.
Sharilynn: And the other thing is they have sine waves out there, like pure sine tones. I’ve been doing a little bit of that, and that’s great for intonation. So that would’ve been a really cool one. Because I think they get bored. And you’re like, “Okay.. What am I supposed to be doing? I’m holding this long note.” You can do- typically you’ll do a loud, soft kind of thing. How soft can you play? Can you make it grow louder? And can you make it grow softer and still maintain the pitch? But I’m kind of digging the sine wave thing. That’s pretty cool, the sine tones. And there are apps out there that are free that you can kind of put those on, and I think those are super cool. And again, Jazzers. Jazzers are into this kind of stuff, and I think that’s super neat, so get out those long tones, because the most important thing you do is have a good sound. And I’ve heard players just run up and down their horns, and I just can’t get past their sound if they don’t have a good sound.
Sharilynn: And the average listener’s really pretty much the same way. You could win them on that first note, and so sound is really something. And it’s super important to work on, and those are fun exercises to do, and they’re challenging. Especially if you start trying to push the limits of how soft can I play it? How loud can I play it? Because those are all things that were challenged to you in our ensembles or in our solo playing.
Christopher: Awesome. And I know that our audience is going to be annoyed with me if I let you go without asking for all of the resources and things you found useful on the way. We’ve already mentioned David Reed, Improvise for Real, and Brent over at Learn Jazz Standards, And I think Michael Lake was the other one. You had the Brahms Lullaby. Is that right?
Sharilynn: Yes. He has more exercises out there that build you up to that. Because that’s pretty challenging. And I’m going to probably get more with him on that, but he does have buildup exercises. It looks like it’s based on intervals. So he’s definitely worth a look. I’ve also gotten into, and they no longer have a website, but they have YouTube videos. Learn Jazz Faster. A couple of guys from Berkeley. And I’ve bought their eBooks when they still had their website. One of the gentlemen had a baby, and then that was it.
Christopher: Yeah, that’s so rough.
Sharilynn: I’m all in for this kid, so yeah.
Christopher: I can sympathize.
Sharilynn: Yes, I can, too. But those guys have some really great stuff. But the YouTube videos are out there. They’re free. They have something called, I think it’s 25 Great Ways to Something about Your Practice. And then I tune into Aimee Nolte. I think she’s great. She does all kinds of stuff. She does all kinds of things. I’m trying to think of who else that I’ve done. I did purchase Jeffrey’s book. Jeffrey Agrell.
Christopher: Oh yeah, fantastic.
Sharilynn: This one.
Christopher: Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians.
Sharilynn: Now It’s Time to Play. Yes, that’s what I-
Christopher: Have you dove into it yet?
Sharilynn: Not yet. That pianist kind of threw me off course. He just showed up about two months ago, so.
Christopher: Yeah, there’s your improvisation games right there for you at the church.
Sharilynn: I know. But that’s pretty much what I’m into now. Those things, and I think I would probably look up Michael Lake and maybe get a Skype lesson with him. Because he seems… I have to interject with this. A lot of times, the approach with Jazz is here’s the chord. Use the chord tones. Use the chord scale. Use this. And I struggle with that as a musician going, “Well how is that improvisation. How am I really expressing myself if I know this is what I always play when I get there? I guess in my further research, they’ve expanded beyond that in that, let’s say you found a piece of Jazz language or a “lick” that you liked. They tell you to make variations of that. And so then that brings in your expression, but if you’re sitting there counting the measures until that lick shows up that you practiced, I can’t see how that’s improvisation.
Sharilynn: So I have struggled with that for two years, and Michael seems to be not the first one. I have to say through Musical U, that was the first. Andrew’s Play Listen Play. So part of my listening to Musical U and hear it in your improv module, because that’s been super cool. And he puts just great backing tracks up there that make you just want to play free, and figure it all out. So that’s brilliant. But Michael Lake, I think he’s got something there. So I’m going to look into him some more. That’s probably where I’m headed. Because it’s all in this hearing, and one thing I did learn from Josh Turknett there and my research with him, he says that once you’ve made something automatic, or I would say internalized, that you need to let it go. Because when the left brain steps in, that’s a bad thing. It’ll mess you up. So I kind of see that for Jazz. So if you’re thinking, “Oh, here comes that two, five, one. I want to use that lick that I learned,” then your left brain just stepped in.
Sharilynn: And so I’m kind of curious about what he has to say. Because he’s pretty much saying, “No, let that right brain take over, and just make that connection to the ear and your instrument tight.” So I think it comes… I am failing at that exercise. I’ve been working on it I guess a week, but I fail at it. So that ought to be a really interesting lesson. I think he expects it. But yeah, you just got to keep at it. And I see these jazzers. I talk to these guys that play in the band that I play in. One is actually a professor at the community college. Same one I used to teach at. And he shakes his head sometimes, and he just says, “Aw man, I just heard something today, and I just don’t understand it.” So that’s what I like about jazzers. I think they feel like they’re always working, they’re always learning, and I’ve had some classical people that maybe think they’ve arrived. So not all of them, but I tend to say, I probably identify more with these jazzers that are always wanting to learn and always wanting to get better.
Christopher: Tremendous. Well, thank you so much, Sharilynn. I know I’m not alone in considering myself very lucky that I get to follow along with your progress journal inside Musical U. Because you’re always, as is clear from this conversation, after some really interesting stuff and pushing the boundaries for yourself. And it’s honestly very inspiring, so thank you so much for joining us on the show today.
Sharilynn: Thank you for having me. I’ve had a great time.
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