Learn Flute Podcast SHOW NOTES:
This episode is a little different than some of the ones you have listened to…
Today we’re interviewing Alison Olsen.
You’re not going to want to miss this- we learn all about performing in the big-leagues. She even gives us a snapshot of her amazing talent.
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Well, hello there, everybody who’s here to join us today here. I’m Rebecca Fuller, and today we have a special guest.
And I’m super excited about this because I have known this person for many, many years and this is exciting.
I’m gonna go ahead and bring her on the screen right now. This is a special flutist who is, well, I’ll let you tell,
I’ll let her tell you all of all about it, and I’m really excited.
So first of all, I’d like to just say that I have worked with, this is Alison Olsen and I’ve worked with her many, many years ago, so many years ago when she was just a little girl and a very, very fine flutist right from the very beginning.
And now she’s off doing great things with her talent and I’m so excited about that, and I thought it would be really fun to bring her on and interview her, and let you know a little bit of the ins- inside secret life of a professional flutist.
And I think you’ll really enjoy her today. So, say hi, Alison!
Hi everybody. Nice to be here.
Yeah, it’s really great to have you here.
So again, this is Alison Olsen, and I’m going to just let her tell you a little bit about herself, her background, so that you get an idea of who she is, and why she’s on here today.
Yeah, so like Rebecca said, I’m Alison Olsen.
I am a native of Utah and I’ve known Rebecca since I was like seven years old. I think I have judging sheets going back to like the mid nineties of when Rebecca was judging me back in the day.
And yeah, so I studied flute with a teacher here in Utah until I went to college. I went to University of California, Santa Barbara, got my bachelor’s degree in flute performance.
And then I went on to get my master’s degree from the University of Texas in flute performance. And then once I graduated from the University of Texas, I moved back to Utah. I started teaching flute students. Sorry, my phone is ringing. Of course it never rings except for right now.
Anyways, I moved back to Utah, started a flute studio, started playing with some community groups, whoever would have me.
And then I eventually took an audition for Ballet West, which is a professional ballet company in Utah and won the principal flute position with them.
So I’ve been playing with Ballet West for, I just finished my seventh season with them.
Our season runs generally from the fall about October through April. So there’s periods of really busyness periods of where it’s not so busy.
But that’s what I’m doing now. So I’m, I’m teaching a little bit and I’m performing, I sub with groups that asked me to, I just subbed with the Utah Symphony a couple weeks ago.
So that’s what I’m doing now.
How awesome. Now I just have to mention that this is a very prestigious position that Alison has. She kind of plays it down like, oh yeah, I’m just playing with Ballet West. But the Ballet West Orchestra is very well known and the work that they do in the western United States here is incredible.
It’s amazing, and I can’t wait for you to learn a little bit more about what Alison does there as a flutist.
Alisons Performing Experience
So I know that Alison, I know that getting into a group like this, a professional group like this is not easy. And I’m wondering if you could kind of explain to us kind of in a nutshell, the audition application type process, what you went through.
Yeah, so auditions like this don’t come up very often for flutists. There’s only two or three flutes in any given professional orchestra. And so once you get those jobs, people tend to keep them, as long as the music director is happy.
And there’s only a couple professional groups in Utah. So really there’s the Utah Symphony and Ballet West is the next biggest orchestra in the state of Utah.
So the audition came up, the, the woman that was retiring had been with the group for 30 years, wonderful player, had studied with like Julius Baker and you know, was a wonderful flutist and she retired.
And so the audition process is you send a resume to the committee listing your education, your experience. From there they ask you to come and audition in person.
They give you a list of pieces or excerpts from the orchestral repertoire to play. Generally they’re pretty standard excerpts that are known in the orchestral world. Flute solos, things like that.
So we had a list of about 10 or 12 pieces that we were to play. And then when you go into the audition day, it’s a blind audition.
First of all, they assign you a number so you no longer have a name. They give you a number, you’re not allowed to speak. And when you go in, there’s a panel or a sheet so that you can’t see the audition panel. Like An actual curtain.
Like a curtain.
Yes. Yeah. It’s Like the voice. They’re only listening to exactly your flute playing and they have no idea of anything else.
Right. And they only, you know, turn their chair around at the very end when they select a winner, they wanna be totally unbiased.
And that’s pretty much the case for, I’d say the vast majority of professional auditions is that they’re held blind because they don’t wanna know who it is and they don’t wanna have a preconceived notion about what you look like or maybe they even know who you are. And so they don’t wanna be biased in any way if you’re a man or a woman or, or things like that.
So you go in and, which is great, it’s, it’s wonderful that they do that. But it is intimidating to go in and just have this screen and you’re playing to who knows how many people behind the screen.
In my case, I think there were, I think there were like five people behind the screen, but I’m not allowed to speak, you’re not allowed to speak when you go into these auditions. That panel can speak to you if they want specific things or they might ask you to do something again.
But basically the personnel manager of the orchestra is kind of the go-between, between the panel and the person auditioning.
So if I had any questions or if I had an instrument problem, I could mention something to him quietly.
So they give you a list of things to play and they said, play it in this order. You just play everything down and that’s it. And then you leave the room and then they hear everybody.
So they do that process for, there were like, I think there were eight of us that auditioned that day.
So not a huge audition for some of the bigger orchestras, you’ll have hundreds of people submit resumes. So yeah, so then I, after the first initial round, then the judges deliberate, the panel deliberates, and decides who they wanna hear again.
So after, and it’s nerve wracking ’cause you’re just sitting there, you know, listening and waiting and trying to not be nervous and trying to like trying not focus on all the little mistakes that you made.
So then they come out and they announce, who has advanced to the second round or to the final round. And so I advanced with three other flutists and they asked us to play certain excerpts again.
Now Maybe you should stop for just a half a second. Explain, explain what these excerpts are.
Because somebody listening right now to this, has no idea what you mean by an excerpt.
Yeah, so excerpts are famous flute moments. It could be a solo, it could be an exposed ensemble thing from orchestral works.
So for example, like if you’ve ever listened to Daphnis and Chloe, it’s a beautiful tone poem, or it’s actually a ballet by Revelle. And it’s got this glorious, glorious flute solo in the middle of it. And that is often put on audition lists.
Other really popular ones are Midsummer’s Night Dream, the Skitzo by Mendelssohn, Brahms four. There’s a big flute solo in that one, symphony number four.
Other things are like, I’m trying to even think, Beethoven Leonor Overture, the opening of that. And there’s a big solo in the middle, Dvořák Symphony number eight, the fourth movement, there’s a big flute solo.
So lots of things like that. There’s a book you can buy by Jeanne Baxtresser, who is a wonderful, former principal flutist of the New York Philharmonic, where she’s compiled a lot of these excerpts.
They’re all in a book. I’ve got it right here, actually, looks like this.
Orchestral excerpts for flute. So there, a lot of them are in here. So if you ever take a professional audition or are applying for college, or if you just wanna know what these solos look like, you can buy this book.
She has several of them.
There’s a book two, which has like the Harry Potter from Prisoner of Azkaban. There’s a giant flute solo in that one. That’s incredible. And it’s in that second book, there’s a duet book with some second flute solos. There’s a piccolo book.
So basically you have to know your excerpts before you go in. You’re not going to go in and just play your own thing. To be Auditioning on them. Or even, I think you mentioned the Mozart that you’ve, that you Did as well.
Yeah, most of the time they will ask for the Mozart G major concerto. Sometimes they’ll give you a choice between the G major or the D major. But it seems like most people want the G major just the exposition. Just until the first, you know, big, just the big solo at the beginning. It’s like a page and a half or something.
I haven’t been asked to play a cadenza before on an audition, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility to do that too.
For sure. So, and does a blind audition. And then you clearly came out on top, which was really exciting to become a professional flutist who was going to get paid for her talent. So awesome.
Yes, very exciting. Yeah, I was shocked. I did not expect to win. I just went into it thinking I’ve got nothing to lose. This is a great opportunity. But there were some really great flutists that auditioned and honestly I thought there was no way I was gonna win.
That these other flutists were way more experienced, first of all, and really like great flutists. And had they been picked, they would’ve done a great job too.
But you just never know what a conductor is looking for, what a music director is looking for. And had the audition been held on a different day, maybe they would’ve picked someone else too.
You just never know. It’s kind of, you have to be as prepared as you can be, but it’s a little bit of luck too.
Right. Well, but I know what you sound like and you sound beautiful. You’ve always been a beautiful player. Of course. You know, you learned like everybody else step by step all the way through, and continued on.
I’m guessing that there’s people listening to this right now, but might be wondering what you play on. Can you tell us about your instrument?
Yes, sure. So I play on a 14 karat gold Miyazawa Boston Classic. It has silver keys, and then I have a Hanes head joint that I play on that’s 14 karat gold with a platinum riser.
So that’s my current setup and I love it. It’s worked really well for me.
Are we going to get to meet your flute today?
This is exciting. Well, this is fun. Yeah, we’ll get to this. Oh look how beautiful. Oh my goodness.
This is My flute. I also have a lefreQue on here that’s a 14 karat gold plated silver la Flute.
Let’s explain lefreQue really quickly to anybody who’s not sure what it is and why you particularly would need one on your flute audition.
Yeah, so this is, yeah, this is fairly new to me. I just purchased it a few months ago. It’s a, it’s a sound bridge. So the, basically the idea is that our flutes come in pieces, and sometimes because of that we have challenges as flutists that some things might not be super smooth.
We might have breaks of the sound. So the idea is that this serves as a bridge between the head joint and the body of the flute, so that the vibration doesn’t stop where the head joint enters the flute, that it goes from the head joint to the body of the flute.
So I’ve found since adding this to my setup, that my intervals are a little bit more smooth. I find that I get a little bit more vibrancy in my sound a little bit more Volume. Definitely a little louder.
As A, as a player in pit orchestra, this is the professional one. So I don’t know if you necessarily call it the pit, but you are playing in the pit for the ballet.
So let’s explain that really quickly. So you are a player in the professional orchestra that plays kind of behind and under the scenes,
Right, for the professional ballet. So all the ballet dancers are also professional. So this is a very prestigious setup like we were mentioning before, so it’s exciting.
But down there in the pit, do you ever actually get to see what’s happening above?
Not very often ,and not very well. Our pit is, like you say, below the stage. And so when we’re playing, my job is to play and to watch the music director because he’s got his eyes on the dancers above the stage and on us below the stage.
So he’s the go-between of making sure that we match up to whatever they’re doing up on the stage.
So if I ever have like long rests or something, I can sometimes crane my neck and try and, and steal a little bit. And if, and if the dancers come to the front of the stage enough, I can sometimes see a little bit.
But it’s certainly not the full full effect, which is kind of a bummer because I love the ballet. Before I had this job, like I would always go to the ballet every year, I’d go to every production that they put on. I love to watch dancers. It’s amazing.
So that’s just a drawback of the job is that we just have to kind of, I can hear their feet, I can hear their leaps and their jumps and, but I can’t see very much.
I see them backstage in their beautiful costumes.
It’s such an important part of the works though, without the live music, it just doesn’t have that sparkle to it, that live element, live musicians, there’s nothing like it. Everybody, there is nothing like listening to live musician.
I often say the music we hear on the radio and recorded is nice. It’s very doctored up and kind of sterile though, compared to live music. So I’m always putting a plug in to go make sure that you support other live musicians, and especially professional flutists.
So my gosh, you’re just, you’re a flutie. Like the rest of us, we can fan girl with you.
So I’m wondering if you could just tell us briefly what responsibilities you have when you’re playing with the ballet.
For example, this past season, what you might have been performing for and what you had to play.
Yeah. So my job as a professional flutist is to know the music.
I have to know my part. I have to be prepared before I go to even the first rehearsal. We don’t get too many rehearsals, actually, we only get like three, two or three orchestra readings is all, before the dress rehearsals with the dancers.
So we really have to know what we’re doing. So this past, our most recent ballet we did was Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky, which is full of wonderful, beautiful flute moments.
And another thing that is really helpful is to listen to it, listen to recordings, and to know how the flute part fits into the rest of the orchestra and what the orchestra is doing.
And then once we’re in the pit, my job is to listen and to watch. I have to watch the conductor at all times, and I really have to listen.
You know, in an orchestral setting, we’re soloists a lot of the times, but we’re also chamber musicians. We really have to listen to who we’re playing with. We might have a duet with an oboe, and we may have to make sure that I’m not playing too loud or too soft.
That we balance, that we’re in tune and that we are coming across musically that what we would like to be doing.
And to be listening to other things across the orchestra. Sometimes I need to listen to the bases, if they’ve got the beats, if they’re playing on all the 1, 2, 3, 4, I have to make sure I stay right with them.
So it’s just, it’s like a big puzzle piece and you never know what’s gonna happen every night.
Like you said, it’s live music.
And things Happen sometimes.
Have you ever had any little disasters?
Not to me personally, but like during Sleeping Beauty, I know there a spindle got flung into the pit and landed on the harpist,
It landed on the harp player. Oh my Goodness.
It landed on the heart player. So there are some occupational hazards about being in the pit that you wouldn’t think so.
You wouldn’t think so. So do You have any other favorites? I mean, you mentioned Sleeping Beauty, but do you have any others that you, any other ballets that you have played for and performed for that you just love?
Yeah, I mean, I love Nutcracker. I know a lot of professional musicians hate Nutcracker because we play it so much. You know, you play it. I just did 31 shows in December of Nutcracker. I did it 31 times.
Oh my goodness. That’s a lot.
It’s a lot. It’s a lot. It was probably too much.
I probably shouldn’t do that much again.
I love it. No, it’s very, very important. But it’s Beautiful music.
There’s a reason why it’s so popular. There’s a reason why it sells out. There’s a reason why its such a tradition all over the world really.
So I love it. I think it’s super fun because it’s, you know, you just never know what’s gonna happen every night. There’s different dancers on stage. One dancer might want something really fast, one might want it really slow and you just, you never know what’s gonna happen.
So that’s Exciting.
No, yeah. I also love Romeo and Juliet. That’s one of my favorites. We did that last season and it’s just gorgeous.
I love it.
I’m going to have to get myself more tickets. I’ll have to go to the ballet. I was wondering, as far as the flute goes and these excerpts and what you’re playing in the ballet, what do you feel like the flute does for the storytelling? Since a ballet is a story and has usually a really nice storyline that you could follow with your eyes and your ears. As well.
Right. Yeah. Ballet is such an interesting medium for art because there’s a visual aspect to it. You know, you can go to the symphony and listen to a Beethoven Symphony or a Mozart symphony and you can come up with your own story or whatever you think he was inspired by. But when you go to the ballet, there’s a concrete thing that you’re,
there’s a story being told that the music is matching and has to portray.
So it’s kind of an interesting thing to know, like I have a character to play. Like I might be Aurora sometimes in Sleeping Beauty and other times I’m a bird, or other times I am just part of the musical texture for something else. Sometimes I’m not that important.
So we get to be all sorts of different, characters every night, which is really fun.
You get to be animals often.
Flutes are birds very often. There’s many, many examples of flutes being birds.
Do you have any examples for us today?
Sure, yeah. I’ve got, so from Sleeping Beauty, the Bluebird variation is one that’s super, super popular. You probably will recognize it if you’ve seen the Disney Sleeping Beauty.
The song that Aurora sings through the forest is actually the Bluebird variation from the ballet. So Disney took a lot of the music from the ballet and used it in the movie. So now you have to go back and watch the movie and know that-
Yeah, I’m going to have to do that now.
-Yes, They stole. Or maybe you need to listen to the ballet first and then go back and like, oh, they, they stole that from the ballet.
They used it.
They used it. They used it. They borrowed it.
Don’t forget to change your audio settings here so we can hear you. And yeah, let’s get some examples of these birds and your beautiful flute. I don’t know if your flute has a name, but I, it’s really pretty.
I haven’t named it. I think I’m in the minority on that.
That’s okay. Some people don’t. It’s beautiful though.
I’ll play a little bit of it.
And then there’s a duet, with the clarinet after that.
How wonderful. Oh my goodness. I really like that. I’m going to have to look that up and play along with that as well.
Yeah, It’s really, really pretty. So it’s fun to play. It’s a big duet with the clarinet after that point. It starts with the flute and then it’s clarinet and flute and it’s just really fun to interact with each other.
You have a beautiful low range, especially on that flute. I like it so much.
Thank you. Thank you.
Even whatever we can get coming through our screen here. I really like it and I’m excited to come and watch you play. And I know that you have also, I think that, have you done Peter and the Wolf as well?
Yes. I’ve never done it with the ballet, but that is a very famous example of birds being, we are the bird in Peter and the Wolf. So I can play a little bit of that for you.
It’s a really difficult one and I don’t practice it as often as I probably should, but, can I find it?
Oh, that’s fun.
There it is, okay.
Oh my goodness. That is the most exciting thing ever. I love it. I love it very nice.
It’s very exciting.
Very beautiful. I’m like, yay. I love it. Oh my gosh, so I know that you probably have some really good advice and some things for our audience and anybody listening right now and watching along with us.
And I’m just wondering, especially when you’re playing live music and live performing, sometimes little things happen in your playing and I’m just wondering how you cope with things when you’re not playing exactly how you meant for it to happen.
Well, the first thing is to remember that we are all just humans and nobody is perfect. Even the most professional, perfect flutist you can probably imagine probably doesn’t play perfectly every night.
And even if they didn’t, you probably don’t remember it. You probably don’t remember if he had made any mistakes and I make mistakes all the time, I try not to. I try to be as prepared as I can be.
You just never know what your brain’s gonna do to you, what your fingers are gonna do to you. Maybe it’s a weird tempo, maybe someone missed an entrance and that threw you off.
So the best advice I can give to you is to just forget it.
You just, you can’t go back in the past and fix it. It’s like Rafiki in Lion King when he hits Simba on the head and he says, “what’d you do that for”? And he says, “it doesn’t matter, it’s in the past”.
So if you dwell on the past, it’s just gonna mess you up going forward. So you just, as best as you can, and I know it’s so hard, trust me, I know.
But as best as you can to forget about it and move on and just try and do it better next time. That’s one nice thing about the ballet is it’s not just a one concert and we’re done.
We have like seven shows usually of a run. And so hopefully I’ll do it better next time. And if I don’t, then I really know I need to practice or I need to talk to the music director and apologize or, but I, I have to do my job and try and do better next time.
But I think that’s part of the reason why live performance and art and music is so exciting because you don’t know what’s gonna happen.
You don’t know, am I gonna hit that low C? Is it gonna crack? Am I gonna, is that high G gonna be out of tune? Is the ballerina on stage gonna slip and fall? Is he gonna get that lift? Are they gonna get that lift this time?
You just never know, and that’s why it’s so exciting because when it does happen, it’s like, oh, that was amazing.
It’s that human element we were talking about. And how there’s nothing like it.
There’s nothing like it. It’s amazing. There’s nothing you can listen to recordings all day long of wonderful flutists, which is wonderful to do. But there’s something different about seeing them live in person.
Like for example, you know, you and I just went and saw Emmanuel Pood play with the Utah Symphony. It was amazing. And it was incredible and so much more meaningful and purposeful because we saw him in person, rather than just listening to a recording, which I love listening to his recordings.
They’re wonderful, they’re inspiring.
Not the same.
It’s not the same. It’s just not.
We watched him walk out on stage and knuckle the principal violin player and, we saw him shake the drips out of his flute.
Which by the way, is normal for flute players, but you don’t, you don’t hear these things. We watched his body sway to the music.
We watched him tap to change his page. We watched what was memorized, what he was looking at. We watched him keep his eye on the conductor and interact with the players as he was performing.
Right. It’s thrilling. It’s thrilling to see that. And you don’t get that from a recording and you don’t get that from even like watching a YouTube video, I don’t think. There’s just something cool about being in the room, you know, in the room where it happens.
Yeah. But it’s fun. Like we said, we were able to kind of see each other just recently. We haven’t seen each other for so long. But I know it was so much fun to be like, “hi!”, you know.
And also that reminded me of the flute friends that we make over the years and being in this, I guess you could say this, the flute world, you can say whether you’re professional amateur learning on your own, it doesn’t matter.
Flute players can connect very quickly. We know what each other are going through and doing.
And the aspirations and that. And so, you know, have you made lifelong friends? I’m positive you have. ’cause I know some of them myself.
Yeah. And it’s, it’s amazing. You know, there’s people I know from the studio I grew up with that are not necessarily doing flute things now, but I consider them to be my friends and I love to see what they’re up to now on Facebook or social media or whatever.
But, you know, I’ve met so many people by going to festivals, and master classes, and going away to college.
I have so many friends really all over the world because of flute that I consider to still be friends. I know that if I went to California, there’s like 10 people I could call to go see just from playing the flute.
Yeah. And it’s fun to see people that I haven’t seen in 20 years, or however long that it feels like we have something that binds us together.
We’re very similar. That’s why we are similar people. And so that’s why whoever’s watching this, you’re probably similar to us right now. And yeah, it’s really fun for us to get together. We could have lunch, we could do anything.
We could be 10 years later and we could still pick up and just go have lunch and really fun.
It’s Interesting to see how relationships change too, because you know, you and I, for example, you know, I used to be a little student that I’d play for you in masterclass or you would judge me in a competition or a festival.
And now we’re colleagues and now we’re friends. And I could say the same thing about my teachers everywhere that I’ve, anyone I’ve studied with has the teacher student relationship and then we go to being colleagues and friends.
And that is universal for all flutists, I think.
And I should say we do not need to be professional musicians, to be in this. I mean, I work with so many people who are learning and enjoying themselves at home, maybe playing in their, you know, different types of venues, churches, and whatever. You know, in their backyard for their friends, for themselves and their animals. Wonderful at home and all the fun things.
But yeah, just to give, maybe we should give a little bit of advice to those who are learning and basically remembering that we all kind of have the same pursuit, which, what would you say?
We love the flute and we love to make music. And there’s something that when you play the flute, it just brings me joy. And I think it brings a lot of people joy.
And I think you just play because you love it. You don’t have to have any particular aspirations.
And you know, if you play the flute and that’s all you do is to play for your chickens in your backyard, that’s wonderful. Like, how lucky are those chickens? You know?
But if your aspirations are to be a solo flutist, that’s wonderful too.
But it’s not, either you’ve made it or you haven’t. It’s, you can do anything you want with it and you can just play it for your own enjoyment.
There’s A new challenge around every corner.
Right. There’s always something to learn. You’re never done. Learning is what I’ve also found. I’m not, I’m not done learning.
I’m sure you’re not done learning either. There’s always something that we can learn, we can grow, we can become better.
It’s a lifelong pursuit really. And that’s something that’s so wonderful about it too. You know, I’ve seen students that are five years old be super enthusiastic. I’ve seen students that are 70 or 80 years old that are still so excited to learn and to try something new on the flute.
And it’s just, it’s wonderful. The flute doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care who you are. It’s just how lucky are we to have the music?
Right? Right. It’s that lifelong pursuit of music and art enjoyment that enhances our life.
And we need people from everywhere, all walks of life to enjoy music. You know, if for me playing in the ballet, if everybody wanted to be a ballet musician, then I would be out of a job.
We need people that are in the audience. We need people to come and enjoy it. We need people to partake of the art that we’re creating.
So even if you aren’t playing, you can go enjoy. There’s so much live music like we were saying, that you can and art in the world that you can participate in and enjoy.
For sure. For sure.
Well, Alison, wow.
Thanks again for joining us here in our, in our little bubble here at Learn Flute Online.
So be sure everybody, anybody who’s listening and watching this, be sure to look up Ballet West, the Ballet West Orchestra, or any other professional orchestra near you, because I wanna put a plug in for you to support the arts and not just the arts, but your fellow flutes.
That’s what we say. Yes. So thanks again. We will meet up again. And I’m so excited that you joined us and you brought your flute for us and played for us and it was wonderful. And thank you again.
Talking to you later.
Bye bye now.
Thank you for Tuning In!
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about performing with Alison Olsen.
If you’d prefer to watch this interview, the video is posted below!
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