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Passionate About Music

A conversation with Mindy Kaufman

Photo: J. Demetrie

Interview by Bob Pawlo

Solo piccolo and flutist Mindy Kaufman was only 22 when she won a chair in New York Philharmonic, after performing for three seasons with the Rochester Philharmonic. She earned a bachelor of music from Eastman, where she studied with Walfrid Kujala, Bonita Boyd and James Galway. A member of Local 802 since 1979, Kaufman has appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel, and she performs chamber music regularly with her Philharmonic colleagues. Kaufman has also performed at numerous festivals, including the Mt. Desert Festival of Chamber Music, Moab Music Festival and Grand Teton Music Festival. Kaufman teaches at the Shanghai Orchestra Academy and has also taught at Columbia University and Mannes Prep. She has been a featured artist at the National Flute Convention as well as the Japan Flute Convention. Kaufman has performed on more than 45 soundtracks, including “Julie and Julia,” “Hail Caesar,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “The Untouchables.” Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently caught up with Mindy Kaufman to talk about her life in music.

Bob Pawlo: What are your first memories of music?

Mindy Kaufman: I grew up in an apartment building and our next-door neighbors had a piano. I was really intrigued by it and begged my parents for a piano. Finally, when I was seven, we got an upright, and I started taking lessons. In my home, there was always music on the stereo or the radio – classical, opera, show tunes – everything. And my grandmother used to play popular songs on the piano by ear. I grew up in White Plains, during a time where the arts were very highly valued. In fourth grade we were given a choice of instruments. I didn’t know much about it, but I chose the flute. If it weren’t for that music program, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. I eventually won a scholarship to the Westchester Conservatory of Music, where I studied with Harold Jones, who was a very busy freelancer and a member of Local 802. I was also playing in four different bands and orchestras. Many of the kids with whom I grew up became professional musicians or continue to play their instruments today.  We loved music with a passion. It was a great time to be a musician and to share the love of music with friends.

Bob Pawlo: Did you get to hear much live music growing up?

Mindy Kaufman: Oh yes. I attended several concerts a year, through school field trips and on my own with friends. I’d hear the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony. My high school band director was a subscriber to the Met opera and attended Philharmonic concerts. He especially loved Wagner and would get excited talking about the leitmotifs or listening to the Philharmonic play Mahler. The “rug concerts” with Boulez and the New York Philharmonic were very popular and not too expensive. For these concerts, all the seats were removed and the audience sat on foam pads. I also used to hear my teachers perform. In the summers, I attended two different music camps, both of which had a great influence on my growth: the Westchester Music and Arts Camp and the New England Music Camp. I remember playing Brahms’ second symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le coq d’or,” which was really hard, especially for a ninth grader.

Bob Pawlo: When was it that you decided you were going to study music?

Mindy Kaufman: I made the decision during my sophomore year. Many of my friends were applying to music schools. My best friend from eighth grade (who is now principal librarian for the Seattle Symphony) and I talked about schools. My flute teacher thought Eastman would be a good school for me. I applied for early decision and was accepted with a scholarship. I ended up studying there first with Walfrid Kujala.

Bob Pawlo: What things did he stress in the lessons?

Mindy Kaufman: Wally opened my eyes to listening to the subtle details in phrasing. Things like the end of a note, not just how it starts. He pointed out dynamics, such as in the flute solo in “Daphnis et Chloé,” which starts high, but piano, and gradually gets louder as it goes lower. I learned to listen to the balance between tongued notes and slurred notes. I learned that slurred notes generally sound louder, so if you want them to sound even, you have to play the tongued notes louder. Wally was very thoughtful about details.

Bob Pawlo: What was your first really professional job?

Mindy Kaufman: In September of my junior year, there was an opening in the Rochester Philharmonic. It was my first audition. I had no expectation of winning it. The orchestra had two flute players on salary, and the audition was for the third position which paid per service, but essentially was a second flute role. There was a little bit of piccolo on the audition list and I was just beginning to play piccolo. After two rounds, and without taking the screen down, they gave me the job at age 19. One of the first pieces I played in the orchestra was the Nutcracker. There is a very difficult piccolo passage in the second flute part and I was terrified. But I eventually improved through practice and repetition. And my colleagues were so patient and kind. In Rochester, in addition to symphonic music, we played opera, ballet and oratorios. This was a great experience to learn repertoire and different styles of playing.

Bob Pawlo: How did you make the leap from Rochester to the New York Philharmonic?

Mindy Kaufman: In November 1978, an ad for piccolo in the New York Philharmonic appeared in the International Musician. I really wanted that job. I had grown up listening to the orchestra, and admired the playing of Julius Baker. His sound floated above the orchestra. It was big, but not forced. Rumors were that you couldn’t get the job unless you were a student of his. I ignored the rumors and went for it anyway. I practiced like someone training for the Olympics. After the preliminary round, Julie said to me “How come I don’t know you?” I passed the preliminaries and the finals were a week later. I was supposed to fly out of Rochester the night before, but that night there was a big blizzard which closed the airport and shut down the train station. The only option was a midnight Greyhound bus that got into New York at 8 a.m. the next morning. The bus made it through the snowstorm, but back in 1979, people smoked on the bus and it was not a nice ride. It also stopped about every 90 minutes and I didn’t get any sleep, but the lack of sleep was probably the best thing that happened to me. I had struggled with performance anxiety and had been anticipating a lot of pressure because Zubin Mehta would be listening. But with the lack of sleep, I was too tired to be nervous. I had no adrenaline, so I played a great audition for the final. I wouldn’t recommend this to others – but it worked for me that day!

Bob Pawlo: And when did you find out you had the job?

Mindy Kaufman: I found out later that day. That afternoon I flew back to Rochester to play a concert that evening. The airport had re-opened and I called Jimmy Chambers, the New York Philharmonic’s personnel manager, from a payphone. My teacher Bonita Boyd was there, and we were both in tears. It was a really proud moment for me to be accepted.

Bob Pawlo: So you packed up your bags and moved to NYC?

Mindy Kaufman: The Philharmonic wanted me to start in May, which I did. The first concert I played was with Andre Kostelanetz and I played it without a rehearsal. We performed “Firebird” and Glazunov’s “The Seasons,” both of which I had played in Rochester. There was yellow paper all over the music. If something was too loud in the rehearsal, he would have the librarians tape yellow paper over the passage. The whole part had yellow paper all over it. Very funny.

Bob Pawlo: What was it like to sit in the section with Julius Baker?

Mindy Kaufman: Oh, it was a dream. I learned so much just from hearing him up close. His tone was never loud or strident.

Bob Pawlo: What are your favorite memories of Leonard Bernstein?

Mindy Kaufman: One thing I loved about playing with Bernstein, aside from his musicianship, was that from the beginning of the concert when he walked out, until the last note of the concert, you felt like you were on a journey. He did not let anything distract him from the music. If there was a mistake, he didn’t react, or make a face. He continued making the music. So when you were performing a big piece, like a Mahler symphony, from the beginning to the end of that piece, you were in a transformative state. It’s very powerful to have that kind of focus. It brought out the best playing in you and that was such a positive thing. I was able to play above my ability. That’s the true mark of a great conductor.

Bob Pawlo: How did you settle into your role in the Philharmonic, both personally and musically?

Mindy Kaufman: I spent a lot of time in those days meditating. That was how I could quiet my mind and win the audition. I tried to be in the moment and not make judgments. It’s very hard to do, since the nature of our business requires us to be critical in order to improve. But meditating helps me focus on the present, and not on the future or the past. By focusing on the present, instead of three lines from now or on the next page, it helps me to be engaged in the music. I still have my meditation pillow and meditation bench. It’s also very important to be prepared because preparation gives you confidence. And we need to accept that it’s not always going to be perfect. That is difficult because I am probably my harshest critic. But you have to let it go.

Bob Pawlo: On a purely technical level, what is the key to shifting back and forth between flute and piccolo?

Mindy Kaufman: Equipment has come a long way. I find it much easier to switch back and forth. I practice on both instruments. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot more chamber music than solo recitals, though I love doing both. It’s very satisfying because in chamber music you get to make the musical decisions.

Bob Pawlo: You have played for a lot of film scores. What’s that like?

Mindy Kaufman: Oh, it’s really fun. It’s challenging because you need to play with a click track, but you also need to play musically and not mechanically. Of course it has to be perfectly in tune as well. It’s a real art to do that. Most of the time the music is not too difficult, although sometimes it is, and since you don’t get the music in advance, you have to be able to sight-read it and make changes on the spot and be flexible.

Bob Pawlo: What flutists or other musical artists have influenced you?

Mindy Kaufman: Of course, I was influenced by Julius Baker, Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, Thomas Nyfenger, plus listening to my teachers play in lessons. I love listening to singers, violinists and cellists – and jazz. Some of my favorite performers are Jesse Norman, Montserrat Caballé, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kathleen Battle, Martha Argerich, Sarah Vaughan, David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Rose, Miles Davis, Jethro Tull and the Beatles.  I learn a lot by listening to string players. What they do is so much more complex musically than wind players in terms of shaping notes as well as their use of vibrato. Even their use of intonation is much more complex than that of wind players. They have so many different ways of articulating notes and using different bow pressure for nuances.

Bob Pawlo: What advice would you give to flutists and musicians in general starting their careers now?

Mindy Kaufman: I think today there are many ways to build a career that’s not necessarily orchestral. It’s important to be versatile. You should learn to play flute, piccolo, alto flute and bass flute, as well as play in different styles: baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary. If you can, learn to play baroque flute and recorder. Read Quantz’ treatise “On Playing the Flute.” Get comfortable with contemporary techniques and get a basic understanding of jazz styles and rhythms. That will give you more options and make you a better musician and more in demand. Do it all well. And always collaborate with people. You will learn from others. Lastly, music is not a machine. Pitch and rhythm are expressive tools as well. There is nothing more boring to me than listening to a performance of Mozart that is totally steady, and has no forward motion or excitement. Go for more than being correct and accurate. In auditions, I still want to hear expression, not just accuracy.

Bob Pawlo: March is Women’s History Month. How have things changed for women over the years?

Mindy Kaufman: The makeup of the orchestra has changed so much. There were only 12 women out of 106 in the orchestra when I joined. Now there are about 41 out of 92. I wasn’t the first woman in the wind section. Renée Siebert was already playing second flute. But after those three years in Rochester, I was ready.

Bob Pawlo: What would you say in closing to your Local 802 sisters and brothers, and to union members around the world?

Mindy Kaufman: I think the union is so important for us. Looking back over the 40 years that I’ve been a union member, I see how it has improved my life. It’s in our best interest to support the union and to keep it strong.

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