Lyrical Life: The Musical Journeys of Katherine Fink

Member Spotlight

Volume 115, No. 3March, 2015


Photo: Spencer Lloyd

Katherine Fink, a member of Local 802 since 1980, has a diverse career as a soloist, orchestral and chamber musician. As a member of the Grammy-nominated Borealis Wind Quintet, Fink tours the country giving concerts, masterclasses and lectures. She is principal flute and soloist with the Queens Symphony and the New York Pops and has served as principal flute of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, EOS, Philharmonia Virtuosi, Dance Theater of Harlem orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. She was also a long-time associate musician with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Ms. Fink teaches on the faculty of York College and has taught orchestral studies at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. She is an official Haynes Flute Artist. Fink is prominent on recordings with the Borealis Wind Quintet, the New York Pops, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts. She is a featured soloist on the CD “Reel Life” (music of film composers) and has recorded the complete solo flute works of Robert Baksa. She has recorded many major film scores and television commercials and is the flutist in the current Broadway production of Leonard Bernstein’s “On The Town” at the Lyric Theatre. Other musical theatre credits include “Beauty and the Beast,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Ragtime” and “Cinderella.” Local 802 recording rep Bob Pawlo recently caught up with Katherine Fink to hear her story.

Bob Pawlo: How and when did your journey in music begin?

Katherine Fink: I grew up in a family which was immersed in music. My father was a Lutheran minister, so my childhood memories are filled with the glorious music of Bach and Buxtehude. My mother was a professional singer who constantly filled the house with all types of vocal music and encouraged my sisters and me to study musical instruments. I must also admit that one of the first musical Cupid’s arrows to hit my heart was Liberace’s noontime TV shows in the late 1950s and early 60s. I watched him every day while Mom fixed lunch and was smitten by his beautiful playing and sincere personality – and of course by the jewelry and candelabra! I also obsessively listened to the recording of Alec Wilder’s “A Child’s Introduction to the Orchestra” featuring the well-respected flute builder Edward Powell who played the character “Knute the Flute.” (Ironically, I ended up as a Haynes artist. Sorry, Edward!)

I started to play the flute in fourth grade and will forever remember the excitement of opening the flute case for the very first time and that tangy smell of a rented instrument! I fully appreciate being given access to music through the public school system. It opened the door to my world.

Bob Pawlo: Your parents provided the musical background, you had your 4th grade flute, and how did things progress?

Katherine Fink: I took to the flute immediately! My family lived in the Philadelphia area, so my parents enrolled us in the Settlement Music School for lessons. My older sister studied cello and my younger sister studied violin, so we formed the Fink Sisters Trio. We shared the discovery of music through our chamber music. Naturally, there were many sister fights, but we entered the musical world together. My sister Natalie Bliss is now a stress management consultant specializing in Reike and sound therapy and my sister Lois Badey is the head of major gifts and alumni giving for the new arts center at Virginia Tech. Our musically-enriched background has led all of us into diverse areas of the arts.

Bob Pawlo: So the whole family was involved in music?

Katherine Fink: Yes, we performed together and went to concerts all the time. My mother regularly performed with a regional amateur opera company and sometimes roped me and my sisters into singing in the opera chorus. We had on-stage performance experience, went to hear opera and always sang in my dad’s church choirs.

Bob Pawlo: Did you attend Philadelphia Orchestra concerts?

Katherine Fink: Absolutely. Hearing live performances by that remarkable orchestra was a huge influence. Additionally, I went to Lower Merion High School which had a fantastic music program and included a lot of the Philadelphia orchestra members’ children who totally ramped up the level of playing. We played serious orchestral works by great composers including Beethoven, Husa, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rossini and Schubert. I was also a member of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and played with the best young musicians of the Philadelphia area.

Bob Pawlo: Were you studying with a noted teacher in Philadelphia?

Katherine Fink: I studied with Patricia Ahmad at the Settlement Music School. She was a student of William Kincaid and a fantastic teacher, but not a noted performer.

Bob Pawlo: Can you explain William Kincaid’s legacy and influence on American flute playing?

Katherine Fink: William Kincaid is called the grandfather of American flute playing. My teacher at the Eastman School of Music, Joseph Mariano, was Kincaid’s student. Some of Mariano’s iconic students include Doriot Dwyer (principal flutist of the Boston Symphony), Murray Panitz (the principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra) and Walfrid Kujala (the piccolo player of the Chicago Symphony). Julius Baker also studied with Kincaid, and has a long list of successful students, so you can follow two distinct branches of Kincaid’s family tree which cover most of America’s flute population. Kincaid set the American standard for orchestral playing.

Bob Pawlo: You were taking lessons directly from the great lineage of flute playing. What elements did your teachers emphasize?

Katherine Fink: Phrasing and musicality were the primary aspects, with a major dose of scales and arpeggios. My technical etudes were by Paul Taffanel and Marcel Moyse, with focus on standard technique, tone, vibrato and phrasing. The current emphasis on technical prowess evolved to meet the demands of much contemporary repertoire, but it also caused a major disconnect from musical phrasing. There are inspiring, mind-blowing re-mastered recordings of the old flute masters. The technical passages are note-perfect, but are integrated into the phrase, rather that standing out as technical elements. Being the fastest typist in the office was never the objective.

Bob Pawlo: So growing up in Philadelphia with an excellent teacher from the Kincaid legacy and with a musically supportive family, did you ever doubt that music was your path?

Katherine Fink: I was extremely insecure about my musical talents and only decided to pursue music in my junior year in high school after receiving a D in trigonometry and C in geometry, a shock to my overall academic A averages. I felt that my aspirations to pursue oceanography and biochemistry were doomed.

Bob Pawlo: So Jacques Cousteau vetoed you!

Katherine Fink: Pretty pathetic since I’m a Pisces! But yes. My flute teacher had suggested that I apply to the Eastman School of Music because she knew that Joseph Mariano shared the Kincaid connection and was kind and supportive. She understood my insecurity and wanted to place me in a safe environment. I only applied to Eastman, figuring that I would not get in, but would keep trying until I succeeded.

As I sat in the Eastman corridor, awaiting my audition, Mariano called the next auditionee, winked at me and closed the door. My audition was an actual lesson and I was accepted with a full scholarship. Talk about shock and awe!

Katherine Fink with the Borealis Wind Quintet. Photo: Brad Martin

Katherine Fink with the Borealis Wind Quintet. Photo: Brad Martin

Bob Pawlo: Now you are at Eastman, studying with one of the great teachers. What ideas did Mariano give and emphasize?

Katherine Fink: Mariano retired from Eastman after my sophomore year. In those two years, he gave so much musical, spiritual and technical information which I would only understand years later. He said things like, “Play this on the ‘upper crescent’ of the sound,” or, “Each repeated note should be a different shade of orange.” His most immediately graspable advice was to make friends with your flute colleagues. He brought the flute class together with a bond of mutual respect. My last two years at Eastman were marked by changes in administration and flute faculty. I had a year with Sam Baron, a semester with James Galway and the final semester with Walfrid Kujala. They were all terrific, but wildly different.

Bob Pawlo: What were the principal things that you learned from these greatest teachers of the century.

Katherine Fink: Joseph Mariano and Sam Baron were my main influences. Mariano gave me a concept of sound, color and musical phrasing. Baron gave theoretical foundation with a focus on the architecture of a piece and appropriate stylistic interpretations.

Bob Pawlo: And Mr. Galway?

Katherine Fink: Style, baby! He taught how to bring your own personality and interpretation to the front of the stage and pull in your audience. Mr. Kujala taught methodical practice routines and attention to detail.

Bob Pawlo: Between the four, you had great components of music making. Where did you go after Eastman?

Katherine Fink: I returned to Philadelphia and took some lessons with Murray Panitz who helped me to pull together the disparate elements of my varied undergraduate studies. Thinking that I could get work in my hometown, I was met with closed doors, so I worked for the year in a fabulous French restaurant and learned about food. I realized that I had to get back to school in order to stay in music, so I auditioned for and got into Stony Brook as the graduate teaching assistant and member of the graduate woodwind quintet.

Bob Pawlo: After graduate school did you start to play gigs?

Katherine Fink: I moved into Manhattan and gradually began to work. I played every job that came my way, even the freebies. You never know from which source your next contact will appear. You may grudgingly do a low-profile gig, but there may be someone there who will offer you a bigger, better gig down the road. The point is to play your best regardless of the situation.

My first important job was playing second flute in the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, which I did for 12 years. Getting that opportunity was a matter of luck and timing. As a new flutist in NYC, twice a year I sent my resume to all the big contractors, knowing that they would throw it away. One of my resumes arrived to contractor Loren Glickman on the very day that he was looking for a second flute for the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. He got the thumbs-up from my reference, Tom Nyfenger, with whom I had studied at the Yale Norfolk Summer Festival, and offered me the position.

During that year I also got the opportunity to audition for an unexpected principal flute vacancy in the Hong Kong Philharmonic. I auditioned directly for conductor Ling Tung and got the job. I always did better without having to audition behind a screen. The current audition system was a nightmare for me, with hundreds of flutists vying for one position, playing anonymously behind a screen with no interaction with conductors or orchestral members. The intensive preparation was valuable, but the psychological damage was debilitating.

Bob Pawlo: How did you like working in the Hong Kong Philharmonic?

Katherine Fink: I loved it. I loved the city and the cultural diversity of the orchestra, plus I got invaluable experience by playing principal flute in so much standard repertoire. Since I was engaged to be married at the time, I decided to come back to NYC after that season and start a family. I was very nervous to tell anyone that I was pregnant because I believed that I would not be hired. It’s funny that 14 years later, even as an established professional, I felt that same way when I was pregnant with my second son. So when Bob Swan called me to sub at Radio City just ten days after giving birth to my first son, I said yes. Women know how hard it is to do a new stressful job so soon after childbirth. Thankfully, the women in the Radio City Orchestra wore gold lamé muumuus, so I didn’t feel too self-conscious about my post-birth body, but boy was I tired!

Bob Pawlo: How did you balance the demands of motherhood and professional life?

Katherine Fink: It’s not easy. You must become extremely efficient. I planned menus and grocery shopping, laundry time, organized babysitter schedules, and made time to practice. I often had to practice in 15-minute increments when Sam was a baby – and sometimes that was with him hanging on my leg! I had very good babysitters, but it broke my heart to have to leave for work. On the other hand, I would not have felt like a complete person without playing music. (I should mention that my son, Sam Oatts, is also a musician and was an active member of Local 802 before he moved to Denver. He coached the union’s softball team for four years.)

Bob Pawlo: You were successful in juggling different things. One of your jobs was playing second flute to Tom Nyfenger in the Y Chamber Symphony. How was that?

Katherine Fink: It was a rollercoaster ride. As we all know, Tom suffered with serious depression and ultimately left us too soon. I worked with him for four years close to the end of his life and it was difficult because he was so troubled and struggling. He was a brilliant musician and flutist and it was a revelation to play next to him. I feel truly grateful to have had the opportunity to work with that passionate, funny, charming, consummate artist.

Bob Pawlo: What skills did you need to sustain a career of this magnitude?

Katherine Fink: The biggest factor is my love of music. I listen to every kind of music, from Tuvan throat singers to gospel music, the Tijuana Brass, the Clemencic Renaissance Ensemble, the Gypsy Kings, all kinds of opera and jazz, Milton Nascimiento, Cesaria Evora, Paulo Conte, pop, all the great classics, all types of flute recordings…pretty much everything! My sons keep me up to date on current musical trends. This eclectic listening helps me to play different genres of music.

Bob Pawlo: You’ve played on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera.

Katherine Fink: I subbed at the Met for about 30 years and still play on Broadway, currently in “On The Town.” I love playing in theater productions, whether it’s classical opera or Broadway. I’ve also had fantastic symphonic experience as principal flute with the Queens Symphony, the New York Pops, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, EOS, Dance Theater of Harlem, Colonial Symphony, Philharmonia Virtuosi, Summer Music at Harkness, the OK Mozart Festival, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and as a sub for New Jersey, American and Stamford symphony orchestras. I guess it’s O.K. that I never won a major orchestra audition!

Bob Pawlo: How do you balance your practice routine for so many different styles?

Katherine Fink: I practice the basics (scales, arpeggios, tone) and adapt to the musical style of the job. One of the biggest educational gigs for me has been the New York Pops. As principal flute of that orchestra, I am required to play in all styles, which is super fun. Founder Skitch Henderson was an amazing and versatile musician, well versed in jazz, classical and commercial styles and taught us so much. Our current conductor, Steven Reineke, demands the same flexibility and brings even more stylistic challenges to the group, so this orchestra maintains a high energy, musically smart presence.

Bob Pawlo: You’ve also played extensively for the film industry in NYC. How was that?

Katherine Fink: The recording industry is highly competitive and requires one to play perfectly every time. I was fortunate to work often with Trudy Kane, who was principal flute of the Metropolitan Opera and did a majority of NYC film recording. She played beautifully and was a role model for professional decorum. She was a wonderful mentor and great example of the personality that is necessary in that highly focused type of work. No divas in the studio!

Bob Pawlo: March is Women’s History Month. Through the years of your experience have things changed for women in the music business?

Katherine Fink: I think that the business is much better for women now. As a young woman I had to fend off some predators at work and I did lose some big jobs by setting my boundaries. The current sexual harassment laws have significantly improved the work environment and the sexually suggestive verbal harassment of former years is greatly reduced.

Bob Pawlo: So things have gotten better?

Katherine Fink: Yes, for the most part. I still observe different gender standards for older musicians. I don’t view myself as a woman in the music business, I just view myself as a musician. My decision not to dye my hair or get plastic surgery is based on that. One male contractor said that I “must be brave to show up to work like that” – he meant with grey hair! That kind of comment makes me nervous, but I believe that musical integrity will always win. The contractors who hire me clearly value my musicianship, so many thanks!

Bob Pawlo: You have an extensive knowledge of music history. How has that made you a better musician?

Katherine Fink: My interest in history started through the Borealis Wind Quintet. I realized my love for history as I did research for our program notes. I do not have a history degree, but was given the opportunity to teach music history at York College when our dear departed colleague Ken Adams was very ill and needed a last-minute teaching sub. My knee-jerk reaction was to say no, I’m not a history person, but out of respect and love for Ken, I said yes.

I teach history from a performer’s point of view which seems to work well. My college history teacher was a dry academic historian and I couldn’t understand the relevance to my musical life, so in my classes I compare history to current events. History helps musical interpretation because you understand the difference between music written in a time when men wore lace and high heels and music written during the World Wars.

Bob Pawlo: Are there any noted women musicians through history that we should be more aware of?

Katherine Fink: Hundreds of them! Some of the most interesting to me are Hildegard von Bingen and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. Hildegard was tithed to the church when she was 8 years old because she was the 10th child in her family. She went on to establish her own convent and so, was the first woman composer whose music was recorded. Elisabeth de la Guerre was a child prodigy who performed on the harpsichord for the court of King Louis XIV at Versailles. She composed many works for the harpsichord and was one of the first women to write an opera.

Bob Pawlo: She sounds like a female Mozart.

Katherine Fink: Speaking of Mozart, his sister, Anna Maria (Nannerl), was equally gifted, but only performed until she married at age 18. Women were not allowed to perform publicly, although it was considered extremely important for them to be accomplished musicians in order to enhance their husband’s status.

Bob Pawlo: It’s a tragedy that so much talent was pushed aside. How would you advise young women musicians in starting a career?

Katherine Fink: Love music. Practice and be prepared for any opportunity. Honor yourself and acknowledge your strengths. Be compassionate. Play chamber music. Don’t flirt to get gigs, and do dress professionally for work. We want to be respected as musicians so that we can maintain a career long after our youthful cuteness wanes. Join the union. The union interfaces between management and players and protects our rights, which is particularly important for young women. Embrace the joy of music in the moment.