Master Class with William Bennett

Roughly three decades ago, I went to a master class with the British flutist William Bennett—at the College of Marin, I think. The class consisted of four flute performers (three of them were professionals, just not of Bennett’s caliber, and one was a college student, my age and slightly better than I). Bennett worked with each of these performers to improve their technique and performance while roughly 40 other (non-performing) flutists watched, listened, and tried to learn.

Tuning Torture

The first up was the college student who played Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D Major. He was very good. The average listener would not find much difference between his performance and that of Jean-Pierre Rampal.[1] However, he did not get to perform much of the piece until the very end of his half-hour allotment. Before this young man could play more than two measures, Bennett stopped him; the student was out of tune. They spent the next 20 minutes working on tuning. I was sitting next to my venerable flute teacher and she whispered in my ear, “See? This is what it is all about!” I think that was the moment that I decided I would never be any musician—at least not professionally.

Bennett wasn’t unkind to my peer. In fact, he was doing the young man a great favor in a friendly and helpful manner. That young man may now be first flutist with the San Francisco Symphony for all I know.[2] But it had to have been humiliating at the time. Think about it. You’ve study the instrument for years. You are very good. You have practiced the D Major Concerto to death. You have probably even performed it a number of times. You know it and you are good at it. And now you stand in front of 40 peers being instructed in the most basic aspect of performance: playing in tune.

At that time, I was well aware just how difficult it is to play a flute in tune. My instrument especially (because it was a cheap, student flute) was horrible. It often seemed that I had to compensate with my embrasure for every note played. What I did not know at that time, was that William Bennett is as well know for his work on improving how well flutes play in tune as he is as a performer. The Bennett-Cooper scale is named after him and if I can find some technical information on the physics of this, you can be assured, I will write about it here.

Finding this information about Bennett put some context into my 30 year old memory. But it in no way changed me feelings about my career path.

More William Bennett

William Bennett has his own website; it isn’t great, but it does contain much useful information—primarily a good list of his recordings and a casual memorial of Jean-Pierre Rampal and Fernand Dufrene. Here he is playing part of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Airs De Ballet D’Ascanio. It will give you a idea of what a wonderful player he is.

[1] Or James Galway, if you insist on someone alive. To my ear—which is probably a good deal better than yours!—Rampal was better. I most like his phrasing; he had an intuitive gift that knew how a piece should be played. I’m also very fond of him for what he left to other players. His edition of Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano is definitive. So is his recording of it. This isn’t to say Galway is bad. Mostly, he is just different. In performance, they are quite distinct, but of equal caliber. I’ve always preferred Galway’s tone to Rampal’s. What it all may be is that Galway panders to his audience much more than Rampal. And having said that, if you ever get a chance to see Galway, do so! He is wonderfully entertaining and his music is great. I’m splitting already slit hairs here.

[2] Being a performer in a symphony orchestra means you are very good. Being the first flutist in a major orchestra means you are great. It is mostly a matter of accounting. Orchestras need a lot of violinists, for example. Orchestras need only three flutists and one of them must double on the piccolo. In my experience, there are a lot more flutists than violinists. Even if I’m wrong about that, you have as many as 30 violins (15 violas, 15 cellos, and 8 basses) and only those three flute spots. The first flutist being great is also because the flute parts in orchestral works are often wonderful. I have known a number of people in the string sections of orchestras and they have all complained that it is dull work. But it’s steady!

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