Recent questions asked of Joshua Smith
It’s always interesting to find out how musicians get started. Talk about how you chose the flute and about your early interests and influences.
I was in second grade. I had a friend in class who had just started the flute, and I remember thinking that his flute case would be the neatest thing to carry around. I jumped on the opportunity when my parents offered to start me at music lessons – all because of a case! My interest in the instrument, and especially in music, developed quickly and, of course, continues … Actually, the same goes for my interest in luggage!
The first music I remember approaching really eagerly was Gershwin and Broadway stuff – show tunes. I played endlessly out of old songbooks, listened to old records, and developed a sense that music is or can be very much like spoken language. Through my youth I also pursued an interest in acting and singing … I think I began early to appreciate parallels between music and drama, such as the importance of scope (shaping thoughts or phrases so that they have cohesion and direction); of character definition (experimenting with and interpreting physical and emotional contrasts); and maybe most importantly, the importance of learning to be in the moment (listening and then reacting to a given context rather than just going through motions or just playing notes).
Anyway, it wasn’t long before I started feeling an almost religious connection with music, so it wasn’t usually that difficult to get myself to pick up the flute and practice. I did well in school and had lots of extracurricular activities, but it became obvious to myself and to my family that I was serious about music more than anything else. I remember halfway through high school knowing that I wanted to try to dive into the music world, so it seemed that a conservatory focus would be a great way to start. I went from high school to Curtis, where I studied with Julius Baker and with Jeffrey Khaner, and then came the chance of a lifetime – an invitation to audition for and then, of course, to join the Cleveland Orchestra.
You had no orchestra experience. Was it hard to fit in in Cleveland?
Yes and no. No, mainly because here I found myself surrounded by musicians of such a high caliber that all I needed to do was relax and plug into what was going on around me … I wasn’t presented, really, with very many of the challenges (pitch problems, inconsistencies of approach/style, ego bruising) that can sometimes make orchestra playing difficult, so I could focus on the music, which, of course, is hard enough. On the other hand, the importance of my position could easily catch up with and overwhelm me at first. Programs came and went (still do) with an alarming rapidity, and I had to work very hard to establish a pattern and to keep reminding myself just to do the best I could. I think if I had been really concsious of more than just chugging away at the beginning, I might have been too overwhelmed to do very well. Sometimes, now that I sort of know how to do what I’m doing every day, I’m more nervous than I was at the beginning!
How do you deal with nerves?
I don’t think nervousness in performance ever really goes away. I hope it doesn’t, actually, because I’m not sure I would perform with much interest or excitement without it … Learning how to deal with nerves is what gets easier over time and with experience … I think it’s important to strive to find balance and perspective in one’s approach to communicating and performing. How? Maybe start with asking basic (yet complex) questions, like “What am I doing here?,” “What am I trying to say?,” even “Why am I musician?” Answering questions like these brings perspective that helps to minimize the distractions that students (in fact, any of us) tend to feel about performance – doubts about ourselves, thoughts about who is listening to us, fears about living up to particular expectations … Effort (trying to please, trying to do your best) often gets in the way … Sometimes the most inspired performances seem to come when you withdraw your self and your fears and remember that the essence of what you’re trying to communicate is the bottom line, the only thing that matters at the moment.
So, what do you think about? How do you find that bottom line?
This is one of the conversations I frequently have with my students, and I think the answer ends up being more about how to approach music in general than just how to deal with performance. …
Conviction and inspiration come first from preparation. It’s so important to approach any music with some background knowledge. A sense of historical context comes not from learning the notes on the page, but from making an effort to read about the music and the composer, to listen to some music of his contemporaries and to find out about other artists and general art disciplines of the period. This information leads you toward answers about questions of style/concept, phrase direction, overall approach, which, of course, leads in turn to experimenting with details: tone, color possibilities, types of sound, quality of articulation, lushness or cleanliness of phrasing … Ultimately, as you experiment, you (hopefully) learn to develop respect for – and faith in – the composers’ intentions. It’s our responsibility as performers, as interpreters, to be vessels for the communication of composer to audience. That’s the bottom line – your take on what it is that the composer is trying to say. … Knowledge influences creativity and inspiration which then (if fear and ego distractions are minimal) enhance communication.
What else do you find yourself stressing in lessons?
I guess a big topic is learning to live in the moment – there’s so much going on there! This ability can bring perspective of a more technical nature, because living in and reacting to the moment for a musician means, of course, listening really carefully. Once you’ve truly learned how to listen to yourself, you develop a higher awareness both for details (pitch, tone, color) and of context (blend, teamwork, harmony, atmosphere). When you listen you can react to your context, and then every situation becomes personal, unique, different each time. By the way, each note, like a word in a sentence, carries with it its own sound, its own energy, its own harmonic attachment, and therefore its own impact. Listening for and reacting to this – playing between the notes – affects the context of the moment.
What would you say are your biggest challenges?
Everything we’ve talked about so far! Learning how to be a good musician and a great artist is something that never ends. I suppose when I stop believing that, I’ll be gone.