Flutes, Firsts, and San Francisco, a Chat with Professor Catherine Payne
Professor Catherine Payne discusses SFCM’s first PSC piccolo program, why she never listens to ‘background music’ and the one time her orchestra nearly came to a horrifying and grinding halt in the middle of a performance.
By Mark Taylor
Get a life! That’s one of the main lessons Catherine Payne has for young musicians. Since 2019 Payne has been teaching flute and piccolo at SFCM, but she’s no stranger to the city by the Bay. For 25 years Payne has played with the San Francisco Symphony as Solo Piccolo.
Her story begins in Connecticut where a random decision she made as a child introduced her to the flute, and a life in music. Her career has taken her around the world, after landing her big break, in a way she never thought possible.
How did you get started in music?
My mom sang all the time in the house as I was growing up, classic songs, show tunes and pop music. I loved hearing her sing. My brother was taking piano lessons and I wanted to have lessons as well, so piano was my first instrument. I also sang in my church choir from second grade until I graduated high school, and loved musical theater and singing in shows. For as long as I can remember, music has been a way for me to express feelings and emotions I had that I couldn’t express with words alone.
When I was in third grade every kid in my school got to choose an instrument to play in the band. I chose the flute because there was a girl a few years older than me who lived down the street and played flute and I thought she was really cool. It’s funny how random these decisions can be, and how your life can turn on small things! I had an affinity for the flute, and I began to study privately in the fourth grade. As soon as I played the flute in ensembles with other kids I fell in love with it, and the piano took a back seat to the flute.
I grew up in Connecticut, so in high school I had the good fortune to study with Tom Nyfenger at the Yale School of Music. My dad drove me to New York to hear a Jean-Pierre Rampal recital at Carnegie Hall and it was so exciting and inspiring to hear him perform for the first time. He played Gluck’s Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits as an encore, one of my favorite pieces of all time. When I started to think about college I applied to schools to study acting and musical theater, and I applied to music schools. Music school won, and I studied at the New England Conservatory with Leone Buyse and Lois Schaefer, both members of the Boston Symphony at the time. I also attended Tufts University while I was a student at NEC and did a double degree program, receiving a BM degree in Flute Performance from NEC and a BA in English from Tufts. When I graduated I was afraid I wouldn’t make it in music and I started looking for jobs in publishing. But ultimately I knew I had to try for a career in music or I would always have regrets. So I worked as a temporary secretary (I was terrible!) and started taking auditions. My first job was with the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine. I never imagined that eventually I would end up performing in Carnegie Hall as a member of the San Francisco Symphony.
What drew you to the Flute/Piccolo?
I always loved the sound of the flute. I think the flute is the instrument that is most like the human voice, so maybe it was all that singing I heard my mom do when I was growing up! I loved playing the flute with other kids in ensembles. From the moment I first started playing orchestral music in high school, I was hooked on it. For me it is amazing to be able to sit inside of an orchestra and be a part of what goes into creating the incredible sounds a symphony orchestra can make.
I was never too interested in the piccolo until I was assigned a part to play in the New England Conservatory orchestra in college. It was Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, and I had fun playing the part. There is a lot of beautifully expressive music for piccolo in the orchestral literature. You also get to play stuff that sounds really silly in a good way, or else absolutely terrifying, as the piccolo is a very important color or “special effect” in the orchestra. It occurred to me that I could increase my chances of working with an orchestra someday, and working as a freelance musician in Boston when I graduated, if I could play the piccolo in addition to the flute.
My first big break came when the Boston Symphony called me to play piccolo in the New World Symphony for a concert at Tanglewood. They had gone through their entire sub list, and luckily for me, no one else was available! I sat up on the stage in the freezing cold on a stormy night in July at Tanglewood, terrified out of my mind, to play the nine note piccolo solo of the theme in the first movement. Nine notes and that was it! But they are important notes, and it went okay and created an opportunity for me to substitute with one of the world’s great orchestras for a few years. The BSO personnel manager liked it that he could have me play second flute most of the time, and move me to the piccolo chair when they needed me in that position. That experience was invaluable to me as a musician. In Boston I developed the confidence I needed to try for the piccolo job in San Francisco when it opened up.
It’s been a dream come true for me to play with my colleagues in the SFS under Michael Tilson Thomas and now Esa-Pekka Salonen. To feel the vibrations in your body, and to be part of this fantastic ensemble where everything fits together, yet it’s expressive and flexible—there is nothing else like it! So I’ve really grown to love playing the piccolo. I’m continually challenged because the instrument is so quirky and difficult to play, but if I can play a solo beautifully and really make music on the instrument, the experience is very satisfying.
What are you currently listening to?
I have always loved listening to singers. When I play music, I want to sound like a singer, the highest compliment I can receive is when someone tells me that I’m singing through my instrument. So I often listen to singers and try to imitate what they do in terms of phrasing, color and vibrato. Sarah Vaughn is my favorite jazz singer, but I also love listening to Billy Holiday, Shirley Horn and Ella Fitzgerald. For classical singers I turn to Jane Eaglen and Stephanie Blythe quite a bit.
During the lockdown I listened to a lot of great chamber music, which I found really comforting, and to my dear colleague and friend Robin Sutherland’s stunning performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, an amazing recording. He died last year and listening to his Goldberg CD brought me through some difficult times during the lockdown. Now that the SFS is back to playing live concerts I am not listening to as much music at home, as I am lucky enough to hear so much at work! I don’t listen to music as background—I’ve never really understood how people can listen to music and do other things at the same time. It grabs my attention, so when I come home from work I like it to be quiet so I can keep the music I was playing at work in my head.
How do you prepare for performances?
I get very nervous for performances, but once I’m out there in the hall with the audience and things get going I feel calmer. I loved acting when I was in high school and college, and I find it helps me to act like I’m quite calm and enjoying myself when actually I’m sometimes so nervous I feel like I’m going to lose my dinner! I just put on this aura of confidence and calm and the pretending makes it sink in a bit, and helps me to do my thing onstage.
I always try to be as prepared as I can and practice very carefully. I make sure I know the score well so that I understand the piece better, and also if I get rattled, I will know where I am and where to come in. Before I had my son I would rest, do yoga and try to meditate before a performance, but now with a young kid at home, that has all gone out the window! I try to exercise regularly, eat healthy food, avoid caffeine and make sure I’m hydrated—I also drink certain herbal teas to keep my mouth from getting dry when I’m nervous. Musicians are athletes and we need to take great care of our bodies by exercising and thinking about the foods we eat. The old saying, “You’re only as good as your last performance” is, unfortunately, kind of true! Great preparation, getting a good night’s sleep and taking good care of yourself are all really important prerequisites for performing at a consistently high level.
When teaching, what do you hope to pass onto your students?
I had amazing teachers who gave me so much, and they are always with me now when I teach! Ultimately I want to teach my students to become their own teachers, in the way that I still hear Mr. Nyfenger’s, Professor Buyse’s and Ms. Schaefer’s voice in my head even now when I am practicing and performing. A teaching relationship has the power to be a transformational experience, both for the student and for me. The world can be a dark place at times (Especially lately, living through a pandemic!), and the best way for me to give back and contribute to my community and to the future is to work with my students.
Drawing on the inspiration from my teachers, I help my students to become the best musicians they can be. We need to be thinking constantly about phrasing, musical direction and line, and adding different colors to our sounds. I help my students learn how to play with more freedom, fluidity and ease. Like a singer, I focus on the airstream, the position of the tongue in the mouth and voicing different vowels. Learning to let the air do the work for you and getting out of the way of our own air is essential. You need to approach each student differently and have a lot of different ways of getting at problems to free students up to play their best. There is nothing more satisfying to me than helping a student unlock their creative potential, to see them grow and develop and be able to do things they never thought they could. To see a student’s confidence grow, to hear them being able to express themselves more musically, to see them find joy through playing their instrument—this is why I love to teach!
Many things go into having a successful career as a musician—it’s not just about how you play. You need to have great skills on your instrument, but you also need to develop skills that allow you to work well with other people. You need to learn to be flexible, to be accommodating, you need to have a positive attitude, you need to communicate in a professional way, and you need to be ON TIME, always! My approach is to work on these skills with students in addition to helping them to master their instrument.
SFCM has our first two students in the PSC piccolo program? How is that going?
I am so proud of the progress our two students in the PSC piccolo program have made in their first semester! The program is for students who want to really focus on orchestral piccolo performance, and it’s geared towards giving students the tools they need to win auditions. It’s a one-year program, and each semester the students have a mock audition with a panel of SFCM faculty and we make it as realistic an audition experience as possible. Each student works with intense focus on orchestral excerpts throughout the year and performs the Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto and other solo works in a recital in the Spring Semester.
You've been part of SFS since 1996, Any funny performance stories you can share?
In one of my first concerts with the orchestra in 1996 we were performing Medea’s Dance of Vengeance by Samuel Barber. There is a rhythmically complex section where each bar is in a different meter, and unfortunately the conductor turned two pages instead of one during a performance. He was emphatically conducting the wrong beat patterns while we were all trying to hang on for dear life and not stop playing entirely. In an amazing feat of ensemble skill and good luck, the brass section all jumped in together to an upcoming cue so now we knew where we were supposed to be as an orchestra—the brass had saved the day and everything got back on track. But the conductor somehow kept furiously conducting the incorrect beat patterns instead of jumping ahead as the brass section had done. So we all got lost again. It was the closest I’ve ever come to having a piece come to a grinding halt in the middle of a performance. Somehow we managed to finish, but it was pretty hilarious and we were all either laughing or crying (or both) by the end. The review in the paper remarked on how it was the most “exciting” Dance of Vengeance the reviewer had ever heard!
Any advice for young musicians?
My advice for young musicians would be to focus less on perfection in technique and more on what you are trying to say with the music. Why are you playing this piece? What story does it tell? How do you want to make the listener feel when you are playing this? What kind of mood are you trying to set? Where is each phrase going? Your listeners want to hear an exciting performance. Prepare as carefully as you can and then you need to go for it and take some risks. Go out on a limb, be vulnerable. If there is a mistake or two, so be it. Put your heart and soul into your performances and impress your audience with the intensity of your music-making. Nobody wants to listen to a robot!
What would you tell your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to be kinder to myself. As artists, we are trained to listen so critically to ourselves to improve. This is necessary for us to grow as musicians, but we also need to celebrate small improvements and small victories in the practice room. It’s easy to get bogged down with the things that aren’t going well and need improvement, instead of also learning to give ourselves a high five for the things that we are doing right! It’s also important to let your colleagues know what they are doing well, and be sure to support and complement one another. People want to work with musicians who are easy to play with and bring positivity to the group, so practice being kind to yourself and your colleagues.
Anything else you'd like to add?
When I was a student I attended the LA Philharmonic Summer Institute, and the Simon Rattle conducted Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. It was fantastic, and I will never forget the performance and something that he talked about one day in a rehearsal. He encouraged all of us to “Get out” more, to read, to go to museums, to travel, to seek out new adventures and experience life to the fullest. This is what makes you an artist: This is what makes your music interesting to listen to. Yes, you still have to sit in a room by yourself sawing away for hours, but that is just the beginning—you need art and literature and all sorts of experience to add to your music so you can tell your audience something more about what it means to be human…you need to get out of the practice room and get a life!
Learn more about studying Flute or Piccolo at SFCM.