I know many flutists whose passion is playing second flute; I have never been one of those flutists. While piecing together a freelance living solely from music, many of us make concessions along our career path. This post is about some practical steps you can take to protect yourself and your passion while playing non-dream gigs. (I wrote this in 2019.)
Do not harm the product. The job of a second flutist is to be invisible. If you do your job very well, you will barely be noticed. You must learn to function stealthily, ninja-like – to match color, pitch, rhythm and be a carbon copy of the principal flutist. Your challenge is to find your way among a forest of imperfect choices: Do you tune to your section leader or to others who are playing the same note of the chord? When there is a discrepancy, do you time your attacks with your principal or the wind section? If you are given a cue by your section leader, but it doesn’t match the conductor’s gesture, who do you choose and why? How much dynamic support is helpful verses overpowering?
Do not harm your playing. Especially if you happen to be an empathic soul, you may find that the above choices play upon your chameleon nature; fight against the urge to focus on musical-caretaking. Even though your part may not always be technically difficult or exposed, it is essential to warm-up and practice carefully: maintain personal integrity in your sound, verify the pitch center and chord functions of your notes, and rehearse the timing of your attacks at all dynamic levels. Strive to always make beautiful sounds that you are proud of. It may sometimes feel as if no matter which choice you make, you will choose incorrectly – forgive yourself for each and every one of these moments. Second players are at the whim of many factors which are completely beyond their control. Stay present, stay grounded, and work to listen more intently.
Do not harm your spine. Relax your body and your mind will follow (…to reverse the LA Story quote). It is easy to minimize yourself physically in service of the more exposed and dominant roles happening on either side of you. Maintain a flexible and balanced spine, and own the physical space you require. Breathe deeply and calmly, especially in moments when chaos or stress literally surrounds you. Stay mobile and active in your non-orchestra time, giving your spine a chance to re-symmetrize. I recommend yoga, meditation, and plenty of time outdoors, preferably with a dog.
Do not harm your hearing. It is essental to use hearing protection. After many years of ignoring this, in 2007 I was diagnosed with a “sloping to moderately-severe hearing loss to 8 kHz in both ears.” Part of why I avoided earplugs is that I didn’t want to upset or offend anyone – if you feel similarly I suggest that you get the #$%@ over it. I have protected myself from further damage by always wearing professional custom made earplugs (sometimes offered free through the MusicCares program). They cost between $100-200 and come with changeable filters of different decibel blocks which do not distort the pitch. I usually wear a stronger filter on the left than the right to protect against brass and from the flute on my left (one curved stage platform I play on positions the principal’s flute directly behind my left ear). With practice, you will be able to manipulate pitch and dynamics just as well if not better than you ever did. I also use a technique of “popping” the right plug open without completely removing it, which I use during conspicuously exposed sections. This allows me to discreetly plug and unplug as needed. An added benefit of wearing earplugs is that I am able to be more internally focused on the tactile sensations of producing sound.
Do not harm your passion. You are part of the musical fabric, a beautifully metaphorical way to participate in a group. Spend time deciphering and analyzing the forms and orchestration chosen by each composer, and embrace your role and function within the larger texture. The orchestral hierarchy can provide insight if you remove false ego from the equation: you as a person are not invisible, you are simply performing a temporary function. Find other outlets to nurture your creativity, focusing on the positive aspects of orchestral experience. Above all else, nurture yourself so that you can maintain your personal integrity in all aspects, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
[Primum non nocere (Classical Latin: [ˈpriːmʊ̃n noːn nɔˈkeːrɛ]) is a Latin phrase that means “first, to do no harm.” The phrase is sometimes recorded as primum nil nocere.]