Crazy People Playing:At Flute Haven Workshop, Phoenixville, PA

2009 November 12

By Steve Conway

Between the first beat of a drum on Thursday and the last trill of the flute solo on Sunday morning there was a whole lot of jamming going on … and more. A group of 40 dedicated and talented flute players gathered at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (which looks, feels, and sounds like a mediaeval castle) to sharpen, perfect, and expand their musical performance. Sometimes musicians played one-on-one with one of the 15 student-facilitators who received three days of special training prior to the main event which was billed as Flute Haven Native Flute School. Other times each musician played solo for the group. However, during the coup de theatre each musician transformed into the individual cells of a single musical organism possessing heart, brain, and nervous system …that filled the halls with fantastic symphonies of sound.

Leading the fray was Clint Goss, the man I refer to as the Chief Inspirationist. Clint led, coaxed, lured, and nudged us to reach new levels of performance with improvisation, different musical modes, instilling a sense of rhythm, and introducing new advanced playing techniques that allowed all of us to test the limits of our individual impossibility. (This is based upon the notion that you know you have achieved the possible only by challenging the impossible). Vera Shanof was the wagon master who looked after keeping this musical organism moving along smoothly. In addition to the facilitators mentioned above, there were three major track leaders.

Ron Kravitz led the percussion sessions and provided rhythm backup during group sessions. Eric Miller provided guitar backup and managed recording duties. Finally, Lynn Miller, who majors in laugh therapy (my opinion), led the vocal sessions.

From my point-of-view the sessions are best described as an astonishing collection of activities comprising a musical short course jam-packed with the unexpected, inspiring, that was both physically and emotionally demanding. The very first activity, on Thursday evening in the main hall, began with the mob totally engaged in beating a lively rhythm on the drums and ended with the majority of the attendees locked into an almost frenzied state of dancing, twirling, chanting, and waving arms until they simply ran out of energy. This, according to the Chief Inspirationist, is called warm ups and there certainly were no cool people by the end of the sessions. I’m certain it took several hours for everyone to wind down enough to get some sleep. For a few, the nerves continued to jingle, jangle and twang the night away.

Solos offered every person the opportunity to incorporate some new licks into their improv repertoire or simply to play as the spirit moved them. They’d put out their sound and there it was! No wrong notes was the rule and nobody heard any. We also were able to play with percussion and string accompaniment and, for some, new, exotic instruments such as the Hang and the Shruti box.

A person would be hard put to declare that one track was best and another left something to be desired. Some tracks were just plain fun – like the wonderful warm-ups; others were  intellectually challenging, for me at least. I suppose that would include all of the different scales presented. In total, Flute Haven was physically and emotionally strenuous, illuminating, and inspiring. That said, I have to admit to having a favorite experience.

On Saturday morning Erik Miller led a track that was fun, richly enjoyable, and a total surprise. If two people play together it’s a duet and four people make a quartet, then I guess there must be a term for 40 musicians, but I couldn’t find it. So I settled for bunchet, in this case a large group of people playing music together. Erik took his bunch of musicians and divided them into three groups. All groups vocalized and also played flutes. One played A minor flute, one E minor, and one D minor. Each group was assigned only three notes to sing or play–first, third, and fifth, not necessarily in that order. So there you have it, there were three groups, three pitches, and three notes. With Erik’s leadership and accompaniment on guitar and a total of one hour of time, the musical result was simply extraordinary. Heavenly, actually.

There was no audience. The players resonated and entrained to the beat of their own music, the beautiful harmonics, and the pure simplicity of the sound. Every cell of this musical body danced to the same beautiful, melodic, and muted softness as their creations washed across the room and the people in gentle waves. At the end of this impromptu recital many of the musicians, including yours truly, wore a look of wonderment on his or her face. “WOW” was a common exclamation. There were 14 tracks of which this was only one.

The Wagon Master, Vera Shanof and her able staff of helpers, planned and caused the attendees and facilitators to execute a very ambitious track schedule. On Friday there were eight sessions and six on Saturday with each session running between one hour and an hour and a quarter. All were pretty demanding, none were a breeze. But despite the hectic schedule, our musical organism carried on through the evenings and into late hours with jam sessions providing entertainment for ourselves and a respectable crowd of local party goers. On Friday night we commandeered the stage at Steel City Coffee House and Saturday evening at Pickering Creek Inn. Anyone who wanted to perform could and most did. The owners and managers of these establishment willingly gave over the entertainment duties to Flute Haven and offered fulltime employment. I’m sure the city of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania will long remember the weekend the fluties came to town and all the crazy people playing.

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