Sunday, January 18, 2009

Musical Questions – Caty Clifton

Hey folks, more Musical Questions today, this time with wonderful flautist, piccoloist & tin whistler, Caty Clifton, pride of the Oregon East Symphony & of the Wenches Irish band. Eberle has had a long history of playing with Caty when they were both involved in the thriving McCall classical scene; for such a small town, McCall had & has some really first-rate classical players, some of whom Caty talks about in her bio; Caty Clifton is versatile, tho—she was also a member of Eberle’s all-kitchen implement ensemble, The Domestic Orchestra. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Caty when she’s been an honorary member of Five & Dime Jazz at a couple of wedding gigs, & have always appreciated the wonderful tone she produces & her top-notch sight-reading skills. Otherwise, I loved the bio Caty sent so much, I’ll just bow out right here, & leave the stage to Caty Clifton:

One version of a story…

I started learning the flute in the 5th grade, at Washington Elementary School in Prescott Arizona – picked flute because it was the smallest instrument in the band and I rode the bus. Later Mom got me lessons from Mr. Bintz in Junior High; by that time we’d moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was a big school way out in a cornfield, so being a new kid and totally lost, I became a band nerd. My entire formal training consisted of 6 years of public school band program, some lessons, and summer music day camp at the local university. I dropped out of band in 10th grade when I left public school. There was no music program in the new school but a sweet gang of long hair kids who played guitars and sang Dylan songs. I packed my student-model Gemeinhardt when we loaded up the 1965 Volvo 544 to head west.

Years passed, jobs and college, and occasional jam sessions, then I landed in Long Valley Idaho and met some amazing musicians. A summer Shakespeare production in the park and the McCall Chamber orchestra got me back to classical. Played some weddings, one time Lois Fry (check her out!) and I had to perch on a rocky nob above a meadow to play for the wedding party. Another time Lois, Art Troutner and I were performing a Teleman trio (was Eberle on harpsichord?) and after the 3rd movement Lois started packing up her fiddle and getting her coat to leave, Art and I looked at each other: we still had another movement to go!

Then, great joy, marrying JD Smith and our son Clifford Smith (JD is in love with a Cajun accordion and Cliff is excellent on low brass and percussion). A couple more moves, yes that job thing…24 years with the US Forest Service (hydrologist by day). I’m a card-carrying member of the Musicians Union, Local 560 (for “Happy Canyon”, a campy pageant at Pendleton Round Up). The Wenches began to form 2 years ago after being lured to Irish music camp by friend Margaret the music professor to learn penny whistle with Joanie Madden (of Cherish the Ladies), hooked again. We live in Eastern Oregon in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, land of singing skies and sensuous fields of wheat. Come see us, stay for a jam and JD’s homemade bread!

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

I grew up with music at home, listening to my parents LPs, Beethoven, Gershwin, Sound of Music, my mother loved the Mills brothers, my sister’s records…the Beatles, then gradually finding my own interests. I decided to play flute and once Mom agreed to pay for a rental, she insisted I practice. Then she bought me my own instrument and REALLY enforced practice time. I hated it at first but eventually appreciated her…vigilance. She made me the musician of the family.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?

Personally the big obstacle at first was practicing, and then later performance anxiety was an issue but the more I did it the easier it got, mostly by preparation and paying attention, listening and not leaving my body. There were times I was sick with anxiety, sweating and shaking, dry mouth…horrible. Fear of exposure, screwing up…but through experience learning to survive and even channel the fear into passion and sometimes better playing.

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances?

Not really but have learned self care before performance – don’t take a hot bath or drink too much coffee, but a half a cup can make me just-right perky, no booze, but it all depends on the situation, preparedness and inner grounding. Little rituals, or comforts…like chapstick in my pocket…still help.

Do you start thinking about arrangements as soon as you’re learning a song you’re going to cover or only after you’ve learned it at a basic level? As a classical performer, how do you set about learning complex piece of orchestral music?

For classical, it’s basic practice, repetition and hearing how my part fits in the whole orchestra, learning the notes, passages, listening to how the piece progresses, practicing the part, listening…practicing…For Irish, we learn tunes and try different arrangements of melody and rhythm instruments, but more spontaneous, we can play the same tune many different ways…slow it way down, or rip it, change the instrumentation. Keeps it interesting.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

Certain melodies that strike me in some way or at a particular time, and songs that exorcise the sadness of the world. After listening or playing something, say Elgar’s variation Nimrod, I am haunted by the tune and hum or whistle for weeks after a performance, and months and years later, hearing the piece can evoke the time or bring tears. When I hear a tune I like, and play it over and over dozens of times learning, it becomes accessible…I work on calling up tunes in my head and sing them while driving…Context too, understanding the times of the music.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?
Well my last 2 performances were fun, one was my Irish group, the Wenches, at a xmas function and everyone else in the band seemed anxious but for some reason I was relaxed and able to look out and make eye contact with the audience, especially children, I liked that. And earlier in the fall, performing a challenging piccolo part (Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4), somehow got my nerve up and really blasted out the tough high notes, got some comments on that afterwards which was sweet.

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

In larger ensemble work you have to hear what’s going on around you and follow the conductor and soloist, so more about listening, but in small ensemble work there is more opportunity to connect with the audience and individual players. Then again if it’s a hard piece it may be all I can do to hit some of the right notes and dynamics…

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

Well I’m trying to learn the Bodhran Irish drum which is incredibly subtle, pretty simple at first to get the basics but very hard to learn rhythms and progress, to using both hands, the tipper and the back hand…to change the tones. Not for the faint hearted, you have to ‘wack the focker’. Seamus Ennis, god of the uilleann pipes, said it took all of 21 years to become a piper - seven years learning, seven years practicing and seven years playing. Watch a clip…if you don’t get goosebumps after a minute, well you aren’t Irish (human)….

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

I’m listening to other people’s playlists, lazy maybe but trying to expand my horizons, a “trance” electronica mix my son assembled, and several modern rock and country mixes from another family member (Royksopp, Portishead, Telepopmusik, U2, Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash….). Exposing myself to new and old music. Of course various Irish and Brit folk groups (Mary Bergin, Karen Tweed, Kate Rusby, Bothy Band, Kevin Burke) to learn tunes, and some favorite classical pieces, mostly 20th century. Jazz too, recent hunger for Billie Holiday…and a strange growing interest in sacred music, Kirtan and Balkan chanting…

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

I have a very happy and comfortable relationship these days, a couple of venues, one is my dear Irish wenches, playing penny whistle, very casual, mainly learning tunes and playing together with friends, not about performance. Another is with the Oregon East symphony, we begin rehearsal of Mahler’s Symphony #5 soon, I’ve played several other Mahler symphonies so have an idea of what I’m in for, I’ll be on piccolo and flute…wish me luck! It’s grown better and better, I enjoy playing with friends as much or more than ever, though the last note of a big symphony is a major rush.

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

Lots of folk influences in the 1970s, going to cafes and hearing acoustic bands made a big impression on me, I dropped out of band in high school and just started jamming with friends for a number of years. I got back into classical in McCall Idaho playing with the McCall chamber orchestra, one of the first pieces we did was the Carmina Burana and that blew my mind. Meeting Eberle, together surviving the dinner concert at the Shore Lodge, and imagining the kitchen band. I guess all the common eclectic influences, folk, Irish, alt rock, jazz and classical. I’m a music sponge. My friends are my biggest inspiration.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

Practice, practice, practice (if you practice you will get better) and be brave, find your voice, learn your strengths, and compensate for limitations…believe the audiences are hungry, grateful and kind, and will love what you give them.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?

What does it mean to be a success as an amateur musician? I will always be an amateur and am happy and at peace about it…doing it for 40 years, willing to put myself out there on the edge sometimes, mostly it seems to work. There is such great joy in playing music, alone or with friends and strangers, beyond time and words.

Thanks for such a thoughtful interview, Caty! & readers, stay tuned for the next installemt of Musical Questions, which may come next Saturday!


  1. Further to my earlier comment, I have really enjoyed this and looking forward to next sunday. Thanks for writing.
    ps: I have also found some interesting links on your blog, to some of your work. Very brilliant is what comes to mind.
    Best wishes

  2. Thanks a lot-- actually, if the Musical Questions happens next week, I believe it'll be on Saturday, not Sunday.

    Tahnks again for your kind & generous words.


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