Put Your Finger On It

For 20 years Bruce Bodden has been playing the flute part in Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. He's still searching for perfection.

Eighty musicians onstage, well over a thousand listeners at the Fox — and all ears turn to him. Half a minute into Antonin Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony — the concluding piece in this weekend’s Spokane Symphony concerts — there’s a passage in which everything depends on principal flute player Bruce Bodden. The strings have played a stately introduction, but now Dvorak calls for contrast: a flute, unaccompanied. Birdsong on a desolate plain. It’s one of several big moments for flute in this symphony, and Bodden will have had all of intermission to think about them.

And all of his life. He grew up in Seattle and started playing the flute in the fourth grade. “My older brother had started on the trombone and had given up after a year because it was so big and heavy — nearly as big as he was,” Bodden recalls. “When it was my turn, my parents said, “Make sure you pick something that’s easy to carry.’”

Bodden has spent his life with the flute, then, because it was “the instrument with the smallest case.”

One of his master teachers, he says, emphasized the importance of making “the transition from ‘This is the noise a flute makes when you blow on it’ to “This is what I sound like’” on flute. Two minutes into the Dvorak symphony’s final movement, he’ll get a chance to show exactly what he sounds like. After an opening brass fanfare and a stately theme from the violins, Bodden will swing into a 25-second solo, his flute mimicking a bird wafting joyously in the breeze — twittering that’s repeated for a few extra measures, just for the sheer happiness of hearing the flute’s flight.

Bodden won the Spokane Symphony’s principal flute audition 18 years ago and has played here ever since. His audition piece? The solo from the fourth movement of Dvorak’s Eighth.

Given the opportunity, then, to cross-examine a masterful don’t-call-him-a-”flautist” — “that sounds pretentious to me,” he says, “like saying ‘artiste’ or ‘thespian’” — I asked him the question that’s on the mind of all those who lack musical knowledge and training.

Inlander: Is playing the flute anything like typing? For example, I just typed “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” five times in a row, rapidly. I made plenty of errors. I misspelled “brown” every single time until the fifth and final attempt, when I got the line perfectly -- and got all excited and felt pressure in mid-line, because I could feel that I was getting it right.

Bodden: Yes, the feeling of “I’m doing it! Uh-oh, I can’t mess up now!” is very familiar. Musicians have to make sure we get it right every time, though, so we learn to go over a difficult passage many, many times slowly and carefully, making sure to avoid mistakes and fix the ones we do make. For example, you said you mistyped “brown” four times in a row. To translate the musician’s method to typing, I’d say that if you mess it up once, it could be a fluke — mess it up twice and it’s a problem. So you bring everything to a screeching halt and try to figure out exactly how you made the mistake. Did you type “vrown”? Your index finger didn’t reach far enough over for the B. Did you type “btown”? You didn’t jump far enough to reach the R. Did you type “borwn”? Your other hand got into the action too soon. Et cetera. Then you practice making the correct motion (B-R, B-R, B-R, over and over again), very slowly, until it’s easy to do automatically, and then you speed it up gradually until you can type “brown” really fast with no mistakes over and over again. Then you put it back in the sentence and type the whole sentence.

And then you have to do it under pressure, with people watching! That’s why it has to be 110 percent under control, so that when things want to unravel 10 percent, you can still sound decent.

During his solos, Bodden will be in control — but also, effectively, onstage alone.

The quick brown flutist will jump through the lovely Dvorak, but not until he practices his fingering, intonation and expressiveness, over and over again.

“OK,” he says, concluding our interview with mock impatience. “I have to go practice now.”

The Spokane Symphony will play music of Bartok, Beethoven and Dvorak at the Fox on Saturday, Jan. 17, at 8 pm. Tickets: $20-$42. Matinee performance on Sunday, Jan. 18, at 3 pm. Tickets: $16-$39. Visit www.spokanesymphony.org or call 624-1200 or 325-SEAT.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.