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Q&A with MSO piccolo player Nancy Mulholland

March 20, 2009|By KATE COLEMAN

Nancy Mulholland's beginnings as a flute player were inauspicious, but the wind instrument and its little cousin, the piccolo, have given her years of music and pleasure, as well as 26 seasons with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

She grew up and learned to play in Kansas and earned her bachelor's degree in flute performance from Wichita State University and her master's in flute performance from Shenandoah University Conservatory. She and husband George, a retired chemist, have lived in Gaithersburg, Md., since 1973. They have three grown sons - the oldest in Ohio, the middle in Connecticut with her two grandchildren and Ben, 27, a French horn player.

Mulholland has thought about retirement, but every time, she learns of something really wonderful that's planned for the MSO's next season. Joe McIntyre, the orchestra's principal timpanist, wrote a solo for her in his "Ghosts of Antietam." Its performance at the battlefield got rained out last July, so Mulholland said she'll have to stay another year.


She enjoys teaching, but playing has always been her first love. "It's soul-satisfying."

How long have you been playing flute and piccolo? When did you start? Why?

I've been playing flute for 52 years; piccolo for 47 years.

I'd played piano since second grade, and I guess fifth grade is when they started doing band. All the fifth-graders were lined up all around the room and they started at one end and said, "What do you want to play?"

And nobody knew.

But I had a cousin or two who played the flute so I said piccolo for some reason. And they said, "Oh, you'll have to play flute for one year before you play piccolo."

And it turned out that my flute was just awful. It was a used flute that wouldn't play except for maybe three notes. I did get a new flute in eighth grade. Immediately, I was good. It was just like overnight - OK! I knew I could play.

I was in the Wichita Symphony Youth Orchestra. That's where I started playing piccolo, and I played piccolo in band forever from then on. I didn't play flute in college.

How long have you played with the MSO?

I've been with the orchestra since the second year. So I've been there for 26 seasons. There are (musicians) in the orchestra younger than my kids.

Do you play with other musical ensembles?

I play in a flute quartet, Femme Flutalle. I joined about two years ago. I recorded with Duo 8va - "Piccolo Four Hands," a piccolo duet album with Nan Raphael, former first chair piccolo in the U.S. Army band. (And) I'm trying to get more recitals with my (French horn-playing) son and a piano player. We played at the (Washington County Museum of Fine Arts) last year.

How do you prepare for a concert? How much time do you spend preparing for each performance?

I practice (for the next concert) right after the (previous) concert so I know if I'm going to have to devote a lot of time to it or not.

If you know it's hard, it's a good idea to be practicing - like for me, if it takes stamina, if I play a lot of high notes for a long time.

Do you practice every day? How long?

No. I practice about five days a week for a couple of hours - and I don't do it all at once.

Do you have a day job?

I teach privately in my home studio and after school at Norwood School, which is a private school in Bethesda, Md. Students - about 10 - range from fifth grade to adults.

Compare playing in the MSO and under Elizabeth Schulze's baton to playing with other orchestras and conductors.

Basically, (previous MSO conductor) Barry (Tuckwell) was just a fantastic musician and that's what kept him going.

Elizabeth, in addition to being a fabulous musician, is a fabulous conductor. The fact that she is actually a conductor who studied conducting makes a big difference to the orchestra. She's very, very easy to lean on.

And she fills in the orchestra with subs who can really play.

The fact that she's out there looking for the talent and bringing the orchestra up is why it's at the level it's at right now.

Who's your favorite composer? Do you have a favorite composition?

I love Brahms, and I love Beethoven, and the reason I kept playing flute was because of the Mozart G Major Concerto. (In my Top 10 is) Beethoven's Ninth, because there's singing. As a piccolo player, I love "Stars and Stripes Forever."

What kinds of music do you listen to in your leisure time? What's the last CD you bought?

Lots of us (professional musicians) don't listen because we want quiet. But I love "American Idol" because I love singing. I sing. I love to sing. I love the emotion. (I also like) sort of rock band things.

I bought two CDs of the Bach sonatas because of my Bach (addiction) and because I had students who were playing Bach and I wanted to hear somebody else play, and I hated both of them. (I also bought the) "Mamma Mia" (soundtrack).

What's your favorite "nonclassical" piece of music?

I can't think of one - unless you want to count hymns. I'd have to go with "How Great Thou Art."

I like the Beatles. I love Elvis Presley, but I hated him as a kid, but I think he's wonderful.

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