Voices of the Festival: Interview with Viviana Cumplido Wilson, Principal Flute

May 20, 2020

Viviana Cumplido Wilson, Principal Flute, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra

The 19th Amendment celebrates its 100th birthday in 2020. In the spirit of this landmark anniversary, Executive Director Elizabeth McGuire begins a series of interviews featuring women of the Colorado Music Festival orchestra to explore their love of music, their education, their interests, and more.

Elizabeth McGuire: Thank you for sitting down with me to discuss your career in music! What made you choose the flute? Were there outside influences?

Viviana Cumplido Wilson: I started young on the piano, at about age six, so I was already playing an instrument. In junior high school, seventh grade, I wanted to join the band and I chose the flute. My mom told me that we used to attend parties when I was very young where there was a roaming flute player and she thinks that that’s where I got the idea!

Also, playing the piano was always a little lonely. I immediately loved being in a group, surrounded by friends. For a non-sporty kid, it was as close to a team sport as I would get!

EM: I’ve spoken to you about this before and am aware of your Cuban heritage. Of course, Cuba has a very rich musical history. Did your culture inform your love of music in any way?

VCW: Yes, both of my parents are Cuban and music is a very important part of Cuban culture. My parents are not musicians, but my grandmother was a classical music aficionado. For a non-musician, she was incredibly knowledgeable and an avid listener of classical music – especially opera. She frequently attended concerts and opera performances. I grew up surrounded by the sounds of classical music.

EM: Did you have an opportunity to attend performances with her?

VCW: Yes, I often accompanied her when I was old enough. It was definitely something we shared.

EM: I’m always curious about early music education, and this ties well into the [Colorado Music Festival and Center for Musical Arts’] dual purpose of education and performance as well. You mentioned taking piano lessons. When did you begin taking flute lessons?

VCW: I was incredibly lucky because I attended an arts magnet school in Miami, The New World School of the Arts and private lessons were included as part of the curriculum. Because my parents weren’t musicians, they were supportive but just along for the ride. They weren’t able to direct me to the best teachers or give me feedback about my playing. I was very fortunate to always end up with the right teachers, and my parents didn’t have to pay for private lessons either.

EM: Does the school have any affiliation with the New World Symphony Orchestra?

VCW: No. It’s funny, they just share a name. But my high school performances used to be held at the old theater the NWSO used to perform in before the New World Center was built. When I used to sub for the NWSO, I would walk into that space and it felt like I was stepping back in time.

EM: Did you decide in high school that you wanted to be a professional musician? What was that decision like for you?

VCW: Yes, but I also wanted to be a surgeon. I was able to memorize things, was precise, had a steady hand, and a real interest in science. I also loved music, loved to perform and thought if I wanted to even try my hand at a career in music, I would have to start there. I would give it a few years and could always go back to med school. I knew the reverse wasn’t true. And my music teachers really instilled in me that I could make it in music, so I had the confidence to try.

EM: In addition to instilling confidence, what kind of lessons did you learn from your teachers? What are the kernels of wisdom that you still refer to today?

VCW: My teacher in high school always made me slow down. I would learn things quickly and think, “Okay, I’ve accomplished that.” She really forced me to slow down and sit with what I’ve learned, let it sink in more deeply and in a more musical manner. Technique came relatively easy for me, so we spent a lot of time working on my sound.

In college, I studied at the New England Conservatory with Fenwick Smith, who played Second Flute in the Boston Symphony. And, again, I was so lucky to fall into situations where I was paired with exactly the right teachers at the right time. He was a consummate professional, would not have accepted any freshman shenanigans! He was a very busy player, but gave me every minute I was entitled to and more, sometimes leaving me a note saying, “I owe you five minutes.” He was exacting but cared deeply about his students, instilled professionalism and gave me a structured method to advance as a performer.

For grad school, I attended USC and studied with Jim Walker. He had a completely different style. None of us in that flute studio sounded the same, because he would always push us to be our own musicians. He would ask, “What type of artist do you want to be?” This forced me to think about my own unique qualities. I could not fit into a mold because he didn’t. He played with major orchestras, but also was an active [recording] studio musician. I certainly took the traditional path, but he opened my mind to other styles and opportunities.

EM: I think that speaks to the fact that you came into that situation having already mastered your technique. You get to delve into the more esoteric musical aspects of things when the foundation is there. He must have recognized that.

VCW: Yes, that’s probably true. But you definitely need both!

EM: You are an educator as well. What is some of the generational and new wisdom you pass onto your own students?

VCW: The transverse flute is so deeply rooted in the French tradition. It’s almost as if the entire classical flute world could be narrowed down to a few teaching lineages dating back to these early times. So, it’s important that students have a grasp of the technique outlined in the main French method books, and the history that is still an influential factor in today’s flute world.

I am also an omnivore of all new music and methods. I think it’s important to stay up to date about what’s happening in the world at large and to keep students motivated about practicing. That’s always the biggest challenge! I’m always looking for something new to pair with the traditional to keep things interesting.

It’s easy for me to demonstrate, but challenging to communicate verbally what I’m looking for, which is also good for me as a musician because it forces me to think about what I want to sound like as well. I always watch my students’ reaction when I try a different communication style. I try to keep mental notes about what sticks and add it to my arsenal.

EM: Because we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, I wanted to ask a few questions about your professional experience as a female. Growing up as a musician myself, it seemed as if flute players were typically female. However, as I began attending performances of top orchestras in North America and Europe, I noticed many more male musicians holding professional posts. What are your experiences?

VCW: Yes, the flute world today is dominated by female players, but that was not always the case. The real change started to occur in the ‘70s and ‘80s when auditions became “blind” and hiring committees had to sit behind a screen, could not see the applicants and were forced to hire based solely on the quality of the audition.

The women who preceded me were the ones who really experienced the impact of this integration, most notably the first woman to even hold a principal position in a major U.S. orchestra, [Boston Symphony Orchestra] flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer. Those women had to fight for equal rights. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great people, but have to admit there have been times, even as a principal player, that a director would refer to my male colleague rather than me. We’ve come a long way, but still have a way to go. Some of those guys are still around. People stay in these jobs for a long time.

EM: What are some of your hobbies outside of music?

VCW: As an adult, I have really made up for being a non-sporty kid! I like to challenge myself physically with exercise – mainly running marathons and entering triathlons. Running is very social. You meet a lot of other runners and when you train for events, you really make friends and share close bonds with people. As I’m saying this, I realize this is similar to why I wanted to join band! I also like how physical activity helps me to shed stress. It’s like therapy for me. I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I’m finished, even if something is extremely taxing. It’s uplifting, and I like to always test myself in this way. I’m always curious to see how far I can stretch myself.

EM: Do you find that keeping your circulatory system in such good shape helps you acclimate to higher altitude [from Phoenix, AZ]?

VCW: I think so. The first few years were very hard for me. I felt like I was gasping for air. Now, I hardly feel it. Sometimes I have to adjust my phrases and breathing in Colorado, but I really don’t struggle too much anymore.

EM: Are there any musical outreach activities that have been meaningful for you?

VCW: Yes, recently the Phoenix Symphony partnered with Arizona State University for a study on how listening to music affects the stress levels in Alzheimer’s patients. Some of the patients were in very advanced stages and didn’t seem to even realize anything was happening. I went through this with my grandmother, unfortunately, who would find routine things stressful, like taking a bath, taking medications or just having visitors in general. Patients’ cortisol levels were tested before and after the performances. Musicians’ levels were tested as well, actually. And the overwhelming results were that everyone’s cortisol levels reduced dramatically after a session of musical performance. It was incredible to know that it made a difference on a chemical level.

EM: You finally had a chance to marry your love of science with your love of music. That must have been very fulfilling. We all intuitively believe that music improves quality of life, but it’s reassuring and helpful when it’s backed up in a study.

EM: What do you love about being at Colorado Music Festival?

VCW: I love the level of music-making. Every year, I look forward to getting together with my CMF colleagues. I always give my best, but I feel like getting out of my regular environment and [performing] with different players under different conductors really stretches me to be better. And, I feel like I return to my home orchestra inspired to keep stretching myself. Also, Boulder is a great town and a wonderful place to spend a summer.

EM: Did you meet your husband at CMF?

VCW: Yes, we are a [Festival] couple! He [Peter Wilson, timpanist] was already playing at [the Festival] a few years before I played [here]. I was just a sub and didn’t know if I was ever coming back again. Fortunately, the principal flute position opened up and I won it. We met in 2009 and married in 2011.

The Festival continues to celebrate the landmark achievements of women in music over the course of several seasons. Read more about the Festival’s multi-year “Three Generations of Women Composers” initiative here. Enjoy an interview between Elizabeth McGuire and Festival Principal Horn Catherine Turner here.

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